Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why we exist

The literary world is dominated by fear and shame.

Not the whole world. Maybe not even the majority. It can be hard to tell. But studying creative writing formally for six years now has gradually brought Tracy and I to the perspective that fear and shame are far more powerful forces in writing than they should be. Uncanny Valley is the beginning of our attempt to change that.

It begins in high school, with the formal study of Great Books. Where do these books come from? School boards choose them. How do the school boards choose them? By surgically removing almost anything that's fun, interesting, weird, or remotely relevant to the kids reading them. They're being careful. They're watching their asses. These books teach kids that reading is a chore, that reading is for middle-class white kids, and that reading and writing are largely a thing of the past. Because they spend so much time being forced to read things they hate (not only in English class, but in their largely asinine textbooks as well) they're less likely to try out books of their own choosing in their own free time.

And should they want to read for pleasure in spite of all this, how can they find anything they like? Hardly anyone is talking about books as a way of finding pleasure and satisfaction in their lives -- if they're unusually lucky, they have friends and family who treat books as status symbols, the sort of people who "only read the classics" because it excuses them from the necessity of having thoughts or making choices beyond the decision to accept uncritically what everyone else is accepting uncritically, and because it means they have one more thing to brag about in a life full of trophies.

Come college, most people are excused from reading any literature what-so-ever if they don't want to do it. This is probably fine -- we are not about forcing reading on anyone. But what have English departments done to encourage students to spend their electives on literature? They teach the dread dead white dudes. They teach stale poetry and hideous prose. To be fair, they teach a lot of good stuff as well, and, in what is perhaps the ultimate embarrassment, college literature faculty across the country are teaching far more interesting and exciting texts by a far wider variety of authors than the majority of creative writing teachers, especially in the upper levels.

Shamed by the same trophy-hunters who read "only the classics" growing up, terrified of what would happen to their books and their favorites should students have the chance to see something else, faculty focus on the easy decisions, the obvious greats. I was taught King Lear at least three times before I had finished my degree. Tracy read it once in high school and two more times at the undergraduate level. Creative writing programs draw from a shrunken stable of obvious names and, if you're lucky, the occasional writer who isn't part of the club. These rare outsiders are treated like circus freaks: the question is rarely why they are great, but rather how they managed it in spite of themselves. Students are shamed, meanwhile, for all the things they haven't read, but should have: why not more Hemingway? Why not everything Alice Munro ever wrote? And so on. Reading for pleasure is not allowed -- or, if one does read for pleasure, it must be the right pleasure, approved in advance by the right people.

Escape the university into the world of contemporary writing and things actually get worse. Magazines and presses are fueled by guilt and self-loathing. As we've been documenting here for the last couple days, there are a thousand fears, anxieties and jealousies keeping writers and publishers alike from ever feeling real joy. If you write a story with a robot in it, congratulations: everything you do is garbage to the official literary community and all its institutions, which have been so arrogant and self-serving to define the word "literary" as referring both to a narrow set of guidelines concerning aesthetics, content, and structure and any good, worthwhile writing. That which is literary follows formula X, that which is literary is Good, all else is trash.

The fear and resentment this treatment engenders among those who write the "lower" genres can be ugly as well, of course.

Experimental and traditional writers eye each other suspiciously across the table.

If you submit to a magazine without subscribing for a year or two, get ready for a guilt trip, in spite of the facts that A) you've just offered to give your hard work to a magazine that needs it, usually for free and B) acceptance rates at quality publications make it impossible for any writer outside a fortunate few to follow this rule.

If you submit to a magazine with something unlike the material they usually publish, get ready for a guilt trip. Everyone has to mark their territory. No one can change or grow. If they aren't always publishing stories like yours, they'll never publish stories like yours.

If you study writing at an MFA program, here comes the guilt. You're part of a glut. There are too many writers! The unmitigated arrogance of it! If, on the other hand, you don't get an MFA? Well, that's not much better. Who do you think you are, going it alone? You think you've got it all figured out? Got nothing to learn from the masters?

If you don't buy enough books, if you don't buy them from the right people, if you don't also do whatever's been declared absolutely necessary in the past five minutes, get ready for a guilt trip. And if you have the gall to actually sit down and write a book? If you make something people enjoy and share with each other? If you find some modicum of success? Get ready for the guilt trip of your life.

It's not just novels. If you write long stories or poems or essays or whatever, almost nobody wants you anymore. Why? Because they're afraid people won't read long material online, in print, or next to other, shorter things. Because if you take up thirty pages, those are pages that can't be used to host other material, which means they can't be used to extend the table of contents, which means fewer writers will be shaming their families into buying copies. Or, well, honestly we don't know why. But we like long, weird stuff, and we want it to be published again.

Because we've gotten so tied up in our own fears and anxieties, literature today is perceived as being in decline, in mortal danger, even in its death throes. People are worried because they aren't sure there's going to be enough pie left for them when what's left gets divided. They lash out and hurt each other, devaluing everyone else's pitiful little stake, praying that if they can do enough damage there'll be a job or a book or a Virginia Quarterly Review slot hiding underneath the corpse. It's too much. People are stressing out way too much. People are hurting themselves and each other for no reason. They're forgetting to love writing, reading, and each other.

If anything is killing literature, this is it.

Uncanny Valley is here to live without shame, and to help you live without shame too. We are here to open the gates for readers who tuned out years ago because they knew they weren't wanted. We are here to publish great words, regardless of their genre, style, or tradition. We are here, in short, to rock your face. No guilt. No fear. Only writing. Only reading. Only the best.


  1. I think that there's a lot to the "classics" that's interesting, weird, fun, and relevant. I'm with you on the wholesale rejection of literary guilt (though I don't wholly understand why anyone pays much attention to those same forces of guilt), but I've got to admit that such an abrupt dismissal of our literary heritage makes me a lot less interested in the project.

  2. My feeling has always been that Mike has been treated harsher by the classics than I have been. I think that there's a lot of people (not writers, but the general population) who aren't naturally energized by what's weird in these books, so that's one thing we want to consider as editors--how can we engage more people than just writers immediately, unapologetically? Worse for me is the fact that many readers are simply never turned on to these aspects of the works due to the culture of fear Mike talks about.

    To add some personal notes to the post, though, let me say that I love Shakespeare. Full-out love him. Even the cheesier stuff, or the stuff he wrote to make a quick bank. But for the longest time I hated King Lear--because I was made to read it two times very close together and to regurgitate facts and arguments about it in very similar ways. There was some discussion, but it centered around tired themes and prior writing prompts. I didn't understand it; I kind of got that the central conflict was cool, but I didn't really feel any of the weird, fun, relevant stuff that I did with all the other Shakespeare I'd read. My response became, "I don't like it every time I try, but I guess it's great"--which is, I'd argue, a terrible way to read. Flash forward to senior year with Dr. Walsh, and suddenly King Lear was a thousand times better. I was helped to recognize the pleasure in it--Lear's bombast, his loneliness, his striving. I was studying the play with someone who full-out loved it, where previously I had read it because someone thought I needed to in order to be properly versed. They didn't love it, or they didn't communicate that love, and I think that's what we're attempting to be about here.

    The fact is, most people get their primary exposure to reading through school, and too many teachers and school systems and school boards are scared of teaching literature in a way that makes it weird, fun, and relevant. Or, probably more often, teachers have never experienced those reactions themselves with what they teach, so they can't tap into the joy available in many of the classics. They're stuck most often teaching to a test, or teaching to a fixed curriculum, whether that curriculum is explicit (high school students across any given state usually have to read a few core texts) or implicit (English majors "should" know a given list of authors to be considered educated). Their joy is made irrelevant, so the student reader's joy is made irrelevant too.

    If anything, my hope as an editor is that people will start getting back to some of the impulses of the classics. Dante is crazy stuff. Blake is insane. Often there's so much ambition in historical works, so much scope. Especially if they're not being reduced to a handful of test-ready quotes, messages, and metaphors.

  3. Yes, it's not that I mean to dismiss the classics (although I do honestly find many things so dubbed painfully over-rated: why does anyone care about Alexander Pope?) so much as the mindset that makes many people wallow in them exclusively. When someone says they *only* read the classics, what that says to me is that they can't be bothered to think about what they're reading: they only want work that has been thoroughly processed and evaluated, so they don't have to do that work themselves. It also makes me suspect they're collecting conversation items for dinner parties or whatever rather than things to love.

    Reading *some* classics is essential. I like Shakespeare too! But making them your exclusive diet strikes me as slightly insane, and usually lazy. The trouble with reading King Lear three times isn't that I don't like it -- I like it a lot -- it's that this sort of myopic view of literature excludes so many other works, some from antiquity, some very recent, that also deserve our time.

  4. Yeah, that's true: it's hard to get much out of a Lit class w/o a professor who actually professes of love for the texts. I think my experience w/ the classics has been very different from your guys', because aside from reading Hamlet in high school, my only introduction to the classics was the entry-level surveys at Butler, which, because I still struggled a lot with reading mechanics, generally went too fast for me to digest anything. So for me over the past 6 months, then, the classics have been like discovering a treasure trove of insanely weird and beautiful stuff.

    Mike, I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who read the classics exclusively. Is this common? My sense was that the social capital behind being "well-read" had been drained (largely because we're not an aristocratic society, and thus social movement has more to do with $ earned than "sophistication"), and because of that you don't really get the dinner-table-type reading anymore. (Although, I imagine this may still happen between the wealthy?)

    Here's something I wonder about sometimes: do we lay too much responsibility upon the high school english teacher when we ask whether she has instilled a general love for reading w/in her students? And I mean outside of the usual "use your enthusiasm to show the students how fascinating this subject can be" level. Lifelong reading is to some extent an expected part of citizenship, and it's this expectation that seems to distinguish English from other HS subjects. (Do we expect the mathematics/geography teacher to instill a -lifelong- love of mathematics/geography?)

    To what extent is a high school English teacher's main concern only to educate?—to expose a student to the fundamental texts in the field? When I took art and music, I was exposed to some of the most prominent works of art and music (though all I remember of it now is the correct pronunciation of Chopin), and while I wasn't exactly thrilled by it, I don't know that I would blame my art/music teachers for the fact that I've largely ignored classical art/music ever since. I mean, if the goal is to have a large swathe of young people who are significantly interested in deep reading, this seems like something too large for any small group of English teachers to bring into effect.

    Basically I'm trying to figure out if blaming HS English teachers for turning people off reading is not in fact a scapegoat for our larger failure as a society to offer any real reason a young person would ever want to step foot into a library. (After all, if our society does not value reading/literature, is it surprising that most students deeply dislike what they're introduced to in an English class? Our actions as their elders largely indicate: reading is not important, probably not very fun, and mostly a chore. But then for that one class we want them to suddenly agree that reading is capital-I Important.)

    I dunno. It may be that there's no real solution? Or maybe contemporary lit just needs to step its game up, and give those who are slowly drifting away from books a reason to return.

  5. I've known people who claimed only to read classics. It wasn't strictly true in most cases, I don't think, but I always found it very disturbing. I also suspect some teachers end up doing more or less that in practice, though who knows. I do think that reading has declined considerably as social capital in most circles, which makes it even sadder that some try to use it that way.

    I agree with what you write about high school English teachers. It's not reasonable to ask what we do of them here, and the problem is clearly more that of the culture at large. That problem manifests itself at the school board level and at the level of individual classrooms. But I think that the "use your enthusiasm to show the students how fascinating this subject can be" level is actually plenty -- it's not that they need to persuade everyone, but that they need to show an openness and a love that encourages students to give reading a chance.

    To the point about reading the fundamental texts, it may be that we're going too far back. It's good to remember that language changes faster than most things, so when we teach the fundamental texts it's often as if we're teaching much, much older music. We don't usually teach the early, original music not because it isn't important but because it sounds dreadful to modern ears. It might be good to take a similar approach with writing, and not force high schoolers to read the really inscrutable stuff.

    But ultimately I think the best thing to do would be mixing some mandated reading with some loosely-guided reading -- a knowledgeable teacher might use resources prepared by the larger community to help students choose their own books for about half of the reading time, for instance, so that students have the best possible chance of finding work they love. If we value reading, it's probably time to be a little pragmatic about getting people to actually do it.