Okay, I’m going to have more to say about this once I read McGurl’s book. But for now, if you’re interested in
- MFA/MA creative writing programs
- Critical historiography
- The recent history of American literature/fiction
- The history of free indirect discourse and other narrative styles
- “High cultural pluralism,” “lower middle-class modernism,” and the denial of historical consciousness in contemporary American fiction
- Jewish characters in the European novel
- Anxiety and shame and what they have to do with “creativity”
… please go read Elif Batuman’s essay in the London Review of Books on Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. It’s entitled “Get a Real Degree.” (I aspire someday to be as bold, abrasive, and witty as Batuman, but I don’t think I’m constitutionally cut out for it.)
I want to block-quote just about every other sentence in this essay, but I’ll limit myself to the last paragraph, which, while it hardly summarizes the points above, calls for improvement to creative writing programs in ways I sympathize with profoundly:
In the greater scheme, of course, the creative writing programme is not one of the evils of the world. It’s a successful, self-sufficient economy, making teachers, students and university administrators happy. As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one. That said, the fact that the programme isn’t a slaughterhouse doesn’t mean we should celebrate, or condone, its worst features. Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try? The programme stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch. Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. One isn’t stating conclusively that Father Knows Best, but who knows whether Father might not have learned a few useful things on the road of life, if only by accident? When ‘great literature’ is replaced by ‘excellent fiction’, that’s the real betrayal of higher education.
I love and value creative writing programs; I want to teach creative writing. And I think Batuman’s essay is one of the best pieces of critical writing I’ve read in years.
*Heh. See Batuman’s article.