- Reading Henry Miller in the New Millennium
Sit in on any creative writing course and you are likely to see a lot of unwarranted praise. The writing workshop as it exists today is equivalent to group therapy, where the professor—instead of reading every MFA candidate’s work with a critical eye—applauds even the most embarrassing attempts as works of creative genius.
The issue is that writers in the MFA programs rarely read the greats. How could they? The MFA workshops typically consist of a three-hour weekly meeting where we get to hear embarrassing attempts at memoir or poor imitations of Alice Munro. The MFA reading lists I have seen have two primary texts: some kind of writer’s handbook full of silly exercises more appropriate for old ladies and works of contemporary fiction—provided by the professor’s friends.
Professors, critics, editors, and writers feel the overwhelming necessity to give lip service to the “concerns” of authors who are a racial minority or who identify with an alternative lifestyle. The politically correct environment of contemporary arts has brought on this necessity. Today, every genre has a community that serves as a “safe space” for these groups. They all come complete with a university funded journal, a small press, and a set of conferences at AWP every year. Even the parties at AWP are designated by genres. If you do not fulfill the aesthetic or moral aspects of any such genre, you are unwelcome. Me and Joe Haske—another working-class writer—accidentally walked into a party sponsored by a big east coast writer’s retreat one night in LA. We were quickly made aware of our mistake when an older man in a camel hair jacket turned to us and said, “Well young men, you certainly look like you have a few tragic stories to tell.” The rest of the crowd snickered and we finished our drinks, drank a few more, and then headed back to our bar on skid row.
I don’t take issue with the growing diversity of contemporary literary fiction. If it weren’t for the encouragement of diversity, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to study where I have and then work with American Book Review, Pleiades, or Boulevard. I do take issue with the vacuum it has created. We have become a culture that is afraid of stepping out of our groups. We no longer challenge our assumptions and we have failed at creating a more complex body of literary work.
In the world of literary fiction today—both in MFA programs and in the journals—the works of Miller would have no place because they challenge the politically correct assumptions we have come to accept as fact.
When Miller is talked about it’s usually in the context of his antifeminist and hyper-misogynistic attitude. One recent critic of Tropic of Cancer (1934) asserts if it “has traveled from banned book to spiritual classic that tells us ‘who we are’? A reasonable objection is that ‘we’ cannot include women, unless a woman is comfortable with her identity as a half-witted ‘piece of tail.’” Is it reasonable to object to Miller’s work as one that is unacceptable for contemporary readers—particularly female readers? And what do we make of the female readers that find other valuable aspects of Miller’s “spiritual classic”? Further, should we ban all books that portray women in a negative way? Perhaps the Old Testament and Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) should be off the shelves, as well?
When we evaluate a work of art we should keep in mind the importance of analyzing it with the complexity it deserves. To consider any work of art from any time period with one-sided judgments does a great disservice to our culture.
When we threaten the legitimacy of Miller’s art because of one narrow aspect of his work, then we risk making the same mistake this country has made in its attempts to ban the works of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.
Like Whitman, Melville, Twain, and countless other American writers, Miller’s work provides a wealth of philosophical and...