Ruth Fowler: The Orange Prize Has Let Us Down
June 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
The Creative Writing MFA is the singularly most devastating occurrence to hit literature in the 20th century, churning out writers of utterly indistinguishable competence.
I’m referring, of course, to the news that the Orange Prize has been won by Tea Obreht, the “youngest ever recipient” at aged 25 — her age mentioned in every press-release, as if it might endear or excuse their decision. A plump, blonde, smiling MFA-product, Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, has resulted in some astonishingly pretentious bullshit from the critics, to rival the content of her own book. Despite “the occasional whiff of adjectival overexuberance” The Guardian sniffs, in a contemptible piece of writing which makes me want to headbutt the author, The Tiger’s Wife is “vivid and limber; a picaresque romp through the fragments of former Yugoslavia.” Britain’s Evening Standard tells us, without a hint of irony, that “The Tiger’s Wife is more than fiction. It is about burying the dead” referring frequently to the book’s ability to “heal the international image of her birth country.”
I could go on, but I’d rather pluck my own pubic hairs than read this fawning idiocy written by fools who have only read the press release of a novel they probably couldn’t get through either.
The problem with The Tiger’s Wife is it’s unreadable: turgid, overwritten, self-indulgent and in need of a heavy editorial hand, not to mention about 10 years more life experience to give the two-dimensional characters, including an irritatingly earnest narrator, a bit of zap up their winsome asses. It’s polished. Obreht can churn out a (very long, overwritten) sentence. It’s competent. It’s a book.
But my god is it boring.
Worthy, insufferably dull, and an ordeal, it’s the kind of book that one reads only because a sibling or loved one wrote it — that, or you were foolhardy enough to digest the bullshit storm that the literary establishment is currently whipping up in its attempts to make people buy this crap instead of Us Weekly. It’s like gagging down spinach when you hate it — there’s plenty of ways to get your intellectual nutrition, other than the bland offerings of the MFA Creative Writing course. It’s not as if the consumption of this dreary rubbish will make us into better, more intelligent people: people worthy to sit next to Zadie Smith at dinner, politely and knowledgeably conversing about modern fiction.
And don’t get me started on Zadie — another writer who proved to be a great literary bore. Her essays “On Beauty” were like being forcibly strapped into a Cambridge lecture theater and waterboarded by some bratty, egotistical over-read teen’s pompous thesis on art. Shut up Zadie. You’re about as entertaining as an enema. The only redeeming feature about Zadie is her great first book, and the fact we can now blame her subsequent foray into mediocrity upon media over-hype and a spell at Harvard.
But back to Tea (who should be friends with Zadie). I’m going to admit now that I haven’t read all of The Tiger’s Wife. A degree in English Literature has taught me many useful and discerning skills, amongst which is this little gem: if you can’t get past page 50, give up. Only in very rare cases has persistence in reading boring literature paid off. I suspect this is not one of them. Why? Because I have read Tea’s competent, assured, boring-as-fuck prose before: in a million other aspiring writers churned out by the MFA system, who then go on to take up professions as teachers in the MFA system, passing on their identical mediocrity to a new generation of award-winning identical mediocre visionaries.
Yes, I know that the arguments against MFA’s are the old hat now: they promote elitism, no one can ‘teach’ writing, writers would be better off traveling the world, imbibing a few drugs, having a shag and running out of money than sitting in some stale, forty-thousand dollar a year classroom being taught how to produce such startling unoriginal over-crafted lines as: “These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life.” Yada yada yada. But when a literary prize that was once brave enough to award Lionel Shriver’s controversial novel We Need To Talk About Kevin — a book that no publisher, like Lolita, was willing to touch — has reverted to affirming the essential inanity of the 21st century MFA course, we need to start talking again, a little louder, a little more vociferous.
Far from enticing the general public away from devouring reality TV, telling them that they should regard books like The Tiger’s Wife as great works of literature only reconfirms what the suspicious, unread masses have long since suspected: ‘literature’ is boring, now fuck off and let me watch TOWIE.
Although I earn my living as a screenwriter, books are my first love. It pains me to see that even after centuries confirming that ‘the establishment’ rarely has its finger on the pulse concerning what will last and endure as great literature, it still insists on pretending otherwise. I personally think we should double the prices of MFA Creative Writing courses, and use the profit to promote literacy and language skills in deprived youth. And then we should make 10 years in the real world compulsory for all writers who have graduated from an MFA course before the age of 25. That’s 10 years without access to a trust-fund or Ivy League university or The Guardian (I say The Guardian merely because it annoys me, not for any scientific purpose).
At the end of 10 years, they can submit their work in the proper channels — i.e. cold calling publishers and agents, not through their academic Pulitzer-prize winning supervisor who knows this dude at The New Yorker. If it’s not derivative of Anna Karenina, nor does it feature more than three bad metaphors or similes in the first 50 pages, and upon publication, the media doesn’t mention your age nor the three letters M.F.A. — then you’re allowed to exist with the rest of the writing world, submitting your work like anyone else.
Imagine — Junot Diaz e.t. al might actually be starting to write something decent by now.
Oh how I long for the days of writers like Nabokov: those who hadn’t spent five years learning how to put a fucking sentence together, but instead wrote with their guts.
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