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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.

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