The MFA Octopus: Four Questions about Creative Writing

By Mark McGurlMay 11, 2011

The MFA Octopus: Four Questions about Creative Writing

 1. Why do people hate creative writing programs so much?

Well they don't really, not everyone, or there wouldn't be so many of them — hundreds. From modest beginnings in Iowa in the 1930's, MFA programs have spread out across the land, coast to coast, sinking roots in the soil like an improbably invasive species of corn. Now, leaping the oceans, stalks have begun to sprout in countries all around the world, feeding the insatiable desire to be that mythical thing, a writer. Somebody must think they're worth founding, funding, attending, teaching at.

But partly in reaction to their very numerousness, which runs afoul of traditional ideas about the necessary exclusivity of literary achievement, contempt for writing programs is pervasive, at least among the kind of people who think about them at all. In fact, I would say they are objects of their own Derangement Syndrome. Logically, any large-scale human endeavor will be the scene of a certain amount of mediocrity, and creative writing is no different, but here that mediocrity is taken as a sign of some profounder failure, some horrible and scandalous wrong turn in literary history. Under its spell, a set of otherwise fair questions about creative writing are not so much asked as always-already answered. No, writing cannot be taught. Yes, writing programs are a scam — a kind of Ponzi scheme. Yes, writing programs make all writers sound alike. Yes, they turn writers away from the "real world," where the real stories are, fastening their gazes to their navels. No, MFA students do not learn anything truly valuable.

Never mind that all of these answers are — at least in part — demonstrably wrong. The interest in slamming creative writing programs soars above the niceties of measured assessment and factual demonstration, catapulted there by deep-seated feelings about the nature of creativity, which we all love, and school, which we emphatically don't, at least not in this context. The broadsides against creative writing programs have grown so regular in their appearance, and so predictable in their conclusions, that the people who attend and teach in them — and who might have their own misgivings about this or that aspect of the MFA machine — tend to greet the latest salvo with a shrug and a roll of the eyes. As though to say, in a thought bubble, "in the time it took you to write that, another writing program was founded." And yet, in the last year or so, in response to a book I wrote on the importance of writing programs to recent American literary history, a few newish questions about them have been raised. They are no less hostile than the usual questions, and their answers no less foreordained, but their novelty does open up to a broader view of what literary fiction means to us these days, whether it issues from a creative writing program or not.


 2. Is writing inherently elitist?

Elif Batuman thinks so, and she also thinks that to pretend otherwise is "both pointless and disingenuous." She says this in a much-discussed review of my book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, in which she unloads as many charges against the discipline of creative writing as one can easily pack into 8000-plus words (which turns out to be quite a few), and scolds me for my equanimity in the face of its many sins or, rather, dubious virtues.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this sentiment about "elitism" must be coming from some dour old Maoist, but no. For Batuman, literature is inherently elitist and that's okay. Since outsiders are always becoming insiders — "that's just the way things work" — the current generation of insiders needn't worry too much about those currently stuck out in the cold. Indeed, the conscious facilitation of their entry into literary culture can only be a waste of time. When the creative writing program first appeared at Iowa, it represented a new kind of commitment on the university's part to the literary culture of the present; and when, upon the rise of mass higher education in the 1950s and 60s, MFA programs began to multiply, and drew a number of poor kids into their net, some of them wrote books. For Batuman, this was all a very bad idea. And those books, books that we still read? Mere compilations of "socio-political grievances."

Our dour old Maoist would of course see things differently. For him, the problem with the writing program would not be in its sentimental gestures toward aesthetic democracy, which are minor in any case, but the savage inequalities in the system of higher education, not to mention the world at large, that it cannot help but reflect. For him, never mind remarkable cases like Raymond Carver and Sandra Cisneros, who arrived at the Iowa Writers' Workshop from distinctly less-than-privileged backgrounds, the MFA program is really just a game of social privilege or, what's worse, semi-permanent financial indebtedness. For Comrade Dour, the felicitous conversion of outsiders into insiders is not "just the way things work," it is the way they largely don't work (he has the statistics to back him up). Thus, for him, the writing programs that have arisen in capitalism's midst are essentially factories of bourgeois deceit, and frivolous. Their mediocrity is owed not to the weight of sociopolitical grievance dragging them down, but from the weightlessness of the bourgeois-bohemian fantasies upon which they are founded.

Who is right? Well, neither, though I confess that, if I had to choose, I would side with our dour Maoist. Still, I'm impressed with Batuman's willingness to speak so clearly as a cultural conservative, reanimating a whole herd of dead horses from the 1980s Culture Wars, when the right began a long, twilight struggle against the "tenured radicals" of the university. To reduce whole swaths of American literature to an expression of "sociopolitical grievance"; to condescend so witheringly, as Batuman does in her review, to the literature of "developing nations" — these sorts of rhetorical moves are strangely anachronistic, not to mention ill-informed, and would embarrass even the less than politically correct among us a little bit, were we called upon to justify them. It's not that we believe that the airing of socio-political grievances is, in itself, likely to produce a good novel. It's that, when you actually take the time to read a work like Toni Morrison's Beloved, you find something a lot more complicated and compelling than Batuman's snarky slurs would imply. One can be all for the deflation of liberal pieties without being a gleeful ignoramus about it, as though literary journalism needs its own Ann Coulter.

Of course, when one is considering the inherent elitism of literary writing, a lot rides on the precise definition of that term "inherent." Batuman — and the dour old Maoist, too, were he to mouth it — may only be using it to mean something like "realistically," as in: the pleasures of literary production cannot realistically be shared with the masses in any world we are ever likely to see. There is simply no way to provide them with the requisite leisure to cultivate themselves in that way. We need them working at the register.

Yet I don't feel any regret on Batuman's part that this should be so, only contempt for those who have dared to think and act otherwise, in case a more democratic culture turns out to be possible. Indeed, reading Batuman, one begins to suspect that for her the elitism of literature is more than okay. It's an important part of the pleasure one takes when, tyrannized by leisure, one curls up on grandmother's "super-bourgeois rose-colored velvet sofa" (as she described the scene of her own entry into literary culture in her memoir The Possessed) and luxuriates in a duly consecrated literary classic. And one suspects, too, that writing stories of her own wouldn't be the same for her if it weren't also a way of expressing, beneath their wickedly funny satirical veneer, a preening sense of entitlement. To try to share all this too widely would not be realistic. For the Maoist, conversely, a world full of velvet sofas and fine writing might be nice, but other things, the revolution above all, need attending to first.

In the meantime we have the creative writing program as it really is, an elitist and anti-elitist enterprise both. If ultimately I prefer its thriving to its demise, it's not because I can't see the credentialing game it has become, or the financial exploitation of the American dream of perfect self-expression that it sometimes enacts, or even the occasional mediocrity of its literary products. The Program Era puts those facts amply on the table, but it doesn't let them tell the whole story. As even Batuman concedes, creative writing represents something "wonderful about America," though I don't think, as she does, that it's the idea that that "all forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch." That sounds good, but in practice it is so often a sadistic or self-loathing desire. Rather, I think the best thing about America is the idea of democracy upon which it was imperfectly founded, and I'm happy to see any signs, however conflicted, that we can still imagine, and even facilitate, greater social access to the high pleasures of excellent writing.

One wants the People to have these pleasures not because writing short stories will magically lead to a more just world sometime in the future, but because these pleasures are already instances of justice, a positive sharing of the wealth, a social good in the here and now. That will have to do until after the revolution, when creative writing classes will be held on every playground and in every pub, everyone will have time to attend them, and the tuition will only be 95 cents.


 3. Are writers ashamed of being writers?

On its face this seems like a very odd claim, but Batuman makes it, taking off from the discussion of shame and literary minimalism in my book. My idea was to link figures like Raymond Carver to the rise of mass higher education and the creative writing class, where producing small, understated short stories enabled students like him to avoid embarrassing themselves. The point was not to mock this exercise of literary caution — like many, I think several of Carver's stories are immortally good — but to demonstrate the extraordinary intimacy of postwar American writers with the culture of the school, and to find new ways to appreciate their offspring.

But for Batuman, shame is a much larger matter than that — it is the reason postwar American fiction is so bad. Unwilling to embrace the inherent elitism and impracticality of what they do, hoping to legitimize what they do as serious work, American writers fall prey to the "fetish of craft." Obsessing over technique, revising their work until they get it just right, they forget about everything else, and no longer show us "real thing[s] in the world," things we could possibly care about. "What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?" she once asked, as if suggesting shoddiness, instead, might do the trick.

Now there's no question that postwar American literature has been overtly concerned with craft. Since the advent of industrial and now post-industrial society, "craft" has stood for the deeply satisfying sorts of labor left behind in the entry of workers into the factory or cubicle. Intuiting their link to industrial bulk production, Henry James had been troubled by the "loose baggy monsters" of Victorian literature, and his acolyte Percy Lubbock wrote a book called The Craft of Fiction to flesh out the Master's ethos of attention to formal detail. A decade or so after that, brandishing metaphorical whips, the folks at Iowa and elsewhere brought the spirit of craft into the writing workshop, where it remains to this day as a foil both to the romantic idea of pure inspiration to which so many young writers fall prey, and to the idea that literature should be a dumping ground of reportage.

Although Batuman's review doesn't find time to mention it, my book begins with a long analysis of the writer Thomas Wolfe, who many once thought to be the equal of his contemporaries, Hemingway and Faulkner, but is now more likely to be confused with the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities. The original Wolfe was famous for loaf-of-bread-sized works of overheated romantic effluence like Look Homeward, Angel and You Can't Go Home Again, but their abundant faults had nothing to do either with Wolfe's unwillingness to get out and see the world or with a lack of knowledge of literary history. He was an enthusiastic traveler and voracious reader of the classics, and found ample occasion to demonstrate it in his own writing. Rather, in retrospect, his sin was excessive pride, a confidence in his verbal abilities so total that it made him a horribly overbearing blatherer, the literary maximalist par excellence. It was only through the herculean efforts of his editor, Max Perkins, that his fiction had any form at all, and when the initial thrill of his verbal charisma wore off literary history was left with a mountain of indigestible crap.

There's not a little in Elif Batuman's writerly ideals that reminds one of Thomas Wolfe, who like her was an unashamed "aristocrat" of letters, except when it served him to represent himself otherwise. Like her, too, Wolfe was intoxicated with the daringness and epigrammatic cruelty of his pronouncements on the mediocrity of the lower orders. In fact, having found himself in perhaps the first graduate class in creative writing ever offered, George Baker's Drama 47 at early-20th century Harvard, he mocked his fellow students for thinking that attention to craft could help them succeed as writers. Genius must be bigger, bolder and louder than mere technique.

One can conveniently date the rapid deflation of Wolfe's reputation with the appearance of an essay called "Genius Is Not Enough," Bernard DeVoto's takedown of Wolfe, published, as chance would have it, in 1936, the year of the founding of the Iowa Writers Workshop. And if, as the discipline developed at Iowa and elsewhere, teachers of creative writing have often felt that their first order of business is in warning young writers away from models like Thomas Wolfe, it isn't because they don't understand that pride is important to writing. Rather, it's because they understand that overweening pride in self-expression is endemic to American life, especially among those who think of themselves as future winners of the Nobel Prize.

Give me the microphone! Let me have my say! Blah blah blah! This is the norm — the literary equivalent of the delusional shower-crooners who try out for American Idol — to which the disciplining ideal of craft responds. In this shameless world, when so many think that the Great American Novel is going to pop onto their laptop screen at any minute, when, indeed, any idiot thinks she can be elected vice president or senator — and, even more frightening, is probably right to think so — can we please have a little more shame?

This is the other, complementary side of the egalitarianism of the creative writing program and its invitation to the social masses to think of themselves as potential writers. If craft means knowing your business; if it means understanding how stories work, how they are best structured to produce certain effects, what must be put in (including, possibly, lots of research about "real things in the world") and what left out; if it means spending at least as many hours working on your writing as you expect readers to spend reading it, then there can never be enough concern for craft. Far from simply being an expression of shame, or a call to "workmanlike" mediocrity, craft is how one earns one's pride in one's writing.


4. Is contemporary fiction really so mediocre?

One hears this idea floated all the time. It has become a truism among cultural sophisticates like Elif Batuman, who advises that if you are looking for a compelling "juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world," you would be better off listening to the radio or reading a memoir than wasting your time on a work of contemporary literary fiction. Nonfiction is "about some real thing in the world," whereas contemporary fiction is about — what? About almost nothing, one gathers, since "some real thing in the world" is a fairly broad category. Besides which, fictions are undeniably fictional. For her, this sad state of affairs is to be blamed on the rise of the creative writing program, which, building walls of shame around our writers, blocks their view of things that matter.

No wonder, then, that my claim in The Program Era that the postwar period can claim "as rich and multifaceted body of literary writing as has ever been" struck her as grounds to doubt my taste, if not my sanity. I confess that part of my motive for adopting this position, at first, was that no one else has ever wanted to occupy it. Some instinct told me that praise would, in this case, be a more powerful critical instrument than blame, troubling my colleagues in creative writing (What, he doesn't hate us? What's up with that?) just as much as it would the members of my own uncreative tribe, the literary scholars, for whom contempt for the discipline of creative writing had become lazily automatic.

But this claim wasn't only rhetorically strategic. As I thought about the larger-than-ever talent pool from which the literary field has been drawing in the postwar period, and about the larger-than-ever investments, personal and institutional, currently being made in pursuit of good writing, it seemed not-insane to wonder if there wasn't something a little facile in the "I hate the writing program" program pursued ad nauseam by some of my scholarly colleagues and literary journalists like Batuman.

And then there were the several years I spent trying (and naturally failing) to explore the full breadth of postwar fiction in order to see it for what it actually is. Partial though my view remained, it seemed to me, looking out over a literary landscape upon which I could see Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Robert Stone, E.L. Doctorow, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, John Irving, Marilynne Robinson, Nicholson Baker, Tim O'Brien, Claire Messud, Maxine Hong Kingston, Peter Matthiessen, Mona Simpson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Richard Russo, Anne Beattie, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Powers, Chang-Rae Lee, Barbara Kingsolver, Nicole Krauss, Michael Cunningham, Sam Lipsyte, Leslie Silko, Colson Whitehead, Dave Eggers, Ha Jin, George Saunders, Junot Diaz, Yiyun Li, Denis Johnson, and Jonathan Safran Foer hard at work — well, what can I say, that landscape did not look to me like a wasteland. And that's without considering either the more demanding "avant-garde" talents (Ishmael Reed, Ben Marcus, Lydia Millett, Mark Danielewski, Shelly Jackson, Tao Lin and many others) who play to more specialized audiences, or the great many talented writers of popular genre fiction now at work; or, for that matter, all the great Program Era writers, from Flannery O'Connor to David Foster Wallace, who died along the way.

Now, to be sure, not all of these writers have either attended or taught in a creative writing program. But most of them have, so if they are cumulatively as bad as everyone says, perhaps the program is indeed the culprit. And yet, looking at the large and incredibly various body of work this group (and I could have named even more; I feel like I stumble upon an interesting new writer every week) have already produced, it is amazing how generous the program has been in allowing each to be bad in his or her own way. From the richly flowing realism of Franzen or Russo or Eugenides on the one hand, to the compact strangeness of Saunders or Lydia Davis on the other, and everything in between, the forms of literary lameness are apparently very many. More likely, though, is that blanket naysayers like Batuman don't really know what they're talking about. They have built their assessment of contemporary fiction not from any systematic survey of the field, but from the inchoate emotions they feel upon entering a bookshop. It's so much easier to dismiss all of the literature of our time with one dramatic wave of the arm than to accept your fate as yet another minor writer, a small part of an interesting new configuration in literary history.

But more broadly, I think what is going on in these indictments of the mediocrity of contemporary fiction is a kind of unacknowledged mourning. What is mourned is not good new novels, of which there are still plenty — of which there may be more than ever — but the passing of a culture in which the novel was more central than it is now, when it has to compete for our attention with so many other forms of storytelling, with movies and television, and now also with that great engulfing time-suck, the internet. It may be that these new media, in sync with the advance of technology on all fronts, are better equipped (literally) to bear witness to the essential qualities of our point in history. The mistake — but mourning is so often irrational — is in blaming novelists for this state of affairs, as though there was something they could or should have done to stop The Wire from being so unbelievably good.

But, really, the situation isn't necessarily so dire. One of the benefits of looking at postwar fiction through the lens of the creative writing program, as my book does, is in how it encourages a different kind of appreciation of our literary culture, one less concerned with measuring the True Greatness (or not) of the novels of our time than with exploring the many ways that literary fiction still matters, even now, to huge numbers of people. This is part of what one sees when one looks at the daily endeavor of 300-some-odd creative writing programs in universities across the land to produce more excellent writing, or at the scads of little magazines people get together to produce in print or online, or at the thousands and thousands of reading groups that are probably meeting as I write these words. For all of these people, and for the millions more who simply like to spend some time alone with a book in the old-fashioned way, the novel is alive and well, and the desperate opportunism of those who insist otherwise holds no interest.


LARB Contributor

Mark McGurl is Professor of English at Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and Rise of Creative Writing.


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