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The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect

This past spring I took a position as a visiting writer at a well-respected MFA program. My students were by and large intelligent and serious, but there were a few moments when I found them—what’s the word I’m looking for here—exasperating.

One day before the fiction workshop, for instance, we got into a discussion about the Best American Short Stories series, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To my astonishment, a number of students made comments indicating their disdain for the annual anthology.

“Wait a second,” I said. “The stories in those collections are always great.”

There was an awkward pause. Then one of them said, “You’re being ironic, right?”

At this point, I sort of lost it. I told my students that they had every right to dislike particular stories, but that dismissing them entirely was foolish. Then I added something along the lines of, “Why don’t you guys publish a story in Best American and then you can sit in judgment of them.”

It was not my finest moment as a teacher. (And, for the record, I later apologized to the entire class.) It was an impulsive reaction to what I’ve come to think of over the years as the Problem of Entitlement.

I mean by this that a significant number of the students I’ve encountered in creative writing programs display a curious arrogance toward published authors, as well as an inflated sense of their own talents and importance. The same attitudes often prevail in those online precincts where new and emerging writers congregate.

In my own experience, the Problem of Entitlement has gotten worse over the past decade and a half, and for three distinct reasons: first, the growing competitive pressures on aspiring writers; second, the pace and ease of judgment fostered by digital technology; and finally, the insidious cultural tendency of students to think of themselves as customers.

Here’s what I suspect was going on in that fiction workshop: My students were actually in a kind of quiet panic. Most of them had made significant sacrifices to attend graduate school. They were taking a big risk, both financially and psychologically. And they were smart enough to recognize, on some level, that the odds against their ever placing a story in the Best American anthology were pretty steep.

Rather than face the reality of their challenge—that they were going to have to spend thousands of doubt-choked hours working to improve and absorb tons of rejection and live in a state of economic and creative insecurity—they defaulted to a more convenient reality: that such anthologies are full of hacks whose success (as one student was later kind enough to explain to me) boils down to nepotism.

In other words, because they felt overmatched, they assumed a posture of superiority.

This defense mechanism is hardly unique to writers. Every graduate program in this country is, to some extent, a fishbowl filled with ambitious students who have no clue how big and cold the ocean really is.

But the harsh truth looming over students of writing, as compared with those studying law or medicine or engineering, is that only a fraction will find success in their chosen field—that is, will go on to publish books—and most of these will have to discover other means of supporting themselves and their families. Just graduating from a writing program doesn’t make you an author, let alone a celebrated one. It’s only the beginning of the process.

I myself was a schmuck in grad school: insecure, needy, and provocative in ways that only years of therapy would reveal. I did not like myself very much, and you wouldn’t have either.

But one thing I didn’t do in grad school was take the experience for granted. I was nearly thirty when I arrived, having worked as a newspaper reporter for seven years. I knew the world wasn’t clamoring to read my drab little short stories, and that it was going to be a long time before I got good enough to have a book of them published. (In fact, it would take eight years.)

Toward the end of my first year, our professor asked us to read a long piece in Harper’s magazine called “Perchance to Dream.” It was a fifteen-thousand-word lament by an obscure novelist named Jonathan Franzen about the peril of writing novels in an age dominated by visual media. As a literary tadpole, I found the message terrifying. But Franzen clearly had a point to make, and while he seemed somewhat irritable as a person, his prose was lucid and thoughtful.

It was shocking to me, therefore, that our professor—himself a young novelist—spent a good portion of class tearing into the rhetorical excesses of the piece, with the enthusiastic help of other students.

At a certain point I said, rather foolishly, “I don’t get the point of this discussion. It sounds like we’re just tearing down the writer.”

My point wasn’t to defend Franzen, who certainly didn’t need my help. I was troubled by the antagonism that our professor was not only permitting but instigating. Wasn’t the goal of grad school to pick apart your own writing, rather than that of published writers?

The Franzen piece is particularly haunting to revisit today because Franzen was writing in 1996, an era when Google was still just a big number and the radical new technology was e-mail, which we checked at the library.

The world of grad students two decades later is a lot different. Nearly all the students have smartphones, which they bring to class. Nearly all of them spend more time staring at screens than at books.

And the students I encounter seem to value reading less and less. I remember one especially galling workshop that I taught a few years ago, in which I asked the participants to read a single story, “Guests of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor. Hardly any of them bothered. They didn’t seem to understand—they were too entitled to understand—that the production of great literature requires a deep engagement with great literature. In fact, they were more likely to talk about a movie or TV show, or what they just posted on Facebook, than the last great book they read.

Reader Comments

  • stephie.spicer says...

    I think it's a common misconception to believe that students are the way they are today because of the Internet, but the reality is that students have always had a reputation for being irreverent, and if you look at the reasons people found for it at Harvard 200 years ago, the culprit was plum pudding (not even kidding). The professors and elders have always wrung their hands and wailed that the world was going to rack and ruin because of kids these days. Is this the first time in human history that students haven't done their assigned reading? 

    Moreover, discussion and opinion is a symptom of a healthy student body. Young people who are getting loads of new information, from teachers, from peers, from the academic and popular and professional community around them, are constantly sifting and measuring ideas and deciding what to believe. This is a healthy and normal part of growing up and learning who you are. I think it's a bit of a cheap shot to suggest they do it because they are insecure. It's also unfair to suggest that they should just accept a work as being great simply because it got published or won a prize. Most of the great writers in history were rejected, not lauded, in their day. 

    And there is another reason that may spark this derision: discouragement. All of us know the feeling of walking into a bookstore and dying inwardly when we see the kind of junk that is getting published and getting on the NYT bestseller list. Just because an author put work in and found an audience doesn't make them a great writer. I feel crippling discouragement when I strive to write with excellence and my teachers tell me I am giving my audience too much credit, that I am overestimating them, that I should basically dumb it down. That's not the kind of stuff I want to write, or read, but they tell me it's what sells, and I don't want to be a starving artist either. 

    You may find that these youth are cynical because they still hold on to a scrap of hope for something better in the world of literature, that they are obstinately clinging to the belief that they can be an artist and still make a living in the cutthroat publishing world. Don't snuff out that hope. Don't demand conformation. Don't demand blind acceptance of the pundits who decide what's good and what isn't, based on current popularity that changes so quickly. It is the duty of the teacher to aid the student in finding and nurturing their voice, even if it is a different voice to his own, or to what is trending. It is not the teacher's job to defend published writers unequivocally. Writers of all ages have criticized each other and that is not a bad thing; sometimes we need that chip knocked off our shoulder. But in knocking off chips, make sure you don't crush the wings of a fledgling because they are flying in crazy lines--you never know if they could be the next Nobel laureate. 

  • DMutchler says...

    I have to wonder if there are not many wanna-be writers who believe that writing is merely a matter of getting published. Scientific and pseudo-scientific areas, for example, are effectively forced to "get published" as a matter of gaining tenure. Consequently, there is much Bad Research out there that does get published (an issue in and of itself). In the creative world, you have those such as Grisham and whatshername who wrote the Harry Potter novels, both of who rose to great heights in very short time, basically the published version of "found talent" (my ignorance of their prior writing life notwithstanding, and rather inexcuseable, but how many poets and writers are today known and tomorrow unknown? that is my point). There are myriad writing/poetry "journals," electronic and otherwise, that publish Lots of Stuff.  Quality is in the eye of the reader (I do take a bit of issue with the idea that one apparently cannot judge other writers; that certainly makes for a boring, if not unhelpful, writing workshop, class, eye.) Ergo, how many writers-in-making simply believe that getting published is all that is necessary?

     

    And in fact, that may be it. Sorta. It depends on whether one wishes to be "famous" in his or her lifetime or be more of like Shakespeare, Voltaire, Thoreau, etc. Sorry to say, but in 50 years, few will be reading some of those names on the top of the NYT Book Review, and fewer yet will be used in teaching classrooms. They will, though, be reading and teaching Shakespeare, Thoreau, Asimov, and others, even Bukowski. 

      

    Think Kardashian "fame" versus Joan Crawford fame. The latter is based upon many things, one important one being talent.  The former is based upon luck, money, and a bit of fetishism (I'll leave it at that).  But, there is no comparison.  None.

     

    So while one needs to be well read and effectively educated in order to critique, there is need for good criticism.  And while being or becoming a writer may be a grand design, we're not all cut out for it.  We're not all writers, published or unpublished, good, great, or eternal.  To think otherwise, that a bit of writing and getting published is Fame is perhaps entitlement too.  But there is always need for knowledgeable and educated criticism, for there is a lot of crap out there.

  • Janelle Fila says...

    Thank you so much for this open and honest piece.  I start grad school next month and I assumed that the other students would be like me: 30+ with a deep love and respect for all forms of the written word.  I hope my experience is a positive one with less snark and so much more optimism.  Thank you for sharing!  Janelle  www.janellefila.com

  • bluerabbit says...

    I agree with you, to a point, about gratitude, appreciation, and humility. I also agree about the writer's journey (which, for me, starts to feel more like the task of Sisyphus each year.) However, you passingly acknowledge a vital point which, I think, deserves more careful attention. We, as literary artists, need to consider the possibility that we have become too involved in supporting our own egos (and those of our contemporaries) and not enough involved in creating art that will answer deep needs of human beings in our culture in the 21st century. Where is our Shakepeare? Our Dante? Our Cervantes? They made stories for their times. Who is making stories for ours? We have novels that preach and cry and whine. We have poems that confess and expose and in stand in proud self-righteous victimhood. We weep and applaud in seminars and classrooms, yet people outside of our cohorts watch football and take drugs. Needs we should be answering are going unanswered, or being answered in a very narrow, easy, shallow way (Eat, Pray, Love--sorry). For a while, films tried to perform this function, and some came close, but now even they are starting to fail. I am not talking about delivering sermons. That's a sure way to be ignored. I'm talking about respecting and loving human beings. There are no masses. There are no little people. Perhaps we fail to have audiences because we do not deserve them. Our internally celebrated works are not fulfilling their needed place in the larger culture.

  • jasoneskew says...

    Well, I must appreciate your words. You have written so well. grotime

  • clprater says...

    The author's gentle slap on the wrist was what I needed. I am the jealous old cynic with a day job mentally judging the successes of those who are young and fresh out of grad school...assuming that writing IS their day job, but not taking any extra effort to find out more about them. Thank you!

  • EmmyGolightly says...

    I appreciated and agreed with many of the points Almond establishes in "The Problem of Entitlement." As a current MFA candidate, I could easily identify with his observations in terms of my peers' actions and even my own inside a classroom. As a marginalized student, however, it did disappoint me that Almond spent so little time exploring how a discussion of an author's identity politics can actually be liberating as opposed to an unwillingness to engage with a piece of writing. He briefly mentions how students can label an author as sexist or privileged and then disengage with their work. While I don't necessarily think completely disengaging with a text benefits any reader, I can appreciate how marginalized students don't want to continually expose themselves to texts that are potentially racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, or classist. At the very least, they should be allowed to express this and have their concerns and critiques validated. Almond does address this, but only briefly and without acknowledging how furthering the conversation of the literary canon (which is predominantly full of white, straight, cis-gendered, well-educated men) through identity politics is a relatively new and quite revolutionary freedom for many students. We haven't always had the space or power in the classroom to critique the canon, and this critical thinking should be encouraged and applauded. While I don't think Almond is entirely dismissing identity politics inside the sphere of creative writing, I do wish he would have given more space to assessing how, for many unentitled and disadvantaged students, this is a form of empowerment, not entitlement. 

  • FLFunshine says...

    I agree with the position you've taken in your article, and I also agree with "Heart v. Brain"'s comment too.
    I've read a few too many books where I kept telling myself "it's going to get better", only to finish the book
    thinking why did I read that whole thing?
    Then I consider all of the books that I have had published (zero), thinking well at least they have gotten
    farther than I have. Good for them.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Isn't the basic point of writing a story, to convey something that could be, or might be; in a way that could be
    or might be of interest to someone?
    It's not about the publisher, or even the writer, it's basically about the story and the reader.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    It is a terrible shame we behave as though we have the "right" and a mission to ridicule and rip each other to shreds. 
    It doesn't make for a very nice world to live in. A little love, tact and diplomacy goes a long way. "Constructive Criticism."
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    So, we all need to take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the story in hopes that it is a journey that will transport us away
    from all of the hustle and bustle of tactless, complaining people that you can find anywhere and everywhere these days,
    and unfortunately they all seem to believe they are entitled.
    ps. enjoyed your webpage :)

  • Tbaer says...

    Writing has always been a huge part of my life, and what I include in that, is the ability to expand what/who I read. Yes, there are authors I do not care for, as a personal preference - but - I never discredit them. Just because I didn't personally like something doesn't mean it didn't work, doesn't mean it wasn't good writing.

    When I was in my senior year of high school, I took a workshop (of sorts) on playwriting. The greatest piece of advice I walked away from that was, "Pieces of work are never good or bad, they either work or they do not." I feel spoiled having received this calibration about authors and the way I approach them from a young age.

    In college, I do see that intense need to critique beautiful stories to death from my classmates. I don't mind discussing points (if you get it or not), beautiful sentence structure, or what you as a reader AND writer take away from the piece that you might let into your own writing.

    I also never understood this sort of need to affiliate a person's writing with their own personality, either. I remember a classmate of mine saying, "I absolutely hate So-and-So for this story. They're a horrible person for it." My reaction was incredibly similar to yours, Steven. Not so much about defending the writer, but, if we're all here to do literally the same thing, just in different ways, why is there such disdain for your colleague? Just because they wrote something you didn't care for, it also doesn't make them a terrible person - you don't even know them. I have titled it a jealousy complex, but I like Problem of Entitlement better.

    Thank you for the article, maybe it will help to humble some people out there and bring back a little more well-deserved respect for published authors.

  • antoniamurphynz says...

    "He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.”

    I find usually when I'm feeling bitter and jealous, it's just a curdled version of admiration. I try to lean that way.

    And I remember in 7th grade, after my English teacher forbade us from using the passive voice in our writing, I (arrogant English class star) came in with a copy of "Oliver Twist," wherein I'd highlighted every instance of the passive voice. There were many.

    Teacher's comment? "Yeah. But you're not Charles Dickens."

    Slapped me back to reality, and THANK YOU for it.

    Thanks for a beautiful article.

  • antoniamurphynz says...

    "He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.”

    I find usually when I'm feeling bitter and jealous, it's just a curdled version of admiration. I try to lean that way.

    And I remember in 7th grade, after my English teacher forbade us from using the passive voice in our writing, I (arrogant English class star) came in with a copy of "Oliver Twist," wherein I'd highlighted every instance of the passive voice. There were many.

    Teacher's comment? "Yeah. But you're not Charles Dickens."

    Slapped me back to reality, and THANK YOU for it.

    Thanks for a beautiful article.

  • DorothyJ says...

    Congratulations on a terrific article.

    I'm not a teacher, and I'm Australian, not American, but I found much here to think about. It can be very depressing reading disparaging, arrogant comments on one indie author or rview site after another, and it was your points about the internet that I found particularly frelevant to my situation.  I'm struggling to clarify my ideas about the digital revolution - greater opportunities - democracy versus elitism and the maintenance of privilege - so much to get one's head around!  

  • SavvyBlue says...

    I cannot believe you APOLOGIZED to that class! You were so clearly right. How many of them have been anthologized? You can't critique the writer until you understand how hard the journey is. But I also think you're right--they feel overwhelmed, and lash out.

  • GreyMusic says...

    I think this article is really talking about two different things, and I find myself agreeing with one and quibbling with the other.


    The notion that anyone is required to 'earn' the right to criticize or be cynical about something is absolute nonsense. This breeds a higher form of entitlement and elitism, which, in a world of immediately accessible media, we can't be tolerant of any longer. If someone reads your book and doesn't like it, you shouldn't have the ability to invalidate their criticism because they haven't 'earned' the right to critique it, or that they simply just 'didn't get it'. This is one of the most important takeaways for me in a workshop environment--that if a reader doesn't like or 'get' your work, they're not at fault--the onus is on you, the writer, to make your work accessible and enjoyable by the most amount of people--or, at least, the people you want to enjoy it. If you write a piece that's loaded with allusions and structural experimentation, it's fine to say someone into pulp or pop-fiction might not like it--but not that their opinion is 'wrong'. Not that, because they haven't read Ulysses or done their own grinding through forms of avant-garde literature, that they aren't 'entitled' to dismiss your piece as 'not for them', 'too wordy', or just 'bleh'.


    The second part of this argument, however, is that the evolving culture of humans absorbing literature, or indeed, any medium of entertainment, is to be immediately cynical, dismissive, and irreverent of the work and craft that go into creating something to be shared with the world. I'm not sure I'd agree entirely with the premise, but I do think it crops up more in academia than not. One only has to take a trip to reviews of great classics on Goodreads and see 'one stars' for all of Joyce's catalog--"Too smart for his own good, utter bullshit," etc.


    I think that it certainly doesn't hurt anything to encourage students, readers, critics, or anyone, really, to consider the context and effort of a piece of work--why it might have worth to the author, why they chose to do what they did, why certain people consider their work worthwhile. It pains me every time I see a review, either amateur or professional, that completely dismisses a work--as tho the writer sat down in an attempt to create something utterly worthless--as tho the writer didn't agonize over every word and sentence, trying their hardest to create something of value. Hard work doesn't excuse the shortcomings of a resultant effort, but it should certainly be taken into consideration. Only in the most obvious of cases should we be willing to say 'this author didn't try at all', because it's a judgement that assumes a lot about the writer and the world as a whole. I agree that most people shouldn't make judgments like that, and should be more willing to give the benefit of the doubt when considering the value or workings of a piece in question.

  • BettyEverdene says...

    I graduated college in 1973. One day I saw one of my English lit professors in Boston, and as we talked, he told me, "Your class was the last fun class, the last class to be truly interested in literature. This year, the group only wants to know how to write an effective query letter." We studied Henry James with him. He challenged us and brought us to such heights of understanding. He taught us how to read Chaucer aloud in another course I took with him. I also took Dickens and Dostoevsky as an elective. I drove up to school during my student teaching for a 4:00 PM class. I sat in on a class about Virgina Woolf because I hadn't been offered one. I took an adult course in Virginia Woolf in Cambridge post grad. I never questioned it as any kind of extra dedication. I'm an Indie writer now (http://www.patriciagoodwin.com), and I get treated the same way you described. Not given the time of day. Usually by academics who worship writers that were Indie, unpublished, and uncelebrated in their lifetime. Perception of the work is vital to reading. If your students approach the works without respect, they will never learn how to read. That's pretty sad because understanding literature is invaluable to understanding life.

  • Meg Sterner says...

    Great reminder.  Something many teachers have said to me in the past, but for reasons that can only relate to the development of my own brain, and the timing, Steve Almond's article resonated with me on a deeper level.  I know, for my own self, part of what keeps me from even trying to get published is the judgment that hangs like a dark cloud over all of humanity.  I fear the barage, the barage that at times I contribute to.  I recently let my sister read one of my stories, and her response to it was negative due to the length of some of my sentences.  A preference, that should have little impact on quality (in my humble opinion).  Sentences can be good long or short.  This led to a discussion of what makes good literature.  What makes good literature?  The question of a lifetime, something to keep us reading.  

  • rarouff says...

    So Taramokhtari thinks that students should be encouraged to become more confident. Doesn't confidence have to do with actually accomplishing something? If the students are too lazy to even read the assigned texts, I think trying to build their self-esteem is foolish. Perhaps these students are the result of helicopter parenting.  

  • Sailor661 says...

    I teach undergraduate accounting. I can assure you that entitlement is not limited to grad school. Most of my students are veterans or active duty military. They firmly believe they are entitled to an A or a B for showing up in class, sometimes.

  • helenhaynes says...

    Interesting to read this article the day after having had a conversation about this exact subject with a friend. We both teach in well ranked CW programs and came of age in the writing world around the same time as Steve Almond.

    This friend and I were extremely self conscious about indulging in a cranky "You kids get off my lawn!" mentality, but we, too, were shaking our heads in puzzlement over what seem toxically-high levels of dismissiveness and snark demonstrated by our students and the other emerging writers we've encountered at conferences in recent years. It does feel somehow different than when we were youngsters.

    Having thought about it, my own take is perhaps a bit more sympathetic than Steve's: the emerging writers I teach are people who've typically come of age in a time where cynicism and reflexive irony feel like necessary psychic survival tools in a way that wasn't quite as true for previous generations. Every decade, the knives get a little sharper.

    Unfortunately, cynicism (no matter how provoked and understandable), defensiveness, and the urge to criticize first aren't actually conducive to the openness (also known as humility) that making art requires. In fact, no matter how satirical a voice, these are antithetical to the process. Which is not to say our emerging writers are inherently less artful than in previous generations, but they may carry a heavier generational burden to their pursuit than we did 20 or 30 years ago when there were generally fewer of us (the money-making sausage factory that MFAs can be hadn't perfected itself yet), and when there were things like jobs, publication advances, and much greater funding for artists in America. The capitalist machine is grinding everyone down. Don't think many here will argue that. So why wouldn't our young artists be stuck in a defensive, anxious posture? And yet the posture makes it so much harder for them to get where they want to go with their writing.

    So as a teacher, I do everything I can to help them understand that the only thing that's going to get them where they want to go is the work. And that the work requires setting aside that defensive, sneering posture. Some are capable of doing this. Others are not. In any case, emerging writers actually deserve a lot of sympathy. I'm willing to admit it's a much tougher world for them than it was for me when I was starting out.

  • Heart vs Brain says...

    As an uneducated and unpublished writer I don't know how much weight my opinion might carry but I'll share it anyway.

    I've known plenty of self centered and patronizing grad students who exemplify just what the author has described here. But looking back on them, they now seem like folks who honestly just hadn't matured quite yet. I don't think the fact they were in writing programs meant much of anything and the fact that none had really yet had to be an adult was actually much more to the point - a theory perhaps proven by the authors description of being an older student in grad school and having a different outlook on things.

    We can debate whether this is a generational issue, an issue caused by the advent of the internet or other, but at the end of the day, people who are judgemental are usually just hiding weak egos. In essence I think that's what Mr. Almond ultimately concludes in his piece and I think its useful knowledge to take with oneself out into the world. Those who choose to look down upon others, those who choose pretension or judgmentalness (as we ALL do on occasion, as humans) are showing their weakness. While I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Almond's lament that those who are judgemental should face critiquing other writers with some empathy, I'd suggest that same empathy would be pretty useful regarding those who choose to be judgemental.

  • karenkellywriter says...

    "Wasn’t the goal of grad school to pick apart your own writing, rather than that of published writers?" No. The goal of grad school and ALL education is to learn to read and think critically and tear apart or defend anything you see fit, intelligently and independently. Perhaps published writers should be held to a higher standard than non published authors, as they have been anointed with what might be false superiority via the publishing contract. Published writing should be carefully examined and judged by all intelligent readers and thinkers.

  • marinade says...

    After going to graduate school in my early twenties, returning in my mid thirties, and then teaching grad schook into my forties, I've decided that this stage of being hypercritical must be a necessary one in the life of an artist. It still takes me aback -- and frustrates me -- with its fervor. But maybe it's a way of establishing confidence, or honing the skills to be discerning about their own work,  There's nothing quite like watching a roomful of grad students launch into the business of workshopping Alice Munro. But I've seen it happen so many times, with seriously talented students, I really have come to believe it's a developmental phase.

    Thanks for writing about something I notice, and take a deep breath over, every year.

  • KungFuLambChops says...

    "Kids these days. One day one of the kids I was teaching -- they're mostly in their early twenties -- said something stupid. Can you believe it? Someone that old saying something arrogant and defensive? Well, I got a bit defensive myself and overreacted. Later, I apologized. But, after some introspection, I still have a point, and it's this: KIDS THESE DAYS. It's worse than it used to be, and in a different way. These damned kids. What they need -- more than ever before, really -- is to learn some respect.

    I know something about these kids, because I used to be one of them. A real schmuck. Except I'd learned a thing or two, to boot. I knew I was going to have to saw some wood across the grain before I got anywhere. Yes sir. One day, my professor was tearing apart an author along with the rest of the workshop. Well, I said something about it. It just seemed wrong.

    You know something else about these kids? They don't read. One day I assigned a reading assignment and no one read it. It's like they don't understand that in order to write great literature, they need to read great literature. They just want to get to their damned TV shows and their Facebook. This is a dark development.

    I call this development "entitlement." It's a good word, one that's been making the rounds, and it really fits here. These damned kids carp on about books -- sometimes they do make excellent points -- but, again, some of these books they haven't even read! Entitled, that's what I say. These kids in their shirts with their video games, having sex and tweeting about their shows. They need to learn a thing or two.

    These kids have no idea what they're up against. The weeks, months, years of self-doubt, toil, failure, trial and error. You want to know the best way for them to get through all this? HUMILITY! Once they learn their place, maybe they'll start to pipe down and listen to their elders.

    This reminds me of a great line from a book I love: "He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect." These kids, with their perfect skin and their youth and energy, all their damned criticizing before knowing a damned thing. They don't understand the pleasure of RESPECT!

    That's entitlement. Which, by the way, isn't snark. That's something subtly but completely different. And all of this is why I don't criticize another writer's stories, even when I don't like them myself. Instead, I tediously point out where the story succeeds, because, the older I get, the more I feel for every damned writer out there struggling against it all wondering what their lives have amounted to and what it all means. Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it all to Hell.

    So that's my message here. Grow up or give up, you kids. One of these days they'll do one or the other, you sure can bet your bottom dollar on that. You kids with your smart mouths."

  • marlowr says...

    Dear Steve Almond,

    Thank you so much for this wise and inspiring piece about both writing and teaching.

  • ginabeab says...

    Clearly proven. The dismissal of any work fails every student to understand the craft of writing well and to value the intimacy (frankly) of story telling, the careful thread sewn across a journey of some kind, to lead a reader along. Apathy is winning?

    It's the parents fault. Or, political persuasion is the enemy of thought.

    I hope Almond failed the students who dismissed themselves from reading "Guests of a Nation." Must be careful of the grade inflation.

  • taramokhtari says...

    Dubbing students 'entitled' for having opinions on the editorial choices of one 'best of' publication seems a tad extreme.

    Sure, it they're their just waxing bombastic without having read the thing you can give them an exasperated talking to, but how about turning the discussion to the reasoning behind their opinions? What was it about 'Eat Pray Love' that they hated? Was it the weakness of the narrative voice? The ten syntactical inconsistencies in the first three pages alone which made it a tiresome read? The self-indulgent protagonist who remains devoid of any character development throughout?

    Asking about their views on a 'best of' anthology is even more important. What did they feel was the overarching subjective agenda of the editor? Which stories had they read that year that were clearly missing from the anthology and why? What does this anthology represent politically and socially that begs critique? Who would make a fitting 'best of' editor and why? What kind of manifesto should be attached to a 'best of' anthology?

    It's hard enough being an early career writer still in the throes of graduate study. Why not nurture instincts towards confidence rather than against it through rigorous scholarly interrogation? Isn't that what they paid all that money for?

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The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect (September/October 2014)
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