Aside from the great keynote speaker, Gerald Graff, what I remember most about going there to present my paper was the fact that I was the only writing student, the only MFA seeker in all the cocktails and crudites receptions filled with doctoral candidates. The only person there intending to write something resembling literature, not to become adept at dismantling it. As White points out, there was (maybe still is) a distinct view that artists and theorists are not intended to mingle, especially inside the head of a writer. I can’t complain. Even the scary feminist critics were nice to me; it was like being a harmless, not-too-bright cousin at a family reunion of geniuses. Still, it was a little unnerving to imagine them sinking their incisors into something I might write one day.
You might note when you read White’s essay that even the most well known, more or less mainstream writers he names who are capable of handling both the philosophy of fiction and the writing of it as well are monster talents. Barth, Gass, DFW are the only ones I’ve read (except for bits of Kathy Acker’s wonderfully raunchy erotica). Those are tough acts to follow, and finding yourself constantly falling a little short of those guys can be as disheartening as the day you look in the mirror and admit you are never going to be Franz Kafka.
I’m never going to cook like Thomas Keller. And I’m never going to be a monster intellect like Gass and Barth and David Foster Wallace and Curtis White. But I have to eat, and I find cooking meals far more rewarding than eating somebody else’s food. Same with stories. I like them, always will. And I still like to write them--even if I understand that they are simple, home-cooked, more or less realistic, linear narratives and fail to comment on themselves or on art in general in a sufficiently postmodern way.
We are fifteen years beyond the date of Curtis White’s essay. How much has writing changed in that time? How noticeably postmodern has it become? Well, I started this blog wondering out loud how open-minded our writing program can become before the diversity of individual reading materials creates a kind of paralyzing entropy. I loved White’s metaphor of all of us driving fast cars on superhighways only to find out there is “nowhere to go that isn’t the same place.” Maybe the postmodern fact of life is that the question is no longer whether we are going to study vampire/werewolf detective romance novels or not. The question is which ones, and who is going to pick them.