Friday, October 08, 2004

Nearly out of date topics (2)

Continuing yesterday's clear-up of a few overdue topics....

Also in May, the New Yorker ran a story about how literary bloggers sometimes end up with a book contract. The general tone of the piece suggested that getting yourself a book contract was a highly desirable end, whereas clear thinkers know otherwise, but never mind. The article was not without interest.

According to the New Yorker, the person chiefly responsible for this trend towards bloggers graduating (so to speak) to books is Kate Lee, a twenty-seven-year old assistant at International Creative Management (aka ICM). ICM, in case you don't know, is a major talent and literary agency. (Don't call them, by the way. They will call you, if they're interested, which is most unlikely. Their unsolicited submissions policy is as comprehensive and brutal an elaboration of the instruction 'Fuck off and stop wasting our time' as I have ever read anywhere.

Anyway, it turns out that the lovely Kate Lee (who is doubtless delightful but who appears, bless her heart, to be no more than somebody's gofer) spends a while each morning scanning the blogs in the hope of finding some potential literary talent. She does not so much read, says the New Yorker, as 'prospect, sifting through sloppy thinking, bad grammar, and blind self-indulgence for moments of actual good writing.' See, they've got real high standards at ICM.

When she finds any 'good writing', Kate sends the author an email to make contact. 'Most writers are not getting published,' says Kate. Well you're dead right there, darling. 'For people that don't have connections, blogs can be an entry way into the game.' Some game. And connections are a way in, are they? Interesting how minds work at ICM.

Funnily enough, some of the people who are approached in this way are not very responsive to Kate's enquiry. She gets the email equivalent of a blank stare. What ungrateful beasts these bloggers are!

However, what really struck me was as the joke of the month, and highly revealing of young Kate's thinking, was the final quote from her. 'I've started working with a couple of graduates from the Iowa Writers' Workshop,' she says. 'It's very exciting. They're interesting writers -- with training, and degrees to show for it.'

Oh, my goodness me. Now hear this, o ye dearly beloved. I spent nearly thirty years working in the university world, and I have three degrees of my own, including a PhD. And I am here to tell you, unequivocally, that possession of a degree certificate, in any subject, is, in and of itself, absolutely meaningless.

I once had a dear friend (now deceased) who was a student counsellor. Her name was Delia. Delia's job was to give comfort to those who had been wounded by the educational experience. She once told me (without naming names, of course) that she was advising a young woman of 25. This person had three degrees too, just like me, and had spent her entire life, so far, being educated. And what was the young lady's problem? She felt that she was totally unfitted for the real world. She felt useless. 'And do you know what's so awful?' Delia asked me. 'This girl is absolutely right! She is useless.'

So, you won't find me being dazzled by the fact that X or Y has a degree in creative writing from Iowa. In fact, my lip may very well curl into what could be mistaken, from a distance, for a sneer. Furthermore, I have to report that the Iowa writers workshop is not without its critics (see Yardley goes mental).

Another blogger (Concho -- post headed My apostasy) actually took the course at Iowa, and now has this to say: 'I think everything I learnt at Iowa is wrong.... I have sent Song of Roland to about 40 agents by now and found no takers. It is exactly the sort of earnest, character-driven fiction that I learned to write at grad school, and while plenty of those in the biz admired its execution, no one loved it. They got bogged down and bored with all the serious sadness. In the end, no one gave a shit.' (And, although I hate to be discouraging, I cannot say that I am remotely surprised.)

So, whatever else may be said about the U of Iowa, it does seem to produce some very serious literary writers. And whether the work produced by such 'trained writers' is something that ICM will feel able to sell is very much open to question.

Why not have a look at the U of Iowa program and decide on its value for yourself? You could even sign up for the course. It will only cost you two years of your life and an unspecified amount in fees and subsistence, and then you will emerge with a Master of Fine Arts degree. Which will impress the Kate Lees of this world no end.

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