The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?
We talk with writers, editors & entrepreneurs about, really, anything. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them. Small edits have been made for structure.
Episode IX: "Here lies a Man who wrote the Truth"
In this installment, I speak with Dana Schwartz, the voice behind @ThatGuyInYourMFA and @DystopianYA. Topics include how she started @GuyInYourMFA, the root of her humor, self-awareness, the guy in the picture, dating, clichés, a special lightning round of questions & more.
I’m here with Dana Schwartz, she’s a writer and a comedian, and the creator of two viral satirical Twitter accounts: @GuyInYourMFA and the newer @DystopianYA.
Dana has a true, inimitable talent for lampooning a “type”, getting so close to the voice itself it can make you uncomfortable. A sample tweet from @GuyInYourMFA (which has over 40k followers at the time of interview) is “He didn’t fall in love with her. He fell in love with the IDEA of her”. @DystopianYA, which has 22.6k followers (or ~200 followers for every tweet), satirizes novels like Divergent, i.e. “Even with Anthem so close to me, dark hair and clear green eyes, I couldn’t stop picturing Ermias, with his light hair and clear green eyes”.
As a side-note, a mention last night of this upcoming interview resulted in a debate (lasting hours) on the patriarchy. Before we get started, bridge the digital divide: Where are you? What do you see? How do you take your coffee?
I am currently at the Brown University student center, sitting in a swivel chair in the corner and watching a few other students procrastinating on their laptops around me. And I take my coffee black. Just like @guyinyourmfa.
Fine. Why did you start @GuyInYourMFA? What’s the proper origin story?
Even though I'm a public policy concentrator, I've always loved literature and writing and taken plenty of classes on both subjects. I was in a campus production of Sweeney Todd, and I was waiting in the green room during a particularly long break. I had a stack of student pieces to critique and I was getting so frustrated at the type of story I'd seen again and again. So in a desperate attempt at self-amusement, I started the account, trying to capture "that guy" as well as I could through tweets and correcting other peoples' tweets as if they were workshop pieces.
In your experience, what type of posts become more successful (more favorites, retweets)?
I think the ones that point out the sexism and racism that's inherent in the Young White Male Writer identity.
How much of the humor, do you think, is based on the character being male? How much of it is focused just on the literary pretension?
That's a good question. I think it is a combination. In a lot of ways, the character could only be male. It's this profound arrogance on the part of a young man who thinks he's the next Kerouac or David Foster Wallace (and of course, the literary examples of "this type" are all male), but I think there's some @guyinyourmfa in every writer. A lot of his "ideas" are ones that I've come up with at some point in my career, and just needed the presence of mind to realize how pretentious it was to turn it into a tweet and not my next story.
Self-awareness, that unicorn of knowledge. Do you think this guy is a product of our times? He probably didn’t exist 20 years ago (at least in such a blatant manifestation), do you think he’ll exist in 2035?
I think every generation has its own version of a "hipster." He'll absolutely exist in 2035, probably re-watching Breaking Bad and telling everyone else how much better it was than everything that's now on the virtual plasma screens.
Plasma—the technology of the future. Who’s the guy in the profile picture?
Hahaha it's my friend Simon, just another senior at Brown. I had originally had a picture I found by googling "guy in slouchy hat" but it was soon pointed out to me that you can’t go around using random pictures.
Is Simon properly enjoying his 15 minutes?
I don't think he's gotten recognized! I do get asked out a bit on the account, usually by women, and I like sending those to him.
I’m sure he likes it too. Have you lost any friends over it? Do you find that people have begun to watch their words around you?
My family likes to joke that anything they say is going to wind up on twitter, and I do think that the students in my workshop last semester might have gotten a little nervous....
Do you have a family full of literary-pretentious males?
Haha not at all! But they seem to understand that I've found a way to harness the power of the internet.
I bet. Do you think it changed their writing or discourse for the better?
I hope so! I like that @guyinyourmfa has sort of become a shorthand for that character we all know. Pointing out tropes just makes people aware of them. As for losing friends...I hope not!
Satire is a bit underappreciated, in how it helps usher out our less savory traits. What has been the most frustrating part of it?
It really hasn't been frustrating! It's been really fun and gratifying. I guess the only frustrating thing is that twitter followers aren't directly proportional to money or boys trying to date me.
Ha. Have you mentioned your alter ego on dates?
I think it usually comes up, haha.
When I imagine how every girl imagines their worst date, I see a guy talking nonstop, mansplaining, basically being that guy. I can only guess that once @GuyInYourMFA comes up, they're a bit less insufferable?
Hahaha I would hope so. Although I would also hope by now I've learned not to date That Guy any more.
What's the average age of That Guy?
I'd say early to mid-twenties. Old enough to have read Gogol and Ginsberg but too young to realize that he may not be as gifted as he seems to think he is.
Does That Guy ever end up writing the next Great American Novel? Without naming names, I can imagine some of the current "greats" being That Guy at a less delightful part of their life.
He just might (or at least, a novel that some critics THINK is the great American novel) The real essence of Guy's character exists outside whether or not he has talent – it's in this commitment to writing these types of stories that he thinks of as Profound and Deep, more convinced of his own talent than the worth of his work.
That's a great way of putting it. Who are some of your favorite authors?
Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Vonnegut, Heller, Flannery O'Connor, Daniel Handler, Emily St. John Mandel, Karen Russel, Curtis Sittenfeld, Donna Tartt. Oh and JK Rowling, of course.
That was assumed.
For humor, I adore Simon Rich and BJ Novak.
Any genre reading? (Not that I would even think of asking your alter ego that.)
Growing up, I loved "Ender's Game." I was obsessed. I even wrote my college essay on how disappointing it was to find out what a shitty person Orson Scott Card was.
Okay, @DystopianYA. @GuyInYourMFA brings the worst out of a certain type of person, whereas @DystopianYA targets an entertainment genre. So, you know, of course it can’t really ever redeem itself, or change. Is there a difference in how you feel when writing each?
Yeah, that's a really good question. I think for @guyinyourmfa, I tap into that personality within myself. I'm a writer, and obviously I'm insecure in a lot of ways about how "literary" or sophisticated I come off as to the outside world, so I use that to create an exaggeration of all of those tendencies. With @DystopianYA I get to just think back to all of the genre books I've read and their movies and think back on what ridiculous elements.
But then again, how I "feel" when writing each doesn't last much longer than the few minutes of writing and composing a tweet of 140 characters. Unlike a longer project, neither really has the chance to burrow into my brain.
Fair. Would you guess that Veronica Roth has heard of @DystopianYA?
Oh gosh... I don't know! I hope if she has, she knows it's a loving parody. I grew up in one of the Chicago suburbs near Northwestern (where she attended and wrote Divergent) and my sister went there, so I feel a strange kinship with her. Also I'm incredibly impressed/envious by how young she's been able to achieve mainstream success. It's far easier to mock something than to create something.
It sure is. And what do you think the mocking says of the thing itself? Once we can successfully satirize a genre (of book or person), do you think the genre is, effectively, over? Or does it mean the opposite, a confirmation of its ascendency?
Can it be both? Maybe things are over when they reach their peak. These stories might not take place in post-apocalyptic cities anymore, but even though the set dressing might change I think a lot of the YA clichés will endure because they have become cliché for a reason. Being "special" and with two members of the opposite sex in love with you is a very particular wish fulfillment that resonates with young readers.
Very true. Do you have any other projects brewing, either an extrapolation of your twitter personas or something entirely different?
I am! I'm trying to do as much writing as I can before I have to leave college and enter the real world. I am trying to turn @DystopianYA into an actual meta YA novel. I'm also writing a tv pilot and a novel unrelated to twitter. You know, in between actually passing my classes so I can graduate.
I'll be looking out for all of that. Before I let you go, I'd like to allow you to put on your @GuyInYourMFA hat and have a little lightning round of questions. Cool?
Let's do it!
J R. I would say Infinite Jest but it's far too mainstream.
What’s for breakfast?
Black coffee and burnt toast. I forgot to eat the toast. I smoked a cigarette on the way to workshop.
What was your ex-girlfriend’s deal? Like what was her 'deal'?
She just existed on a different plane than I did. She wasn't able to grasp the complexities of being a modern man today. She watched The Bachelorette unironically. We used each other in our own cold, manipulative ways, and then fell apart. We were a lot like the crumbling church outside of town in that way.
What’s your biggest flaw?
I'm unwilling to conform to reach mainstream success. It's definitely a flaw. I could be rich if I was willing to pump out thrillers for the mindless masses to throw away on airplanes.
Drink of choice.
Whiskey. Or absinthe.
Are you parents proud?
They would be, if they understood the importance of artists peeling the film away from Society.
Who’s today’s most overrated author?
Dostoyevsky. Everyone reads him in English. His genius is only understood in Russian.
What will your tombstone say?
Here lies a Man who wrote the Truth.
Dana, you are officially off of the hotseat. Thanks for playing, and thanks for the interview. You were wonderful.