NO REVIEWS AT ALL, REALLY
How do critical responses to your articles come into play? I’m mostly just curious about whether or not you’ve read Mark McGurl’s response to “Get a Real Degree” in the LA Review of Books.
Dear Chad! You’re right – it’s a very similar situation. On the one hand, it seems solipsistic to be sitting at a desk writing things and ignoring the responses… especially when what you’re writing is criticism… and especially when that criticism is couched as some kind of polemical gauntlet, e.g. by means of a title like “Get a Real Degree” (which I did not come up with myself).1
On the other hand… these dialogues invariably involve such a time-lag! Someone writes a book; you take the time to read it and articulate what you think the deal is; the writer takes the time to read your opinion and articulate what he thinks the deal is, and by then years have passed. (I wrote the LRB piece in 2009, six months before it was published.) It’s a real investment to get back into the state of mind you were in before. You lose time and tranquility.
Is it selfish of me to value my time and tranquility over the exigencies of public debate regarding American creative writing programs? I don’t know. (For real, I don’t know.) All I can say is that right now I’m getting started on a new project, totally unrelated to creative writing programs, and full of totally new challenges, and it needs all my energy. There’s just one of me, and, if I don’t keep the momentum going, who is going to do it for me? (Pushkin? My intern?) For the time being, that means no adrenalinizing detours down memory lane. Although there is no doubt in my mind that McGurl’s response is super-smart and thought-provoking (as was his book), and although I fully intend to read and think about it when my own work permits, now is not that time.
As always, a big thanks to everyone who doesn’t think that whatever I just said makes me some kind of jerk. (Am thinking of appending this disclaimer to everything I write.)
In the meantime, my temporary solution to the solipsism problem is not to write any more book reviews. For various reasons, I actually haven’t reviewed anything since my own book came out – partly because I’ve been busy, and partly because my views about authorship and criticism have changed. Writing 100% good reviews would probably be lots of fun, but, for better or for worse, God gave me a grouchy and overcritical nature, combined with a great deal of affection for my fellow humans, and I need to find a way to work with these things.
Some months ago I expressed a version of these concerns to the books editor of the New Republic, who had asked me to write about the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago. I basically declined on the grounds that I hadn’t cared very much for the book the first time I read it – and was charmed to nonetheless receive a review copy with the following Post-It note:
I do love you, Yuri, sort of! But sometimes a writer just has to mind her own garden, if only for a little while.
- For the record, in my LRB piece, I was trying to respond to the picture of the MFA program—the particular authors it produced, during a particular time period—that McGurl presented in his book. I was not trying to come up with any final or essential characterization of MFA programs, which are not only extremely numerous, but are also I believe getting more (pedagogically, aesthetically, ideologically) diverse every year. ↩