Will the worst, most monotonously written novel become one of the literary fiction classics of our time?


Cold Spring, New York                                                                                                                        (c) Sarah Hampelmann
 An interesting and often correct, albeit rather pompous, diatribe by Ryan Boudinot entitled Things I can say about MFA writing now that I no longer teach in one  has inspired me to address the question of judging talent in literary fiction.

Let me start by commenting on a few things in Boudinot's essay. The caption under the article's lead photo is certainly true for anyone who is going to take the writing of literature seriously: "You are going to spend a lot of time alone." The first paragraph of the essay is very funny. He begins by saying:
I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program. I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.
Other than the cliche about work changing life (how often have we heard that from people whose lives haven't changed one bit over many many years), this is almost certainly true. The sad reality of contemporary America is that most of us have no grasp of more than one or two things that make Americans interesting, and this is compounded by the fact that we are too active, have too many obligations and thus are too tired to think, let alone produce creatively.

Unfortunately, this promising start - something so common in the US - is followed by a major dud and then by a somewhat dubious statement, before returning to some good points. The real dud is his claim that "Writers are born with talent"; the dubious statement is the requirement that you start taking writing seriously by the time you are a teenager. Since the second claim may or may not be true, I'm not going to get into it. The first is absurd in the context of literary fiction (which he is talking about).
Academic research has found evidence that both supports and refutes Boudinot's claim. Recent work by academics such as Michael How, Jane Davison and John Sloboda suggests that practice is far more important than innate talent. But whether you accept their argument or find academics who disprove their research, all of these studies are judging talent from a contemporary perspective.

The problem with this in the arts is that talent, greatness, a classic, etc., will be determined by the future. Not only in the case of literature, but also in fields such as music or art, it is impossible to say, for example, whether future generations will read novels extending the tradition of modernism and then postmodernism or novels that abandon those schools and draw on the baroque or possibly some tradition (Soviet Socialist Realism? - probably not) that slipped under the radar during the age of postmodernism. Over the last two hundred years, we have seen narration gravitate away from the complexity of Walter Scott and increasingly move toward discourse. Will this be replaced by image in the future? Will the contemporary classic be a picture book? It's impossible to say.

In the fine arts, it is no different. Many would not have predicted the rise of pop art. Germans still ignore Jackson Pollack. In the case of pop art, the development of consumer society and the mass consumption we live in today certainly influenced future critics view of this movement. If the 2008/2009 global financial crisis had not been resolved by central banks printing trillions of dollars, we might just be coming out of a serious depression. Our view of art and literature would surely be shaped by these experiences, and what we consider talent in that past would certainly be different.

In literary fiction and most of the arts, the judging of talent in real time is not possible. A quite easy way to look at this would be the case of Jonathan Franzen. I don't think any of us are going to dispute that Jonathan Franzen writes literary fiction and writes it perfectly well. But is Jonathan Franzen talented? This question will almost universally be answered in the affirmative because Franzen is a brand, but here is the counterargument: if it is easy to determine that Franzen writes so well, then there must be a paradigm for this writing (how else would we know it is good?). What might that model be? I would say it's the great 19th century Realist novel. Certainly, there are differences, but assuming we view his work within this framework, then we have already seen this approach to literature, i.e. this form, before. Sure, the content is different, reflects some nuances and developments, and it is interesting to imagine what George Eliot or Leo Tolstoy would have written about American in the 20th/21st century, but this type of narrative is hardly new, its author unlikely to be called particularly talented for taking up or modifying or refining an existing model over a hundred years later.

I cannot cite an example of an author that is untalented because such work is simply ignored by critics ("only review things that are good"). Yet I can imagine a text that might fall under that category. Let's say it meets all the criteria that Boudinot laments in many of his hardworking students: nothing interesting, no interesting way to say it. On top of that, let's throw in uniform sentence structure, virtually every sentence beginning with "I" or some other subject (in the grammatical sense), no plot, and finally, self-published with poor punctuation, orthographic errors and clumsily repeated words and a vocabulary of no more than 400 words. Such a structure must resemble a story that would be viewed as terrible, the author untalented.

But here's the rub. What if some future determines that we currently live in a culture of peak materialism, peak stupidity, peak mediocrity, peak poor quality, peak XXX. What if critics at this hypothetical time look back over the literature and try to find the worst text published in that age and stumble across this disgrace and what if it is unique or is taken up by authors at that future time because another bubble of materialism, stupidity, mediocrity, etc. is growing larger and larger? 
There is no reason to despair over the difficulty of judging talent. On the contrary, the uncertainty surrounding what is "good", "reflective of talent", "interesting" is one of the arts' greatest strengths. It allows for many people to participate, both the unexperienced and experienced, professionals and dilettantes. Especially in literature, it lets completely obscure writers, thinkers, philosophers, etc. express themselves at a relatively low cost (basically only time). And none of us know what the future will bring...

Boudinot's essay continues with a number of other good comments, but it's boring to discuss what we agree on.

Angelika Friedrich
March 2015

Ryan Boudinot, Things I can say about MFA writing now that I no longer teach

Disclaimer: I was not a student of Ryan Boudinot nor do I know him or his work 

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