Books Graduate school Writing

Elif Batuman knocks it out of the park*

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
  • It-narratives
  • 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.


  1. I thought Batuman’s review was pretty entertaining to read and I agree that writing programs shouldn’t just teach about prose style, but there were some things that I had questions about. Is it fair to say that writing programs inspire a lot of focus on craft rather than content? They get singled out for that a lot, but I wonder how much of the blame they should shoulder for that. For example, Batuman talks about finding novels lacking in both bad sentences and convincing characters. That reminded me of a passage in a ‘Salon’ essay.

    Much of “A Reader’s Manifesto” is wasted on meticulous analysis of prose style — a choice that does seem at odds with Myers’ withering disdain for the sentence cult — when the truth is that you don’t need an excellent style to write a great novel. Any critic who begins an essay with the example of Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” ought to know that. Dreiser wrote clunky, awkward, tone-deaf prose. His novels are notoriously hard to “get into,” but I still remember where I was and how I felt as I came to the conclusion of “An American Tragedy,” transfixed by the claustrophobic horror of Clyde Griffith’s impending execution. On the level of sentences (or paragraphs, for that matter), DeLillo can write circles around Dreiser, but when it comes to writing novels, Dreiser wipes the floor with the author of “Underworld.”

    DeLillo didn’t go to an MFA program. A lot of writers who have this issue of strong technical content and modest emotional resonance didn’t either. Of course, there are exceptions to *any* trend one can find, and I’m not asserting that writing programs don’t have a role. Maybe they reflect greater interest in craft, rather than generating such. The interest in prose style and technical content seems broader than the MFA workshop.

    I also have doubts about a couple of things she voiced.

    Firstly, the idea that literary writing and elitism are linked because the endeavour is impractical seems to forget that pleasure and insight can be for many people. Also, some literary works did enjoy substantial popularity when they came out even though commercial success and literary persistence have never been strongly linked. Dickens comes up. Lawrence Sterne. Lolita was the #3 selling book of the year. A lot of successful literary works have come from people enrolled in MFAs. From this USA Today list, Alice Sebold, Ian McEwan, and Jeffrey Eugenides were MFAs and Mark Haddon has taught creative writing. Some books can’t reach such a wide audience, sure. But one could argue that it’s art for the purpose of art rather than art for the sake of cultural capital.

    The ‘Salon’ essay singled out John Irving and Alice Hoffman as successful literary writers, and both of them have MFAs.

    On that note, do creative writing programs really leave the past behind and how valid is the America and its independence analogy? Mark McGurl, himself, talked about this saying he found a lot of MFA instructors really well read and pointed out several who he percieved to be interested in a literary past and cited Michael Cunningham among others. I have to admit when I look at The Hours, I see a tremendous reverance for and reference to a literary past. This point also struck me in light of a blog I read. The blogger is a journalist who’s working on her MFA through a low-res program. She’s working on a novel that’s a loose modern day adaptation of ‘Persuasion’ and she was discussing her coursework assignments which included Joyce, Poe, Red Calvelry, and Flannery O’Connor.

    Also, your own novel is built upon Euripedes. Jane Smiley’s ‘A Thousand Acres’ is based on a Shakespeare play. Marylinne Robinson, who teaches at Iowa, says she relearned the canon to write the book which won her the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.

    Finally, as far as replacing ‘great literature’ with ‘excellent fiction’, one of the distinctions between the two is age and I’m not sure that it’s clear-cut (at least now) that creative writing programs have had this effect.

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