Tag Archives: MFA

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.