Notes & Comments May 2009
Deprogramming the MFA
On the real consequences of “The Program Era.”
Much of what was wrong with the twentieth century, Kingsley Amis famously observed, could be summed up in the word “workshop.” It is amusing to contemplate what Sir Kingsley would have to say about The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, a paean to the workshop and all it has wrought by Mark McGurl, an associate professor of English at UCLA. “The rise of the creative writing program,” Professor McGurl argues in his opening pages, “stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history.”
Alert readers will point out that an outbreak of avian flu, a detonation of a truckload of TNT in a schoolyard, or the contamination of the water supply by terrorists would also count as important events. But that’s not the sort of thing Professor McGurl means. No, he actually endorses creative writing programs. He thinks they have improved that state of American letters. He doesn’t put it quite so bluntly, however. Polysyllabic periphrasis is more his cup of tea. “Far from occasioning a sad decline in the quality or interest of American literature,” he writes, “the writing program has generated a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems that have been explored with tremendous energy—and at times great brilliance—by a vast range of writers who have also been students and teachers.” Really? While you meditate on all that “energy” and “brilliance,” be forewarned that The Program Era is full of preposterous Venn diagrams purporting to illuminate the relationship between various schools of writing (“Midwestern Regionalism,” for example, vs. “Southern Regionalism”) and a closet-full of mind-numbing sentences like this:
As the material support of the dialectical of literary disaffiliation and affiliation, and thus to some degree a drag on the idea of pure spatial mobility, the university would hover as a discomfiting specter in the air above subnational cultural nationalisms, just as it had for young bohemians like Sukenick a few years earlier.
Comment may or may not be superfluous. Certainly, it would be cruel. Wallace Stevens said that poetry must “resist the intelligence almost successfully.” This cannot be what he had in mind.
Most of us, looking around at the flailing anemic narcissism bred by creative writing programs, will regard Professor McGurl’s book with a combination of wonder and impatience, not to say contempt. The canny Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times about Professor McGurl’s book, gently mused about the “Ponzi element” that might help explain the explosion of degree-granting writing programs in American higher—or perhaps we should say “higher”—education. There were, he says, fifty-two such programs in 1975. As of 2004, there were 300. Doubtless there are even more in 2009. Why? Here is where Mr. Ponzi comes in. Such programs have proven to be tremendous sources of revenue for colleges and universities. They cost next to nothing to run. The facilities are all in place, as are many of the teachers. Inveigling semi-literate dreamers who wish to postpone their entry into adulthood and whose indulgent parents are willing to shell out $30,000 to $40,000 two years running for a piece of paper embossed with the letters MFA is money for jam for cash-strapped universities. Hence the proliferation of the programs. For what do you do with an MFA? Why, you turn around and teach others the art and sullen craft of being an MFA. You write poems and stories whose sole audience, most often, is your peers in the program. The success of the scheme, as Mr. Ponzi understood, requires a constant supply of fresh recruits. Absent them, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
There is an element of sadness as well as comedy to the spectacle. So much pretension. So little literary merit. The rise of the workshop marks the triumph of the academy in American letters. Perhaps, Mr. McGrath suggests, we are “approaching a state in which there are more writers in America than there are readers”—writers whose home, spiritual as well as professional, is in the cloistered purlieus of the university. Mr. McGurl’s book may be regarded as a sort of extended epitaph or eulogy on the phenomenon: 450 pages of near gibberish celebrating the bloodless, self-indulgent ephemera that thousands of black-clad graduate students produce for other anxious black-clad graduate students. Matthew Arnold thought literature was important because, at bottom, it was a “criticism of life.” The advent of “the program era,” alas, assures that literature is more and more a lifeless criticism of criticism.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 9, on page 1
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