We’re a month-and-a-half into the new year, and I’ve been busy as ever. Not so busy as to not partake in the arts and culture scene that I adore. Just too busy to sit behind a computer and tell you all about it. With that said, forgive me if I come bearing gifts of tales a bit too late to be trendy, but too splendid to be forgotten.
Such is the case for Dana Schwartz‘s new book The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon. I read Schwartz’s book back in mid-November 2019 shortly after its release, and immediately wanted to share my thoughts. However, the end-of-the-year chaos and the beginning-of-the-year whirlwind left me with little time to gather my two cents. But remember what I said about being too splendid to be forgotten?
So here I am, ready to give you a deep dive on this biting satire of literary heavyweights popular in Western circles because I know you were all waiting with bated breath. 😉
I’ve followed Dana Schwartz’s parody Twitter account @GuyinYourMFA, the inspiration for the book and the persona she adopts throughout, ever since she launched the idea in 2013 as a clever rebuke aimed at hipsters of the XY persuasion who often litter the creative writing MFA programs in universities across the U.S.
However, one need not be a MFA student to grasp the concept of Schwartz’s persuasive nom-de-net. This would-be writing phenom is the voice of
every most white male students pursuing a career in the written word who believe not only in their own inherent greatness, but in their inevitable rise to stardom, which would happen much faster if only the rest of the world would just stop being so superficial and other writers would stop being such sellouts.
As a symbol of both demi-hipsterdom and respectable yuppie elites, Schwartz describes “Guy” in her short introduction from his own point-of-view:
“I’m happy you’re here. Or at least I would be happy if I didn’t maintain an air of disaffected ironic detachment at all times. You’ve probably seen me sitting on the quad, rolling my own cigarette, loose tobacco spilling into my worn copy of As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem.”
When not providing trenchant reviews full of derision and disdain at his fellow MFA candidates during class peer review sessions, Guy is busy waxing effusive about all the literary greats that have inspired him to pursue his degree, even though he’s certain no degree program can truly appreciate the unadulterated talent that he possesses. The literary greats he speaks of are all, of course, white male novelists.
As a former English Literature major myself, I couldn’t wait to see what Schwartz could do when she was not restricted to a character limit and the fickle nature of social media fandom. As a lover of some of these white male novelists, I also couldn’t wait to see if I, too, would see myself in Guy. Although I am sans a Masters degree in Fine Arts, white skin, male identity, and an impressively worn copy of a David Foster Wallace book, I can certainly hold my own in the “well-read” circles of the Western Canon fanbase. I read my first Shakespearean play at age 9, studied theater and literature abroad in the U.K. during college, and wrote my senior thesis on the paternal relationships between Ahab, Starbuck and Ishmael in Moby-Dick. I’m no lightweight, kids.
With my writer’s education and perfected look of existential ennui, I devoured Schwartz’s book within 48 hours, and immediately recognized how she not only managed to achieve a successful crossover from digital parody fame to published satirical humor you’d be proud to display on your bookshelf (in the “I actually read these” section, of course), but she also managed to anger a few MFA bros along the way. I couldn’t be more proud if she were my own uber-successful friend who could now afford to treat me to lunch.
Why are some future, present and past MFA bros upset? Well, some could say many of them see themselves in Guy, and they did not give Schwartz permission to include their likeness in her work. Others could say it’s because some of them feel an “attack” on white male novelists who may be deeply flawed in multiple areas of their lives unrelated to their writing career is not a reason to downplay their genius or render them the subject of unfairly leveled social commentary. Others just think she’s a hater. Case in point:
“Why only white men in this book? Simple: they’re the most important ones. They are the most widely read, the most celebrated, the most influential, and, if I’m going to be blunt, the most talented. I mean, sure, there are some ladies who have had a pretty good go at the whole ‘writing thing,’ but how could a woman ever capture my experience? And by ‘my experience,’ I mean my experience as a white man.”
Starting with William Shakespeare, accompanied by the free-spirited drawings of New Yorker illustrator Jason Adam Katzenstein, Schwartz takes us through the most revered of the Western Canon as if we’re leafing through a high school yearbook complete with famous quotes, fun facts, a list of the author’s most impressive works, a tip or two about how to emulate their lifestyle, and a pseudo-earnest detailing of why Guy finds them to be the bee’s knees and you should to. Each writer is even given a class popularity designation. Charles Dickens was voted Most Popular. Lord Byron was, of course, Biggest Flirt. J.D. Salinger, Least Social. Charles Bukowski, Most Likely To Get Expelled.
Along the way, we are treated to a total of 34 novelists who make Guy feel like a man’s man, a tortured artist, and a budding authority on all things literary at the same time. Readers are also offered advice and tips as they wind their way through the pages. We get to learn how to make the perfect mojito [Hemingway], how to pinch a line from a Shakespearean play and use it as a book title [Faulkner], and how to make your wife miserable in life and death by forcing her to transcribe your magnum opus of 1,225 pages by hand no less than 8 times while you’re alive, then kicking the bucket and leaving all your royalties to a fringe spiritual movement [Tolstoy]. Just to name a few.
It’s fair to say that Schwartz’s main criticism comes from readers who pick up on her less-than-subtle jabs at these great writers of the Western Canon and their conduct beyond the printed page. Although @GuyinYourMFA is the voice of the book, it is clearly Schwartz who cheekily exposes the flaws of our most treasured writers, especially in their relationships with the fairer sex. Schwartz obviously wants us to think of the whole picture when we talk about praising the “male genius,” not just their output. Whether it be their philandering, domestic abuse, not-so-age-appropriate marriages, or the denying of your child as your own, the bold satirist shines a light on the shadowy side of our masters of the written word. Most of it fair; some of it less so.
One can say it isn’t exactly reasonable to judge those who lived in the 18th and 19th century by our 21st century ideals. Two hundred years ago, young women were expected to marry older men to secure their financial well-being; and of course, older men preferred to marry younger women to secure themselves an heir to inherit their wealth, and to be, well, … gross. So in some ways, Schwartz’s subversive commentary feels a bit heavy handed. Our social expectations were different, and May-December relationships weren’t as frowned upon as they are today, because marrying for love was simple not the norm.
In other moments, the full story provides more context. Yes, Jack Kerouac denied that his daughter was indeed his kin at first, but as those of us who are fans of the Beats know Kerouac and his lady love were in an open relationship and each had multiple partners during their time together. It was quite possible that Jan Kerouac was indeed not his daughter, so he had grounds to be skeptical. However, he did not have grounds to wait until she was 9 years old to decide to finally take a paternity test.
Regardless of how you slice it, Schwartz pulls no punches in her commentary, which leaves all but one white male author walking away somewhat untarnished — the one and only Kurt Vonnegut. What do you know? He was voted Most Dependable. Schwartz even offers us a brief guide on how to deal with rejection letters in a manner that Vonnegut would likely appreciate if he were still with us.
Overall, The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon is fun, irreverent and educational. Regardless of whether your favorite author was a scoundrel with the ladies [Lord Byron] or never missed an opportunity to paint themselves as the definitive perspective on post-9/11 trauma [The Jonathans – Lethem, Franzen, and Safran Foer], you walk away with insight on who these famed novelists are beyond their creativity and how their lives affected the stories they told, and could perhaps inspire some MFA candidates to live a similar existence in hopes of following their path.
Awareness of our social need to deify people who delight us with their creativity is not an unintended consequence of Schwartz’s book. We can still love Saul Bellow’s Herzog or Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho while recognizing that the person behind the keyboard is perhaps not worthy of absolute imitation. Writers, as artists and human beings, are allowed to be flawed. And we can appreciate Philip Roth’s literary work without pretending he was above reproach.
My only true complaint about Schwartz’s book is the fact that it excludes some major names that I would have loved to learn Guy’s take on. What are his thoughts on Mark Twain? Herman Melville? T.S. Eliot? Surely @GuyinYourMFA has an opinion on Emile Zola! But I understand satirical books are better served by brevity, and it’s not a bad idea to leave the readers wanting more.
I recommend Schwartz’s book to anyone with a desire to learn more about who feeds our cultural canon on the printed page. Even if you’re familiar with every author’s work included in the book, you’ll likely learn something new about the writer or at least why a Guy in Your MFA program reveres them so much. And if you’re a guy in a creative writing MFA program, please read the Afterword and don’t be that Guy.