Monday, March 28, 2016

Random Photos

At the Evergreen Review launch party 
Chainlink art, Jersey City
Chris Stackhouse, at our
Segue Series reading
An image from Tyehimba Jess's
presentation of his book Olio
(on its way within the week or so) 
Eunsong Lee, reading at Pete's Candy Shop, Brooklyn
Rudy Shepherd painting of
Amiri Baraka, Mixed Greens Gallery
(& now belonging to us) 
Store closing because of "High Rent,"
Upper East Side, Manhattan
US paperback of Counternarratives,
now heading to stores!
The new British editions
of Counternarratives, from
Fitzcarraldo Editions

Photo shoot, Jersey City

Curb art, Manhattan
Winter's remains 
PATH dancer (pt. 1)
PATH dancer (pt. 2)
PATH dancer (pt. 3) 
Poets Natalie Diaz and Saeed Jones
at Rutgers-Newark, with Rigoberto González
Brilliant poet, Buzzfeed editor
 & Rutgers-Newark
alumnus Saeed Jones 
Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ron Silliman
at my talk at Temple University
With my high school classmate Tim Suba
at Temple 
Classics scholar and memoirist
Dan-el Padilla Peralta, speaking
at Rutgers-Newark

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Have MFA Programs Changed Contemporary American Novels (& Can Computers Provide Answers)?

Some novels from Flavorwire's 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2016

Have MFA programs--or the training student writers receive in them--changed the American novel, and more broadly, US fiction? Some scholars, like Mark McGurl, in his authoritative study The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, have persuasively suggested that MFA programs have, and in decisive and evaluatively positive ways. McGurl even establishes a typology of "program fiction" that includes "technomodernism," "high cultural pluralism," and "lower-middle-class modernism," all of which he believes not only define contemporary American fiction but represent qualitative achievements in the genre. (McGurl was no interloper in fiction criticism either; he had previously explored early 20th century American novelists' ambivalent relationships to the fiction as an art and as a form of popular entertainment in his 2001 study The Novel Art.)

Other critics like D. G. Myers, who historicizes creative writing programs in The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, take a more mixed view, criticizing contemporary American fiction's lack of historical awareness and arguing that's needed is more reconciliation between the artists (writers) and critics (literary scholars). Still other critics, like Eric Bennett, author of Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, point out the role of the US government, and in particular, the CIA, in shaping MFA fiction from an ideological standpoint as well as a formal one. Bennett's study notes how CIA funding influenced the University of Iowa's Writing Workshop director Paul Engle to "flatten out" the political ferment that had characterized so much American fiction from the late 19th and early 20th centuries into what we now associate with a standard American style, emphasizing precision of language, careful characterization, and a focus on "the personal, the concrete and the individual." How often, in fact, is this stylistic point of origin discussed in any MFA workshops anywhere?

And that's not all. Chad Harbach's edited volume MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, points to the tensions between academe, scattered throughout the country and across the globe, and the publishing industry, which is commercially focused and headquartered in New York. In Harbach's volume, several different essays note the tensions between approaches to writing that have elevated very different sets of writers along the New York-MFA axis. (When I shared the book with my graduate students a few years ago, though, they were not particularly interested in this conflict, and most appeared to have placed their cards on the side of the MFA world.) I hesitate to call her view representative, but I would venture that among American critics Elif Batuman's perspective, that MFA programs have had a demonstrable effect on US fiction, probably widespread.

But have they? Or rather, saying they have, what are those effects and can they be detected analytically, through variables discernible using big data research? Given the rise of theoretical trends like distant reading and computational-driven analysis of texts, this would seem to be an intriguing approach. In a recent online edition of the Atlantic, in "How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?" Richard Jean So, a scholar of Asian American literature at the University of Chicago, and Andrew Piper, a scholar at McMaster University, did decide to crunch some of the numbers, and what they found is...that novels produced by writers who've graduated from MFA programs and those who haven't are more similar than different. Whether the variables are diction, theme, syntax, or racial or gender difference among protagonists, despite some distinctions MFA-trained and non-MFA trained American novelists are essentially writing the same sorts of books.

To quote So and Piper, their methodology involved selecting the following sets of novels for study:
We collected a sample of 200 novels written by graduates of MFA programs from over 20 leading programs (including Columbia, University of Texas at Austin, Iowa, and others) that have been published in the last 15 years. (This sample includes authors like Rick Moody, Alix Ohlin, and Ben Lerner.) For the sake of comparison, we also collected a similarly sized group of novels published over the same time period by authors who haven’t earned an MFA degree (including writers like Donna Tartt, Miranda July, and Akhil Sharma). To make these two groups as comparable as possible, we only gathered novels by non-MFA writers that were reviewed in The New York Times, which we took as a mark of literary excellence. Using a variety of tools from the field of computational text analysis, we studied how similar authors were across a range of literary aspects, including diction, style, theme, setting, and even how writers use characters.
To restate the premise here, So and Piper looked at several different variables to see if there were distinct differences between the novels produced by MFA-trained writers and those by writers who weren't. They assessed the texts' diction, and it turns out that the computer was successful only 67% of the time (or roughly 2/3rds) in identifying which was which. There were certain words ("lakes, counters," etc.) and names ("Ruth, Pete, Bobby, Charlotte," etc.) that appeared more frequently in the MFA-trained writers' works, but otherwise there was little difference. The same proved true for style (which for So and Piper seemed more to define syntax than overall prose style); for characterization; or for thematics. Additionally, their study showed no distinction with regard to these factors when writers wrote about race or gender, and in the cases of both sets of authors, a majority (61% for MFA-trained writers, 65% for non-MFA-trained) wrote novels with male protagonists. So where, So and Piper wonder, is that MFA influence and, ultimately they ask, is MFA training economically worth it? (Here I should note that Rutgers-Newark's MFA in creative writing program is now fully funded.)

I find So's and Piper's research illuminating, but it also raises a number of questions, beginning with their selected control groups. Do they ever ask themselves whether the choice of The New York Times as the critical benchmark might not account for the similarities in books they would encounter? Do they consider and identify other publications whose critical perspective might perhaps not be linked to or influenced by a particular normative ideological and aesthetic consensus about American literature in the ways the Times is? Though they appear to be advancing an argument about distinctions between works produced out of differing educational experiences, they also suggest a qualitative standard--"as a mark of literary excellence"--that might prove less useful than examining a broader array of texts falling into each category.

Beyond diction and syntax, are there other overall prose stylistic similarities among the MFA-trained writers' books vs. the non-MFA-trained writers' books? Vladimir Propp reminded us that there are fixed number of plots, but in terms of stories, are there commonalities among the works within the two groups that distinguish them from the other group in identifiable distinctive ways? What about structure? What about tone, and how might one create a computation tool to measure that, or can it be evaluated only through more conventional reading approaches? In addition, though So and Piper focus on literary fiction, one pressing question I have, based on my experience teaching in MFA programs, is how frequently MFA fiction writers diverge from conventional realism for other genres and modes such as speculative fiction, fantasy, mystery, and so on? What might account for the reasons why and frequency they do so? So and Piper also do not address any impact publishers might have on the books surveyed. To put it in question form, what effects might the publishing industry (agents, editors, publishers, etc.) have on the sorts of books appearing in the market, whether by MFA graduates or not?

One conclusion of So's and Piper's that I do agree with is that the literary landscape as a whole--and here Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault might take ghostly bows--might be shaping works of fiction more so than individual programs or the MFA program experience as a whole. The larger literary ecology and economy set writers'--and readers'--expectations of what's possible, and must be taken into account. I'd also suggest the authors consider specific aspects of MFA program training. Are there more short story collections since the rise of MFA programs, especially because so many students in these programs are writing shorter fiction instead of novels, which are harder to workshop. Do certain literary influence appear more frequently, perhaps based on the writers appearing on MFA fiction workshop syllabi? How frequently do non-US models appear in MFA-shaped vs. non-MFA-shaped novels? And are there any other identifiable formal qualities marking MFA-shaped work vs. non-MFA-shaped texts?

On the whole I take McGurl's, Myers', Bennett's, and Harbach's arguments as convincing, as they are not merely anecdotal to me but I've witnessed them up close, but I do think So and Piper are onto something, particularly in terms of pointing out how at the margins MFA (and now PhD in fiction and creative writing) might mainly be a financial risk rather than an aesthetic and economic aid. I do think, though, that more research of this nature would strengthen their argument. This reads like a one-off, but given how important computational methods are these days, it very well could be part of a larger project. It also makes me wonder, is anyone attempting something along these lines for poetry? MFA poetics vs. non-MFA poetics: I think the differences are probably more evident than with fiction. (But what about MFA vs. PhD poetics...hmm. There's a study to be pursued!)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Changing Color of American Literature @ Teton County Library

I have just returned from an amazing three-day trip to Jackson, Wyoming, where I participated in a several events sponsored by and held at the Teton County Library and the Teton County Library Foundation. Poet and exceptional host Leah Shlachter was the organizer, and brilliant poet Tyehimba Jess (whose masterpiece Olio drops from Wave Books very soon!) invited fellow brilliant poet and thinker Tonya Foster, author of Swarm of Bees In High Court (Belladonna*, 2015), and me to join him in exploring the topic "The Changing Color of American Literature," through a group reading and lively panel discussion at the Teton County Library. It was a pleasure to join Tyehimba and Tonya in conversation over several days, which also included a visit to and writing workshop with Matt Daly's creative writing class(es) at the Journeys School of Teton Science Schools.

A huge hug and thanks to Leah, who was an incomparable host and showed us (around) Jackson Hole, which included encounters with real wildlife (see below), though no skiing, and spent much quality time with us, even introducing us to "pig candy," which I brought a box back for C; to Katherine Gulotta Ward, who brought me to Journeys School and joined us for the workshop (documenting it with some of the photos below); to poet and University of Wyoming MFA student Randall Tyrone, who moderated our panel and spun off quite a few good lines in the process; to the Library Foundation; to KHOL 89.1 radio's Cassandra Lee, who interviewed us; and to everyone who came to the events, including a number of people who attended both nights, and asked though-provoking questions at each event. (It was a special delight to see Lost Roads Press's Susan Scarlata, for whose press's poetry award I'd served as a judge a few years ago.) A huge thanks goes to Tyehimba, who made the event possible, and to Tonya, who together keep me thinking hard!

My interview with KHOL is here.  Some photos below!

Moose in a field on the way from the airport to Jackson
A closer view of the moose
National Museum of Wildlife Art, on the way
from the airport to Jackson
A view of a butte
Me, under one of the antler's arches
on the Jackson town square
The Journeys School
During our workshop (I
was writing with them too!)
(photo by Katherine Gulotta Ward)
With the Journeys School student writers
(photo by Katherine Gulotta Ward)

A marvelous origami bird that Ci-Ci,
one of the talented poets and students at Journeys
School made for me as a gift
One of the buttes
Leah pointing out an exhibit at
the Teton County Library
Tyehimba discussing and reading from
one of the syncopated sonnets
in Olio
A ski slope looming above town
Bighorn sheep
Several bighorn sheep, including a ram
resting and keeping an eye on us
Panoramic view
The Grand Tetons in the distance
The snowy landscape (no buffaloes, though)
More buttes and cloud-shrouded mountains

The landscape around Jackson Hole
Randall, Tyehimba and Tonya
before our conversation
The Grand Tetons the day I flew back
(the clouds had dispersed to reveal
the  mountains in their full majesty)
A closer look at Grand Tetons

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

PATH's New World Trade Center Station

WTC PATH station, with 1
World Trade Center in the background 
Fifteen years in (re-)construction (and it's still not finished), at a cost of $4 billion dollars (and it's still not finished), the main hall of the PATH's new World Trade Center station main's building, designed by starchitect Santiago Calatrava, is on the cusp of opening. But the entire hub is, unaccountably, still not finished. Incomplete or not, it is worth an ogle, and I did so on Tuesday on my way back from an appointment in the city.

The external form of the main hall, or Oculus, retains some aspects of Calatrava's original design, though his plan for a retractable roof, much like bird's wings, gave way to a rigid white steel exoskeleton, with additional security features. Its interior consists of a vast, marble-floored hall surrounded by ribbed arches, as if it were the evacuated belly of some immense white alien. I immediately thought of the movie Prometheus, which seems like a belated influence. 

The Oculus mirrors the futuristic ossuary-like maze of corridors, which I have featured in the past in some random photos, that connect the station to other buildings like Brookfield Place and West Street. As I walked around the atrium space and snapped photos, I did not see many people (as the photos make clear), but I suppose they will start arriving once the shops open and the exits at Vesey Street and Church Street open up.

The headline of critic Michael Kimmelman's New York Times critique of the building, linked above, refers to it as a boondoggle. Yet he does initially praise the Oculus's eye-catching space.  But he concludes that, given its cost, lack of functionality, and insignificance in the New York-New Jersey public transportation system, this glorified vanity sculpture project represents a failure of multiple kinds, as well as a waste of public funds. (Where did all that money go?) 

I know I may sound churlish, but I actually liked the PATH's rough hewn temporary station, which opened not long after the 9/11 attacks. It eventually closed and instead, the site turned into a cardboard-lined warren whose navigability seemed geared to train rats. Given the number of New Yorkers who may find themselves displaced in coming years and undertaking a move to New Jersey, the transit officials probably should do everything they can to ensure that the hub will be able to accommodate as many travelers as possible.

When it will be completed remains a question; the original 5-year-estimate has been exceeded by an order of 3, so perhaps by 2020 or 2025, barring Manhattan being inundated by rising sea water, it will be done. Also, when the connections with the MTA's lines will be open also isn't clear. As confusing as the old WTC station (pre-9/11) was, you could exit the PATH and head directly to the 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., with an array of shops dotting the way. Not today, though. All of that is apparently coming soon. 

The station is worth seeing, though, especially before all that white turns gray and then black (which might have been more appropriate given the graveyard and memorial next door), especially if you don't have to travel through the station during rush hour, and it isn't raining or snowing outside. I can say from experience that all that marble flooring is extremely slippery, like a mid-winter lake rink, making it a major hazard, which I imagine someone must have considered before laying down so much of it, but perhaps they didn't. It looks pretty, though, and that appears to be all that matters, whatever the costs.

Part of the soaring white spine 
The path past the PATH station to the
9/11 Memorial 
Approaching the Oculus, from inside the station
The Oculus, with the skylight visible
The skylight
Another view 
Towards the WTC PATH trains