Got a disturbing email the other day, so much so that I sat down and wrote a response that ran several thousand words. A series of responses, actually, all fits and starts of alternating analysis, complaint, explanation, and suggestion that refused to be driven toward a conclusion. I threw all of it away when I finally realized that the reason I couldn’t get anywhere was that there wasn’t really any sense to be made on the topic. I still think it’s one that’s worth addressing, though.
The email had to do with something we’ve talked about more than once on this site, the Seattle City of Literature project, an effort to draw international recognition to the contributions the Pacific Northwest has made and continues to make to bookish industry and art. The message informed me that “the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature is shuttering,” because of “unresolved differences of opinion regarding leadership and how the organization should be represented in public discourse,” a vague and confusing explanation at best.
Media reports subsequently dispelled my bafflement, revealing that the crisis had been precipitated by an essay published about a month ago in the Seattle alternative newsweekly The Stranger. In it, novelist Ryan Boudinot, the founder of the local City of Lit movement and the Executive Director of its organization, bit the hand that had lately fed him. A former creative writing instructor, he blasted MFA programs and the students who attend them, essentially calling them both a waste of time. The piece was clearly intended as a polemic and was infused throughout with flat, mean-spirited humor. Like so:
“For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.”
Let me just register that I don’t think that’s very funny, but as with all attempts at comedy, your LOLage may vary. To me, the essay’s greatest sin was the venial one of being unnecessary. It said things that many have said dozens of times before. (Tom Waits, for example, once covered the same ground in an interview with more politeness and greater concision: “The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”) I just shrugged it off. For many people, though, it was a major affront, and I can readily understand their perspective. Instead of ignoring the piece, they helped it go the bad kind of viral. Pro-MFA, anti-Boudinot op-eds started sprouting all over the internet.
The other members of the City of Lit board didn’t appreciate this bad press, and neither would I if I had been in their position. They apparently called for their Executive Director to make a public apology, a reasonable request. I have to say, however, that I’m not sure who the target of contrition was supposed to be. Former students? Literate people everywhere? UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon? Regardless, I probably would have acquiesced to keep the peace. Boudinot stood on principle and said no, citing the chilling effect censorship has on writers and fanning the fiasco’s flames even further by name-dropping Charlie Hebdo. And then the board resigned, pulling the plug on the project.
Me, I’d have first tried a jujitsu move. Seems to me that it was possible for them to turn the bad publicity into good by writing an opposing article demonstrating that opinions flourish around here, which is one of the things City of Lit is all about. Better to skewer his ideas through mockery than take them seriously. But again, I understand those who took a different view and united in a protest resignation. On the other hand, I can’t support the anonymous creation of a so-called “watchdog” website under Boudinot’s own name that repetitiously berates him for his verbal misdeeds. I can’t figure out how that promotes the Seattle City of Literature bid or bolsters the region’s reputation in the international literary community, and the secretive creator of the site didn’t bother to respond when I emailed to inquire how it did.
There’s probably not a good answer to the questions I asked, as there isn’t for any of this. I wish the anti-MFA article hadn’t been written. I wish it hadn’t become a big deal, and I wish I knew why it did (I suspect Jon Ronson’s latest book might offer instruction here). I wish the City of Lit board had responded to it differently, and I wish its Executive Director had responded differently to the response they actually made. I wish l’affaire Boudinot weren’t so characteristically Seattlesque, a display of fussy, cold, passive-aggressive rigidity in defense of tiny bits of imaginary ground. I wish I felt confident that some good would come of this mess.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. He’s so keen about the spread of American cultural institutions to other parts of the world that he stayed up until 5am the other night to watch a European team take on Japanese all-stars in our national pastime, a baseball game.