Lan Samantha Chang's All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost
This novel, as stephenhongsohn noted in an earlier post, deviates from Chang's earlier work that focused on Chinese American characters. The central characters in this novel are all ostensibly white or at least racially unmarked in ways that racial minority characters seldom are. (One of few and most distinct physical features described is a character's blue eyes.) The central figure is Roman, who at the beginning of the novel is a graduate creative writing student and poet. The novel unfolds in the three sections--the first takes place in the second and final year of graduate school for Roman; the second jumps ahead a decade or so when Roman has gone on to publish books poetry, win prestigious awards, marry and have a son, and gain tenure at a school in the Midwest where he has taught since his first book; and the third takes place yet another five or ten years later. The novel, then, traces Roman's poetic and personal life as it develops, flourishes, and recedes.
The novel is also very much about poetry, the poetic life, and the teaching of craft (creative writing). I remember when the novel came out a few years ago that there was a slew of articles about how the novel questions the workshop model of creative writing (and the proliferation of MFA programs in the last few decades). Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, one of the most prestigious programs in the country, and it makes a lot of sense that she would explore the idea of whether or not creative and poetic art can be taught.
The characters interestingly seem to sketch out a range of types of writers, with Roman being the one most objectively successful (books published, awards won, tenure gained, etc.) in a particular vein of the professional writer while his graduate school friend Bernard is a foil to his character, a more idealized, old-fashioned type of writer who abjures other work and lives in poverty, secretly working on his long poem but not publishing. Roman's wife, Lucy, was also a graduate school friend, and she mostly leaves behind her creative arts to raise their son. Perhaps the most compelling figure in the novel is the teacher in the first part, the poet Miranda, who is aloof and enigmatic, often devastating in her critiques of students' work in the workshop seminars. One of the moments I loved the most in the novel was when Roman, after having taught creative writing himself for over a decade, reflects on the different expectations students had when he was a student versus his own students. While he and his friends saw their professors as geniuses and all-powerful people (in the novel, he describes the relationship as one of humans to gods, where the students had to sacrifice things to the teachers to gain their whimsical favor), his own students feel entitled to praise of their work and felt that everyone should be published and gain accolades, regardless of any talent, genius, or insight in their work.
I'm curious how much people in the MFA world might still talk about this novel (if they did at all). It might make an interesting novel to read and discuss with creative writing students, who I assume have fairly romanticized ideas about themselves as writers.