Friday, December 03, 2010


Schools of writing are like schools of fish.  The authors are all pretty similar, they group up and move as one, and if you like that kind of fish, you should look for the school.  I could put in a quip about bottom-feeders or flying fish here, but I’ll refrain.  This time.

In the last few weeks in several literary contexts there have been “apples and oranges” arguments about schools of writing.  One was a small scale kafuffle within the “school” of Western writing (where they argue about things like regionalism and authenticity -- exemplified by the blog of the Western Literature Association) but it was actually kicked off by a fellow who scoffed at Cormac McCarthy, saying Larry McMurtry was far more Western and historically accurate.  By the time the “lit gang” got through with this innocent, he knew what “Southern Gothic” was all about and that it was a lot more vicious than Blue Duck, if not quite as Western.

More recently and on a more elevated level, two schools of Fine Writing have run athwart each other.  Chad Harbach, writing in Slate on Nov. 26  did an intriguing job of describing how each works.  If you want to be a starving genius writing against the culture in a freezing garret, you will probably want to hasten to Manhattan where the assumption has been that publishers have a discerning eye, ably assisted by wise editors, who assured big advances.   For the initiated (i.e. “wised up”) his illusion went into the corporate conglomerate soup, but many casual readers out there still believe it and depend on advertising to reveal quality.  There are six “heritage” publishers left.  They tend to look longingly at Hollywood with its blockbusters and sexy women.  It’s not literary merit that counts so much as the film options.

If you would like to have a lower profile but a salary and heated office, get an MFA, even in poetry.  Invented and sustained by Writers’ Workshops, notably the one at the University of Iowa or the one in Berzerkley that was founded by the quite sane Wallace Stegner, these programs are an industry.   The money has gone out of the Manhattan “school,” rather the way it has gone out of cod fishing, but those with boats have resourcefully migrated to university campuses, because the way to make money now is “farm fishing” -- hatcheries.  There aren’t enough readers and far too many writers, so instead of selling books, sell writing courses, in the way that people who get rich in gold rushes are not the miners but those who sell meat.   It’s all a matter of ecology, which is really just another way of looking at economics.  There are more than 800 formal MFA programs and in Harbach’s opinion, it’s an easy degree.  I wonder how easy they are to teach if you’re serious about it.

Outsiders think of Montana writing as all one thing, but in fact we have the same split plus more.  The academics, as elsewhere, divide between the MFA’s who write and teach writing and Ph.D.’s  who actually teach English courses.  The geniuses more dramatically split between the Hollywood “sailfish” (Tom McGuane and cohort) or a solitary like Peter Bowen, scribbling away as he babysits ranches for sympathetic rich women.  Or whatever it is he does to survive.  Both types are outside the experience of most Montana folks, who appreciate nice solid middle-class people, even if they drink a little too much.

It took me a while to realize that the Montana book scene, like the Montana Western Art scene, is essentially bourgeois.  Both are based in the Fifties genre we knew and loved at Saturday matinees and then on television (which persists on a website like  but some have responded to demographic pressures to add sex and violence equivalent to what we see on television.  (The news is worse than the programs.)  Perhaps this is what has led us to believe that bad things are more “real” than good things and “exposees” are more accurate than regular news and to therefore impose those values on every narrative.

A gentler influence on the Western has been music and the philosophy of place.    Bourgeois standards require enough safety and order for commerce to proceed: they are essentially capitalist and therefore want books that SELL, which are mostly those that fit the assumptions of the buyers.  Humanities projects are meant to keep the peace, so we can dress up and go out.  Identity, genre, schools -- they all must become platforms for sales.  Awards, exhibits, discussions, festivals.  The bourgeois need the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

But there’s also a kind of counter movement that wants something gothic or punk or realitee or whatever it is that the bourgeois try to shut out.  Horror.  One wing opposes the iconoclastic Leslie Feidler (exemplified by Dirck Van Sickle’s “Montana Gothic”) to the Richard Hugo/William Kittredge school of pastoral familiarity.  But that creates a mirror image, not an innovation.

Another pairing is between those who feel themselves to be “native” Montanans (though they have Euro DNA) and who claim the place by “knowing” it, in contrast to those who come carrying a dream of what they think life ought to be, somehow persuaded that they can find it or make it here.  I used to think someone should write a novel about the many divorced women who brought their alimony to Missoula and started a small business which soon bankrupted them.  I saw the pattern over and over.  They rarely left, but went quietly on with stripped lives.  A few became writers. (Blunt, Blew)  Then there is the puzzle of Ivan Doig or Sherman Alexie who left their home ground as soon as they could in order to live the good life in Seattle, but found the only thing anyone would buy books about was fantasy about their original homes.

Doig describes the Montana prairie as a drumhead.  Maybe it’s a threshing floor, but the idea of threshing schools of fish is too ridiculous to be considered.  Still, these crowds of writers must be sorted and described somehow or how could we think about them at all?  The universities used to have that task, but now that the writers are on the faculty and have their ecological niche to defend, many others are at sea, unanchored, solitary.  But if you know how to catch them, those wild trout, it will be extraordinary.   Try fly-fishing the Internet.  Avoid nets and weirs.

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