All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, by Lan Samantha Chang
Writers will steal anything. They’ve even been known to pillage the exalted writing workshop for material—the very place many of them learned to write and the place many of them currently work. And why not? What earnest 20-somethings will say to each other in the name of “critique” can be comedy gold. Noah Baumbach used a workshop as the setting for a meet-cute in his 1995 film Kicking and Screaming. Francine Prose created a disturbing sexual and creative power-play between professor and student in Blue Angel (2000), and Debra Weinstein skewered thinly veiled New York University in Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. (2004). In perhaps the most well-known send-up, Michael's Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995)—later made into a film starring Michael Douglas—a burned-out fiction professor reckons with himself during a university literary conference with the cringe-worthy name of “Word Fest.”
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, the third novel by Guggenheim Fellow Lan Samantha Chang, isn’t funny, nor particularly original in its treatment of aspiring writers. Surely, some readers will find aspects of it hilarious, but the book is being billed as a serious, literary exploration of creative-writing programs and what can be learned there. The story, about two male poets and the female poets in their orbit, begins at the fictional Bonneville MFA program in 1986. Roman is handsome and driven, terrified of critique, and scornful of his classmates, except for Bernard. The devout Bernard couldn’t care less about publication, nor what anyone thinks of his work—save for Miranda Sturgis, renowned poet and abominable professor. The students are terrified of her, but it will come as little surprise to the reader when Roman begins sleeping with her in an effort to get more useful feedback on his poems. That she sleeps with him required my willful suspension of disbelief. Miranda is a cipher. The reader gets nothing from her but alternating coldness and desperation. Through Roman’s eyes, she’s also trying to mother him—but Roman has mother issues. Chang lays them out plainly, without making them very interesting.
Chang knows how to write, and the prose flows effortlessly. The book is, as they say, “highly readable,” if not all that deep. Chang is an alumna of and currently directs the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the country’s most well known, revered yet reviled graduate program in creative writing. Iowa is the lightning rod for MFA program criticism—that students learn a stylistic sameness that has more to do with trend and theory than true artistic expression and exploration of ideas. Chang herself is obviously aware of myriad program perils, including hero worship of faculty by students. She even makes a stab at recognizing the power of the burgeoning poetry avant-garde that some claim has since taken over at Iowa. But regardless of Chang’s motivations for writing it, her novel isn’t a serious exploration of anything. It is, however, a mildly melodramatic, decidedly old-fashioned yarn about the passions of poets. The book’s most interesting element is the fundamental difference in purpose between Roman and Bernard. While Roman goes on to multiple book publications, prizes, teaching-career success, and crippling self-doubt, Bernard lives in a one-room sublet in New York City, pauper-like, and labors the rest of his days on his “long poem”—which provides the novel’s title—a historical epic about the exploration of Wisconsin. We never get to see Roman’s or Bernard’s poetry. Hal Hartley used unseen poetic genius in his masterful film Henry Fool (1997) as a commentary on subjectivism, but in Chang’s novel it rings hollow rather than purposeful. Rather than a serious exploration of poetry, the novel is reminiscent of old Hollywood films about heart-rending artistic ambition: a grande dame’s love for the stage; a ballerina’s need to dance, dance, dance! The story makes a pit stop at an unnamed small private college in New Mexico—obviously my alma mater, the College of Santa Fe. But Chang sounds like she learned about Santa Fe entirely from tourism websites by having a local professor take a visiting writer to a “bar filled with images of lizards and cacti and hieroglyphs from long-deceased pueblo dwellers.”
Ultimately, what matters to the workshop group winds up having little bearing on one’s own art past the early stages of learning craft, though MFA programs can be fertile ground for the development of beneficial creative friendships. In hindsight, some of what I learned in workshop has meaning that has carried forward to inform my writing in an ongoing way, and other criticisms were revealed as immature or even cruel—none of which rules out workshop as an important, formative experience, but eventually, writers must leave it behind to write on their own, for their own reasons. I wondered, does Chang imagine us all carrying that young, collective, often peevish voice with us forever? If so, it would be a curse.
W.W. Norton & Company, 208 pages
This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 10/08/2010