Literary Minutiae at the Present Time

by Jim Booth

Maybe it goes back to Mozart.

There’s a famous anecdote about Mozart and a musical patron. Mozart was working on, I think, an opera, and the patron, who’d come in to listen to rehearsals, made a comment to the effect that he thought one musical passage had “too many notes.” Mozart, not one to suffer fools or critics easily, replied tartly, “It has exactly as many notes as it needs.”

Of course he lost the patron and continued his descent into poverty, despair, and early death. All we got in return was the Requiem.

The image of the tortured artist coughing life away while writing (or composing or painting or whatever) is one we cherish. It comes to us directly from the Romantic period and it certainly is romantic both in style and substance. A good number of relatively sane people (one must qualify when talking about artists, mustn’t one?) have destroyed themselves (and often their talent) trying to live up to that image. In our post-postmodern world rock stars have appropriated it successfully. The reverence shown to Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain shows that the model still works.

Suffering produces great art, right?

Yeah . . . Well . . .

Support and encouragement do their share, too. Some of our great artists worked under patronage and lived to ripe old ages and produced their own pretty well esteemed stuff. To return to music examples, one can easily point to Haydn or Bach, both of whom enjoyed long, comfortable patronage relationships and gave us stuff like, well, The Brandenburg Concertos or The Surprise Symphony. And I seem to remember that Shakespeare turned out a few decent lines while enjoying the patronage of the Earl of Southampton or King James I.

But we’re a long way from the world of noble patrons, and besides, our democratic impulses wouldn’t allow us to consider having a wealthy patron to support our writing (or composing or painting). We’re free, independent artists acting out that Shelley-an Romantic ideal of writers as “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” We answer to no one but our muses.

Yeah . . . Right . . .

Most of the writers who pop up in literary magazines like this one come out of university based creative writing programs. Not only do such writers receive training and advice from those programs, often they are sheltered and nurtured by them and allowed to “work” through fellowships and assistantships that leave ample time for writing–if the writers are disciplined enough to write. The fellowships and assistantships also often provide MFA (or doctoral) students with valuable teaching or research experience that helps them find other posts in the academy where they continue to enjoy the patronage of the university system.

I came out of one of these programs myself. And I wonder what good it’s done me.

Jason Sanford’s essay on minutiae in literature in a recent issue of storySouth pushed some buttons for me. It was a wide-ranging essay, one that covered everything from major scientific discoveries to workshop admonitions for budding writers. In good postmodern fashion it mimicked hyper-mediated discourse in that it leapt from topic to topic, everything connected by a Shandy-esque thread related to that idea of the misheard remark that triggered the essay in the first place, the notion that libraries were being filled by minutiae. Jason even went so far as to suggest that perhaps, like Shandy, it was all just a “cock and a bull.”

Not quite.

Minutiae pervade the literary world. They grow out of two sources. One source is creative writing programs. The other is the university environment itself–particularly English departments.

Creative writing programs are dominated, despite some attempts at reform at the undergraduate level, by the workshop format. The idea is to create a community of writers, a support group that will foster good writing and offer technical, professional, and emotional support.

That’s not necessarily what writers get.

Almost anyone who’s been through a CW program will tell war stories about workshops that became like shark tanks at feeding time. When it is one’s turn to present a piece to the group, one sits horrified while waiting for one of the workshop members to lead the attack, to get the blood into the water so that the group rending-to-pieces-of-one’s-work can begin. Usually comments fall into one of three categories: useful, not useful, and patently destructive. What can happen with too many workshops is that the third category of comment becomes dominant. With writers gifted enough to get admitted to MFA or doctoral CW programs, often the writing problems are minor, more related to taste than technique. And workshop sharks attack these taste differences viciously. Instead of writers supporting each other, the focus seems to be on succeeding by shredding the work of colleagues.

One result of this? Students tend to write pieces that “please the workshop.”

Stuff that pleases the workshop tends to be about as minutely focused as writing can get.

I got your minutiae right here, pal.

The other result of all this–lots of promising writers quit writing fiction or poetry because they buy into the idea that if the workshop doesn’t like it, it must not be any good. Other writers continue, but do so trying to write within the narrow parameters of workshop expectations. If the workshop favors “Iowa” form short stories, they try to write those. If the workshop favors “language” poetry, they try to write that. Later they write strangled work


Those writers who quit often stay in the academy and become English professors. They focus on writing criticism that, these days especially, has little or nothing to do with literature–and less to do with readers. They write articles read by few and books read by fewer. And occasionally they long for the days when they wrote for the joy of discovering life through language.

And when one asks them why they’ve quit writing, in the right circumstance (over a glass of wine at an academic conference, say), one almost always gets the same answer: “What’s the difference? So few read the stuff . . .”

And because these talented people have given up, the world of literature is smaller.

And that’s the worst minutiae in literature of all.

Jim Booth is associate professor of English and Director of the Effective Writing Program at the University of Maryland University College. A former touring rock musician, Jim currently operates the independent record label, Goat Boy Records. You can learn more about him at Jim is a widely published fiction writer and the author of the novels The New Southern Gentleman (Wexford College Press, 2002) and Morte D’Eden, or Tom Sawyer Meets the Rolling Stones (Beach House Books, 2003). He also writes the blog Pulling Out the Savoy Truffle at