# of literary mags submitted to: 3
# of agents queried: 0
A long time ago, when I told my grandfather I was getting an MFA in fiction writing, his reaction was, “why?”
It’s not an uncommon reaction. In many ways, an MFA is one of the most useless degrees around, right next to a bachelor’s in psychology. (Oh wait, I have one of those, too.) You graduate with honors from your MFA program and then you find yourself hosting bar trivia night for $15 an hour because the only thing you really know how to do is write lyrical short stories with subtle endings, and no one wants to pay you to do that.
“Fiction?” my grandfather said. “What’s the good of fiction?” (My grandfather was a journalist for many years.)
“Lots of people like to read fiction,” I told him.
“Why? What’s the good of it? Why not write about something that actually happened?”
That’s when I found out that my grandfather does not read fiction. Ever. He reads The New Yorker from cover to cover, but he skips the one short story in every issue. He likes to read, for example, long histories of Ireland. He recently read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. But he does not read fiction. He doesn’t see the point of it.
Yesterday I was called out on my shit. In my last blog post, I sort of made fun of academia — the English literature side of academia in particular. In fact, I may have even questioned the importance of their dissertations on things like Emotion, Gender, and Innovation in the Nineteenth Century British Novel and Primitivism in Modernist Literature. And look, I’m doing it again: I’m still being snobbish, although these are actual titles of dissertations I found on the Internet, and I do think they sound pompous.
Anyway, my dear friend Bernard emailed me and said that my blog had stuck a bad chord with him. Granted, he was an English major, and I did insinuate that English majors are bullshitters. But, still, what he said struck a chord with me:
Parts [of the blog] reminded me of your grandfather’s opinion of fiction, particularly your snarky jab…Bullshit is relative and everyone is someone else’s flat character.
He’s total right. A) I was being snarky. B) I was stereotyping English majors, which is ironic since I have a graduate degree in a literature-based discipline. C) I was doing exactly what my grandfather did to me by presuming that some types of writing are better than others.
In fact, I feel really bad. I insinuated that the writing done in academia is often pointless, and that was wrong of me.
When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong. That’s a quote from Dirty Dancing, and I think it’s appropriate here.
I’ve had several conversations with my grandfather over the years about the purpose of fiction writing. I told him that reading fiction can help us understand experiences and perspectives that are different from ours. It can spark our imagination and creativity. It can illuminate, in little ways, what it means to be human. And sometimes fiction is just plain entertaining. “Personally,” I told him, “I couldn’t sit down and read that long, boring book about the history of Ireland. But I could sit down and read a great historical fiction novel set in Ireland. And I’d be able to better connect to the material that way.”
My grandfather said that was fine for me, but he’d rather read non-fiction than a made-up story. We had to agree to disagree.
The point is, people like to read different things. And people like to write different things. And really, who am I to criticize the value of anyone’s writing, no matter what they’re writing about.
Last night I talked to Paul about it, and we decided that maybe the important thing isn’t what you’re writing, it’s why you’re writing it. If you’re churning out sub-par stuff just to get published, or just to stroke your own ego, that’s one thing. But if you really feel passionately about, say, narrative realism in British literature and you have things to say about it, well then, by all means write that fancy, high-brow paper.
Any time you write, whether it’s an email, or a dissertation, or a journal entry, or a young-adult fiction book, you are working through your own thoughts and ideas, and perhaps sharing them with other people who care. So none of it is pointless. Or maybe all of it is pointless. What’s the point of anything, really? It doesn’t really matter. Write whatever you want!
1. What do you think the purpose of fiction is?
2. If someone were going to analyze your life thus far and write a dissertation on it, what would the title be?