Every couple of months, a reader sends me a link to a blog post denouncing the influence of Master of Fine Arts programs in creative writing, apparently in the conviction that such challenges are rare. Yet surely the only thing more unkillable than MFA programs is the idea that no one dares criticize MFA programs.
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So Mark McGurl's 2009 book, "The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing," actually was rather daring: McGurl presumed to look at the work produced by MFA holders and find it good. He asserted that university creative writing programs have had a profound effect on American fiction in the past 50 years, but he really went out on a limb when he stated that their influence has resulted in "a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature."
Elif Batuman, an American academic and author, does not agree, and in a lengthy review of McGurl's book for the London Review of Books, she laid out her own objections to "program fiction." Then McGurl, manifestly stung by what he regarded as Batuman's "snarky slurs," wrote a slightly less lengthy riposte for a new publication, the Los Angeles Review of Books. He accused Batuman of being a shameless "cultural conservative" who thinks the "masses of the world" should not presume to encroach on the elite terrain of art. Each of these writers misrepresents the other to a certain degree but McGurl is guilty of greater distortions (as is often the case when one is angry). The back-and-forth has kindled yet another furor of denunciations and soul-searching on the merits of MFAs. (Laura Miller, “Are MFA programs ruining American fiction?,” Salon, 17 May 2011)
The times we live in
Not about creative writing, but stuff within academic journals has become less interesting. That is, I think the problem I'm glad we sense has more to do with the times we live in than anything else. If MFA/New York loses cred, if DIY U gains real life, my guess in fact is that it'll be more about giving the wolves more space to roam and cowing those who, even if they're not up to something interesting, will keep the tradition alive, and perhaps have children who may yet be, than anything else. Our Romantic period ended sometime late '70s; we're living in the period that subsequent generations skip over. Even if we all get a grip on it, I'm not sure if we can beat it.
There does seem to be a sense that the MFA right now is about creating a class of innocents sheltered from what everyone else is experiencing, yet believe that they, especially, can actually get the core gut of it all. I suspect THEY'LL suspect soon enough that this isn't quite true, but by that time the Depression will have worsened, and they'll have left the schools to really get at the grime -- which, still, they won't really get at all. That is, I think they're being nurtured as sources of humiliation for the body public. Not as bad as the military, but not good.
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As Morris Dickstein makes clear in "Dancing in the Dark," a cultural history of the Depression, there are just some periods where "personality," exciting individuation, THAT IS RESPONSIBLE for drawing all to you, not just your literaryness and your obvious consent to be of a mold, just isn't allowed. He documents how after Fitgerald/Joyce/Chaplin et al. in the '20s, you get the factory system, interchangeable parts (at least 'til "Kane"), and a reductive understanding of human beings (homo economicus) by virtually all artists: a wiping of MORE than just the smile off people's faces. And I think that's our problem: it's not schools -- where 30 years ago there would have been essentially no minuses to being around some of the most deep, the best writerly minds for a few years in your early '20s (though I appreciate the hippies who dropped out and managed at least as well) -- and outsiders aren't the solution -- not those familiar with all of literary history, as they're the sort to indulge in all sorts of things that are just not as interesting as what the MFAs have been reading; and not those who don't suspect they're actually missing out on something for not being around such truly ripened senior writers, because the bulk of them have. It's that the age of permission has ended, something the huge sacrifice of the war granted to the subsequent generation (the truly great baby-boomers), and not even generous great writers of current MFA programs are now sufficient to buoy you on to be greater than they were -- whatever their concern, also, that you showcase through your causes their own purity, that you be pure and golden, and reflect back love onto them, and that you not write much that truly agitates them.
The worst part is that the current generation increasingly senses all this, and understand the deprival as making them "adult": we're in a sad and grotesque period where once again, being truly withered, not ripened, evidences your prime.
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You’re welcome, Benno. Hope you enjoy the work as much as I did. There's also a bit from one of Jacques Barzun's books that comes to mind: perhaps in "Classic, Romantic, Modern," he gets at why all of a sudden the New -- in this case, Romanticism -- suddenly became, in his words, "easy" to produce. The reason he offers -- that the previous mold had exhausted itself to the point that everyone suddenly could not but be aware the current course had exhuasted itself, and so finally onto gleeful, productive experimentation -- is probably very misleading, however. My guess is that all along the late classicists were very aware they weren't really innovating -- and so felt protected, some, when their era had suddenly made the switch to believing people don't deserve to stand out. It took a generation amounting to less than their predecessors, to permit a new one to come on the scene that surpassed everyone.