“Quaint they were, these records, strange and ancient, washed to shore when the Moderan seas finally unthawed.”
So begins David R. Bunch’s first book, Moderan, which appeared as a paperback original from Avon in 1971. It was to be his only book released by a large publisher during his lifetime, and it was never reprinted in the U.S. until now, when New York Review of Books Classics has brought out a new (and expanded) edition for the first time.
New-metal man! It does have a ring. MODERAN! It did seem pretty great in concept, I’m sure, and, who knows, perhaps it had a reasonable chance for success. But all societies, all civilizations, all aspirations it seems must fail the unremitting tugs of shroudy time, finally, leaving only little bones, fossils, a shoe turned to stone maybe, a bone button in the sea perhaps, a jeweled memento of an old old love.
Moderan collects dozens of brief stories set in a future world apparently destroyed by nuclear bombs, a world where the landscape has been entirely paved over with plastic and the surviving humans have transformed themselves into cyborgs, their bodies mostly replaced with metal, leaving only a few flesh-strips as evidence of their old form. The men with the most metal become warriors whose identity is merged with the Stronghold that houses them, and the pleasure and glory of Moderan is the warring of its Strongholds. (Most of the stories in Moderan focus on Stronghold 10, the best at warring.)
The new-metal men hunker down in their Strongholds and wage war against each other. War is the most exciting thing in everyone’s lives, the way to prove strength and superiority: a force that gives meaning. “Plotting for each the other’s total destruction and coming up with countermeasures to protect each his own new-metal hide at all costs are the kinds of human enterprises that put the human animal up close to godliness.” War lets the Strongholds forget everything but the war, because “amidst the stern havoc, the hard contest demands and all the real problems of carnage, there was not time for either doubt, ghosts, or fears.” War is action, and action allows something almost like joy. “I guess I’m happiest,” Stronghold 10 says, “when I’m in my War Room handing the big orange switch of war to ON and pressing the buttons of launchers. Or, to put it another way, I’m not unhappy or worried or asking questions then—and I’ll settle for that.”
Bunch’s language is unique, sometimes reminiscent of E.E. Cummings, sometimes of Kurt Vonnegut, sometimes of folktales and sacred texts, sometimes of advertising and propaganda. With a breathless tone and many words set in blustery ALL CAPS, the stories present a diction appropriate to the hyperbolic masculinity of Moderan, a world that values only macho strength and aggression. Before their body parts were replaced with metal, Stronghold 10 tells us, humans were weak and vulnerable, susceptible at any moment to injury or death. No more. “I am a Stronghold master, BIG, in the armor plate of total invulnerability. My ammo is stacked in heaps roundabout, and I can win ANY war. My blasters stand itchy on the GO pad, ready, at the speed of a metal thought, to launch for TOTAL SMACK.”
The tone throughout is almost always positive, happy, joyful. This is depressing dystopia presented as thrilling utopia. In substance, Moderan bears similarities to various novels of terrible futures (we might make much fruitful comparison between Bunch’s book and Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, for instance), but unlike most such stories, Moderan is not told from the point of view of an outsider or a heretic. Rather like Candide’s Dr. Pangloss, Stronghold 10 and the other narrators love Moderan and think it is the best of all possible worlds, indeed the absolute height of achievement, the end of all progress—nothing could possibly be better.
The book begins with a retrospective introduction that works in some ways like the notes and epilogues of such novels as Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale: it lets us know that however eternal and immutable the systems of the story’s world seemed, they were as mortal as Ozymandias. The march of time cannot be stopped with metal and strongholds. For all their declarations of immortality, the people of Moderan turn out to be as perishable as the rest of us.
In addition to providing an added level of irony, the frame story offered by the opening pages of Moderan allows some freedom in the book’s organization. The original edition organized the stories into three parts: “The Beginnings,” “Everyday Life in Moderan,” and “Intimations of the End”; the NYRB Classics edition adds a fourth section, “Apocrypha from After the End,” which contains Moderan stories (and one poem) Bunch published after 1971. Some of the stories, particularly the first few, lead logically into each other, but most do not. They are like collected folktales or chapters from a future age’s Bible, sometimes repetitive, sometimes contradictory. I expect the book is best appreciated in small doses, a few stories at a time, rather than chugged down all at once. The individual stories, after all, were first published separately over more than 10 years’ time, and there is a certain flatness to the Moderan setting that is both completely appropriate and narratively limiting. Many of the stories work like inverted picaresques, with, instead of a protagonist wandering off to learn about the world, someone coming to learn something about Moderan and the strongholds. Thematically, this works well, making the monotony of Moderan’s monoculture palpable, but it can be trying for a reader. (In many ways, the most compelling sections of the book are the second and fourth, which are the least uniform in their topics, settings, and narrators.)
Some readers have always found Bunch trying, even in small doses. In a letter published in the May 1961 issue of Fantastic Stories of Science Fiction, a Mrs. Alvin R. Stuart of San Saba, Texas, wrote: “It is downright disgusting to read the rest of the magazine and think, with pleasant anticipation, ‘Good! There’s one more story I haven’t read!’—and then, upon turning to the page, to find such utter rot as this author—and I use the term doubtfully—has been submitting. Some of it reads like something written by a mental patient or a moron.”
In the early 1960s, Bunch’s byline started appearing regularly in Fantastic and its companion, Amazing Stories of Science Fiction, both edited by Cele Goldsmith. Goldsmith remains one of the most extraordinary and undersung editors in science fiction’s history; her taste was broad and eclectic, and she welcomed work that other editors considered a bit too odd. Mike Ashley (perhaps the most knowledgeable historians of science fiction magazines) has written that
Of the authors who debuted in the middle period of Goldsmith’s editorship, four stand out: Roger Zelazny, Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Piers Anthony. There is little doubt that science fiction owes a debt to Cele Goldsmith for putting these writers on the road. All of them had already tried to sell professionally—Le Guin had submitted a story to Amazing as far back as 1939—but none of them had found an editor appreciative of their talents. Only Goldsmith saw through the fantastic trimmings to the creative core…
Though he had sold a few stories to other SF editors, he became a fixture at Amazing and Fantastic throughout Goldsmith’s tenure, allowing him to make a longterm transition from small (often regional) literary journals to the larger audience of science fiction readers. He soon found another champion: Judith Merril, who reprinted him in her annual Best SF of the Year collections, and who asked him for recommendations of literary magazines that she might find material in—advice that helped change Merril’s anthologies from good but genre-bound collections to books with a breadth that still, more than 50 years later, remains nearly unique.
I think it is no coincidence that some of Bunch’s earliest champions were women, and women readers continued to respond particularly well to his work through the years. In the desperate, patriarchal militarism of the 1960s, Bunch’s stories foresaw two tendencies that, many years later, scholar Susan Jeffords identified pervading contemporary American culture: the post-Vietnam “remasculinization” of the warrior image and the fetishization of “hard bodies” as a manly ideal.
Hypermasculinity in Moderan isn’t limited to individual bodies. Now, humans can give the entire planet a hard body:
As it whirls the world in space our planet stands out bold now and surely indestructible, coated as we have plasto-coated it, with nothing to grind it away at the big middle and nothing to wear it out at the far hubs. […] I am harder than the stones were and more mind-set than the animals. SCIENCE HAS MADE A MAN! NEW METAL MAN! Science has coated and made clean the dirty EARTH ball for him to stand on.
An obsession with masculine strength and dominance is vital for warring, but the ideology of the warmongers infects every other aspect of society, turning science into a weapon for the destruction of everything perceived to be weak. The Earth itself cannot survive a world of hypermasculine warriors.
This hypermasculine caricature additionally contains a caricature of the misogynistic trope of the shrewish wife. The New Metal Men haven’t simply hidden themselves in strongholds to protect against missiles and bombs—they have also fled marriage, domesticity, and femininity, like weaponized versions of Robert Bly’s Iron John. Stronghold 10’s wife survives the operation to replace most of her body with metal, and now her husband fears her more than he has feared any attacks from other strongholds. He and the other strongholds see nothing but nagging and emasculation:
All over Moderan that spring, when we were beginners-new and the plans not set-mold, they came walking in, struggling, falling down, getting up to come on, most of them with one aim to view — not to let that disappearing surviving rat husband get away with a thing. I’M YOUR WIFE, seemed, in their minds, to say it all and leave no questions of any kind. Doom was final; doom was sealed-down doom. That gray twilight terror-life of wife-husband husband-wife (WEEAAOOOHH YEEAAOOOHH OOHH OHH) must never be changed, not even by the ending of a world.
The men, having achieved the strength they so desired in their Strongholds, are now free to do with their wives what they always wanted: “We formed a Commission for the Relocation of old New-Metal shrews. We moved them to a place prepared for them, the walled province of White Witch Valley. The walls are high there; it is a prison, vast and maximum-security….”
Misogyny, militarism, and ecological apocalypse go together, with the strong men asserting their right to dominate a natural world viewed as feminine and weak, and therefore worthless. Women and landscapes that don’t bow to the men’s utter domination are deemed enemy combatants, obstacles to be destroyed or remade. Not only do the rulers of Moderan cover the world with plastic, but they also create plastic flowers that can be programmed to appear during certain seasons. The new-metal men seek to eradicate everything alive and replace a few items with artificial stand-ins, things easier to control than the unpredictable, other-than-human inhabitants of the wild. With narcissistic force, they blast and plasticize the world until it resembles their shallow ideal.
In a 1966 issue of the literary journal The Smith (which included the Moderan story “The Miracle of the Flowers”), a one-line biographical note declares that David R. Bunch “is a cartographer who maps madness.” This was not a metaphor only: Bunch worked for the U.S. military’s cartographic agency in the era of the Vietnam war. Mapping military madness was his day job.
In an August 1971 letter to Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) said, “David Bunch just sent me his new Moderan book, a mean treat. I’ve long felt he was one of the most undersung and ill-known landmarks in sf…not much beam-width compared say to Cordwainer Smith but oh what intensity at the focus, what idiosyncrasy, what a one roaring diamond glimpse…” Tiptree’s instincts seem accurate: both the comparison to one of science fiction’s other great oddballs, Cordwainer Smith (I would also add R.A. Lafferty), and the sense that with the Moderan stories, at least, there isn’t a lot of “beam-width” but lots of intensity and idiosyncrasy. Bunch’s non-Moderan stories do show more range of subject matter and style, and he published in a tremendous variety of venues—not only science fiction magazines but also literary journals, including Gordon Lish’s Genesis West, where his byline appeared alongside those of Ken Kesey, Donald Barthelme, Jack Gilbert, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka).
Yet Tiptree was right; there is a narrowness to Bunch’s beam regardless of topic or venue. I’m not sure it could be otherwise. He was as interested in poetry as in fiction, and he seems to have approached fiction like poetry, seeking a kind of poetic compression within and between his sentences. The intensity and idiosyncracy are always there, and the poetic compression adds a feeling of density, too. The Moderan stories tell of a world that is trying with all its might to narrow itself into one way of being, a world where ways of living are no more diverse than the plastic that covers the landscape. At times, the stories can feel monotonous in their obsessions, or obsessive in their monotony. It is not that Bunch’s own vision is narrow, but that he depicts a world of ever-narrowing visions, a world where imagination responds only to violence and complexity has died in the rituals of war. Read one or two stories and they seem funny, quirky, jaunty in their satire. Read the whole book, and the full weight of the apocalypse bears down, the full sense of all that is lost, and what was once amusingly odd begins to reveal a dark, hollowed-out core, and laughter starts to catch in your throat.
Other writers would try to make us feel the horrors of this world through sympathetic characters and stories carefully arced toward sentiment. We would know this is a bad world because we would feel pity and fear for the characters we cared about. That is not this book. Throughout his career, Bunch showed no interest in the sorts of scene building and character development essential to social realism and popular fiction. His inclinations were toward much older forms of storytelling, toward myths and folktales and children’s stories, toward archetypes and allegories. (It is best, perhaps, to think of Moderan as a kind of science fictional Decameron or Canterbury Tales.) In the latter half of the 20th century, there were few homes for such writing other than the science fiction magazines, because science fiction thrives on mythic heroes and archetypal situations. Just as importantly, science fiction developed its own style of compressed language, one hospitable to neologisms and to quick gestures that could suggest entire worlds. For a reader of SF, the narrator’s statement on the first page of Moderan of being one of “the beam people, the Essenceland Dream people” is par for the course and sparks a quick imagining of creatures that are somehow composed of energy rather than bodies. Because this is SF, there’s no expectation that Bunch will now explain all the details of beam people—that might have been the expectation in 1926, when Hugo Gernsback first launched Amazing Stories as a way for people to learn about science while they read tales of adventure, but by mid-century, SF’s aesthetic assumptions had developed enough for exposition-heavy stories to be considered clunky. Instead, readers thrilled for off-kilter details that suggested new worlds, and writers such as Robert Heinlein had, in the decade or two before Bunch began publishing, refined techniques for making the most of such details while also keeping a story humming along with exciting plots and characters who conformed to concepts of human behavior and representation developed in the 19th century and promulgated through countless short stories and novels.
In many ways, it was into science fiction (and its related popular genres) that myths and folktales found themselves repackaged in the wake of the 18th century’s rationalism and the 19th century’s storytelling innovations. By putting the techniques of modern science fiction to use in older structures, though, Bunch threw a wrench into his stories’ engines. The effect is, appropriately, a kind of modernism where the expectations common to one form collide with the expectations of another, re-invigorating both. As readers, it’s hard to get our bearings, because everything is both familiar and new: we know how to read old myths and folktales, we know how to read science fiction, we know how to read the language of self-help manuals and advertisements and jingoistic propaganda—but do we know how to read them all together at once?
Perhaps we are ready for David R. Bunch now. Our literature is saturated with dystopias; our news is filled with blustering men who seem to want nothing so much as a stronghold from which to war, war, war; our landscape is covered in plastic. The all-caps exclamations don’t seem out of place in a world of war criminals’ tweetstorms. Discourses intermingle endlessly: yesterday’s satire is today’s business headline, political arguments sound like dulled-down Dr. Seuss, and children’s stories include shelter-in-place instructions. Moderan is catching up to us, or we’re catching up to it. What once seemed so strange as to be almost unreadable now stands inches from the de rigueur.
It is a testament to literary progress that we have reached a point where we might more fully appreciate the achievement of David R. Bunch, but it is a condemnation of the damned human race that each passing decade has leached his stories of their bitter surrealism to the extent that now they may be read as reports on the real.
The two books I’ve been recommending the most this year are both by Michael Clune. Now an English professor and a literary critic, Clune spent his grad-school years as a self-described heroin junkie at Johns Hopkins, an experience he documents in his brilliant memoir, White Out (Hazelden, 2013). Structured as a conventional recovery narrative (Clune hits bottom, goes to jail, gets sent to rehab, and gets better), the book doubles as a phenomenological description of addiction: of what heroin does to memory, perception, attention, and time.
Clune’s central Proustian metaphor is that addiction is a “memory disease.” Unable to forget the first time he did heroin, the addict keeps doing heroin as a way of returning to that past moment. “At every instant,” he writes, “the addict inhabits at least two times at once: the first time he did it and the next time he will do it. Right now is the switchboard.” The drug emerges, in the book, as a kind of mesmerizing madeleine: the addict can’t even look at it without falling into a memory trance (the “vial of dope” is just a “pane of clear glass, and he’s watching his first time through it”). But this is less a matter of nostalgia, Clune insists, than of permanent novelty. Being addicted means never getting used to the sight of the drug. It remains endlessly vivid and transfixing, every single time you see it. Unlike other objects — which eventually grow familiar and dull and “disappear inside our habits” — heroin is “immune to habit”: “Something that’s always new…that never gets old.” For Clune, “the white tops are still as new and fresh as the first time. It still is the first time in the white of the white tops. There’s a deep rip in my memory.”
Clune’s meditations on this time-traveling whiteness — rendered throughout in hypnotic, staccato sentences — yield some of the book’s most sublime and beautiful writing. His attempts to convey the timelessness, and eternity, and dilated duration of dope consciousness occasionally resemble mystic poetry: e.g., his dope brain “has roots that reach through time and drink from everywhere;” his dope eye “doesn’t have any bottom” (“and I see into the bottomlessness of things”); the dope powder “carries the white down into the tiny neural tunnels where the body manufactures time.”
In addition to these dithyrambic passages, the book contains laugh-out-loud scenes with junkies, dealers, and a defense lawyer; charming childhood memories involving Candyland; and moving accounts of Clune’s daily practice of sobriety (“The only way to recover from the memory disease is to forget yourself…You must make forgetfulness into a habit. Like a waterwheel that continually pours forgetfulness over your life”). Harrowing and hilarious as a recovery memoir, White Out is also a memorably lovely essay on memory: it maps a mind that’s haunted — as most minds are — by nostalgia, time, and whiteness.
After finishing White Out, I ordered the other book Clune published this year, a scholarly study titled Writing Against Time (Stanford University Press). Like his memoir, this book is concerned with the possibility of permanent novelty: namely, with sensory and aesthetic experiences that never get old, no matter how many times you enjoy them. “Time poisons perception,’”he writes in the opening chapter. “No existing technique has proven effective in inoculating images against time.” Following the literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, Clune proposes that one of the roles of art is to fashion time-resistant images: by presenting familiar objects in surprising ways, art rescues them from habit. Or, in Shklovsky’s famous phrase (from his essay “Art as Technique”), art can “make a stone feel stony.”
The problem for Clune is that, in the real world, even artworks aren’t immune to time: the catchy pop song, the captivating painting, the visionary poem — with repeated exposure, they all end up fading. So Writing Against Time looks at works of literature that imagine hypothetical, habit-proof objects, virtual models for what endless novelty might actually feel like. In one chapter, Clune analyzes “imaginary music” throughout literature, ranging from Vinteuil’s compositions in Proust to Apollo’s melodies in Keats. In a chapter on Lolita, he demonstrates how nymphets function for Humbert Humbert as “addictive images,” in exactly the same way that opium does in De Quincey’s Confessions (or that heroin does in White Out): every time Humbert Humbert sees a nymphet, it’s like the first time he’s seeing a nymphet.
The book keeps pursuing this project in surprising places, from John Ashbery’s poetry to classic sci-fi novels. In a bravura chapter on 1984, Clune identifies a Shklovskian agenda in Oceania’s propaganda, which consistently misrepresents reality (Winston has to remind himself that “stones are hard, water is wet”). When Winston drinks from a bottle labeled “Gin,” he’s shocked that it tastes like “nitric acid;” ditto the “Chocolate” bar that tastes like “the smoke of a rubbish fire.” Because Winston never knows what to expect, every sensory experience is heightened. For Clune, this is a case of fascist phenomenology: the government is imposing “a set of false expectations of the world” to frame people’s perceptions. As a result, “doublethink exposes the citizens of Oceania to constant intense, unfamiliar, unexpected, and shocking sensations.”
There’s an analogy here for Clune’s methodology: by framing familiar books in unexpected ways, he shocks the reader into seeing them differently. They become new again and freshly pleasurable. In this respect, each example of vivid novelty serves — for the reader — as an experience of vivid novelty, and several times the ingenuity of Clune’s close reading made me want to stand up and cheer. Along with White Out, Writing Against Time was the best thing I discovered in 2013. Taken together, they complete a profound portrait of how people use art, drugs, sex, and meditation to slide outside of memory and “arrest the flow of neurobiological time.”
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In early 2012, Joshua Boldt launched The Adjunct Project, a website containing a collaboratively updated spreadsheet of adjunct salary and work conditions. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported the site had nearly 800 user entries in the first month. While comparative salary data is useful, the most disheartening element of the site is the short narratives. Adjuncts accept poor pay with silence, “terrified of being even more broke than we are.” Other grievances include no health benefits, rushed contracts, and — despite the fact that adjuncts comprise nearly three-quarters of university faculty — paltry voice and representation in university matters.
I am unable to offer an absolute solution to this institutionalized, national problem. But I have, and will continue to, make a suggestion to the graduates of MFA programs who often enter these adjunct positions as perceived full-time employment. Before you join a dismal system where you might teach an overloaded schedule on multiple campuses and still earn less than $30,000 a year, pause for a moment. You have other options. Continue to fight your good fight, and bring this academic sharecropping, as some have called it, to public attention. But consider another career. Teach high school. It works for me.
The Adjunct Project’s hard data and brief narratives are best complimented with the nuance of explanation. I have been an adjunct since 2009, and have had a great experience, yet I know my situation is unique. I have also taught high school full-time since 2004, so my adjunct work is for supplementary, rather than essential, income. For many adjuncts, employment is a constant struggle with little or uneven returns.
MFA graduates who are able to teach creative writing courses appear more satisfied than those leading composition courses. Andrew McFayden Ketchum, who adjuncts at four different Colorado universities, makes an important distinction between those types of instruction. Ketchum explains that composition instructors are “expected to teach critical thinking, writing, and even research skills” to students in a core course. Besides the “undoable” workload and “atrocious” pay, Ketchum notes a fascinating bit of misinformation: “students think adjuncts are ‘professors’… [and those] students who aren’t already well-prepared or extremely dedicated to learning either fall through the cracks or are ‘saved’ by the SuperAdjunct.” Such an educational structure “is not what schools advertise, and it’s not the sort of education students paying extraordinarily high tuitions should receive.”
One writer, who wished to remain anonymous, had been a Visiting Assistant Professor for five years before “that line was terminated” and replaced with an adjunct position. The resulting “commute times, low pay, and lack of support and office space for adjunct faculty” made her “less able to write or concentrate on publication than I was when teaching full-time.” Such a lament is echoed by other adjuncts. Book and significant magazine publication are often necessary to become competitive for tenure-track positions, yet the adjuncts longing for those positions are unable to devote sufficient time to writing and scholarship, thus creating a nearly inescapable cycle. She notes that others, some holding a PhD, must seek government aid. Another recent report from The Chronicle revealed that 360,000 Americans “with master’s degrees or higher in 2010” received “some kind of public assistance.” While that number pales next to the 44 million total Americans receiving public assistance, these are highly educated professionals struggling to survive.
Jay Varner’s first book, Nothing Left to Burn, was sold soon after his graduation from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington MFA program. Although the book was well-received, and Varner interviewed for several tenure-track positions, his search was ultimately unsuccessful. The tenure-track market is oversaturated with “highly accomplished” writers with “recent teaching experience” who are “vying for few jobs,” the same coveted by adjuncts. Varner recently began adjuncting at James Madison University, and quips that “some of my adjunct friends look at me a bit strangely when I say” such work is fun. He recognizes the tenuous financial reality of adjuncts, but also the need to gain further college teaching experience.
Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, was an adjunct at several universities in St. Louis between 2006 and 2009 and taught undergraduate creative writing courses, composition, and a graduate-level course. Nye did not enter his MFA program planning to teach. His first adjunct position at Washington University in St. Louis was as a last-minute replacement for a sick faculty member. Nye was not “considered part of the faculty or team” nor was he a member of committees or departmental discussions, but he didn’t expect such participation as a recent MFA graduate. Although Nye also bartended and worked as the managing editor of River Styx, he had sufficient time to write.
Nye no longer adjuncts. His work at The Missouri Review is considered full-time, and is a success story among the typical career trajectory of adjuncts, who have their eyes on future Associate Professor positions. Such “midcareer” positions follow years on the tenure track where professors are, according to The Chronicle, “protected from work outside their research and writing.” The Chronicle quotes David Harvey of New College of Florida that once administrative and other responsibilities accumulate, Associate Professors “go from being one of the rising young stars of the department to being one of the workhorses.” The long slog of adjunct work does not end in immediate bliss upon tenure.
Since many MFA graduates perceive adjunct employment as their only possible track toward tenured positions, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the MFA itself. Few graduate degrees are as misunderstood, or lambasted, as the MFA in Creative Writing. The MFA is a convenient generalization, an acronym without individual personality. The image of short-sighted, novice writing students lounging at a rectangular table, nitpicking a draft into a sanitized work of chaff has become a straw-man target for any perceived misstep in contemporary published writing. Misconceptions have even found their way into the programs themselves. Graduates of MFA programs might think becoming a college adjunct is their only academic career choice until the possibility of a tenure-track position, but such a view is unfounded, and not the fault of MFA programs.
I have not yet encountered an MFA program that guarantees book publication or professorship. I have seen MFA programs that sell themselves to applicants as places where students can study literature and creative writing within a supportive community, but not as training schools for tenured professorships. The same sense of camaraderie and inclusiveness that creates a successful MFA experience might also delude students into thinking such support will exist after the degree in temporary teaching positions. And yet MFA graduates continue to settle for adjunct positions and then subsequently criticize the degree.
Such unhappiness should cause self-reflection, but often that reflection is rejected. Seth Abramson’s approach to ranking MFA programs for Poets & Writers has resulted in equal parts blowback and praise, and those reactions can often be delineated between programs who think they should be ranked higher and those who have earned the top spots. Yet Abramson’s research has moved the MFA conversation in directions of greater transparency and awareness of practical considerations. He is correct to stress that applicants should research program funding, talk to current and former students, and consider cost of living expenses as they weigh their decision about an expensive art degree. In 2012, those responsible recommendations should extend to decisions about graduate education in any discipline.
Abramson has recently debunked the myth that more than 800 MFA program are “now in operation,” replacing that figure with roughly 200. Even with this decreased amount of programs, the resulting number of MFA graduates far outstrips the supply of available tenure-track positions in creative writing. The announcement of a non-composition teaching job with a writing-heavy schedule creates a windfall of applicants, pining for the promise of tenure, even in a world where universities like Wayne State are radically redefining, or ending, the practice. As mysteriously as they appear, advertised positions disappear due to lost funding, or are filled in silence, leaving anxious applicants to refresh the Creative Writing Academic Jobs Wiki page. New graduates are competing against seasoned writers and teachers; whereas a decade ago significant magazine publication might enable a writer to be competitive for a tenure-track position, now multiple, well-received books appear to be a necessity. The simple result is that the MFA system creates far too many well-trained graduates than can be placed in tenure-track positions. Yet the assumption that MFA graduates enter academia on the tenure track is grounded in a false economic model, one that presupposes the degree exists to create such academics. It does not, and it never has; as Abramson notes, the MFA is a “patronage system for artists” that “provide[s] a nurturing space for their talents.” It is not a place to groom future professors. So is there another option for the MFA grad looking to teach but frozen out of the higher education system? I believe there is.
Graduates of MFA programs should consider teaching high school. I recognize that such advice might be rejected outright. Even adjuncts are “professors,” while secondary educators are “teachers,” and the difference in connotation might bother some. Additionally, MFA graduates will need to be certified to teach at public schools, although many states offer expedited, alternative routes toward certification. The shift from higher to secondary education will require planning. And any criticism that English teachers are not in demand as much as other teachers in other disciplines seems petty compared with the equivalent competition for adjunct positions with less pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average median salary for a high school English teacher in 2010 was $53,230. Granted, the pay is less than that of an Associate Professor, but certainly more than even the most oversubscribed adjuncts. While the shape of tenure is even changing at the secondary level, the job security is far firmer than as a traveling adjunct, and secondary educators have better health and retirement benefits. An adjunct could go from teaching composition to 35 19 year-olds for a meager salary to teaching literature or creative writing to a classroom of 25 students between 15 and 18, with far better pay, more stability, and the ancillary benefit of helping young people at a crucial time in their development. Aren’t the arts supposed to cultivate our most selfless tendencies, anyway?
When I was hired at a public high school in 2004, I was halfway finished with an MA in English Literature, and had no pedagogical or instructional experience. I taught AP Language and Composition and Introductory Creative Writing. In my first year, students compared the poetic philosophies of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Frost, contrasted 1984 with some of Orwell’s lesser-known non-fiction to see the narrative and stylistic breadth possible for a single writer, and wrote raps in the voice of Macbeth characters. Not every moment of teaching is a success.
But I hope that I’ve gotten better. I now teach AP Literature and started a course, Advanced Creative Writing, in which students write, revise, and workshop short fiction, research literary magazines, and study contemporary writers. The class ranges from 14 to 22 students, and most enter for the right reasons: they want to become better writers. Many have succeeded, and their achievements include the Davidson Scholarship, winning The Florida Review fiction contest, and publication in Flyway, elimae, The Louisville Review, Willows Wept Review, and other magazines. Two students appeared in the lauded W.W. Norton Hint Fiction anthology alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Ha Jin; one student appeared twice. Those stories were written in class.
These are 16 to 18 year-olds. Kids. At least part of the time while teaching them, I was pursuing an MFA in Fiction. Granted, I began my high school teaching before I entered an MFA program, and continued it afterward. That might give me an advantage over others, particularly people who have never taught at any level. But I don’t think that negates my advice. I like to think that if someone pursues an MFA in Creative Writing, they love both reading and writing, and have also gained quantifiable skills in literary analysis, writing, and critical thinking. I believe one can learn how to transfer those skills — to teach them — to young students.
Consider this: a good MFA program stresses breadth and depth of reading, close attention toward personal crafting of writing and subsequent revision, and the ability to articulate one’s self in a workshop setting. One must offer criticism that is at times pointed and also constructive; one must be aware of tone. But we can refine these skills further. Again, a good MFA program — and I know not all are created equal — contextualizes that aforementioned reading both historically and stylistically; a class might read Raymond Carver’s fiction in comparison with Bobbie Ann Mason and Elizabeth Tallent, wondering why all three were classified together by Bill Buford in Granta, opening conversations regarding British perspectives of what makes American fiction “American” (or even look at Gordon Lish’s editing of Carver’s writing from both craft and conceptual senses). And the workshop is not merely a convenient way for professors to structure a class meeting; it is an organic discussion of ideas and aesthetic approaches, where students offer skepticisms of the traditional model, perhaps channeling the approach of Michael Martone in recent articles published in TriQuarterly. A thorough MFA curriculum provides comprehensive literary training. That training might assist a writer in her own work, but as an ancillary benefit, it prepares her to view those skills on both practical and theoretical levels, and such duality is essential in becoming a reflective, successful secondary teacher. Wouldn’t an MFA graduate with such training be an incredibly useful addition to a high school English department, and wouldn’t students reap the benefits?
I suspect the MFA graduates would, also. I certainly don’t mean to derail the potential careers of those convinced they ultimately want to teach at the college level, but I don’t see how a stint teaching high school will not make them better teachers and writers. Teaching high school reminds you that instruction requires empathy. Awareness of audience is essential. So is a sense of humor: the bullshit detectors of teenagers, confronted with a pretentious “emerging” writer, will drown the room.
I have had some particular benefits in my teaching experience: open-minded and intelligent students, a very supportive supervisor, and a community focused on education. I have also had roadblocks: a Board of Education that has stalled and stonewalled contract negotiations, and an increasing perception of non-university educators as test-prepping, unintellectual drones. Writers I publish with give a look of pain when I tell them I teach high school, wondering how I have any remaining interest or energy to write. I argue that I not only have sufficient time — the summers certainly help — but the emotional freedom that sometimes is only provided through job security. In the past two years, while teaching high school full-time and working as an adjunct part time, and having a minimum two-hour round trip to work, I’ve had two books of poetry published, am finishing a book of criticism to be published next year, have published more than 30 reviews, and other essays, fiction, and related work. That’s with no sabbaticals and no artist residencies. God bless those who can manage them, but I can’t. I agree with Faulkner: only “demon driven” writers will be successful. You’ve got to make it happen.
Some might think it a waste to earn a terminal degree in creative writing and then work the same job that one could get with a bachelor’s degree. I recognize that the MFA is not designed to prepare students to teach at the high school level. But we should be honest here: the MFA is not designed to train novelists, either, yet most fiction graduates of such programs think that was the intention.
Adjuncts already do good, necessary work. They often teach students needing remediation, students from low-income families, students who need personal mentorships. The adjuncts I know are idealistic, skilled, intelligent people, who are working for less than they are worth. They can be equally idealistic as high school teachers, while also making a more reasonable income, becoming a more stable yearly employee in their community, and most importantly, helping young people.
As someone active in publishing, I have sometimes felt like a lone wolf in secondary education. Then I discovered that Lauren Berry, whose debut collection The Lifting Dress was selected for the National Poetry Series, teaches high school. Ryan Call, winner of a 2011 Whiting Award for fiction and an editor at HTMLGIANT, teaches at a private high school in Houston. Call began teaching freshman and sophomores in the fall of 2011, three years after graduating from the George Mason MFA program. During that time he collected the stories that comprise The Weather Stations, which won the Whiting Award.
Call finds high school teaching very different from his previous university work. In the college environment, Call “didn’t really know anything about my students” beyond the experiences borne of the classroom. In high school, Call sees his students in class, on campus, at lunch, and as a cross country coach, expanding the dynamic to where he can now see “how these people navigate their young frantic lives.” He praises the collegiality of faculty. He also admits that, as a beginning teacher, his writing output paused. Teaching “took a lot out of me . . . physically, mentally, and emotionally,” but realized he could “afford to pause in my writing given what I’d achieved,” and that the break “was good for me.” He’s greatly rebounded as a writer during the summer, producing much work, and now feels more confident that he can both write and teach during the upcoming year. Call’s example shows how idiosyncratic this, and really any employment decision, must be: his experiences as a first year teacher sound like the experiences of a longtime adjunct, and yet the differences are essential. The support of his colleagues, the inclusive dynamic of his school, and the rewards of working with younger students creates a sense of optimism that pushes him forward. I do not see the same hope articulated by adjuncts, who feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is a flashing mirage.
I hope MFA graduates can pause their skepticism. Now, more than ever, we need intelligent and passionate teachers to lift the profession. The organic training and experiences of an MFA student might just be the perfect recipe for a successful high school teacher. Try it. You might find that those three letters on your degree feel like they carry much more weight.
Image via Phil Roeder/Flickr