Letter to the Editor
What is it with all these established writers crapping on younger writers—and prominent features of our landscape, like workshops, the AWP conference, and email—in major publications lately? First there was Lynn Freed’s essay criticizing “the creative writing gulag” in the July issue of Harper’s. Then Poetry published Kay Ryan’s amusing but also irritating piece about crashing the AWP conference [“I Go To AWP,” July/August 2005], in which Ryan shudders at the idea of workshopping and mentoring. Then, in an essay about James Wright’s letters in the August 28 issue of the New York Times Book Review, David Orr proclaims that “brilliant letters are about as likely to be written by young poets today as Odes to Psyche.” He goes on to suggest that someone my age would try to articulate an idea like negative capability in a cellphone text message.
I’m sick of this treatment. It’s true that a lot of us, mostly younger writers, are working under the patronage of universities, and maybe we’ll be stuck in university ghettoes the rest of our lives. But they’re not bad, as ghettoes go—smart people, free lectures, health insurance. When the University of Michigan offered to pay me a modest stipend to swap ideas with interesting people, learn from smart professors, have access to a great library, and also teach, I wasn’t sorry to take them up on it. It’s better than temping.
So, to Freed and Ryan and Orr, and to everybody else who keeps bemoaning the various failures of us younger writers, please give us a break. The fact is, nobody knows what effect MFA programs, email, etc. are going to have on writing. The world will find out eventually. Probably after we’re all dead. We’re experimenting here, just as you were twenty or thirty years ago. We don’t believe that a graduate degree or a teaching job or a trip to AWP is the route straight to glamour. It just seems like an all right idea.