This week, I had two pieces published. One was in Tablet. The first is my review of Matthew Salesses’s Craft In The Real World. I read the book a year ago and was profoundly unimpressed. I simply didn’t believe most of the things the author said about how fiction in other cultures works, and it was surprising to me that the author didn’t seem to have read a lot of books that weren’t by American authors. This is a book that people are constantly citing and gushing over, and it just seemed like a very "Emperor’s New Clothes" situation. You don’t want to shit on something that’s promoting diversity and tolerance, so you say nothing. The world is full of nonsense, and sometimes it’s simply rude to call it out, especially when so many poor and marginalized people seem to find comfort in this specific nonsense.
But when the author took a job at Columbia University’s famously exploitative MFA program, I thought, well, if people are going to spend 150k a year to learn from this person, then their ideas should be held up to more scrutiny. I don’t mind if people talk some nonsense just to sell books–we all have to make a living, and god knows I play the diversity game the same as every other queer or non-white writer–but ideally the aim is to just con a few dollars out of thousands of people. When you’re a professor at Columbia, some of your students are literally ruining their lives with debt in order to study there. And that’s fine, too–they’re adults and it’s their choice. But still, if you’re going to make a living by ruining peoples’ lives, then your work needs to be really good. The benefit to society has to be worth the cost to these specific people. And in this case, I didn’t think the calculus held up.
The essay sat with an editor from LitHub for three months, who said it wasn’t right for them. Then it was accepted by the LA Review of Books, by the old editor in chief, Boris. It was edited and ready to go on Jan 21, which happened to be the same week Salesses went viral for an absurd Columbia University syllabus (attracting the ire of Fox News and the like). The article didn’t post. Boris had left the journal, but the managing editor said it had been bumped to next week. Next week it didn’t post either.
I got a call from the new editor in chief of LARB, who essentially said she didn’t agree with the piece politically–she believes that the advice given in Master of the Fine Arts programs was systematically racist and harmful to non-white writers. That may very well be true! It wasn’t my experience as a non-white person in an MFA program–my experience was that the advice in MFA programs is systematically nonsense and if slavishly followed will be harmful to writers of any color, but that most people involved know the advice is nonsense, and you just need to pay attention and listen to what people have to teach and discard the rest. But my review wasn’t a defense of the MFA, it was a critique of the specific claims made in this specific book.
The call didn’t go well. She wanted edits. I was hesitant. We argued, and she pulled the piece. It’s odd in the extreme to have a phone call with an editor, but I assume the reason was so there wouldn’t be a written record of her objections that I could’ve then quoted in this blog post. I would have done exactly the same things! I don’t fault her for pulling the piece–no editor will publish a potentially controversial article that they disagree with politically. Moreover, she’s a new editor, and the LA Review of Books recently had a controversy where the last person they hired to fill her job loudly fell out with them, calling them racist. So it’s understandable that she didn’t want controversy. If I fault her at all, I fault her for having ‘political commitments’ that made her unable to see the truth of my arguments.
Feeling somewhat burned by this experience, I pitched Tablet, which is a Jewish journal that’s rebranded itself as an anti-woke publication. It’s not precisely conservative, but especially in the last year its coverage has taken a transphobic turn. They published a truly bizarre article last summer, for instance, about how the billionaire Pritzker siblings are brainwashing kids into accepting "Synthetic Sexual Identities" (the author of the article refuses to even use the term ‘transgender’). The anti-trans stuff is disgusting, but the truth of the matter is that in 2023 it would be very difficult for me to find a journal that agrees with me on aesthetic matters but which isn’t anti-trans. I actually have another essay circulating which is about that exact conundrum, but it hasn’t found a home yet. The LA Review of Books would’ve been a fine place for it, but I doubt my work is welcome there anymore.
Well, c’est la vie. The piece is out, and I’m quite pleased with it.
Oh yeah, the second thing that came out was my story in Analog: "Citizen Science", Looking back, it’s mostly about my experience as a literary critic who works outside the academy, and how the terms I use are often so different that people in the Academy don’t even understand what I’m talking about. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wrong or confused (although it sometimes does)! Like in the case of this Salesses article, it’s precisely because I am not an academic that I am familiar with both contemporary American MFA-derived fiction and with Classical Chinese literature–to find that combination in a typical English department would be rare in the extreme. But that’s neither here nor there.