I’m not talking about confessional writing. I love the “confessional” poets. I’m thinking of the way writers all know one another now, not just through MFA programs, AWP, etc., though I am thinking of AWP and the dozens of similar conferences, and about MFA programs and the thousands of similar writing programs and workshops. I don’t have anything against MFAs, AWP, APR, NPR or Fresh Air. I enjoy AWP more than I should, and I loved my MFA program. I’ve also been in a workshop that’s met for over 25 years.
And yet, and yet … It can’t be good for literature when writers are judged more on who they are than on what they write. I’ve been in the audience at panel discussions at AWP—for that matter I’ve been on the panel myself—and of course we all pass judgment on the writers. How could you not pass judgment? The problem isn’t the judgments. I enjoy judging other people as much as anyone does, whether in gossip at a bar with friends or in my own mind. But it’s surely a mistake to pass judgment on writers as writers based on what they say in a classroom or a ballroom.
After half an hour of a panel discussion or a lecture, an audience has formed an opinion, one that will be very hard to dislodge, on who’s brilliant, who’s boring, who’s charismatic, who’s an egotistical jerk, who’s an empathetic saint, who’s entertaining but shallow, who’s entertaining but profound, who’s compassionate and insightful, and who’s narcissistic and arrogant. The point is: we form these opinions of writers without ever having read a word of their writing.
I know this isn’t just a recent phenomenon. Hemingway was a celebrity and had a celebrated public persona. One can almost imagine him making an impressive appearance on Oprah, but it’s hard to imagine him teaching a workshop, either in a university or a Paris brasserie. It’s even harder to imagine Edith Wharton, which is probably why Hemingway’s image in a photo is recognizable to a thousand times as many people as Wharton’s, even though The Age of Innocence is one of the greatest novels ever written.
I can’t help wondering if The Waste Land would even have been published, let alone acclaimed as one of the great works of its era, if Eliot had had to sparkle with charisma on reading tours and to be a congenial companion at writers’ residencies. What would have happened to the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin? I’m all in favor of writers being delightful human beings, funny, generous, and kind (I’d even like to think I fit that description myself), but we would be missing out on an awful lot of great art if artists had to pass the test of being inspiring teachers or even amusing conversationalists before their art were taken seriously. What counts is the words they put on paper when they sat at their desks.