I was one of those who enjoyed the Oscar Wao book, and then was surprised when it won the Pulitzer. After listening to this Q&A/reading by author Junot Diaz, I now realize the amazing insight of the book: that encounters with racial “others” can be scripted the way encounters with spacemen are written in science fiction.
But I have two new concerns. The first is superficial and it concerns Diaz’s reliance on profanity during his remarks. Many writers don’t speak as well as they write, and so I could discount the reliance on profanity as just this. (But he’s otherwise an extremely effective speaker, so I’m not inclined to say it was hamfisted or accidental.)
Or, it may be related to a second thing I think Diaz got wrong, which is his ending bit criticizing the professionalization of the arts. Briefly, he’s discouraging young artists from following what he sees as the new conventional wisdom of entering a professional degree program (e.g., an MFA) immediately after college. Going straight through means you don’t experience “the real world,” he says, and so you never separate from “the teat” of an academic institution. If you don’t get out of school, into “the world,” and “get your heart broken in three continents” your work suffers. And he suggests that “going straight through” prevents the artist from doing their work, which is “bringing the news of the world” to consumers.*
A couple of quick counter-arguments:
1. Most people live their entire lives depending upon/contributing to large organizations (as workers, welfare recipients, travelers, parents), and so I hardly see how you can arbitrarily say that working in and for one of these (the university) puts you outside of something called “life.”
2. Artistic work clearly fits any conventional (or technical, sociological) definition of “a profession” and has since the late Renaissance. It is nonsensical to describe the arts as undergoing “professionalization,” although I don’t dispute what he means to discuss, which is the increase in the number of arts school graduates in recent decades.
3. Working in and for a university is a great way to get the time and money to go to three continents, but getting your heart broken there seems more like a personal decision.
4. MFA and other arts degree programs increasingly include coursework in business basics for small organizations, grant writing, and provide other training and resources that can provide artists with increased career independence. These skills are much harder to acquire outside of school. There’s an argument to be made that school is the best path to independence.
5. The question of how timid, mimetic, or stunted your art becomes in your 20s is certainly less a function of whether you spend 8 hours per week sitting in a classroom, and much more a function of what you do with the other 160 hours of your week.
6. The idea that artists who go to professional schools make more timid, mimetic, or stunted art is best viewed as an anachronistic stereotype that developed during a period when such programs were few, and the students that entered them had these attributes before they entered.
* I could logically extrapolate from this that Diaz sees profanity as a “real world” way of speaking, and using it is a mechanism to proclaim he is not an avatar of MIT. Additional evidence that he’s after the last can be found in his criticism of Boston universities as the “boot on the neck” of working-class residents of the city, who fail to criticize these truly powerful overlords, and are instead unrepentant racists.