Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Performed Indignation in The Book Site That Must Not Be Named

I should have trusted my instincts and skipped the commentary on Tea Obreht’s recent Orange Prize win in Book Site That Must Not Be Named. (Here's a link to a tweet to the piece. I can't bring myself to add to their pagerank by linking directly). I knew better than to expect cogent, insightful thinking about one of the more interesting literary prizes around. And still I clicked through.

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.


  1. *gives standing ovation* Wonderful commentary on this horrible commentary by Fowler. I also took on this ugliness over on my blog here: (although now I wish I hadn't provided a link!). Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  2. Public flaming usually ends in self-immolation.

    "Come to what you read with a charitable disposition: don't expect to fight with the text, but instead seek to treat it well; be willing to meet it more than halfway, as though it were a guest in your home, which in a way it is....Above all, take time to discern what this book...has to offer you."

    - Alan Jacobs, in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

  3. i just read her post and it was appalling. How unprofessional. Sounds ot me liek she a big chip on her shoulder. Perhaps the green eyed monster paid her a visit

  4. Reading Ape, for the win!

    Fowler's piece HORRIFIED me. Her smug conclusion that a writer must have ten years of "real world" experience before being "allowed" to publish.

    I'm a writer, I've had "real world" experience (global travel, shitty/crazy jobs, heartbreaks and frustrations galore, a nuts cast of characters parading in and out of my life, more "life experience-y" stuff).

    Did that lend itself to my my writing.


    You know what else lent itself to my writing?

    MY MFA (Screenwriting, not Creative Writing, as is bashed in article, but we film-school grads have our own cavalcade of haters on horseback).

    I credit any recent and future writing success in significant part to my MFA, it helped me learn the craft and make it my own. The idea that you can just go live a bunch of life and then sit down and write brilliantly plotted novel with pitch-perfect sentences in a wildly original voice is just insane.

    You don't need an MFA to be a great writer, you can become a great writer in any number of ways. Whatever path you choose, though, that path has got to include a period of time where you sit your ass down and f---ing LEARN HOW TO STRING WORDS TOGETHER SO THEY ARE WORTHY OF BEING READ.

    I'm not going to froth at the mouth in your comment section about the sixteen other things I hated about Fowler's piece, though I could. Oh, man, I could. I wanted to comment on Fowler's post itself, but she was so hostile to her commenters, I didn't even want to bother.

  5. Oh, I accidentally didn't finish my second sentence. It's supposed to read: Fowler's piece HORRIFIED me. Her smug conclusion that a writer must have ten years of "real world" experience before being "allowed" to publish made me want to projectile vomit all over my Macbook.

    Also, the fourth paragraph should end in a question mark.

    I was so pissed re-living Fowler's evil piece I forgot to proof! Fowler! (Shakes fist at sky.)

  6. I know a lot of people that didn't finish The Tiger's Wife but they have been very polite about it. There's enough books in the world that everyone can read something that appeals to them and from the other side, this means that nobody is going to like everything.

    I don't think there's any reason for people (sorry I don't know what the site it) to be insulting to not only the author, but the judges and people who enjoyed the book.

  7. I've always found it most interesting that detractors will attack the person, but not the issue, and fail to provide any real evidence as to their dislike or problems with the issue. It makes so much more sense to attack the person rather than the work being discussed because that proves everything.

    I read a lot of books of many genres, mostly all genres, and there are some books I just cannot get through without force, a big shoe horn and a lot of teeth gritting; however, I have no problem enumerating the reasons why the book didn't work for me -- in detail and at length sometimes. I guess it goes with the territory of being a reviewer and editor and a writer.

  8. Methinks Senora Fowler needs a hug? I mean, I'm all for bitter reviews, but only if they're funny-bitter and fun-loving, not seriously-angry-bitter and tangent-happy and all around bringer-downers.

  9. *steps on feminist soapbox*

    There's been a target on Obreht's back since she made last year's "20 Under 40" New Yorker list. A woman writing literary fiction? A YOUNG woman daring to do so? How preposterous! Where is her gray hair? And her pretension?

    I've (sadly) grown to expect weak-ass, poorly formed "criticism" of this sort from older male authors who can't fess up to seeing Obreht as a threat, but what, exactly, is Fowler's beef? And where the fuck was HER editor here? Oh, that's right...It's the FluffPo...

  10. Fantastic post. The original article was terrible and yes, you say it all so well so I won't try to elaborate. Polite is the key I think, no need to bash the author or go on about the MFA program with no real reasons other than, I agree, what sounds like jealousy!

  11. I've been done with BSTMNBN for a while now but was enraged again yesterday with some stupid post entitled "What Women Want" - because you know, we are all exactly the same. Of course, they are clearly not the only ones to overuse this stupid stupid phrase, but still. Sick of it.

    I haven't read The Tiger's Wife and am not all that eager to do so for various reasons, but come on - if you've got a beef, at least be logical about it.

    Stop holding up young, female writers as "what is wrong with writing and an MFA program." Heck yeah, I've edited writers with MFAs who seriously needed a grip on reality, but I've also edited manuscripts by 60-year-old men who needed the same.

    Blah blah blah. *annoyed*

  12. The one that killed me is "And so back to Tea (who should be friends with Zadie)..." or something along those lines which I'm too lazy and unwilling to stir myself into a rage again by going back to quote accurately. Two women. Two MFAs. Two generally well-received novels, that couldn't be more different. Why should they be friends? So they fit neatly into Fowler's tortured over-generalization?

    Thanks for this, Ape - you are the articulate, reasonable conscience of all of us!

  13. Oh, she sounds quite bitter. She lost me after admitting she only read the first 50 pages. At least finish the book. It might be torture but finish it, if you intend to diss it. But then, the piece was not about the book, was it? Thanks for your excellent commentary.

  14. I don't have a problem with crucifying a writer in a public place in itself, but you have to have valid reasons and valid arguments. If you haven't read fifty pages of the book and aren't ready to dissect what you didn't like about it (like Ape is doing here),well...people are going to point out jealousy as a motive. Fowler is a writer herself and hasn't received half of Obreht's attention this year. Me thinks she used a public outlet to vent her jealousy because she thinks she's a better writer. Unfortunately for her, that essay does a poor job at proving her point.

  15. Wendy-
    Thanks and I thought your take was remarkably sane.

    So it sounds like I need to check that book out. The snippets you've posted are amazing.

    And, as I think I implied, it's easier to attack a person than a work. You don't have to do any analysis, any criticism, any intellectual effort beyond name-calling.

    Well said.

    That's really interesting. I haven't noticed such a pattern, but I haven't read all that many reviews. When I finish the book, I am going to look at some reviews with fresh eyes.

    No real reasons is right. There are reasons, but nothing anyone can take seriously.

    I wish wish wish I could ignore that site. I can't seem to let it go and I check in there once and again and just get pissed off.

    I don't even know if it's a question of being polite but of having enough respect for literature as to take the work seriously and think rigorously.

    My first thought was jealousy too, but who knows. Though, when you don't offer good reasons for such vitriol, people are going to try and reverse engineer your motivation.

    Her reasoning is so general as to be absurd and her binary between experience and craft is bogus. Probably just better to move along, now that I've gotten my frustration down in text form.

    So right and your post was really interesting. Why yoke these two together? They don't have anything in common except one superficial experience that is so distasteful to this writer that she can't see how they are radically different.

    I still can't believe she didnt finish the book and still had the temerity to write this. Unbelievable.

    I do have a problem with crucifying a writer. Why do we need to do such violent attacks? And why against the writer and not the work? That's what I am getting at--if we keep it to the work then we all will benefit

  16. I agree with you Ape. But let's say Paulo Coelho. You can't really separate the man from the work because there is such an agenda behind it. I agree that we need to maybe keep it professional though.

  17. I'm so happy you picked this apart in a professional and coherent way, Ape. I read Ruth Fowler's HuffPo rant and was appalled with it's hypocrisy. Upon completion I took away two things: one - Fowler is angry she isn't as successful as Obreht and two - Fowler is angry she isn't as privileged as Obreht, something that prompted her career as a stripper. Apparently the level of class she learned while dancing on poles has translated into her writing.

  18. I had to go look at the post - and was appalled.

    People who write or speak about others with that kind of snarky, condescending tone and with such heartfelt unkindness don't last long in the professional world. I notice that none of the jobs on Ms. Fowler's "life experience" resume are professional (doctor, lawyer, teacher/professor, military officer, some business executives). "Customer service" - tending bar, driving, even being a stripper - requires a somewhat different skill set; but that post didn't even reach the courtesy level that I expect from a clerk at the local grocery store.

    Perhaps Ms. Fowler hasn't had the opportunity to develop a professional approach to others or to the adult world. In principle that's okay: not everyone is a professional, or needs to be. (I'm thinking of the boatswain's mates on the Staten Island Ferry and the guy I saw raking asphalt at a nearby road construction site, here.) It's unfortunate for her, though, because an unprofessional approach will eventually limit her contacts in the writing, journalism and publishing worlds - which is where she seems to want to be.

    I hope that the responses to her post will eventually provide Ms. Fowler with an opportunity for reflection, self-evaluation, and personal/professional growth. I'm sure she has an excellent mind, and it would be nice to see her put it to better use.

  19. Zadie Smith does not have an MFA. She had an English degree from King's College. As Fowler should know because she was at King's too.

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