You Tell Me It’s the Institution: Creative Writing and Literary History

By Kenneth W. WarrenSeptember 13, 2015

You Tell Me It’s the Institution: Creative Writing and Literary History

The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series “No Crisis”: a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.


I SPENT SIX WEEKS during the summer before my senior year of high school attending a creative writing course called “The Composing Process” at the Phillips Academy Andover Summer Session. It was 1974 and Richard Nixon was being forced from office as a result of the Watergate burglaries and the subsequent cover-up, yet for me the most momentous aspect of that summer was not the nation’s political crisis but the idea that I, a skinny black kid from a public high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, might be on my way to becoming a writer of serious literature. We read In Our Time and Absalom, Absalom!, among other classic work, and I tried my hand with Hemingwayesque short fiction and imagist-inspired poetry, to the praise of my instructor and to what seemed like the admiration of my classmates. The reading was a revelation, and the fact that some of the pieces I wrote took on, to my eyes, the aura of “real” literature gave me some assurance that I, too, might also some day become a “real” writer. Perfecting artistic craftsmanship felt as important as knowing what was up politically, and that feeling helped me justify my as yet unspoken belief that once I got to college I could treat the sciences and social sciences as barely tolerable nuisances while I pursued matters of real importance on the pages of novels, poetry chapbooks, and anthologies. 

In retrospect, the only thing that now seems a little odd about the trajectory I had laid out for myself is that it didn’t include any intention to take creative writing courses or to enroll in the creative writing track. There were many reasons for this, but chief among these was my being burdened with a sense of lack — the feeling that I lacked the intellectual background and the lived experience to give my efforts the erudition and depth of knowing that I found so compelling in the works I admired. Instead of creative writing, I opted for a History and Literature concentration because, notwithstanding the praise I’d received for my early ventures, I felt I still had to become the kind of person who could write real literature. To be sure, I continued to compose poetry along with unfinished drafts of short stories, and I did begin “comping” for The Advocate, Harvard’s literary magazine, until my diffidence and a sense of isolation derailed me, but I remained convinced that the best writers and the best writing were “unschooled” and that I wasn’t missing much by missing formal courses designed for the purpose. The life that would produce the writer was only beginning — or so I thought.

What I had in fact begun was a life that would produce not the novelist or the poet, but the scholar (albeit one with a few published poems here and there and an unpublished novel sitting on his hard drive). Yet in thinking about Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard 2009), which takes up — in a way that can’t help but impress you with its comprehensiveness — the rise of creative writing programs on college campuses, I can see how my own internal debates about fiction, knowledge, and experience were anticipated, reflected, and shaped by institutional imperatives that almost dictated that someone like me, “having conceived a desire to become that mythical thing, a writer” would proceed “as a matter of course to request application materials” of one sort or another.

Indeed, even my sense of isolation as a young black writer among what seemed to be an all-white staff at The Advocate (a feeling that surprised me because I had spent most of my life comfortably in majority-white settings) might be described as a function of, rather than a critique of, the institution of creative writing as a whole. Race, or racial difference, was an important component of the insider/outsider dynamic that has come to define the project of producing American writers academically. This fact was driven home to me recently as I read Junot Díaz’s reflections on his own sense of isolation as a student in Cornell University’s MFA program in creative writing in the 1990s. As Díaz recalls, the program was 

Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC — no people of color — in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program — like none — and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). 

In Díaz’s retelling, this avalanche of whiteness might have caused him to leave Cornell in the way that I left the offices of the Advocate but for his having gotten involved in a Latino student movement on campus that agitated for various changes in Cornell’s intellectual and social life. According to Díaz, the movement counted among its “crowning triumphs” the hiring of Helena Maria Viramontes, the program’s “first fiction faculty of color.” Although Ms. Viramontes did not arrive until after Díaz had graduated from the program, he describes her as “exactly the faculty I had dreamed about during my MFA” — someone who “came out of the tradition of Chicana feminist artists, of women of color artists, the tradition of resistance.” He assures us that in her workshops, unlike those he experienced, there would be no pretense that racism and sexism did not structure much of contemporary social interaction. 

Yet, in listing the various traditions that produced Viramontes, Díaz does not mention that Viramontes is also part of the very system he attacks in his essay. That is, the writer whom Díaz celebrates as an exemplar of the Chicana feminist tradition is also someone who, not so incidentally, received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California at Irvine in 1994. So, if for Díaz, the MFA, writ large, constituted the problem for aspiring writers of color, the MFA was also, ironically, part of the solution. In fact, the idea of the creative writing program as a model seems to have been so deeply ingrained in Díaz’s thinking that not only does he hail the arrival of this properly credentialed Chicana writer as the looked-for remedy for his intellectual and artistic malaise, but in the years subsequent to his leaving Cornell he also co-founds Voices of Our Nation (VONA), a workshop for writers of color, hosted by the University of Miami, Coral Gables. The VONA model does not culminate with the MFA credential, but its workshop structure and its presumption that the production of good writing demands bringing aspiring writers into a classroom setting with their creative writing peers supervised by established writers are perfectly consonant with what McGurl has labeled the Program Era. In championing the cause of ostensible “outsiders” to the system, Díaz has done nothing so much as reveal the extent to which his assumptions and practices make him an insider to the story that McGurl tells in The Program Era, namely, “the rise of the creative writing program […] as the most important event in postwar American literary history.”

The Program Era both reflects and reflects on the very problematic that provides the premise for this “No Crisis” series: the fear that academic literary criticism no longer matters coupled with a counter assertion that literary criticism and history (and possibly even literary theory) continue to speak in vital ways to readers who don’t have English PhDs. If a great part of what has generated this fear has been a sense that the nation’s intellectual life has retreated into the Academy, with the result that specialization and technical precision have elbowed out the capacity to speak accessibly yet intelligently about literature to an audience of well-educated nonspecialists (presumably the role of what were once truly public intellectuals), McGurl perceptively notes that the status of what we regard as serious literature (literary fiction) has likewise become institutionalized. It finds not only its primary audience but also its economic viability within creative writing programs where the salaries that writers earn as teachers enable them to write and publish highly regarded, if often modestly read, works of literature.

Perhaps the most helpful move that McGurl makes in getting his study off the ground is to instrumentalize rather than embrace the handwringing and defensiveness that usually accompany efforts to assess the role of higher education on the nation’s literary and intellectual life and, instead, to note straightforwardly that the dramatic rise in creative programs from a “handful” in the 1940s to more than 350 in 2004 has gone largely unremarked by literary scholars seeking to understand and appreciate serious American fiction in the postwar era. His goal is to turn critiques of this phenomenon into a “non-partisan examination of the reflexivity and systematicity of postwar American literary production.” It’s not that McGurl doesn’t ultimately take a side on the question of whether or not the institutionalization of fiction writing has had more of a detrimental than a salutary effect on the quality of American literature as a whole — by the end of The Program Era he makes it quite clear that to his mind the benefits of this transformation clearly outweigh the deficits. He asks rhetorically: 

Do we not bear daily witness to a surfeit of literary excellence, an embarrassment of riches? Is there not more excellent fiction being produced now than anyone has time to read? 

What kind of traitor to the mission of mass higher education would you have to be to think otherwise? 

Rather, McGurl reaches his conclusion in such a comprehensive and meticulous way that even if one ultimately disagrees with him — and many readers have — it is impossible not to learn a great deal about postwar American writing from this sweeping study.

McGurl’s title, as he tells us in his opening pages, is an allusion to Hugh Kenner’s 1971 landmark study of literary modernism, The Pound Era, which sought to write literary history in terms of the “dominant individual” as the source of creativity and the center of influence. The Program Era does not so much argue for a contrast between the individual and the institution as it describes and analyzes a transformation in which the values associated with the idea of individual modernist genius get incorporated within the dynamics that shape the creative writing program. In McGurl’s words it is precisely the “unresolved tension between the ‘confinement’ of institutionality and the ‘freedom’ of creativity that gives creative writing instruction its raison’d’être as an institutionalization of anti-institutionality.”

If The Pound Era could be faulted for the narrowness of its gauge in terms of the writers on which it focuses in relation to the authority it claims for modernist poetry of the interwar period, The Program Era’s apparently single-minded focus on fiction writing (McGurl apologizes for leaving poetry to the side) in relation to the rise of creative writing programs enables it to encompass an extraordinary number of writers. McGurl’s analysis moves with relative ease and insight across a range of authors including Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Nella Larsen, William Faulkner, John Barth, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Ken Kesey, Wallace Stegner, Ishmael Reed, N. Scott Momaday, Arturo Islas, Sandra Cisneros, Ernest Gaines, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Bharati Mukherjee, to name many but by no means all of the writers who get taken up here. And while McGurl’s attention is not dispensed equally across this spectrum, what gives the book its singular power is the way that its historical materialist account of the MFA program makes it possible for McGurl to produce illuminating readings of many of the novels he discusses. The effects (and affects) of the program model become manifest in the content and form of the fiction produced in relation to it.

McGurl lays out and diagrams the way that the tensions among the creative writing program’s key values — experience (which emphasizes authenticity derived from memory and observation), creativity (which somewhat contradictorily champions giving rein to imagination and fantasy), and craft (which demands acquaintance with literary lore and tradition, along with constant revision and concentration) — map, respectively, onto the Program Era’s “pedagogical imperatives” to “write what you know,” to “find your voice,” and to “show don’t tell.” The immediate familiarity of these dicta to anyone who’s ever fancied writing a story or novel attests to the pervasiveness of creative writing program’s influence on how we think about literature. 

But McGurl illustrates how the various schools of fiction writing that we tend to see as at odds with one another along the lines that Junot Díaz bemoans in his essay (e.g., the writing of white males vs. the writing of peoples of color) are actually interrelated parts of the same system. Under the god term “autopoetics” — the idea that however important representing and understanding the world outside oneself (i.e., realism) may be within intellectual and literary life, the making, the representing, and the expressing of oneself as an individual, a member of a marginalized minority group, or as a serious writer constitutes the beginning and end of literary practice — writers of apparently very different stripes are perhaps more accurately seen as multiple points on the same indifference curve. The “campus novel and the portrait of the artist are, then, two of the signature genres of the Program Era,” but they are merely “symptoms” of the dynamics of the system as a whole. 

McGurl provides helpful terms to identify the key formations of the Program Era, including the term “high cultural pluralism,” to designate ethnic minority writers like Castillo, Cisneros, or Morrison The readings he generates are not meant to shore up static taxonomies (he uses Venn diagrams to represent how they relate to one another), but rather to indicate a relationship that Fredric Jameson, in a probing review of The Program Era, calls dialectical. So that although McGurl works carefully to identify the distinctive features of these various formations, the more important work here is to show how writers engage, allegorize, and negotiate the same insider/outsider dynamic in relation to their writing, whether that be in the way that the avatar of High Literature and absolute artistic freedom finds herself uneasy at having submitted herself to the systematization of the University, or the ethnic writer bemoans a sense of being marooned in the sea of whiteness that threatened to drown Díaz at Cornell, or the white lower-class writer, à la Raymond Carver, confronts a feeling of dislocation and unpreparedness when cast among the pedigreed set for whom elite college admission seems almost a birthright.

Although the primary affect accompanying each of these figures is that of shame, the story hardly ends there. As indicated by the fact that the style most readily associated with MFA fiction is Carveresque minimalism, the reticence imposed by the shame of the déclassé writer has been readily transmuted into the pride of craft, of commitment to writing with a parsimoniousness (in the school of Hemingway) that has shaped the style of legions of MFA graduates. This transmutation, however, has not been limited to the lower-class white writer. For the ethnic writer who initially believes that her experience lies well outside the boundaries of the literary, the MFA becomes, paradoxically, the mechanism by which the kinds of experience once deemed not fit for literature become instead its essence. McGurl quotes Sandra Cisneros’s reflection: 

It wasn’t until Iowa and the Writers’ Workshop that I began writing in the voice I now write in, and, perhaps if it hadn’t been for Iowa I wouldn’t have made the conscious decision to write in this way. It seems crazy, but until Iowa I had never felt my home, family, and neighborhood unique or worthy of writing about.

Alienation produces a sort of psychic repatriation. What one finds in a place far from home are the tools and the authorization to speak for one’s aggrieved but resilient people. 

So, pace Díaz (and not to deny the reality of his felt sense of alienation at Cornell), the writer as POC is hardly an anomaly to the world of the MFA. Rather, in McGurl’s words, “Cisneros, like all artists on campus, is the outsider inside, the inside-outer, if you will.” So, had I only been smart enough or brazen enough (take your pick) to transmute my sense of lack into artistic plenitude, I would now be — well, I would now be in an office like the one I currently occupy, perhaps on the same or a similar college campus, which is to say that in devoting a significant proportion of my scholarship to the study of African-American literature I may have merely performed the scholarly version of Cisneros’s move to make her own experience the subject of her literary output. 

Either way, if we follow McGurl’s line of thinking, we might be inclined to see the proliferation of high ethnic pluralist writers (and the scholars who write about them) as undeniable evidence that American society has gone in the right direction since the 1970s. The growth of mass higher education that has in turn fueled and benefited from the spread of creative writing programs has resulted in a democratization of what we regard as good literature. The stories of Americans of every ethnic and racial background and from up and down the economic ladder have been incorporated into a system that acknowledges and expresses their lives and beliefs and values, resulting in a literary canon that is a more diverse affair than it was 50 years ago. This is indeed cause for celebration. 

Yet, however much this diversity might be reflected in the range of texts being published by programmed writers, Christopher Findeisen, in a forthcoming engagement with The Program Era in PMLA, suggests that institutions of higher education — even the large public ones whose stated mission is to serve the public good — are now more often barriers to, rather than vehicles for, producing equality. Findeisen suggests that this fact has significant implications for how we ought to assess The Program Era. The population of college-going students increasingly reflects the economic inequality of the current moment — poorer students (a population disproportionately black and brown but also significantly white) lack the resources and background to become admissible to the colleges and universities where diverse literary curricula have become widely accepted. If stories of their alienation abound on campus, they, as a group, do not.

Certainly The Program Era, like my own personal odyssey, attests to the ever-increasing influence of higher education on the cultural and intellectual life of the nation. The benefits for those of us who have become insider/outsiders have been quite considerable: good jobs, social and cultural influence, respect. But if we pull back the lens just a little bit, the true story appears to be one of class consolidation within — rather than the economic democratization of — American society. And for those of us who find it pretty to think that diversifying literary fiction within the institution of the Academy puts us on the side of the angels, this truth may be a hard pill to swallow.


Kenneth W. Warren is a professor of English at the University of Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Kenneth W. Warren is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of English in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. His publications include What Was African American Literature? (Harvard, 2011); So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (Chicago, 2003); and Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism (Chicago, 1993). He is co-editor (with Tess Chakalakkal) of Jim Crow, Literature, and the Legacy of Sutton E. Griggs (Georgia, 2013) and (with Adolph Reed Jr.) of Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought (Paradigm, 2009).


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