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.