The executive director of the nonprofit Seattle City of Literature, author Ryan Boudinot, caused a fracas by criticizing Master of Fine Arts writing students in an essay.
The nonprofit organization backing Seattle’s bid to be named an international City of Literature is suspending operations, after its executive director published an opinion piece in The Stranger stating that, among other things, most “MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy.”
The UNESCO City of Literature program is an international designation awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression. Seattle submitted a formal application to the program in March 2014, supported by the City Council.
Seattle author Ryan Boudinot has spearheaded the effort, and is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature (seattlecityoflit.org). But Tuesday, after controversy over Boudinot’s article reached a boiling point, the organization’s managing director, Rebecca Brinson, sent out an email to followers saying the organization is “shuttering.”
In a statement on the website, Brinson wrote that the organization is “regrouping and considering what the future might look like for us. Unfortunately, there were unresolved differences of opinion regarding leadership and how the organization should be represented in public discourse.”
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In a Feb. 27 essay titled “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” Boudinot made a number of controversial points about academic writing programs, including the contention that “writers are born with talent — Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others.” He also wrote that would-be writers need to read more and work harder.
However, the piece that seemed to generate the most ire was this observation on would-be memoir writers. After labeling most of them narcissists, he wrote, “They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”
The piece generated a national backlash. In the online magazine Salon.com, critic Laura Miller wrote that “Not much of ‘Things I Can Say’ offers a fresh take on the endless MFA debate. More at issue is the swashbuckling, bridge-burning and sometimes contemptuous tone Boudinot adopts and the implication that, as a one-time MFA instructor, he is speaking the secret thoughts of every creative-writing teacher to whom a student has entrusted her fledgling work.”
Boudinot’s critics even registered a website using his name, and called for his resignation from the City of Literature effort.
Boudinot, in an email he sent to city officials posted on the Stranger’s website, wrote that: “The Seattle City of Literature board of directors received a number of requests that they take action against me. They requested that I step down and issue a public apology. I considered this request and decided that I could not in good conscience comply with their request.” Boudinot wrote that the board subsequently decided to resign from the organization.
Citing censorship of writers worldwide, Boudinot wrote that “If Seattle is to stand as a peer among other cities of literature, we cannot set the precedent that a writer’s opinions — however unpopular or provocative — can lead to the loss of that writer’s livelihood. I want Seattle to stand as a place where expression that provokes — and even offends — is protected.”
Boudinot could not be reached for comment.
What comes next for the City of Literature bid? In an email, Brinson said that “putting the brakes on the Seattle City of Literature nonprofit was certainly not a decision taken lightly — many people had put a lot of time and resources into this project. Unfortunately, the organization reached an impasse in regards to leadership and how the organization should be represented in public discourse. …
“However, I don’t believe our immediate goal — getting Seattle a seat in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network — is dead. There are many conversations happening in the literary community about the best ways to move forward, and there is a lot of energy around that effort. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store next.”
Eleven cities worldwide are currently designated Cities of Literature, including Melbourne, Edinburgh and Iowa City, Iowa.