Saturday, July 25, 2009

Junot Diaz Urges MFA Programs for Readers

I just read an interview with Junot Diaz on Narrative. The Interviewer, Reese Kwon, said what surprised her about last year’s National Endowment for the Arts study was not that fewer people are reading, but that there has been a significant increase in the number of people who are writing—that people are reading less and writing more. She asked Diaz if he had come across this trend. Here is Diaz’s reply:

DÍAZ: “ I come across it every time I meet young writers who don’t give a shit about reading; all they give a shit about is their own work. I think that in the same way we’ve had a huge market crash, there’s a quiet market crash going on every year with writers, but we don’t get to see it as openly because there’s no way for it to be dramatized. But every year there is a huge body of young writers that there’s no room for, there’s no place for, there’s no readership for. If we were really smart, if we really cared about reading and writing, we wouldn’t be having MFA programs for writers, we would have MFA programs for readers.”

Although I am not sure there can be too many writers (After all, MFA students don’t really think they can make a living writing, do they?), I remind Diaz that we do have graduate programs to train readers; they are called MA and Ph.D. programs in literature. It is just that for various reasons many of these programs have shifted from focusing on reading to focusing on mining works for cultural and political content and contexts.

All during my forty-year teaching career, I told my students at the beginning of the semester--regardless of whether the class was a survey of American Literature, a seminar in Victorian Poetry, or an introduction to the short story—the class was primarily going to be a course in reading.

I told them that if they wanted biographical background, historical context, social ideas, cultural customs, or political debate, there were many places in the university, including the library, where they could find all that. They did not need a person at the front of the classroom to provide mere information that could be provided more efficiently and cheaply in other ways. I had no intention of being an animated footnote wandering back and forth in front of the chalkboard.

What they did need, I thought, was knowledge of and experience with the conventions of various kinds of writing and awareness of the careful way good writers manipulated language to increase awareness, make discoveries, and change them and the world. Based on my experience with these conventions and language use, I would try--by questioning, prompting, goading, aggravating, and infuriating--to get them to read carefully, closely, and sensitively. My goal was, as is the goal of all teachers, to make myself superfluous.

So, I agree with Junot Diaz. We should have MFA programs for readers. All literature and writing programs—both graduate and undergraduate—should be programs to teach reading. Reading, as all good writers know, is not a simple matter.


Ann Graham said...

Thanks for your essay. I'm always astounded when I hear fellow writers, unpublished, say that they do not subscribe to literary journals.

Lady Bojangles said...

Dr. May, your post addresses exactly what friends of mine and I talk about now that we are finished (for now) at college. In many of my classes I found that if I did not have a theorist or cultural movement to support what I saw happening in a work, it was difficult to communicate with my classmates and professors. I would have liked to do the kind of creative reading that requires a magnifying glass to parse language. The classes you taught challenged me to think about reading in a different way. I can remember one assignment—I was to read a group of contemporary short-short stories and connect them. Of course, the language of the stories was closer to poetry than to the language found in a novel or even a traditional short story, and I felt suspended in mid-air so to speak, anxious, unsure. Criticism for the stories did not exist since the stories were newly published and I was afraid to be “wrong.” I had to find a way to articulate the profoundness of the stories without relying on past ideas or regurgitating what I had learned in other classes. Whether I wrote a successful paper or not is not the point. Looking back I wish that I had been challenged as a reader, that my professors had pushed my classmates and I out to sea more often. I agree that MFA programs must teach in depth reading to writers in hopes of awing them to write rather than just teaching them how to “talk” about literature with the In-Crowd.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to Ann and Christa for their responses. Trends in teaching literature come and go, depending on how bored professors get with doing the same old thing year after year. I have confidence that the pendulum will swing away from opaque theoretical, and transparent cultural, approaches to a passionate personal engagement with the mysterious ways that language reveals the complexity of what it means to be human.

Lee said...

'I had no intention of being an animated footnote wandering back and forth in front of the chalkboard.'