When I decided to take the plunge last year, at the age of 27, from relative literary isolation into the comparative security of graduate school, I had mixed feelings. I had always struggled with academic institutions, sleepwalking through high school, saved by a natural aptitude for writing, and attending three colleges before completing my bachelor’s degree. I was familiar with the myriad criticisms of MFA programs, too, from their promotion of a “house style” to their failure to provide graduates with tangible benefits or skills.
And yet I wasn’t sure what else to do.
In the five years after finishing college, I worked in coffee shops, labored as a caregiver for people with disabilities, interned on an organic farm, and scored one well-paid but temporary gig organizing workers for a union. (I also went through a substantial period of unemployment.) This kind of haphazard, improvisational approach to bread-winning is common enough for creative people, and one that I embraced throughout my twenties. But as 30 inched closer I found myself beginning to think in previously unimaginable terms. What if I wanted to have a family? What work was I qualified to do that would provide even a lower-middle-class income, not to mention health insurance? Hence the MFA.
Despite the various claims made by detractors, these programs do offer the possibility of certain real-world competencies, namely how to teach creative writing. They also confer a credential in the terminal academic degree. Perhaps most appealingly—for me, anyway—they ground their students in literature. As a relative autodidact who had learned about books mostly by squatting in coffee shops and one-bedroom apartments, I yearned for such grounding. There were holes in my literary education that I felt an MFA could help me fill.
While enduring my succession of low-wage jobs, I had published critical and creative essays at a range of online venues. I also wrote poetry—mostly self-published—but poetry nonetheless. For my degree, however, I chose to study fiction. As a longtime reader of literary fiction, I had become increasingly intrigued by a form that allowed one to transcend his own personal experiences, to inhabit disparate points of view. And as the graduate of a multicultural inner city high school largely stratified along lines of race and class, an individual of Italian and Jewish descent who is often misapprehended as Mexican, and the romantic partner of a mixed race Korean-American woman, I had long been interested in questions of social difference. Fiction, I felt, offered profound opportunities for such imagining. I wanted to explore those questions of identity that had confronted me since I was a child.
What I didn’t entirely understand was that race can be a particularly touchy subject within the literary community. Perhaps this is because the community is so overwhelmingly white. Last year, for The Rumpus, the author Roxane Gay analyzed the literary sections of The New York Times. She found that of the 742 books reviewed by the Times in 2011, about 90 percent of their authors were white—compared with 72 percent of the American population at large. I haven’t been able to find a parallel study of MFA programs, but anecdotal evidence seems to tell a similar tale. In my own program, every student but one is white. A black friend of mine who went through an MFA program told me how uncomfortable he was with the racial homogeneity he encountered there. And a white friend who completed a different program told me she was once advised by a professor not to address race, lest her stories strike some readers as “too controversial.”
So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when a story I brought into class about a young, mixed-race man struggling with his racial identity in my hometown of Seattle was met with harsh resistance.
“Maybe you should write about something you know,” one student snarled a few minutes into the discussion. Others seemed baffled by my protagonist’s preoccupation with race. The term “post-racial” was used—yearningly, I thought.
A few weeks later, I brought another story into class about a white kid playing basketball in a predominantly black environment. On the surface, this effort was more squarely autobiographical—I play a lot of basketball on “black courts”—and so, I presumed, it would be less problematic. Not so. This time my accusers castigated me for trafficking in negative stereotypes and exoticizing black culture.
I was stunned. I had expected my classmates to be sympathetic toward the issues I was trying to raise, perhaps even reflective about their own experiences navigating a multiracial society. Instead, they were by turns non-participatory and hostile. It was as if I had set something foul down in the center of the room.
Admittedly, I was trying to execute a delicate maneuver in both stories. In the first, I tread the line between empathic literary performance and cultural appropriation. In the second, I skirt the boundary between authentic social reality and troubling racial clichés. Even if I had managed to stay on the right side of those lines (which I believe I did), such stories were bound to make some people uncomfortable.
Discomfort, however, is not always a bad thing. Race is an incontrovertible aspect of the American reality; it needs to be talked about, argued over, debated, and discussed—especially within the literary community. If we as writers want the general public to take our work seriously, we need to be prepared to engage with any number of live wires—social, political, historical, and psychological among them. By choosing to avoid race—by unconsciously rendering the subject off-limits because of the discomfort it may provoke—the literary community runs the risk of isolating itself. More critically, though, it threatens to exclude those for whom the discussion is vital and integral, not just optional or academic.
So I don’t regret writing those stories. I plan to write more. As a straight, white, educated male, I feel an imperative to imagine the experiences of people who inhabit different bodies than I do. As a fiction writer, I feel compelled to write about them. Imagining other people’s lives. Isn’t that what literature is supposed to be all about?
“Let’s face it: literary fiction is fucking boring,” J. Robert Lennon wrote recently in an editorial for Salon. I don’t agree with that sentiment—there is much being published now that excites me, and the bulk of contemporary fiction I have not read at all. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling a twinge of recognition. Most of what I read in contemporary literary magazines, especially those produced on college campuses, does feel curiously insular and esoteric, removed from the lives of people without MFAs. (I’m reminded of the African-American clothing brand FUBU—For Us, By Us.) It also feels hyper-educated, suburban or rural in origin, and culturally very white.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the contemporary zeitgeist, but I do know that the country is getting more urban and racially mixed. If literary culture wants to connect with a broader audience, I suspect it would do well to encourage stories from, about, and for not just educated white people who live outside of city centers (or, conversely, inside the five boroughs of New York). Rather than resist diversification, we should embrace it wholeheartedly. And those of us who come from racial privilege should be challenged to think and imagine and investigate—and eventually, should the spirit move us, write—across borders that may often feel impermeable.
Image credit: Kara Walker, “The Rich Soil Down There,” (2002).