While I was attending AWP 2014 a couple of months ago, I picked up a copy of Seattle Weekly in this wicked little coffee shop right next to Georgetown Records. As I read it, I came across a brief announcement concerning the conference. I want to quote it at length:
I know what you’re thinking: What could possibly be more fun than this national gathering of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs? All these whining MFA types with massive student loans and without jobs or the ability to write something actually useful—like code, maybe? But still, these poets, essayists, novelists, journalists, and crafters of verse will not be deterred. Perhaps their sheer stubbornness in the face of penury is worthy of our respect. And if not that, you could at least buy them a beer or three at some of the many offsite readings and gatherings that are open to us, the unlettered, unwashed, unpublished members of the general public (mere readers, in other words).
By the time I’d finished it, I was laughing. I mean, that’s some funny stuff, right? Obviously the author is being tongue-in-cheek, facetious, maybe sardonic. Yet, the thought of his potential seriousness isn’t funny, at least not to me. If anything, it’s unsettling, and not just because someone’s spinning a fat wad of heavy-handed snarkiness. I’m concerned that people actually stereotype authors in this way. Sure, a majority of us could possibly be manic-depressive alcoholics, as eccentric as we are broken, but that stereotype isn’t just reserved for aspiring Papa Hemingways and Sylvia Plaths. No, what really got to me was the line about writing “something actually useful.” I can’t even fathom that statement. How can literature not be useful? Storytelling is in our DNA. Ever since humankind had the cognitive capacity to grasp a tool it has been etching stories into cavern walls and clay tablets. Jonathan Gottschall argues that our innate ability to frame our perception in narrative form is an evolutionary perk, and he may be right. If we consider just American literature alone, stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped spark a war, and 2001: A Space Odyssey a trip to the moon. So, I ask again, how can literature not be useful?
Maybe he doesn’t get it. Maybe the author doesn’t personally know any “whining MFA types” who are actually thriving, not just in the publishing world, but in academia, and finance, and sales, and marketing, and the tech industry, and in human resources. Maybe he doesn’t know that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, and that William Faulkner supervised a power plant. Maybe he doesn’t know that writers, the people supposedly perched upon an ivory tower throwing crumbs to congregations of squawking readers, are, first and foremost, readers. The best writers are readers, plain and simple. All of those writers with “massive student loan debt” shell out a lot of money for their love of the craft, but more so, their love of reading. Novels, poetry, articles, songs, stories, fictions and half-truths all bind us as people and as cultures. Our histories are stories. Our very lives, to some degree, are stories.
I really hope he was just trying to funny.