I’ve read Batuman’s review of The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl a couple of times now and I agree with his her point that MFA programs tend to to be ahistorical, not situating young writers within the long tradition of literature they aspire to join (in my limited experience). Seems to me though that this is more a criticism of Undergraduate programs which should, but too often don’t, provide their students with a broad overview of the culture they are a part of. As graduate programs, MFAs are based on the assumption that critical understandings of literature and history have already been acquired. Sadly, this is often not the case as institutions focus more on meeting the needs of industry than the fostering of a thoughtful citizenry.
Get a Real Degree
by Elif Batuman
I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world. At least that way I’d learn something about some less privileged culture – about a less privileged culture that some people were actually born into, as opposed to one that they opted into by enrolling in an MFA programme.
As long as it views writing as shameful, the programme will not generate good books, except by accident. Pretending that literary production is a non-elite activity is both pointless and disingenuous.
I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction. The juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature – the real work of the novel – is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays.
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?