Literary Bogeymen, Scapegoats, & Other Dark Shadows of the Literary Realm

I’ve always delighted in the idea of bridge trolls. The thought of those rascally and ragged creatures, with their crooked noses, giant feet, and wicked grins, wreaking havoc against hapless travelers at lonely bridges and byways, inspire such delicious flights of fancy. I never considered the rationale behind these legendary tricksters, until now. Folktales and myth aside, bridge trolls were most likely blamed for mishaps caused by faulty engineering, lack of poor design, overuse, and age. Bridge trolls are the bogeymen of travellers. Every society has their customary lore to explain the unknown and warn caution.  The literary realm is certainly no exception.

Every now and again, in the creative writing world, a sleeping giant rears its ugly head and roars. Our most recent bogeyman or bridge troll is the poor design and overuse of MFA workshops. Now how to separate the myth of evil spirits bedeviling “art” and the reality where imagination clashes with economics is unlocking Pandora’s Box. In calling out the bane of MFA programs, we beckon a tangled mess of literary bogeymen, scapegoats, and other dark shadows that haunt our creative writing universe.

Critics and the heavyweights of literary culture are obliged to rake the coals and ignite anger and despair. These routine uproars, such as Louis Menand’s recent article in The New Yorker, “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught,” or Dana Gioa’s dismal NEA Report “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America are like the wildfires of  California, terribly necessary and necessarily terrible. We need to ravage our literary landscape as means of renewal. These cultural pundits force us to look up from our laptops, take note of the shifting geography, ally ourselves with kindred spirits, and stake our claim amidst the tumult. The skeptics urge us to chart our own cartography on a sometimes, though not always, treacherous terrain where geopolitical borders are always changing, but the reliefs of valleys and peaks remain the same.

We fear the advance of the Kindle and snicker when Frey gets tasked by Oprah. Bookworm doomsday-dreamers descry the onslaught of cell phone novels and blogs. We turn slam poets into scape goats and scorn the popularity of video-games. Though at the core of our fears and gripes pulses a kernel of truth: if all the libraries close where will our children go for communal story time; keitai shousetsu surely must limit the voice, language, and, therefore, depth of an author; nothing can replace the scent or the raspy feel of sheaves bound between two covers.

Yet, at the beginning of our writer’s day of work, we have to ask ourselves, do these thoughts help or hinder our approach to the blank page? The response will probably vary depending on circumstance, aesthetic, and a host of other variables. To debate or create? We each must answer this for ourselves every time a firestorm alights our path or a bridge troll stymies our literary trek. One thing we should be most assured of is that these anxieties are by no means the end all be all to our creative odyssey. We can let them be as important and influential to our work as we want them to be.

To conquer our fears and master these gripes we must pin them down. Stab them with pen to paper, so they can’t run rampant as sinister, abstract shadows in our easily fretful minds. Once we list them, we can shove these nagging, unwieldy worries to a tight corner in our mind bathed fully in the light of purpose, which at the start and close of everyday is the work itself.

Here’s a running list of literary troll bridges, bogeymen, scapegoats, and other amorphous threats, in no particular order. (Please feel free to add it to!) :

1. mfa programs

2. the workshop

3. slam poets & slam poetry

4. the mantra of “show vs tell”

5. the death of the physical book

6. the rise of the electronic book

7. text messaging

8. blogs

9. videogames

10. the internet

11. amazon

12. wikipedia

13. the dying breed of brick and mortar bookstores

14. twitter

15. the widening of the canon (also known as the desecration of the canon)

16. the exclusivity of the canon

17. barnes & noble

18. borders

19. oprah’s  book club

20. james frey, jt leroy, etc…

21. authenticity

22. creative non-fiction

23. memoirs

24. acknowledgement pages

25. footnotes

26. googlebooks

27. lit labels: (i.e. ethnic and queer)

28. english departments

29. the death of the short story

30. only poets read poetry (suggested by Elizabeth Kate Switaj)

and counting…

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4 Comments

  1. Great post Rashaan! “To debate or to create” I think pretty much sums it up. I’ve also been writing about the MFA/outsider and insider artist/poet and am pretty tired of these labels, which sometimes sound more like accusations. The MFA of course, is just one of so many things we can do to further our development as writers, so the overemphasis (in the form of both praise and scorn) on it is undue.

  2. Thank you, Barbara. I got my NY in the mail yesterday, saw Menand’s article title and thought “oh no, here we go again.” Reading your post “Poetic Industrial Complex: Outsider and Insider” inspired food for thought, and I came to pretty much the same conclusion as you: there are infinite paths to Art. I love your title and your focus on the insider-outsider.

    http://bjanepr.wordpress.com/2009/06/02/poetic-industrial-complex-outsider-and-insider/

  3. How about adding “only poets read poetry” to the list?

    I agree with Barbara that “[t]o debate or create” is really the key phrase here (and that this is a great post).

    Too often the debates around these various trolls-under-the-bridge seem to be less about any actual interest in these subjects (or the good of literature) and more in the vein of things written because they’re sure to get attention.

  4. Thanks, Elizabeth, for the suggestion! I completely agree. Most of these issues are argument not even for the sake of argument but for churning out headlines in the literary news world.

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