Who Killed Creative Writing?
Thoughts on Alex Perez, Hobart magazine, and the price of literary citizenship
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Until about 9 p.m. on Wednesday, I’d never heard of the literary journal Hobart. Nor was I familiar with Alex Perez, a Cuban American writer who graduated in 2009 from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a prestigious (arguably, or maybe inarguably, the most prestigious) graduate creative writing program, which he’d gone to after giving up hopes for a professional baseball career. Cuban American baseball player turned Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate is not a biographical detail you hear every day, but it’s that anomaly that’s at the root of this whole kerfuffle. (For what it’s worth, the word “kerfuffle” sounds too playful for this incident, but I can’t at the moment think of a succinct way of saying clusterfuck of Cluster B zombie opportunists.)
The saga, as far as I can parse, goes like this:
A writer and editor named Elizabeth Ellen has been a fixture in the world of independent literary presses since at least the mid-aughts, when she founded a small press that operated as an arm of the already-established Hobart. Ellen is now the top editor of that journal and, on September 29, posted an interview she’d conducted with Perez, who appears to be a personal friend or at least a kindred spirit. The interview contains a lot of talk about the homogeneity of MFA writing programs and the increasingly bland publishing culture they feed into. These two are hardly the first to point this out, but Perez’s remarks are so delectably blunt that they feel revelatory.
Here’s one of the choicer chunks.
80% of agents/editors/publishers are white women from a certain background and sensibility; these woke ladies run the industry. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate the Brooklyn ladies. On the contrary, I respect how these passive aggressive prude ladies took over an industry. Tip of the hat, Brooklyn ladies.
Everyone knows these ladies took over, of course. Everyone querying agents knows this. Everyone dealing with a publicist knows this. If you follow one on Twitter, you follow them all. Every white girl from some liberal arts school wants the same kind of books … I’m interested in BIPOC voices and marginalized communities and white men are evil and all brown people are lovely and beautiful and America is awful and I voted for Hillary and shoved my head into a tote bag and cried cried cried when she lost…
We obviously can’t read Burroughs because he shot his wife dead and ran off to Mexico.What about a notorious drunk like [Raymond] Carver? Or David Foster Wallace, who, by all accounts, treated women like shit? For me, it’s simple: if I like your writing, I read it.
But these people on Twitter who ask for atonement from writers they’ve never met aren’t driven by morality; it’s all a purity test … These are the kinds of people who’d throw their friends under the bus the first chance they got. They’re soulless lemmings who have no poetry in their hearts.
The interview sat on the Hobart site for nearly two weeks until it caught fire. Only then did it grab the attention of the other Hobart editors, who posted another item on the site announcing that they were resigning in protest. “The content that started all this was regressive, harmful, and also just boring writing,” they wrote. “The misogyny and white supremacy were treated with empathic engagement, and that sucked beyond measure.”
Soon after the post went up, Ellen (who, for complicated editorial reasons, had the keys to the castle) simply took it down. The statement eventually resurfaced as a Google doc and, from there, was widely mocked. Meanwhile, Ellen posted a letter from the editor on the Hobart site in which she stressed the importance of fostering art and literature “in which fear is not the basis of creation, nor the undercurrent of discussion, where [Shirley Jackson’s short story] ‘The Lottery’ is not a real, played out story.” This led to the requisite cascade of tweets in which writers denounced Hobart as garbage and expressed feelings of trauma for ever having published or even aspired to publish there.
To be honest, my appetite for this sort of online blowup diminishes hourly. Though I’m as prone to schadenfreude as any other media professional trying to hold onto relevance in an increasingly winner-take-all economy, there’s something about watching extremely online people have noisy meltdowns that makes me feel like I’m inhaling my own body odor. But some of the stuff Perez was saying was not only true; it was, for lack of a better term, extra-true. It was true on a molecular level. It was true in a way that made you not only nod in agreement but almost physically shudder in recognition.
By “you,” I mean people like me. I mean people who may earn a living through a hodgepodge of editorial endeavors but, at the end of the day, are fundamentally creative writers. Even before I finished reading the Perez interview on Wednesday evening, I’d texted the link to a handful of friends who I knew would lap it up. I included a screenshot of the paragraphs quoted above and within seconds was getting replies that were almost orgasmic in their excitement. “Omg I want to print this out and wrap myself in it,” said one friend. “I want to have sex with this interview,” said someone else, possibly me.
There’s something about reading a phrase like “I voted for Hillary and shoved my head in my tote bag and cried cried cried when she lost” that is so exhilarating and naughty as to be almost erotic. In my case, maybe it’s closer to auto-eroticism, a purge of my own darkest and most unsayable thoughts. Like Perez, I went to an MFA program intending to write fiction. Instead of idolizing Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson (though I revered them plenty), my heroes were authors like Mary Gaitskill and Lorrie Moore, and I wrote a lot of mediocre short stories knocking off their spare, arch sentences and ruthlessly unsentimental emotional miens.
I ended up switching to nonfiction and picking up even archer and less sentimental influences from there: Joseph Mitchell, Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion (of course). 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. It was as if I’d been handed a note that said: this isn’t about making people like you; it’s about making them feel alive alongside you.
In the Hobart interview, Perez talks about “prudish passive aggressiveness” in the workshop. He recalls turning in a “sexual, gritty, and maybe even nasty” story depicting the kind of rough neighborhood he grew up in and sensing discomfort among his classmates even though the story was a hit.
No one said that the story was problematic because the word didn’t exist yet; neither did wokeness. What was really interesting, however, was that you could tell that some people thought the story was misogynistic, but the woke language structure didn’t exist yet, so they stayed quiet or talked among themselves about the nasty Cuban in their midst. It was obvious that what would later become wokeness—that prudish passive aggressiveness—was already lurking; the idiotic grievance language wasn’t around yet and rich whites weren’t pathologically obsessed with race and gender like they are now, but the seeds had already been planted.
My MFA era was the mid-1990s, about 15 years before Perez’s time. Were those seeds planted by the mid-’90s? Almost certainly yes, since their fruits were already flourishing in many academic humanities departments and the proto-woke phenomenon of political correctness was pervasive enough in elite circles to have already become a punchline. Still, I cannot recall a single instance of self-censorship during my MFA tenure. Maybe I was protected by femaleness, or the fact that I was ridiculously young and quite possibly naive to a lot of what was going on around me. But I really don’t think any of us worried too much about offending anyone.
I remember workshopping stories and essays by wealthy white men of the most classically fucked-up variety. It was a pantheon of rarefied dysfunction: Ivy Leaguers with major drug problems, former athletes drowning in clinical depression, scions of old-money families whose brilliance was forever butting up against their self-destruction. These were men whose love affairs with their own demons could out-Carver Carver, whose thirst for violence was both an embarrassment and a muse. These were men whose desperate need for the comfort of women did endless battle with their repulsion for any signs of need in women.
They put it all on the page. Usually it sucked. Of course it did; usually we all sucked. Occasionally it was brilliant. Even more occasionally, that brilliance was brought to the surface because we’d all rolled up our sleeves and dug into the work on the terms it demanded. From there, we demanded even more of it until finally, after the 30th draft, a piece of art existed where it hadn’t before. That is an MFA program at its finest. Also its rarest. But that’s the whole idea. When it works, it works.
Until fairly recently, when people have asked me whether they should go into an MFA program, I’ve told them: not if you have to pay for it. Which is fair enough. There are some that will offer full scholarships if you’re talented enough, whatever that means. The catch is that only a small handful, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop foremost among them, are likely to make any difference in whether or not you are eventually published. In the end, an MFA isn’t a credential as much as it is a form of self-permission to devote a few years to writing exactly what you want to write, in the company of others doing the same. To those who seem to be genuinely asking for permission and nothing else (for instance, agents or book contracts), I have said, in all sincerity: go for it.
But in the past couple of years, I’ve come to see the MFA in writing as the educational equivalent of a draft dodge. If the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference is any indication, getting an MFA in writing has little to do with actual writing and nearly everything to do with finding a place in a social clique. This clique, which convenes mostly online, seems less interested in the values or dynamics of any particular program (Iowa, Ohio, Pacific’s low-residency; it’s all the same) than in something called literary citizenship, a term I didn’t hear until probably 2017. Separate from caring about literature, literary citizenship implies adherence to an unspoken moral code, one that pays lip service to equity and inclusion while still making gossip and exclusivity the main event. In the literary body politic, an MFA confers an almost mystical authority. I’ve noticed that many Twitter bios list MFA alongside things like nonbinary or neurodivergent, as if studying creative writing at the graduate level is an identity category. And maybe it is.
Part of what made the Perez interview such catnip for me was that it forced an excavation of my own embarrassment at having an MFA. This is a relatively new entry in my shame registry. Though I was always aware of the inherent superfluousness of the degree, I’ve also always appreciated it for what it is. I appreciated the personal and professional doors it’s opened. Moreover, despite all that anxiety, I appreciated, even loved, my time in the program.
But over the past five or six years, the cult of literary citizenship has thrown me into a merciless spiral of revisionist history. I see who shows up to AWP, who wins prizes and judges them, who edits literary journals, who gets tenure-track teaching jobs and fellowships and speaking tours, and I think these are some of the most mediocre people I’m likely to ever encounter. I think these are people who wanted to take on the trappings of university life but couldn’t cut it in real academic programs. I think these are people who were too lazy to go to law school, too insecure to seek mentors on their own, too entitled to just get regular jobs and write at nighttime and on weekends if it really meant so goddamn much to them. Real writers write no matter what.
I think these things while looking straight in the mirror and asking myself what I was getting out of it for all those years. Was I only sitting through my friends’ bookstore readings because I knew we’d all go out for drinks afterward and gossip about other writers? Was I only having such fun at book festivals because I got to wear a VIP lanyard and hang out in the fancy greenroom eating free cheese? Did I even respect the work of my peers? Did they respect me, or even read me? Or were we just pretending to be interested in one another in order to keep getting invited to parties? And were those parties even a good time? I remember them as such—I loved going to parties and seeing my friends—but maybe the pleasure was nothing more than the lukewarm embrace of superficial belonging.
Until I read Perez’s interview, I was very close to rewriting my history so that I was a mediocrity. For the past few years, not a day has gone by in which I did not fantasize about visiting my younger self and saying: for god’s sake, you’re better than this! But hearing him so crudely spell out how much things have changed was a reality check I didn’t see coming.
In 1994, there were 64 MFA writing programs in the U.S. Today there are more than 200. That does not count creative writing programs that, for whatever reason, are MA programs, and it does not count undergraduate writing programs that allow you to get a bachelor's degree in creative writing. In the past two decades there has been a boom in low-residency MFA programs, wherein students work with instructors remotely for most of the year, then come together for a few weeks twice annually for workshops, readings, guest lectures and after-hours drinking sessions. Every year, thousands of students graduate from these programs, a good chunk of whom then proceed to find a job teaching in an MFA program. For the most part, you cannot get an MFA teaching job unless you have an MFA. I have known several published authors who, struggling on the midlist in mid-career, have gone back and gotten MFAs for the sole purpose of securing a teaching job. These authors had often published multiple books and been celebrated in their time. I would not have been surprised to hear that they found their own books on the syllabus.
Therein lies the root of the evil that Perez is trying to exorcize. It’s not that the literary world arbitrarily decided to cede all its power to white Brooklyn ladies. It’s that white Brooklyn ladies are the only ones who can afford to be in the literary world. Perez is right that the obsession with elevating marginalized voices only extends to voices who are reciting the expected talking points. He’s also right that the literature of quiet masculine despair is out of style right now (though I predict it will come back around). But he’s off when he says the publishing houses don’t want to hire black female editors and other actual “marginalized” people. On the contrary, the houses would love to hire any such person, almost regardless of their competence level.
But people from marginalized backgrounds don’t go into publishing. They can’t afford to. Working in publishing requires being paid a salary that is not at all commensurate with your education level and cost of living. Being a senior-level editor requires wearing nice clothes and living in or near one of the most expensive cities in the country while, in many cases, earning less money than a postal carrier in Cleveland. It often requires breaking into the business by doing an unpaid internship and then taking an entry-level job that requires supplemental income from your parents. There are exceptions, of course (there are always exceptions). But by and large, if you are the first generation in your family to go to college, you are not going to become a book editor or a literary agent. You are not going to get an MFA or run an indie literary journal like Hobart, much less be a (probably unpaid) editor at one so that you can quit in protest and then tweet about it. You’re going to get an engineering degree or go to law school.
Perez says he now makes a living writing heterodox-minded commentary for outlets like Tablet, but I find that hard to believe. It’s all but impossible to make a living doing any kind of freelance writing these days, and unless he’s either exceptionally frugal or exceptionally prolific, my guess is that he’s struggling as much as any of us. There will be those who view this Hobart dustup as a premeditated publicity effort. The fact that I spent my weekend writing more than 3,000 words about a magazine and a writer that I’d never heard of until Wednesday suggests they might have a point. In the end, the lesson I’m most inclined to take from this tempest in a teaspoon is that there’s no form of sabotage more potent than self-sabotage. It’s not the marketplace that’s ruining literature. It’s the literary citizens themselves.
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