I shouldn’t have commented on a blog post when I was multi-tasking – especially when the other tasks were seven loads of laundry and a desperate attempt to get my twelve-year-old to pack his gear for a Boy Scout camping trip. I knew the minute I hit “comment” that I’d made a mistake. Over the weekend, with no access to electronics and no way to perform damage control, I lost sleep over that comment (or maybe it was just that we camped on a slope, and my sleeping bag and I kept ending up in a heap in the downhill end of the tent). Fortunately, either my guardian angel smiled and the comment didn’t go through, or the kind blog owner deleted the comment and spared me much public embarrassment.
The post itself wasn’t the problem; its subject, Ruth Fowler’s reaction in Huffington Post to the news that Téa Obreht’s novel The Tiger’s Wife had won the Orange Prize, elicited an overly emotional, knee-jerk response from me. I spent the weekend thinking about why Ms. Fowler’s piece had the power to make me write a thoughtless and unpleasant response, a response that contributed nothing meaningful to the discussion. I don’t know Ms. Obreht personally. I haven’t read her novel (yet – though I now intend to read it). I wasn’t on the committee that awarded the Orange Prize. And nobody died and put me in charge of quality control over the content of The Huffington Post. What was my problem?
Alone and aslant in my tent at 3 AM, listening to the rain and scratching a particularly obnoxious mosquito bite on my right ankle, I decided that the answer was this: Ms. Fowler’s diatribe insulted my intelligence. In explaining this, below, I hope that I’ve given her commentary the close read that she admits she failed to give Ms. Obreht’s novel.
“The Orange Prize Has Let Us Down” appears to have been intended, at some level, as a persuasive essay. Its aim was to convince the reader that The Tiger’s Wife was not worthy of the Orange Prize.
Ms. Fowler’s essay failed to persuade me of her claim with logos – with logical argument. In fact, her logical fallacies are so egregious that it bothers me that she thinks a reader would buy into them. First, she admits that she did not finish reading The Tiger’s Wife. She implies, but does not state directly, that she quit after reading 50 pages or fewer. I can’t accept the authority of someone who hasn’t read a work to pronounce judgement on its merit, or lack thereof, for a prize. Secondly, she spends a significant part of her essay denigrating the “Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program” – as if all such programs were identical – and graduates of these programs. She does not back up her assertion that all MFA programs produce graduates who write identically, perhaps by showing similarities in excerpts from The Tiger’s Wife and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (who, according to Ms. Fowler, has not yet written anything “decent”). Nor does she demonstrate that the MFA program at USC is in any way responsible for specific literary deficiencies in The Tiger’s Wife. In fact, Ms. Fowler identifies only one specific literary defect in the novel: the sentence “These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life,” which she calls “startling unoriginal [and] overcrafted.” In what way is this sentence unoriginal and overcrafted? That’s not clear to me at all. I’d be curious to know what (if any) literary precedent exists for it, and “overcrafted” is surely a subjective judgement. Ms. Fowler indirectly suggests that The Tiger’s Wife is in some way “derivative of Anna Karenina” and “feature[s] more than three bad metaphors or similes in the first 50 pages.” She also calls the book “unreadable: turgid, overwritten, self-indulgent, and in need of a heavy editorial hand…Worthy, insufferably dull, and an ordeal” – but provides no convincing examples from the text. Nor does she back up her claim that the characters in the novel are “two-dimensional.” Even my fourth-grader knows that he has to support his claims about a book or article with examples from the text if he’s going to appear convincing.
For me, Ms. Fowler’s article also fell short in the logos department on grounds of poor grammar, repetitive word choice, and use of profanity. One example of poor grammar in the article begins with a quote from a review in Evening Standard: “‘The Tiger’s Wife is more than fiction. It is about burying the dead’ referring frequently to the book’s ability to ‘heal the international image of her birth country.'” “Referring” is a dangling participle, separated by the long quote from an unclear antecedent (“Britain’s Evening Standard,” rather than “a review in Britain’s Evening Standard”). I’m sorry: if one is writing about writing, grammar matters. Ms. Fowler claims eight times in an article of 1,066 words that The Tiger’s Wife is not interesting. She uses a variant of the word “boring” five times; the other three terms used are “stale,” “dull,” and “dreary.” My thesarus lists 42 synonyms for “boring.” While repetition can serve to emphasize a point, in this case it just reads like lazy writing and an attempt to pound a simple idea into the head of a reader assumed to be equally simple. Finally, there’s the profanity in the article: either five or seven instances, depending on whether or not you want to count “crap” and “having a shag”; Ms. Fowler drops the f-bomb three times. I was a sailor for twenty years, so I appreciate creative cursing in an appropriate setting. The f-bomb is so overused that it’s no longer creative; and in the case of writing about writing, it seems to me that profanity is again a careless substitute for linguistic precision. I’m the first person to admit that I don’t always craft or proofread my own blog posts as carefully as I’d like, but I do expect better in a publication like The Huffington Post.
Ms. Fowler also stopped short of persuading me to her point of view with ethos. Her primary claim to an ethical argument against Ms. Obreht’s receipt of the Orange Prize appears to be that youth, coupled with a Master of Fine Arts degree, makes a writer undeserving of respect. I disagree. Among naval officers, professional respect is derived from military rank: “If you can’t respect the person, respect the rank” is the guiding ethical principle. It may not always be the case that rank is equalled by professional competence or wisdom, but in the end the subordinate still has to take the orders and carry them out faithfully. A chief petty officer may have twelve or fifteen years more experience than a raw ensign, and is almost surely wiser; but he knows how to take the order and make things work even if the order is (as many of my early ones were) pretty doggone stupid.
In general, among the professions (medicine, law, education, ministry, the military officer corps) professional respect is based on respect for advanced education and training in the field of endeavor. There’s an unspoken understanding that it’s also based on respect for the risk and responsibility accepted by those in the “professions” — the doctor’s, for her patients’ health and lives; the lawyer’s, for access to justice; the educator’s, for access to a quality future; the minister’s, for the human soul; the officer’s, for the lives of his subordinates and those of the citizens whom he protects, and for the Constitution which he has sworn “to uphold and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Professional respect among those in business and customer service occupations comes from respect for the laws of supply and demand, and for the value of money. In technical occupations, professional respect is based on the technician’s skill in using his tools. Professional respect for the fruits of skilled and unskilled labor comes from respect for hard work.
It seems to me that professional respect among artists comes a little bit from all of the above. The artist – the writer – accepts risk when she puts her words and thoughts out for public consumption, and responsibility for handling important themes or the requirements of genre with thoughtful care. A writer who gets paid (even in contributor’s copies) has become a businessperson, responsible for dealing in supply and demand. A writer is a technician, having skill with his tools: word, phrase, punctuation, idea. And anybody who thinks that writing isn’t plain old hard work hasn’t done enough of it. Ms. Fowler’s arguments about a writer’s age, education, and “real world experience” address none of these aspects of professional respect in a meaningful way.
The argument that possession of a degree doesn’t guarantee fine writing – that professional respect for a writer shouldn’t be based on advanced education or training – seems valid enough to me. I have a Master of Arts degree (not a Master of Fine Arts) in writing. No one has published any of my fiction yet. And none of my instructors guaranteed that their program would get me published. We just spent x number of semesters playing with the tools. The rest of it’s up to me. (It struck me as just a little hypocritical that, after slashing at the value and utility of the MFA program, Ms. Fowler claims that her degree in English literature has given her “many useful and discerning skills” – perhaps implying that a degree in literature is somehow superior to a degree in fine arts.)
As for the claim that only real world experience and age give one’s writing insight and validity: Anne Frank, anyone? Flannery O’Connor? We all live in the real world. Each of us has a right to our own perception of it. And lots of people end up “traveling the world, imbibing a few drugs, having a shag and running out of money” without ever developing any serious insight into character or the human experience. Just ask one or two of my ex-boyfriends.
The aspect of Ms. Fowler’s piece that really sent me over the edge was her technique of appealing to pathos – to my readerly sympathies. Her condescension towards youth and education found no answering response in my psyche: I was young once. I know precisely what my education is worth to me, and her disgust for creative writing programs simply doesn’t matter in my universe. I found her disdain for the “literary establishment” ridiculous: if one is writing and reviewing, one is a part of that establishment – whether one disagrees with the prevailing views or not. I found her attitude towards readers, summarized in the phrases “enticing the general public away from devouring reality TV” and “the suspicious, unread masses” flat-out offensive, and again rather hypocritical coming from someone who claims to be anti-establishment and anti-elitist. In general, I don’t enjoy unsupported sneering and snark. This is why I no longer watch political talk shows on Sunday mornings.
What disappointed me most about Ms. Fowler’s article was the misuse of potential. She used some visual – if not exactly original – imagery (“made me want to headbutt the author”), amusing turns of phrase (“I’d rather pluck my own pubic hairs than read this”) and clever juxtaposition of highbrow and lowbrow word choices (“a bit of zap up their winsome asses”). Wit is good. It can also be a one-trick pony, and used in conjunction with snark and condescension, it fails to rise above the level of a seventh-grade girl’s jibes at her plump, blonde classmate who just won the school essay award.
I haven’t read anything else that Ruth Fowler has written. Unless I hear that something she has written has merit beyond wit and snark, I don’t plan to. The Tiger’s Wife just made it to my Christmas list, though.