Monday, November 14, 2005
J. Peder Zane thoughtfully considers the “knowledge deficit” among today’s college students. Citing a dinner conversation with some University of North Carolina professors, Zane observes:
All of them have noted that such ignorance isn’t new—students have always possessed far less knowledge than they should, or think they have. But in the past, ignorance tended to be a source of shame and motivation. Students were far more likely to be troubled by not-knowing, far more eager to fill such gaps by learning. As one of my reviewers, Stanley Trachtenberg, once said, “It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care about what they don’t know."
I think Trachtenberg is right, but Zane himself is only partially correct in his own explanation of this state of affairs:
In our increasingly complex world, the amount of information required to master any particular discipline—e.g. computers, life insurance, medicine—has expanded geometrically. We are forced to become specialists, people who know more and more about less and less.
Add to this two other factors: the mind-set that puts work at the center of American life and the deep fear spawned by the rise of globalization and other free market approaches that have turned job security into an anachronism. In this frightening new world, students do not turn to universities for mind expansion but vocational training. In the parlance of journalism, they want news they can use.
It is indeed “vocational training” that most students expect from college, but it is not “knowledge” they seek in pursuing such training. They want to be given skills, practical advice about how to accomplish specific career-related tasks, not knowledge per se. This wouldn’t be so problematic if it weren’t likely most people will change careers or find themselves in situations where their lack of real knowledge will only make them seem. . .well, ignorant.
Thus in the creative writing class Zane describes, in which the students reveal they neither know nor care about Jack Kerouac, these students “aspire” only to be told what they need to do to become best-selling novelists (to the extent they aren’t there just “to get a requirement out of the way"). This mindset perhaps also explains William Gass’s frustration in teaching creative writing even to graduate M.F.A. students in a distinguished university. Where fiction is concerned, they want to know how to do it, not what distinguishes it as literary art in the work of great writers, past or present.
The teaching of literature more generally has mostly succumbed to the demand for “skills” as well. Literary study is now not a matter of familiarizing oneself with literary history or learning how best to engage with “literature itself.” Students are provided with the critical thinking skills that can be acquired through reading literature closely, skills that presumably can be transferred to other contexts where “thinking” is required (in today’s academy, especially contexts in which we are encourged to think about social codes and political oppression). I believe that studying literature can indeed help develop critical thinking skills, but this secondary benefit has now become the entire raison d’etre of literary study.
Zane is correct to conclude that “In the here and now, get-the-job-done environment of modern America, the knowledge for knowledge’s sake ethos that is the foundation of a liberal arts education—and of a rich and satisfying life—has been shoved to the margins. Curiously, in a world where everything is worth knowing, nothing is.” But we’re not likely to recover the circumstances which made the “knowledge for knowledge’s sake ethos” seem desirable in the first place. Too many working- and middle-class families now see “college” as the corridor through which students must briefly travel on their way to well-paying, respectable jobs in the office building on the other side. And since one can’t blame these families for adopting such an attiitude--we’re a culture that esteems acquiring an “occupation,” not an education in itself--it’s hard to see how the predicament Zane describes won’t become only more pronounced.
Where fiction is concerned, they want to know how to do it, not what distinguishes it as literary art in the work of great writers, past or present.
Apprentice craftsperson wants to learn how to practice craft, news at eleven.
Somewhat less snarkily: Zane claims that “Not too long ago, students might have been embarrassed to admit they’d never heard of Jack Kerouac.”. Wouldn’t such a student have to have heard of Kerouac, at least vaguely, in order to know that ignorance of him is a cause for embarrassment? (I’m actually skeptical that not too long ago, that would have been the universal reaction, but Zane’s more likely to have at least personal experience of that than am I.) I’m serious. I find it hard to give a toss if some undergrad hasn’t heard of person X; what do I know of his or her background? Saying that our culture comes in and lets us off the hook here is disingenuous; it’s the only appropriate response given the diversity of backgrounds that might be represented, and the variety of information floating about. To me the upsetting thing is that the student in Naumoff’s class didn’t know even know Naumoff’s name.
Too many working- and middle-class families now see “college” as the corridor through which students must briefly travel on their way to well-paying, respectable jobs in the office building on the other side.
But … it’s true, innit? I suppose this is what you’re getting at when you say that one can’t really blame the students involved, but if more people are going to college because, well, if you want a well-paying job you more or less have to, and they aren’t of independent means, then surely it’s only to be expected that more people will be showing up at colleges who view them (rightly!) as a necessary step on the way to getting a job? Some of them, true, like Zane’s dear old dad, may also have the good old zeal for knowledge that, apparently, everyone born before 19— had (just as some of those in the past found such things floccinaucical). But if all that’s happening is that those who were previously insulated from general indifference to the best that was ever thought or known are now becoming aware of it, then it’s hard to see how it’s really a new predicament. Unless the predicament is just that all these people who want jobs are crowding out the people who don’t really need to worry about getting a job for one reason or another and can therefore devote a few years to mastering a subdomain of German literature.
Talking about a culture that values an “occupation” (in quotation marks why?) instead of education in itself doesn’t seem to me to get at it, though I’m not as much of a sociologist as most book reviewers are. How does that explain the necessity of a college degree for jobs that, really, have no reason to require one? For that matter, how does it explain the emphasis on the instrumentality of knowledge that you’re bemoaning? Acquiring an occupation isn’t incompatible with desiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake, it just means a little bit of compartmentalization.
I realize that the “rich and satisfying life” bit towards the end there is more or less a genre requirement, but it just drives me up the wall. Especially as it’s always brought up by people moaning the decline of various traditional artistic or high-cultural media. I’d like to believe that, say, a computer programmer (we’ll even make this person one who entered the field out of a genuine engagement with the subject matter, which can actually be engaging) with a diverse set of friends and hobbies that happen not to include reading literature and, say, going to the orchestra can yet have had a rich and satisfying life—even cowboys (beware popups and inconviently-placed ads!).
I’m a little suspicious both about the notion that (presumably, American) college students are more ignorant, and indeed also about the discourse of shame around ignorance.
(Why should anybody feel bad about not knowing something? And, as Ben notes, feeling bad in fact reveals a certain form of knowledge.)
As it happens, I just wrote something about one particular instance of this dialectic of ignorance and shame: Americans’ alleged lack of interest in the rest of the world.
I don’t know of similar investigations done in the field of literature, but the New York Times once did a study of American college freshmen’s understanding of American history and discovered that huge numbers of them were lacking in the most basic knowledge. The study also
found that college students have extreme difficulty in expressing themselves clearly or intelligently. Some of the specific powers [granted to Congress by the Constitution], listed in the answers, include: “to make laws providing they are upholding the Constitution”; “its members shall be elected, not chosen”; “power to impeach the President if majority vote”; “could either approve or not the people the President appointed, if not they couldn’t be judges or diplomats”; “amendment power with certain majority for an against”: “has the power to hold office and vote."
This study was published on 4 April 1943. As far as I know, the report is not freely available online, but I’ve transcribed sections of it here (scroll down the post a bit; the headline is: “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshman"). Those with access to the full Proquest New York Times historical archive can find it in pdf form at the following links: full report, brief summary of findings, copy of test and results.
Even leaving aside the results of the study, the test questions themselves reveal one of the problems with the idea of basic knowledge: it keeps changing. The 1943 test includes a few questions about railways that likely would not be considered basic today; at the same time some post-1943 history has now entered the realm of the basic (though getting people to agree on just what those basics consist of is notoriously difficult, as the history standards fiasco of the 1990s demonstrated.)
This isn’t to say that students’ lack of knowledge isn’t a problem today, only that, in history at least, it seems to have been a pretty persistent one, rather than something that’s sprung up under the new conditions in which we live today. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if the history of literary knowledge, because of the way reading practices have changed over time, has developed differently.
And of course the 1943 study says nothing about students’ subsequent curiousity. Though as an added bonus, those with subscriber access might want to check out “An Apple for the Teacher?“ from the same edition of the Times in which the history study appears: it’s a fascinating look at a day in the life of an ordinary schoolteacher. Among the anecdotes:
Tony, whose mother has told me of his periods of depression, considers himself “the jerk of the English class,” likes geometry only because “if you’re good in geometry you can learn to play pool; it teaches you to think.” He has one ambition, to become a seaman. One day this week I shall take him to the office of the United Seamen’s Service, where, as a member of the High School Victory Corps, he can help to organize the valuable services for seamen.
I thought that it was widely understood that the literary MFA was a job-training program, and not only that, but a disreputable and borderline-dishonest one. It’s a degree for people who want to make a living as writers, taught by people who have found that the only way to make a living as writers is to teach other people how to make a living as writers. Trying to make these students appreciate literature is like signing people up for a pyramid scheme and then teaching them mathematics: it’s both beside the point and likely to make them realize the futility of what they’re doing. I think that a good part of what some see as pride in ignorance may really be impatience with the pretensions of their teachers, who have already found their academic job and need not be concerned with writing skills.
Rich, I think what keeps MFA programs from being a scam is that everyone knows the score. I don’t know any would-be writers much out of their teens that actually expect to make a living writing. (Hope is another thing, because, you know, there’s always room for a handful of Chabons and Lethems, not to mention the Browns and other pure-bestseller writers for whom technique is a liability rather than an asset.) An MFA is a way to get a day job teaching English, as opposed to some other kind of day job, and meanwhile get to spend a few years reading and writing and thinking about reading and writing before you have to worry about that day job.
On Kerouac: There was a time when a creative writing student would have known about Kerouac because Kerouac was who all the cool kids were reading. Of course in those days they’d have been embarrassed to admit they’d never heard of Kerouac — at least, the first time they admitted it and all their cool writer friends turned to them and said “You’ve never heard of Kerouac?” Kerouac was pop culture. I don’t feel any shame at not having read Kerouac because, what the hell, I’ve read some Burroughs and some Ginsberg and I feel like I’ve got the Beats covered. You want peer-group-induced shame, talk to me about how I haven’t read DeLillo or Barthelme or Auster or Angela Carter — but then it’s only writers that can give me crap, because there are no writers that are pop culture the way the Beats were. (Or, I should say, the way they tell us the Beats were.)
Gass’s complaint seems to me like a failure on the part of the teacher, not the students. Your students don’t get what’s special about Henry James? If they could get it just by reading Henry James they wouldn’t need you, they’d just need a reading list. (Hmm, which side of the culture war does that sound like?) How about teaching Henry James? They want to learn technique? Show them how James does it! Set them some exercises! Don’t just expect them to be magically illuminated by the Great Books.
As for literary study, exclusive of creative writing — I’m afraid you’re on your own, there. As long as “literary studies” == “Theory,” you’re going to have a hard time getting students to want to learn anything other than “how to do Theory.” The ones that want to read books will already have gone off to the history department.
Hey, I’m a professional Java programmer, but I couldn’t be bothered to study programming in school. Linguistics and history were more fun.
I’m still plenty ignorant, though.
Yes, students today are terribly ignorant of the basic facts of history, civics, art, literature, geography, science, and current events. This comes at a time when they have more access to information and knowledge than ever before. One of the odd things is that while education levels have risen, knowledge levels have not.
One reason for this is that K-12, and now higher education, have given up on the traditional goal of liberal education—to produced an informed, literate, engaged citizen—and substituted the vocational, skills-based goal—an individual adapted to the 21st-c. workplace. Problem is, the skills of high school and college graduates are no better than their knowledge levels. In international comparisons, American students lag well behind European and Asian students in math and reading, and employers say that the writing skills of college graduates have deteriorated significantly in recent years.
There is one area, however, in which college students excel: self-esteem. They consistently rate themselves higher than their talents merit. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, while 77 percent of students report significant improvements in their writing skills in college, only 11 percent of them score “proficient” on tests. Only 6 percent reach proficiency in “critical thinking,” but 87 percent claim big improvements in this area.
We’ve been through this before, but the criteria that employers might use to judge prospective employees’ writing skills are deeply flawed. So deeply flawed, in fact, that we should retire this as evidence.
"Rich, I think what keeps MFA programs from being a scam is that everyone knows the score. I don’t know any would-be writers much out of their teens that actually expect to make a living writing. (Hope is another thing, because, you know, there’s always room for a handful of Chabons and Lethems, not to mention the Browns and other pure-bestseller writers for whom technique is a liability rather than an asset.) An MFA is a way to get a day job teaching English, as opposed to some other kind of day job, and meanwhile get to spend a few years reading and writing and thinking about reading and writing before you have to worry about that day job.”
An eloquent response. MFA programs have their flaws of course, but they seem to me to be among some of the liveliest places on campus....
David, I think that your defense of the MFA implicitly admits a good deal of what it explicitly denies. You write that “An MFA is a way to get a day job teaching English”, but what kind of English? Grade-school or high-school English? You get an undergraduate education degree for that. Mostly what it’s for is for teaching future MFA students. But that is rather obviously like a pyramid scheme. Not everyone who graduates with an MFA can go on to teach new MFAs. It’s just another somewhat unrealistic hope, like the hope of making a living as a mid-list author (I doubt that many of these students know how little a mid-list author really makes) or of hitting the jackpot with an Oprah recommendation or something.
If you look closely at the Zane and Gass articles, you’ll find that one has an anecdote from an undergraduate Creative Writing program, another from an MFA class. Neither of these is really vocational, so Dan Green’s complaint about students wanting to learn “skills” doesn’t quite mean what most people reading this would think it means. These students want to learn “how to write novels” skills. Since it is unlikely that these skills will actually let them make a living, even if they existed and were successfully taught, these programs aren’t vocational—they’re aspirational. They are there because universities discovered that they could make money off of people who dreamed about being writers.
Tony, you quoted David’s whole paragraph to add an “I agree”. Unfortunately, your own prior claims here are an example of why I don’t agree. You wrote that the political atmosphere in the U.S. was somehow keeping progressive political fiction from being published, even though large numbers of progressive political nonfiction books are being published. That is incoherent; if publishers were rejecting books due to intolerance of progressive politics, the nonfiction ones would be rejected first. It really does sound like a typical MFA graduate’s dawning realization that there is no market there to support the number of people who want to be writers, and the beginning of a hunt for justifications.
I wrote an incredibly articulate, thoughtful post destined to enter the Western canon, but then the form ate it up. So, the synopsis, work-survives-only-as-lecture-notes-of-students format.
1. I’m surprised this article is here as the majority of it (roughly summarizable as “young people = dumb") has become a cliche, 1980s culture wars stuff--an expression of reactionary nostalgia.
2. For an article so focused on knowledge, it’s surprisingly short on facts. Where are the statistics? Zane can be said to be arguing (1) students are uninformed; and (2) students are less informed relative to previous generations. Both of these are empirical statements that require data. While I’m fairly skeptical of the first point--just look at graduate school applications rates (and this slate article:
http://www.slate.com/id/2124163, which notes selection bias problems and points out that test scores have gone up)--the second point is definitely shakey. What other generations were more well-informed? There’s a line in The Pound Era where Kenner says that Eliot’s philosophical mojo shouldn’t be underestimated since he studied for a phd under Russell when something like one persent of the population didn’t finish high school.
(3) This last point is important, b/c these sort of articles frequently rely on a part-to-whole fallacy. In any population, only a small segment of the population is interested in politics, culture, philosophy, etc. (There’s an Adam Kirsch review in TNR where he says the reading population for poetry in Western Europe has never exceeded 5%.) This sort of erudition is never equally distributed through the culture, so it would be disingenous to say that becomes SOME students lack erudition, all do. This would be true of any generation. Ask the average math professor if he knows who Don Delillo is?
(4) As other people have mentioned, there’s a sort of class-based bias to this article. “Knowledge” doesn’t mean, say, decoding the genes of a cheek cell, programming in C++, or solving proofs in Calculus (things my sister did in high school just a few years ago), but to having gone through the checklist of great western works. This seems to betray cultural insecurity, but I think it’s understandable since pursuing an interest in general culture is really asking for a life of alienation. This is not just because reading itself demands long periods of solitary leisure, but also because no one in the general population (not just the general student population) is interested in Kant. There are social implications to this (note the funny referencing of the archetypal immigrant father, hitting up the canon--surely not for pure knowledge but in order to assimilate?), especially because it means that the sort of knowledge that immigrants have (technical) isn’t sufficient. But I think this is really more a generational gap, less about the importance of Keroac in the canon than the sort of aging hipster, agast that his references are out of date: “You don’t even know Keroac? He’s the coolest!” See http://www.whimsyspeaks.com/archives/2005/11/index.html#a000281
Rich—College English, many of the students of which will have no intention of getting an MFA. But I take your point. What I should have added was that, even as they expect they’ll need to get day jobs, not every MFA student expects to get even such a tangentially writing-related day job as teaching English. It’s not a pyramid scheme precisely because it is, as you say, not vocational.
If anyone’s getting fleeced, it’s not the students at the bottom of the putative pyramid, it’s the taxpayers and the funders of endowments; but I tend to think that there’s nothing that makes funding MFAs who go on to not use their degrees inherently less valuable to society than, say, funding PhDs who go on to not use their degrees.
Jack: Your own hostility to literature (the origins of which I am sure are a matter of supreme indifference to most of us) is hardly the framework within which a productive discussion of “the institution of Literature itself” might occur.
> David, I think that your defense of the MFA implicitly admits a good deal of
> what it explicitly denies. You write that “An MFA is a way to get a day
> job teaching English”, but what kind of English? Grade-school or
> high-school English? You get an undergraduate education degree for that.
Community College and 4 year college - by far that’s what most MFA grads who go on to teach do teach, that I know at least. But of course they go on to teach at all levels. And many or most teachers at the primary and secondary levels work toward a Masters degree, either because they are required to, or because it automatically increases their pay.
> Mostly what it’s for is for teaching future MFA students.
Again, a person would have to be very naive to belive this. And my experience is like David’s - most MFA students realize where the likely jobs are, and they know that an MFA degree can help them get those jobs, should they want them. Given the relatively few MFA teaching positions compared to all the other possible English positions, it’s not difficult to understand that most English jobs are found outside of MFA programs.
> But that is
> rather obviously like a pyramid scheme.
Yes, but only if students thought what you apparently think they do. But you give no evidence that most students think this way, or even that MFA programs try to advertise the degrees this way.
> Not everyone who graduates with an
> MFA can go on to teach new MFAs.
Of course, which is why, in my experience, about as many MFA students believe this as believe in pyramid schemes.
> It’s just another somewhat unrealistic
> hope, like the hope of making a living as a mid-list author (I doubt that
> many of these students know how little a mid-list author really makes) or of
Unless you mean something different, I’m aware of quite a number of “mid-list” authors who are teaching in a variety of positions at universities, due in large part to their publishing those mid-list books. Counting benefits, their average annual compensation due to those books and their teaching is $50,000 or more even if those books don’t bring in a dime themselves. That’s a pretty good living.
> hitting the jackpot with an Oprah recommendation or something.
> If you look closely at the Zane and Gass articles, you’ll find that one has
> an anecdote from an undergraduate Creative Writing program, another from an
> MFA class. Neither of these is really vocational, so Dan Green’s complaint
> about students wanting to learn “skills” doesn’t quite mean what most
> people reading this would think it means. These students want to learn
> “how to write novels” skills. Since it is unlikely that these skills will
> actually let them make a living, even if they existed and were successfully
> taught, these programs aren’t vocational—they’re aspirational. They
> are there because universities discovered that they could make money off of
> people who dreamed about being writers.
> Tony, you quoted David’s whole paragraph to add an “I agree”.
It took me a split second to quote it. I do it habitually, often for sake of clarity. I’m doing it here. So what?
> Unfortunately, your own prior claims here are an example of why I don’t
I’ll be happy to review any claims in specific.
> You wrote that the political atmosphere in the U.S. was somehow
> keeping progressive political fiction from being published, even though
> large numbers of progressive political nonfiction books are being published.
> That is incoherent; if publishers were rejecting books due to intolerance
> of progressive politics, the nonfiction ones would be rejected first.
Not only was what I claimed not incoherent - who did not understand it? - I gave evidence and some pretty clear indications of explanation in support of the claim. You give nothing but a couple claims, one transparently false.
Pakistan has recently banned all imports of fiction from India. Even if the author is Pakistani but the book is published in India, it is banned in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan has no such ban on non-fiction. There could be a lot of different reasons for this, but it shows that sometimes fiction is feared or at least disallowed, when non-fiction is not.
Also, fiction, as Roland Barthes claimed - as I quoted previously - may “best arouse political passion” - moreso than non-fiction - thus all the more reason for possible censorship along political lines.
Barthes: “Then comes the modern question: why is there not today (or at least so it seems to me), why is there no longer an art of intellectual persuasion, or imagination? Why are we so slow, so indifferent about mobilizing narrative and the image? Can’t we see that it is, after all, works of fiction, no matter how mediocre they may be artistically, that best arouse political passion?”
> really does sound like a typical MFA graduate’s dawning realization that
> there is no market there to support the number of people who want to be
> writers, and the beginning of a hunt for justifications.
Dawning realization? I can’t say that I’ve ever known anyone who didn’t think fiction writing was very competitive, and that getting, say, a book published would be difficult, unless you got very lucky, or were unbelievably talented. This has always seemed to me to be common knowledge among people whether they were a writer or not. It can sound like whatever you want it to sound like, but again, I provide evidence and reasons to support my views.
Jack: But if your rage against all the things you mention has led you to conclude that literature is worthless, there’s really nothing more to discuss.
Here’s what you said: “literature--whether Keats or Kerouac, academic or beatnik-- cannot really withstand any sort of rational scrutiny. There are plenty of grounds to assail the entire literary context. . .”
“Anyone who ever valued Jeffersonian principles must eventually view the products of Shakespeare and Co., however marvelous and exquisite in design, as the representations of Tory decadence that they really are.”
This sounds pretty hostile to me. I have no idea what you mean by saying my own writing here also “often makes use of fairly irrational and scholastic types of discourse, which do serve to reify ancien regime if not theological values.”
Please build a bridge in Tahiti with Quine’s critique of de re modality, and jump off it.
Percy “Piss-Bomb” Shelley
Nobody here cares what you think. Your “thoughts” are not interesting, coherent, or persuasive.
This thread has veered from two very interesting, specific questions to a general gab fest containing “here’s what I think about higher education/MFA/literature/reading/ what have you.”
The two questions as I see them: Are students today less curious than they once were? Are they more arrogant—unlikely to eagerly note writers & ideas they haven’t previously encounted?
“Shame” here refers to the same kind of social sanction that causes college to cover up when they don’t know the latest band.
Is the CIA testing some sort of rage-inducing remote mind-control technology on this thread? If so, then it’s working.
By the way, Dan, you do have the ability do editorial wholesale deletion of his material; he’s had more than enough time to familiarize us with his schtick.
Rich: How can you tell?
Now that the thread is re-readable, I can sum up a response to everyone: the claim of a “knowledge deficit” is inherently suspect, not only because of the well-known problems with historical comparison and the use of anecdotes, but also because even the anecdotes in this case don’t necessarily mean what you might think that they mean. As I’ve been trying to communicate, they come from contexts in which student resistance to knowledge for knowledge’s sake may be motivated by a student belief that this is a waste of time that could be spent teaching them how to be writers. While this desire to be a writer may be inconsistent with broad goals of a liberal arts education, it is not really a desire to pursue a vocational goal (since people hope, but do not really believe, that they can have jobs as writers), and it is unclear whether these kind of programs are really part of a liberal arts education in the first place.
Tony, a response to you in particular: I don’t think it is credible that publishers reject progressive political fiction because they think it will arouse political passions contrary to conservative interests, and at the same time publish the myriad nonfiction progressive political books intended to do just that. No Barthes quote on the subject is going to convince me that publishers universally believe in this Barthes quote. Occam’s Razor indicates other problems.
> Tony, a response to you in particular: I don’t think it is credible that
> publishers reject progressive political fiction because they think it will
> arouse political passions contrary to conservative interests, and at the
> same time publish the myriad nonfiction progressive political books intended
> to do just that.
Repetition of your claim. No effort to rebut my point, which I’ve backed by at least some relevant evidence and reasons, that fiction may be perceived as more powerful and therefore seem and/or be more threatening...due to its emotional potency and popular forms....
There may well be other problems. For example, if fiction is socially and politically powerful, and feared to be powerful - which, historically, has been proven time and again - why don’t sympathetic progressive publishers publish more that is overtly political. My guess would be that they think non-fiction is more powerful than fiction, or that this sort of fiction isn’t powerful at all - since there is not much contemporary discussion of it, let alone advocacy for it. Plus, they have limited resources. Also, there may simply be few authors writing such fiction because, similar to publishers, they don’t see it being published and modelled or otherwise encouraged or discussed.
> No Barthes quote on the subject is going to convince me
> that publishers universally believe in this Barthes quote.
I assume most publishers aren’t even aware of the Barthes quote, but that’s not the point. Why is so much commercial and literary fiction poorly thought of? Why does it often seem like fluff, or insubstantial in important ways? I think it’s because publishers discourage fiction that directly, overtly engages with a number of crucial social and political issues in ways that threaten power. That has been my experience, and the experience of a number of other authors - as I’ve detailed a bit here at the Valve, and elsewhere.
> Occam’s Razor
> indicates other problems.
Again, you give no evidence or explanation. My point is a basic one that is based on few if any assumptions. It seems to me that Occam’s Razor points to it, and I’ve explained why.
Like other economic actors, publishers are strongly motivated to make money. Accordingly, they will tend to do things that will make them money and avoid things that lose them money.
I would strongly suspect that publishers publish politically-motivated nonfiction because it tends to sell, while they shy away from politically-motivated fiction because it tends not to sell.
No need to invoke nefarious attempts by publishers to protect some vaguely defined “power.”
> Like other economic actors, publishers are strongly motivated to make money.
> Accordingly, they will tend to do things that will make them money and
> avoid things that lose them money.
Publishers are not merely economic actors, of course. They also act on the basis of personal connections and politics and ideology and for plenty of other reasons. Economic factors are often a large consideration, but they are not nearly the sole consideration. Thus, there is a need to account for non-economic factors, such as political factors - conscious and unconscious ones both.
> I would strongly suspect that publishers publish politically-motivated
> nonfiction because it tends to sell, while they shy away from
> politically-motivated fiction because it tends not to sell.
“Politically-motivated fiction”? Like Tom Clancy? Like John Grisham? Like Michael Crichton? Much of their fiction is politically motivated and it sells, of course.
And there is also no reason to think there is not a large populist audience for progressive views. Just take for example an anti-war novel regarding Iraq. Both before and after the war the majority of people in the US, let alone the world, were against the war. Only a brief period where state propaganda held sway was this not the case in the U.S. So evidence exists that anti-war novels would be quite popular and profitable, were publishers willing to solicit and publish them.
> No need to invoke nefarious attempts by publishers to protect some vaguely
> defined “power.”
Except for the examples and reasons I gave above and my whole line of argument.
Nothing vague about what I mean by power, or what is commonly understood by it. I mean economic power, and command and control authority - who gets to make decisions - a corporate-state elite, or the people at large.
And of course these considerations apply all across the media. See FAIR’s most recent report below. (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting):
Appearing at a recent media conference, NBC president Bob Wright offered a novel rationale for the exclusion of liberal voices on cable news: Liberals don’t watch TV.
“During an interview with conservative MSNBC host Tucker Carlson, Wright responded to Carlson’s question about offering a left-leaning channel by saying that progressives “don’t listen to a lot of radio and they don’t watch a lot of television” (Broadcasting & Cable, 11/13/05).
“It is ironic that Wright would say this to Carlson; if there’s one thing many viewers don’t seem to want to watch, it is Tucker Carlson’s MSNBC show. In its first weeks on the air, Carlson’s show was averaging about 200,000 viewers (Washington Post, 7/30/05). Even with the addition of a tabloid-oriented show hosted by Rita Cosby, the channel’s prime-time audience in August was about 325,000 viewers (New York Times, 8/29/05). So if ratings are really what matter, one could argue that MSNBC’s strategy of veering right--with shows hosted by Carlson and former Republican congressmember Joe Scarborough--has clearly been a failure.
“But recent history suggests that MSNBC makes programming decisions based more on politics than audience share. That was why Phil Donahue’s MSNBC show was cancelled, even though it was the channel’s highest-rated program at the time, averaging over 400,000 viewers when it was cancelled (New York Times, 2/26/03).
“Internal MSNBC memos revealed that network management was worried that Donahue would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” because Donahue “seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives” (FAIR Action Alert, 3/7/03).
“The relative success of the Donahue show would seem to disprove Wright’s claim that liberals don’t watch TV, or that viewers aren’t interested in hearing left-of-center views. It appears that it’s NBC’s corporate managers, and not viewers, who aren’t interested in such perspectives.”
. . . but also because even the anecdotes in this case don’t necessarily mean what you might think that they mean.
Rich: Well-clarified. And I also find the claim suspect.
Tony: I may be missing something, but it’s not clear to me that there really is a huge deficit in progressive fiction. In the part of the market I’m most familiar with (science fiction and fantasy) the progressives seem to have an advantage, these days, and I’m pretty sure they also have an advantage in “lit-fic.” Mystery and romance and thrillers I don’t know much about, but I could see them going either way. I know John le Carré sells a lot of books, and his stuff is plenty progressive. Technothrillers, especially the military stuff like Clancy and Coonts, well — it’s not surprising that fetishizing weapon systems isn’t something progressives are into, is it? And Crichton’s schtick — putting scary genies back in bottles — is inherently conservative. What am I not seeing?
> Tony: I may be missing something, but it’s not clear to me that there
> really is a huge deficit in progressive fiction. In the part of the market
> I’m most familiar with (science fiction and fantasy) the progressives seem
> to have an advantage, these days,
I’m not much familiar with science fiction and fantasy but from what I know I would say that some of the best examples of progressive and revolutionary fiction come from there: Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, The Iron Heel by Jack London, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Leguin, and to some extent Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.... Even aspects of Heinlein’s libertarian (and so not “progressive") novels and so on. Starhawk’s novels. You don’t mention any books by name. I’m curious to know what if any contemporary examples you (or anyone else) might come up with. No doubt there are a number of others. Why progressive fiction or aspects moreso in speculative fiction than in literary fiction or more popular forms of realism? I would guess probably because it’s easier to dismiss the political implications or statements of speculative books due to the many belittling stereotypes associated with speculative fiction - and the fact that it’s easy to say “it’s not realism, it’s not realistic anyway.”
> and I’m pretty sure they also have an
> advantage in “lit-fic.”
“Multicultural” fiction is far more pronounced in recent years than it has been traditionally and some of this is progressive or has progressive aspects, some even overt progressive and revolutionary aspects. But, for merely one example, how many recent anti-war novels can you name? The U.S. has been smashing Iraq since 1991, killing millions through bombings and sanctions, long before the years-old invasion and occupation. The U.S. for years has allowed corporations the use of patent laws, which have prevented HIV vaccines from reaching Africa resulting in millions of lives lost. Where are the exposé novels? Name the so-called muckraking novels or vivid polemic novels about the unconscionable U.S. health care system. Or poverty rate. Or avoidable environmental catastrophes. Etc and so on. Not easy to do. It’s possible to come up with a few, including le Carré (recently) - exceptions to the rule.
> Mystery and romance and thrillers I don’t know
> much about, but I could see them going either way. I know John le Carré
> sells a lot of books, and his stuff is plenty progressive.
I think even le Carré himself notes that his fiction has taken a somewhat progressive turn only in very recent years, and he is an anomaly, and no revolutionary by far.
> especially the military stuff like Clancy and Coonts, well — it’s not
> surprising that fetishizing weapon systems isn’t something progressives are
> into, is it? And Crichton’s schtick — putting scary genies back in
> bottles — is inherently conservative.
My point was not that these are progressive novelists, of course, quite the opposite. I was responding to the claim that people don’t like “politically motivated fiction” - well, their fiction is in large part politically motivated, or at least actuated, and lots of people like it. It’s far from progressive political fiction. But the point I was making is that politics in fiction don’t turn people off from reading it - contrary to the claim. Maybe he meant that progressive politics turn people off from reading it - if so, he gave nothing to support this claim. And I gave evidence that would indicate the opposite.
More signs of the broad reach and appeal of overtly political fiction - in this case, mainly governmental fiction, and not left/progressive:
Michiku Kakutani writes of The Scorpion’s Gate:
“Why has ["former U.S. counterterrorism czar"] Mr. Clarke turned to fiction as a venue for his arguments? No doubt it’s a way to say - or imply - things about the Bush administration that he can’t quite come out and say in an essay, as well as a way to satirize the intelligence bureaucracy and neo-conservative policy making. It’s also a way for Mr. Clarke to dramatize his arguments and try to reach a broader audience....”
And Gary Hart writes:
“If Clarke does nothing else but cause some readers to question our ludicrous reliance on unstable oil supplies, wonder whether we have even begun to understand Islamic culture, begin to demand a more subtle and layered approach to the Middle East, doubt our ability to export democracy at the point of a bayonet, or gain maturity in foreign affairs, he will have done a service.
“On his book’s jacket, the author says: ``Fiction can often tell the truth better than non-fiction. And there is a lot of truth that needs to be told.’’
“As co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, I am often asked what caused us to predict terrorist attacks on the United States months before Sept. 11, 2001. More than any other factor, Clarke’s chilling briefings of our commission persuaded us. Perhaps he is trying to persuade us of a truth yet again.”
More observations on the theme: Sean Wilentz, “The Rise of Illiterate Democracy” in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/books/review/11wilentz.html?adxnnl=1&emc=eta1&adxnnlx=1134339193-CRaK9D5azLq1h9gzi8ALhw
“The nonfiction best-seller lists these days are often full of partisan screeds labeling Democrats as elitist traitors and Republicans as conniving plutocrats. But look over on the fiction side, and politics appears almost nowhere. Some critics read Philip Roth’s “Plot Against America” as an allegory of the current White House, and there have even been a few blunt and appalling political fantasies, like Nicholson Baker’s “Checkpoint,” a brief dialogue between a man who wants to assassinate George W. Bush and a friend who wants to talk him out of it. But unlike the ubiquitous nonfiction tub-thumpers, today’s novels rarely take the grubby business of ordinary politics, past or present, as a subject, let alone an activity in which their authors might participate. Contemporary party politics, which once inspired writers as different as James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and Robert Penn Warren, is terra incognita. The separation of church and state is hotly contested; the separation of literature and state seems to have become absolute.”
Mainstay Press will be helping to rectify the situation a bit within a month or two, though it remains to be seen who may notice and take interest, and who may purposefully look away: http://www.mainstaypress.org/
I can honestly say that the “Jason” commonly accused of being the Troll of Sorrow is innocent of that charge.
Dear Sir or Madam,
Hello. I am Tahere Abdi. I am looking for representation for my completed book. Can you help me?
The work is a political psychological fiction novel. This is a story that distinguishes illusion from true. Duncan’s ignorance and false information about his past and mother provoke him to commit enormous crime against humanity and tortures him all his life.
Title of my book is “Blind Flying” and word count is 142,429. I envision a successful marketing. I have been written it from November 2005 until March 2006.
In spite of my all of other activities, I determine to write continuously. The powerful mind is the best instrument for registering the virgin thoughts.
My bio: Tahere Abdi was born and brought up in Tehran. She is a graduate of metallurgy from University of Science and Technology of Iran and chess coach (also chess arbiter). She used to write short stories during her junior school years and won the prize for best short story writing in city of Saveh, Markazi province, Iran in 1985, and also on 1998, she wrote a book about presence of an Iranian journalist in war of Serbians against Bosnia and Herzegovina’s people, “Mahboube Man Kojast?” (Where is my darling?). He reports the brutal crimes in the Balkan wars have remained unpublished due to censure in Iran. Abdi has studied deeply the literature and culture of different nations and is eager to publish her novel in English language.
If you agree to receive it, please inform me to send you its synopsis and the samples to you. I look forward to hearing from you.
Address: Unite one, Number 117, Street 17, Shohadayeh Sadeghieh Boulvard, Sadeghieh Second Square, Tehran, Iran.
Zip Code: 1451634493
Phone Number: +98-21-44213490; Mobile: +98-912-2086290