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The Delusion of Diversity Is Evident in Certain Writing Circles

Susan and Al Gillotti of Norwich both published books this month. Her Women of Privilege is a story of family members who lived in an exclusive part of the Hudson River Valley, and his book, titled George Evans, draws on his experience as an international banker in London. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Susan and Al Gillotti of Norwich both published books this month. Her Women of Privilege is a story of family members who lived in an exclusive part of the Hudson River Valley, and his book, titled George Evans, draws on his experience as an international banker in London. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Not long ago I went to Boston for the annual conference of the Associated Writing Programs, a conclave I’ve disliked for years now (on which more directly). AWP comprises almost all the creative writing programs, graduate and undergraduate, in the U.S. and Canada.

I’d be a hypocrite, of course, to rail against such programs after all my years in one or another, but on noting that there were11,000 attendees, I asked myself if there were that many serious literary artists in the two nations, or if the age of Creeping MFAism was engendering something else.

It would be hard, if one could judge only by the conference schedule, to conclude that “creative writing” faculty and Master of Fine Arts students meant first and foremost to be artists, because that schedule was about 90 percent devoted not to literary arts but to how one might get an academic job somehow related to them. There seemed, that is, a whole lot of talk about poetry and fiction from a professional perspective, sadly little from an aesthetic. Thus, passersby would check my name badge, quickly comparing it, in terms of career potential, with nearby others’, and would stop or move on accordingly.

Now I shouldn’t present myself as being pure as the driven snow: I showed up myself, after all, and have often shown up at AWP if, as was the case this year, I had a new book to sign or, ditto, if some friend had asked me to take part in a reading or panel. But having felt a bit soiled every time I attend, never more so than in 2013, even that sort of inducement won’t get me there again, cross my heart.

This set of thoughts segues, I hope, into another issue, though my reader may have to strain some to follow the free-floating logic. In any case, upon running into a conferee whom I rather like, and whose poetry I generally favor, I asked him to catch me up on what he’d been doing in the half-decade since we’d seen each other. He answered, with something of a weary sigh, that he now chaired the graduate writing program at a certain northern New England university. Another member of the group asked him how that was going, and he allowed it was a decent job, but added, with a bit of a smirk, “I live in Cambridge, thank God.”

Now I’m one who thanks his own God that he does not live in the likes of Cambridge, but also one who’d as soon avoid contention. So I held my tongue as he rambled along, and rightly, about the opportunities for theater, film, music, and so on in his neighborhood. His chief pleasure, however, was apparently that he lived in a place that exemplified diversity.

Diversity. Like closure, or appropriate, this is one of those contemporary words that are so over-used as, frankly, to tire me out a bit. Diversity, we are told, is a virtue, and it’s not that I have the slightest doubt of the claim, so long as the word is used with some respect for its meaning. Without resorting to blanket judgments myself, in light of that meaning, it strikes me that the Cantabrigians with whom my friend hangs out, to judge by his own description and my own past observations, live in just about as non-diverse a world as I can imagine. Yes, there may be greater ethnic and racial variety in that friend’s neighborhood than in mine, but I’d bet my hat that, in his back-and-forth between university and the environs of Harvard Yard, he scarcely shares a word or an opinion with friends and colleagues (including racially or ethnically divergent ones) that they don’t themselves embrace without reservation. If you know what one of them thinks, for example, about gun laws, you can safely extrapolate not only his but also his companions’ opinions on abortion, foreign policy, religion and on and on. All their kids have gone, or will go, to college — like their parents. These folks share musical and culinary tastes, and seem even to dress rather alike.

This is diversity, you see.

Things are otherwise in my small upcountry town. In that allegedly homogeneous community, I must not only tolerate but also listen carefully to attitudes that are, well, diverse. I have friends whose politics don’t just differ from, but actually offend my own, but who are nonetheless dear friends. I come into constant contact with my beloved, 90-year-old neighbor, for example, who’s retired from a long, hardworking life installing siding. My favorite hunting companions have long been an auto mechanic, a carpenter, an architect, and a fly fishing instructor, only one of whom holds a B.A. My church congregation includes several farm families, a couple who ran an insurance firm, an oil delivery man, a retired state cop, just to cite a few. We constitute a small but very caring and close-knit group.

My wife and I have a circle of particularly close companions, which includes a public high school teacher, the CEO of his own organic fertilizer company, a bank vice-president, a woman with an upholstery business and skilled in home restoration, and another who has devoted her life to care of house and family. Farther afield, for another instance, though none of these is my bosom pal, I always look forward to conversation at my barber’s; he and I have had a cordial, respectful, longstanding relationship, and have a handful of common interests. Same with the local garage-man, the couple who run the general store, the neighborhood bank tellers, the librarian, the gifted heavy equipment artist who lives just across the river, the rare book vendor, the lawyer, and so on. I am always interested in what they have on their minds.

Let me circle back, if I can, to my impressions of that writers’ convention. As I played mouse-in-the-corner, it seemed I heard the same language all around me. Virtually all the participants had more or less identical career objectives; they shared social views; they found hipness in the same quarters; and so on. Theirs appeared to me, in short, a guild mentality, or maybe more accurately, a sort of over-populated cabal.

That is a sad fact for a poet to contemplate. It’s no wonder that the Common Reader (as Virginia Woolf called him/her) is more and more a fiction. “Literary” authors spend the better part of their time in the academy and their self-styled hip community, which is to say in each other’s company. To that extent, their opinions are rarely challenged or asked to justify themselves, and theirs becomes, to an alarming degree, an insiders’ idiom, available enough to those who speak it, bizarre or just off-putting to those who don’t. Too many of them (with, of course, noble exceptions like poets Ted Kooser or Mary Oliver) converse with their like-minded peers so exclusively that they mistake their groupthink for originality and their own preoccupations and convictions for those of a wider, and, again, more diverse society. I fear, too, that often this strange elitism sneaks, or even bolts, into their written output.

H.L. Mencken once suggested that Henry James needed a good whiff of the Chicago stockyards so as to get a little life into his novels. I don’t want to go that far, believing as I do that James was a great novelist; nor would I ever, absurdly, strike a pose as some proletarian spokesman. Still, I think you catch my drift. ...

Sydney Lea lives in Newbury and is poet-laureate of Vermont.