Tag Archives: Fiction

In Defense of Writing Programs

12 Jun

Actually, this isn’t technically a defense of writing programs; I don’t think writing programs need defending*.  Rather, it’s a quick look at what I believe to be some of the unexamined (or at least not widely cited) benefits of writing programs.  In a much discussed review essay of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, Louis Menand lays out the raison d’etre of the book and one of the inescapable features of the modern (post-war) literary era:

As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature. McGurl’s claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.

The proliferation of creative-writing programs is sometimes cited as a sign of fiction and poetry’s decline; if poets and authors had to produce works the literate public actually wanted to buy from their local bookseller then more people would be reading (or at least there wouldn’t be so much surplus literature produced that few people are interested in reading).   But these are two separate claims: 1) That the supply of literature, in some way, determines demand (through some unseen magical process) and that 2) There is an overproduction of literature.  The second claim is most likely true, but it also irrelevant (at least considering the other possible options).  It’s a matter of how we want to go about supporting literature and the arts.  This requires a little bit of explanation

Writing programs do not choose who the next great writer will be.  Readers, critics, and publishers help determine that.  So if writing programs don’t necessarily produce great writers, what are they good for (besides the aforementioned benefits, which aren’t particular to writing programs)?

  1. Writing programs make up a large, decentralized subsidy . This is my Hayekian argument for the MFA. Most art produced can’t survive the whims and vagaries of the market by itself, so it needs support from other sources.  This is okay, given that, for whatever reason, we make a lot about appreciating the arts and like the idea of having a country that produces its fair share of great cultural works in addition to cutting edge technology and iPhones.  Universities and colleges are a good public/private mix of funding that doesn’t pursue one type of literature or any one school of writing within literature.  So (for the sake of argument) Columbia University can have a “house style” if they like, but that still leaves several hundred other programs that can have their own different house styles (NB: From my experience, this isn’t the case–programs rarely enforce a party line and exclude writers who won’t toe it.  But there are many programs that favor certain kinds of writers and thus tend to attract student interested in writing in that style.  The bottom line is that even if programs produced a kind of “house style,” its unlikely that they would all produce the same one, giving us a variety of literary works to choose from.)
  2. Writing programs are an alternative to other kinds of literary study found in English departments. In many ways, Creative-writing programs ask many of the traditional questions of literary study, without as much of the academic apparatus of theory and cultural studies: What makes this text a great work?  How do the author’s choices affect our understanding of the work?  What is it that we admire in a text?  That is not to say that the Literature faculty of English departments are not concerned with these questions.  I’m not trying draw an arbitrary line between those Theory weirdos deconstructing Moby Dick, and the true defenders of traditional culture in creative-writing programs (I’m aware the some people who dismiss big Theory commit little theory).  But I do think it says something about the practice (or at least the study) of literature when many undergrads choose creative-writing classes as their entry into the discipline (especially considering that many–if not most–of those students will not become published writers, at least not professionally).

This last point is something I’d like to explore further, but for right now I think these are the two biggest, unexplored arguments in favor of the increasing influence of writing programs(to my limited knowledge–please highlight anyone who has raised either of these points elsewhere**).  As an institution, creative-writing programs are decentralized, which means that it’s responding to different demands in geographically (and aesthetically) different locations, and that this demend represents a popular alternative to the kinds of literary analysis and interpretation done in other parts of English departments.


* Not because writing programs are self-evidently useful or productive, but because the sorts of things programs are good for (time to write, a community of writers) are either valuble to someone intersted in writing or they aren’t (or are provided through other means–in which case an MFA is unnecessary).

** Actually, now that I think about it, David Wojahn makes a similar argument to my second claim in his book Strange Good Fortune.

Brief Thoughts On Fiction

30 Sep

I don’t have a lot to say in response to Matt Zeitlin’s post on fiction and James Woods’ disdain for the “hysterical realism” of Rushdie, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, et al.  I read more poetry than I do fiction, so I’d gladly defer to the opinions of people who have read many of these authors and more fiction criticism.

It seems that Woods (at least from his White Teeth review) is making two interrconnected arguments: 1) an argument about the formal comparative advantage of literature and 2) a larger moral argument about what these formal choices say about the world.

The first argument is concerned, put crudely, with the idea of the novel as a formal machine, and that literature does the best job of investigating (and representing, and interrogating, etc.) the interiors of human experinece. In poetry, we often talk about poetry as if we were creating little verse machines (though they need not be in verse or follow “traditional form”) and how those formal choices support or detract from what the poem is trying to do or what we’d like it to do.  This is analogous to Woods’ discussion of the “architecture” of Zadie Smith’s novel; for Woods, the novel’s architecture doesn’t hold up:

The passage might stand, microcosmically, for the novel’s larger dilemma of storytelling: on its own, almost any of these details (except perhaps the detail about passing the shit and piss through the cat-flap) might be persuasive. Together, they vandalize each other: the Presbyterian dypsomaniacs and the Mormon aunt make impossible the reality of the fanatical Muslim. As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

But we might ask ourselves why the formal elements should support the sort of novel Woods finds sucessful? First we have to ask ourselves what we consider sucesses to be.  Let’s assume that we take Smith’s novel on its own terms and that we hold nothing against “hysterical realism”; what does a sucessful novel in this style look like?  An unsucessful one?  

It quickly becomes clear that we have to resort to some kind of standard or categories outside the novel, even if that it standard is simply the reader.  What would an ideal reader of “hysterical realism” be interested in and why would a work like White Teeth or Gravity’s Rainbow resonate with them?  I agree with Zeitlin here and think the answer doesn’t really have a foundational element; there is no core artistic concept or Platonic ideal that we have recourse to (as Ned notes). But that doesn’t mean Woods thinks there is only one formal structure that leads to sucessful novels, or to making the sort of statements he’d like fiction to make:

The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness. 

And now we come to the core question of values and Woods’ second argument.  Whether Smith (and by implication, Wolfe, Pynchon, DFW, and others) lacks moral seriousness is a question that can be answered.  Just not by me (I haven’t read their work nor do I want to wade any further into this lit crit morass I’ve dreged up for myself).

If we, like Zeitlin and Woods, see certain techniques as larger statements about a work or the world around us, then we can take these statements and evaluate them against some exisiting conception of the world and the sort of moral commitments you think are important.  Woods wants a literture that connects with the sublime and what is most deeply human about us.  That’s something I want too, though I’m not sure I can tell you why you should be prefer this (even assuming that literature does this better than any other medium, why should you want this in the first place).  In the end, I think you have to make reference to a lot of held assumptions and values that lie outside of fiction qua fiction.