Take That, Haters
The last time I almost got into a fight was five years ago. There was a really obnoxious guy at a friend's house - an assistant professor of biochemistry or something from Rutgers, somebody's boyfriend, I forget his name but let's call him Dick - sitting around with a small gathering of MFA students, and I was trying to watch a very important football game when he began to claim that all the good stories had already been written, that the world didn't need any more stories, and we were wasting our time. I began to mount a counterargument about narrative as a central human activity, the value of new stories in a constantly changing world, but then I realized that I was more interested in watching the football game than arguing with this stupid Dick, and so I said, "Yeah, you're right. Forget it."
But Dick wouldn't drop it. And when I didn't respond, he did something that really pissed me off. He picked up his chair and moved between me and the television. Between me and the game. To this day, I remain uncertain as to whether he wanted an honest debate or a punch in the mouth.
Here's the thing: Dick was right in the sense that there are already enough great books that no individual could read them in a lifetime, much less study and appreciate and love them the way they deserve. Also, it's highly likely that my modest contributions to literature will soon be forgotten, if I am lucky enough to be noticed at all. And yet, this is beside the point.
So what is the point?
Today is my last day at Gulf Coast, and writing this blog post will be my last duty for the magazine. I've worked here for three and a half years, and I've read hundreds if not thousands of stories that writers, mostly young writers, have sent to us. A few of them were very good, some were very bad, but most were just okay. I've spent many hours reading these stories, but not nearly as many as the writers who've written them. This is all for the sake of a small literary magazine. It's not an unreasonable question to ask why we do this. What should we tell the haters? What should we tell ourselves?
Recently, I've been rereading a chapter from a book called After Virtue, written by an ethical philosopher named Alasdair MacIntyre. In chapter fourteen, "The Nature of the Virtues," MacIntyre defines a specific type of human activity, which he calls a practice, as "Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended." Translated into non-philosopher speak, a practice is something that people do, at least partially, for reasons that can't be explained to people who don't participate in that practice. These reasons are what MacIntyre calls "internal goods." For example, imagine trying to explain to aliens why humans dance when they hear hip-hop, or what the point of football is. Dancing and football are practices, as is the writing of literature.
There are two types of internal goods, according to MacIntyre. One type is in the execution of the practice and the product that it produces. So a great dance, for instance, justifies itself, just as a great book justifies itself. However, there is a perennial debate about whether small literary magazines and MFA programs are bad for literature and bad for the graduate students. On the first point, I'll claim that American literature is as healthy as it has ever been. There are more books in print than at any point in history, and despite idiotic predictions by people like Philip Roth, they are unlikely to disappear in the next twenty five years. The idea that the occasional mediocre novel written by a graduate of an MFA program somehow takes value away from all of the great literature in the world is, um, stupid. As to the argument that writing is a waste of time if a student isn't going to produce a masterpiece, well, let's just say that I gave up a promising career at PetSmart in order to study and teach writing.
But more to the point, MacIntyre identifies a second type of internal good produced by practices, and he uses the example of a portrait painter:
"It is in participation in the attempts to sustain progress and to respond creatively to moments that the second good internal to the practices of portrait painting is to be found. For what the artist discovers within the pursuit of excellence in portrait painting - and what is true of portrait painting is true of the practice of fine arts in general - is the good of a certain kind of life...It is the painter's living out of a greater or lesser part of his or her life as a painter that is the second kind of good internal to painting. And judgment upon these goods requires at the very least the kind of competence that is only to be acquired either as a painter or as someone willing to learn systematically what the portrait painter has to teach" (italics original).
In other words, I write and read, and you write and read, in order to achieve the good of a certain kind of life that can't be explained to someone who doesn't participate in writing literature, nor can it be judged by someone outside of the practice.
Of course, there's a moral in all of this: the next time a Dick interrupts a football game to attack your practice, you should punch him in the mouth.