Thoughts on Alex Perez, Hobart magazine, and the price of literary citizenship
I’m about as far from being a member of the media or literary world as you can get- I live in the rural west, work in community healthcare, and write by myself in $3-dollar notebooks from Rite-Aid. But I stood up and cheered when I read that Perez interview.
The fact is that class continues to be the invisible, crushing ceiling that keeps so many people out of the arts. I’m the daughter of a working-class immigrant (my dad was a line cook in a diner) and the first in my family to go to a four-year college. I thought majoring in the arts was the ticket to a middle-class creative working life, but when I got my degree and found I couldn’t afford to take any of the unpaid internships that were the required next step in my career, I could not figure out how to move forward. Reading Madeleine L’Engle books throughout my childhood had apparently not been enough to give me the veneer of wealth and social knowledge I needed to belong.
But books have changed my life; reading has been shaping me since I was a child. What is going to happen when books tell only the stories of a particular, approved ideological reality? How many writers can we imagine would never be published in today’s world?
Thank you for writing about this, and for all of your work. (The Quality of Life Report is on my shelf of regular re-reads.) I hope you continue to get the support you deserve to produce your writing and interviews. I think there are far more people in the world who want to read good writing than are being reached by the current literary industry.
“They’re soulless lemmings who have no poetry in their hearts.”
I am not a particularly literary person. I have never aspired to be. But I recognize and appreciate the importance it plays developing our minds and in the culture. Like so many people here have expressed better than I can, I am really worried about the state in which literature and journalism will be when futute generations are learning, reading, and developing. How one-sided the narrative will be.
What I really appreciated about this peice was the courage it takes to explore our own histories and motivations and to critically examine the context of academic pursuits. I see similar parallels to my own experience in academia. I got a BS in a life science degree, couldn't find work, and enrolled in law school. Law school was intoxicating initially. As a young person, telling older adults I was a law student, I achieved instant approval. My classmates were smart and our weekly parties were self-indulgent, but we could feel good about them because we were socializing with an elite group. I truly enjoyed my first semester learning about legal theory. By my second semester the rose-colored classes for the field and for my peers wore off and I recognized that I wasn't where I belonged. I left and it was a tough decision but the best one I made. I was there for all the wrong reasons.
After many years of minimum wage jobs, I eneded up in grad school for a math degree. It was an excruciating 2 years with very little socialization but I ended up with a strong degree that played to my strengths. I had excellent job prospects afterwards. During graduate school I was courted by mentors trying to lure me to get a PhD. The same trappings of academic prestige and group belonging went with it. Thankfully, I had enough self awareness to ultimately turn it down. When I look at academic life now and see what my new field (medical research and public healthl) has become, I see the same dissolution of values as described in this peice. Group thought and woke ideology is affecting even the "hard sciences" to some degree. Thank you Meghan for bringing it to light in this peice and in your podcast.
If a man kills his wife, he belongs in prison, and if a man treats women like shit, he should be sued for harassment. But neither of these men should be banned from publishing. I might want to read their books (especially if profits from the sale go to their victims).
For years now, I have been checking author bios to make sure they don't live in Brooklyn, because I boycott Brooklyn authors.
Because writers who live in Brooklyn write all seem to write about the same characters and the same issues in the same ways. Snoooooooze!
And I have not purchased a novel written by a black woman since 2017.
Because black female authors - at least those who get published lately - no longer write for other black women. Instead, they write for upper middle class white women with "In This House.." signs in their windows.
Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Gloria Naylor are some of the most brilliant writers the USA has ever produced. They did not pander to "progressive" white women. They wrote fearlessly and without regard to anyone's delicate sensibilities.
I feel the same way about the Haitian author Edwidge Danticat.
But Kiley Reid? Mia Mckenzie? Roxane Gay?
These authors are obsessed with white people in a way that previous generations would have found ridiculous.
I quit reading Mia McKenzie's book when her protagonist bullied a white nurse's aid for mispronouncing her mother's name (this was during Covid).
Roxane Gay is hopelessly insufferable, and Kiley Reid considers being complimented on her hair a "micro aggression".
Black women getting published today have far more in common with upper middle class white women than they do with poor and working class black women (a group of women whose voices are almost entirely silenced).
Never in my life have I found it so hard to find good new works of fiction to read.
I tend to read non fiction and British mysteries these days.
> “I want to have sex with this interview,” said someone else, possibly me.
> this isn’t about making people like you; it’s about making them feel alive alongside you.
Outstanding. Glad this alleged PR stunt inspired you to write this.
Fantastic essay and that interview was just wow. I’ve been a fan for awhile, but am now a subscriber. Bravo and thanks for sharing.
I am also quite pleased and uplifted by the fact that the resigning editors’ statement simply got booted off-site and that a short, erudite “this is f-ing ridiculous, bye babe” statement was posted from the editor in its place. If only that would happen more often! One can hope. In the meantime, keep on keeping on and thanks again.
So great. Thank you! I literally told my kids a few years ago, when they were something like 7 and 9, that "Mommy and Daddy will pay for college, and they will probably help you pay for some kind of graduate school if they can. But they probably won't help with a terminal Master's, and they will never pay for an MFA." (Seeing your little kids ask, "What's a terminal Master's?" "What's an MFA?" is something I highly recommend to people.) I say this as a Gen X former English major who used to look up to Iowa with great reverence but now thinks all these places are a joke. Anyway, thanks for a characteristically great piece!
Literature today seems to be about relentless didacticism and sentimentalism (even when it's supposedly about transgression).
The allowed genres are: (1) autobiography (but only if you are already the "right" kind of person to write one, otherwise you should examine the progressive stack and shut up forever) or (2) conduct manuals (example par excellence: Robin Di Angelo's books, mixing ultimately impracticable advice with fake-psychoanalysis that always leads to the claim that one is essentially evil).
The study of literature: not a thing anymore. It's either a poor knockoff of philosophy (without the analytic frame, just with cheap rhetorical moves dressed up in moralism) or it has been ridiculed. Classicists have been told that their discipline supposedly always amounted to the worship of the white marble of Carrara (and pretending that its color is similar to anyone's skin). Scholars of any other literary period have been told they'd always been peddlers of some evil or other (colonialist mindsets, white supremacy, heteronormativity, take your pick).
In these circumstances, it looks like those who like literature (in a similar vein to Marianne Moore's disliking/liking poetry in "Poetry" -- finding it interesting, wanting to explore it as readers and writers) should start by reading Vaclav Havel's The Power of the Powerless. Maybe it's time for parallel structures. Of course, there's no money in that. But there's no money anyway, and option 2 at least leads to the reading and writing of some literature.
You nailed it, Meghan. I read that Perez interview as well and, like you said: it was almost orgasmic. Yes: publishing has changed over the past decade, particularly over the past five years. A lot. Yes: it’s young white feminist woke women (usually from well-off families) who run the literary machine. Brooklyn. It’s full of navel-gazing, narcissism, and the obsession to appear woke/pure etc. I hate it. I do. I honestly hate it. It’s the Anti-Art. That’s why I’m writing on SS now. But reading that Hobart interview made me--to use my generation’s silly-ass parlance--feel ‘seen and heard.’ Jesus Christ: somebody had to say it. Thank god he did. I identify with almost everything you wrote as well. MFA ‘program culture’ is so absurd in my view. You are dead right: A true writer writes no matter what; they don’t need an MFA. Almost none of the classic twentieth century authors even graduated from college. (Hemingway; Fitzgerald; Kerouac; etc.)
RIght on. The moment I saw the self-righteous tweets along the "I've pulled ________ from Hobart and so would you if you were a decent person" lines I knew I had to make a bowl of popcorn and find out what happened.
Thank you for putting your spin on this. As an MFA holder, I especially appreciated your take on "literary citizenship."
As I understood it, the decree went: "Discernment and personal preference have hereby been replaced by tribal loyalty. Keep your actual thoughts to yourself on pain of excommunication." There's so much more to be said on this.
One mark of a great essayist is the ability to resonate with the reader who knows nothing about a topic (in my case, literary fiction).
Wokist heads must have exploded upon discovery that a "person of color"* made the observations that Perez did. I imagine some in the literary community so badly wished the observer to be a curmudgeonly old, straight, white male.
*I use an asterisk because the taxonomy of race is very complicated in Latin America. We in the US (of all political stripes) are masters at grafting over-simplified racial categories onto our southern neighbors. Some people who have been in Latin America for centuries are just as " white" as US folks from Germany, Ireland, or Poland.
Anyone who thinks people of color all have some kind of solidarity lovefest should be disabused of that notion after the LA City Council revelations.
Again I read your writing and again I experience Stendhal Syndrome. This is so good.
The Perez interview was exhilarating as is your essay.
So many great lines. "There is nothing more Basic MFA Bitch than saying Didion changed your life, but when I read the opening lines of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, it really did change my life because it changed my writing."
This whole soirée is largely why I published independently. And, perhaps more to the point, a few years after I finally started writing again in 2016, I distinctly remember going to a small independent bookstore. Shelf space was limited, but there were fifteen used paperback copies of a book by a well-known author. Of those fifteen, only five had well-worn, well-read spines. So, if that is any indication, only a third of the people who bought the book actually read it — and it was still on bestseller lists. I never forgot that.
Bravo! This piece just got you another paying subscriber. Looking forward to more!