What I found in Ruth Fowler’s indignant, mud-slinging screed unfortunately is not the exception in Book Site That Must Not Be Named, but the rule. I wish those of us who care about the level of literary discourse online could just ignore BSTMNBN, but their influence is such that we cannot in good conscience allow for this to pass as acceptable criticism.
So, as uncomfortable as it may be, let’s have a look at what’s wrong with this kind of writing. In order to keep this short, I’ll stick to the first 8,000 problems.
1. Fowler’s goal is to take down The Tiger’s Wife, admonish The Orange Prize, and decry the importance of MFA programs in American letters. The problem here is that goals two and three require a cogent explanation of goal one. However, Fowler didn’t read The Tiger’s Wife, or at least not the preponderance of it:
I'm going to admit now that I haven't read all of The Tiger's Wife. A degree in English Literature has taught me many useful and discerning skills, amongst which is this little gem: if you can't get past page 50, give up.Let’s just briefly note that a “skill” cannot be “discerning” and that she confuses the present perfect tense “has taught” with the simple past “taught”: this from the same post in which she suggests Obreht needs "heavy editing." Anyway, her transparency in “admitting now” that she didn’t read the novel is supposed to excuse her critical laziness. In addition, her literary education encouraged her “to give up” on texts that do not please within the first hour or so. It is difficult for me to take seriously a writer who so quickly throws in the towel when her tastes are not immediately satisfied.
2. This is not to say that The Tiger’s Wife is beyond reproach: any work of art can be criticized, and reasonable people can disagree. What we do ask is that some care is taken to understand a work. This piece has very little to do with the merits of the work and quite a bit to do with ax-grinding. The target here is the MFA and the writers it produces:
I have read Tea's competent, assured, boring-as-fuck prose before: in a million other aspiring writers churned out by the MFA system, who then go on to take up professions as teachers in the MFA system, passing on their identical mediocrity to a new generation of award-winning identical mediocre visionaries.And later:
...we should make 10 years in the real world compulsory for all writers who have graduated from an MFA course before the age of 25. That's 10 years without access to a trust-fund or Ivy League university or The Guardian (I say The Guardian merely because it annoys me, not for any scientific purpose).At the end of 10 years, they can submit their work in the proper channels
In case you were still wondering if this was somehow personal, the use of Obreht’s first name gives the game away. This is the world we live in, and in itself is not incriminating. What is incriminating is the hypocrisy. Fowler argues that the central problem of the MFA is its role as artistic monastery: isolated, solipsistic, and self-satisfied. The answer is “the real world” and living long enough in the real world to have something to say. What Fowler doesn’t mention is published a memoir at the ripe age of…29.
3. If there is a connecting thread to the bad intellectual behavior at BSTMNBN, it is a performed righteous indignation that the people who are lauded in contemporary literature don’t deserve it. The barely concealed rage that someone else is lifted up (and that “I” haven’t been) makes for sad spectacle. Fowler (whose profanity laced “commentary” could scarcely be fouler) doesn’t engage with what Obreht writes, other than a vague litany of adjectives, but demonizes who she is and what she represents:
If [your writing} is not derivative of Anna Karenina, nor does it feature more than three bad metaphors or similes in the first 50 pages, and upon publication, the media doesn't mention your age nor the three letters M.F.A. -- then you're allowed to exist with the rest of the writing world, submitting your work like anyone else.In the end, it’s the appearance of privilege that aggravates her. And it's entirely possible that there is some seed of a reality here. The problem is that Fowler skips the hard work of showing the symptoms of that problem. Instead, she takes the easy way out and moves into attack entertainment. What is easier in literary discussion than to pile on aspiring writers? Once the guns are blazing, attack entertainment cannot convince and cannot engender thoughtful discussion. Fowler positions herself as the lone voice of truth in an otherwise warped critical establishment. The list of people who have to be wrong in order for her to be right is comprehensive: MFA admissions committees, thesis supervisors, agents, publishers, critics, and prize committees.
When you set fire to the house, you bring a lot of attention, but in the end, your contribution is a heap of smoldering ruin.