July 27, 2007

Scott Thomas, TNR, WTF OMG BBQ

If you're not up on this ongoing saga, here's the deal in a nutshell: TNR publishes one of those first person SHOCKER stories about American troops going all Heart of Darkness in Iraq. There are questions about veracity. And away we gooooooo!

That'll all shake out eventually, and it's not what I'm interested in. But the academic angle, and the types of writers our overly-insular, MFA circle-jerk programs are turning out, are what I'm interested in. Mainly because those people are RUINING MY LIFE by getting twee, pretentious and utterly useless fiction and nonfiction inserted into magazines that I used to enjoy--arg. I digress, sorry. It's a sensitive issue with me.

Anyway, during the course of following about ninety million links in order to determine what sort of serial miseducation results in the production of prose like this:

"Sliced writsts recovering from barbwire night mission in a furnished 1600's bedroom window open to the stars strained notes The Magic Flute from further down the hall when I'm off work early she brings me coffee and a fresh stack of freshly pressed laundry while struggling through The World According to Garp auf Deutsch...warum?...now you are a citizen of the world, son, so she rents a car to take me to Bamberg this weekend and maybe plane tickets to London the next because through a month of silence and guilt and regret, reciting the Zarathustra quote over and over in your head, "I've always carried a disdain for creatures who considered themselves kind merely because they were clawless"..and you "get it" and you "understand" and you see yourself maybe not for the first time and finally a perfect rearrival of yourself..."

Holy God. Sorry, just had to pause for a moment to clear my head.

As I was saying, in my search for something academic to blame for craptastic modern writing, I came across this bit of textual analysis from a semiotician named John Barnes. Don't know much about semiotics as a profession (he explains it in the blog entry), but the dude does a killer analysis here. Here are the money graphs, but read the whole thing--it's worthwhile.

"He (it is always a he) is an MFA candidate or recent graduate at one of the big-name creative writing programs in the USA, sometimes in poetry, usually in fiction, and increasingly in "creative non-fiction" (the litsy byline that "feature writing" took on when it moved uptown, became significant, and stopped having lunch with its old buds at the newspapers). Usually he is in his mid-twenties and is probably among the bright stars in the tiny constellation (and complicated pecking order) that MFA programs create. His particular niche in that social ecology will be the Big Talent With Big Balls, a role that requires some claim to a "dangerous" or "edgy" past, meaning some connection to interpersonal violence and to having seen some gruesome sights. (Being recently back from combat duty in Iraq, particularly if the young man is a reservist who will be going back for another hitch there, would certainly fit the bill nicely – at various times I have known such characters to claim to be motorcycle gang members, to have smuggled cocaine into the US in small boats, and to have competed as Ultimate Fighting professionals)....

"Scott Thomas", however, writes exactly like the mid-20s macho MFA student who is lying about an adventurous background. That list of symptoms I gave above is what every one of them I have encountered – probably around 50 in my lifetime – has written like. The point of those stylistic tics and content-fetishes is the same as the point of all the bizarre stories of mayhem, cruelty, and sheer shit-headedness that they tell in the bar after writing workshops: to confirm their role in the MFA program social system. Among the benefits of that role are free passes on certain kinds of bad behavior in class, sexual attractiveness to some other grad students (those with a thing for bad boys), and the maintenance of their interior movie in which they are played by some combination of James Dean, Bob Dylan, the younger Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson."


Posted by Big Arm Woman at July 27, 2007 09:53 AM | TrackBack

That finally put into place something that's been pecking at me ever since I read excerpts of his stuff. All the other foofarah can drop away; I'm more interested in the writing, which, besides being a bit twee and tortured, just read so awfully familiar. That's what it is. It's that same, same style that I've been reading from Wri-Tors! for years now. It had to come from some sort of factory, and there it is nicely pointed out.

Posted by: marc at July 27, 2007 10:07 AM

I read Barnes' piece the other day and immediately saved it to my computer (not just bookmarked it) to remind me of the kind of criticism I never want to be on the receiving end of.

Also thought of a certain creative writer BAW may remember from grad school named Grady.

As we used to say in grade school: Burn!

Posted by: Brad at July 27, 2007 12:15 PM

Brad -

Oh my God. I could have gone the remainder of my days without being reminded of Captain Pretentious of the Flowing Golden Locks.


Posted by: BAW at July 27, 2007 02:08 PM

Never mind clearing your head. After reading that "Sliced writsts" passage, I practically want to saw my own off out of contempt for the human race.

Posted by: Emily at July 27, 2007 04:25 PM

If my ex-boyfriend hadn't been posing as Mr. Pacifist (he complained when I killed a roach -- in Florida, where if you let the roaches live they'll take over and start charging you rent), this would have been him. It's just about his writing style -- his prose was maybe just a bit more polished, but it was still unreadable sludge.

He has a Master's degree in English and teaches (or did, the last I heard) things like literature and ethics at one of the local minor-league colleges.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 27, 2007 10:37 PM
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