Get a Real Degree

Elif Batuman

  • The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl
    Harvard, 480 pp, £25.95, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 674 03319 1

The world of letters: does such a thing still exist? Even within the seemingly homogeneous sphere of the university English department, a schism has opened up between literary scholarship and creative writing: disciplines which differ in their points of reference (Samuel Richardson v. Jhumpa Lahiri), the graduate degrees they award (Doctor of Philosophy v. Master of Fine Arts) and their perceived objects of study (‘literature’ v. ‘fiction’). Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, a study of Planet MFA conducted from Planet PhD, might not strike the casual reader as an interdisciplinary bombshell, but the fact is that literary historians don’t write about creative writing, and creative writers don’t write literary histories, so any secondary discourse about creative writing has been confined, as McGurl observes, to ‘the domain of literary journalism’ and ‘the question of whether the rise of the writing programme has been good or bad for American writers’: that is, to the domain of a third and completely different group of professionals, with its own set of interests, largely in whether things are good or bad. McGurl’s proposal to take the rise of the programme ‘not as an occasion for praise or lamentation but as an established fact in need of historical interpretation’ is thus both welcome and overdue.

The central claims of The Programme Era are beyond dispute: the creative writing programme has exercised the single most determining influence on postwar American literary production, and any convincing interpretation of the literary works themselves has to take its role into account. (In a series of inspired readings, McGurl demonstrates that the plantation in Beloved, the mental ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the bus in Robert Olen Butler’s Mr Spaceman all function as metaphors for the creative writing workshop.) McGurl also provides a smart and useful typology of ‘programme’ fiction (defined as the prose work of MFA graduates and/or instructors), divided into three main groups: ‘technomodernism’ (John Barth, Thomas Pynchon), ‘high cultural pluralism’ (Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros) and ‘lower-middle-class modernism’ (Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates), with Venn diagrams illustrating the overlap between these groups, and their polarisation by aesthetic sub-tendencies such as maximalism and minimalism. Despite his professed indifference to the pro-con debate, however, McGurl also sets out to defend the creative writing programme from its detractors, assuming the rhetorical burden of proving that (a) postwar American fiction is at least as ‘creative’ as any other literature, and (b) that its most ‘creative’ features are specifically the product of the programme.

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.

Like many aspiring writers in America, I enrolled in graduate school after college, but I went for a PhD rather than an MFA. I had high hopes that McGurl, who made the same choice, might explain to me the value of contemporary American fiction in a way I could understand, but was disappointed to find in The Programme Era traces of the quality I find most exasperating about programme writing itself: oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition.

McGurl himself observes that a limited historical consciousness is ‘endemic to the discipline of creative writing, whose ultimate commitment is not to knowledge but to what Donald Barthelme called “Not-Knowing”’. Formed in the shadow of New Criticism, the creative writing discourse still displays ‘not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but … a commitment to innocence’. This commitment, this sense of writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum, is what turned me off the programme to begin with. Contemporary fiction seldom refers to any of the literary developments of the past 20, 50 or a hundred years. It rarely refers to other books at all. Literary scholarship may not be an undiluted joy to its readers, but at least it’s usually founded on an ideal of the collaborative accretion of human knowledge. It’s frustrating that McGurl, a literary historian, occasionally seems to ignore the whole history of literature before Henry James, ascribing to the American postwar era various creative ‘innovations’ that actually date back hundreds of years.

One example is McGurl’s discussion of ‘meta-slave narrative’, a genre illustrated by William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), the first-person novelisation of a historical account left by a rebel slave awaiting execution. By ‘refusing the perspectival limitations imposed by his own whiteness,’ McGurl claims, Styron’s novel stages ‘a massive – and daringly modernist – project of racial self-transcendence’. How ‘daringly modernist’ is this project, given that, in 1773, John Bicknell and Thomas Day published a first-person poem called The Dying Negro, based on a newspaper account about a slave who shot himself rather than be sent to the plantations? Of course, the fact that a given form arose in the 18th century doesn’t rule out the possibility that, two hundred years later, postmodernists might stumble on the same form, precisely thanks to postmodernism. That’s the idea behind Borges’s story of Pierre Menard, a French Symbolist who is led by his Symbolist background to produce a text identical to Don Quixote. Borges’s story, however, relies on our historical knowledge of Cervantes’s existence. The incredibly funny, thought-provoking claim that ‘Cervantes’s text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer’ would not be funny or thought-provoking if Cervantes wasn’t mentioned (‘Menard’s text is infinitely rich’; ‘Symbolist texts like Menard’s are among the most creative of literary works’). It’s not that Styron wasn’t creative: but, precisely in order to state in what way he was creative, we have to look at the history of the form he was using.

McGurl appears to believe that ‘point of view’ was somehow invented by Henry James. ‘Jamesian’ point of view, he implies, was later refined by the creative writing programme into new techniques such as ‘the “surprising point of view” trick’ in The Sound and the Fury: ‘Enabled by the general post-Jamesian fascination with the technicalities of point of view, it turns the perspectival restriction of narrative focalisation … into a demonstration of the author’s unlimited virtuosity, her ability to range across human and sometimes nonhuman experience.’ In fact, the ‘“surprising point of view” trick’ also has a long pre-Jamesian history. To quote Joseph Addison’s ‘Adventures of a Shilling’ (1710), ‘I was born on the side of a mountain, near a little village of Peru, and made a voyage to England in an ingot, under the convoy of Sir Francis Drake’; the shilling’s later adventures include being exchanged for a shoulder of mutton, and getting clipped by a counterfeiter. The 18th century witnessed a mania for ‘it-narratives’, tales told from the perspective of money, corkscrews, lapdogs and so on. Interestingly, in the context of McGurl’s discussion of point of view in Nat Turner, recent scholarship has suggested a lineage between the it-narrative and the slave narrative: between, that is, perspectival games and racial ventriloquism. In The Adventures of a Black Coat as Related by Itself (1762), the eponymous hero denounces a rival white coat, quoting a speech from Samuel Johnson’s History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

In the early 19th century, Jane Austen, who did not use the phrase ‘point of view’, or read an anthology called Points of View, nonetheless began writing novels whose sophisticated and innovative use of limited narration is founded on a firm grasp of the fact that ‘everything said is said by [i.e. from the limited perspective of] an observer’: an insight described by McGurl as the ‘foundational constructivist claim [of] contemporary systems theory’, and the cornerstone of ‘the paradoxes of narrative “point of view” in the Jamesian tradition’. Although James’s prefaces do describe, in possibly unrivalled detail, a writer’s struggle to find the right narrative perspective for a given story, writers had been conscious of this struggle for a long time. It was with great difficulty that Dostoevsky abandoned an early draft of Crime and Punishment, written in the first person from Raskolnikov’s perspective, and decided to shift to third-person narration by a ‘sort of invisible and omniscient being, who doesn’t leave his hero for a moment’.

In treating the programme as the site of cutting-edge work on the problem of point of view, McGurl is following the lead of such figures as Ken Kesey and his teacher Wallace Stegner, who founded the Stanford creative writing programme in 1946. It was in Stegner’s class, McGurl relates, that Kesey learned that point of view ‘truly is the most important problem in writing’:

The book I have been doing [One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest] … is a third-person work but something was lacking; I was not free to impose my perception and bizarre eye on the god-author who is supposed to be viewing the scene, so I tried something that will be extremely difficult to pull off, and, to my knowledge, has never been tried before – the narrator is going to be a character. He will not take part in the action or ever speak as I, but he will be a character to be influenced by the events that take place, he will have a position and a personality.

McGurl views these as the musings of a ‘young writer conscientiously puzzling through the classically Jamesian question of point of view … and discovering for himself how the discipline of perspectival limitation might intensify the story he wants to tell’. Although he recognises that Kesey is reinventing the wheel – a technology apparently pioneered by Henry James – McGurl treats this reinvention as the sign of a bright student. So it would be, in a schoolboy, or someone who grew up in a preliterate tribe. But there is something disturbing in the idea of a Stanford creative writing student – a college graduate pursuing an advanced degree in ‘fiction’ at a world-class university – who appears to believe that he invented intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration.

I’m not saying Kesey needs to throw around narratological jargon, or that he shouldn’t be free to impose his ‘bizarre eye’. I’m saying his ‘bizarre eye’ really isn’t so bizarre. It might not be true that you have to ‘know the rules before you can break them’, but knowing the rules can save you from certain pitfalls, like thinking you’re being revolutionary when you aren’t. McGurl does his best to make Kesey seem as groundbreaking as Kesey thought he was; even if Kesey didn’t quite ‘“pull off” the somewhat blurry conception of a third-person narrator-cum-character’ he was aiming for, no matter: his eventual adoption of a ‘classic modernist’ form of narration is itself daringly ‘creative’. By ‘donning the shackles of the Jamesian and New Critical model of narration’, McGurl argues, Kesey effects a ‘formal reinstitutionalisation of the narrator who has set himself free’, parallelling the thematic or literal reinstitutionalisation in the mental asylum of the schizophrenic half-Native American narrator. In other words, Chief Bromden’s capitulation to electroshock therapy is equivalent to Kesey’s capitulation to Stegner’s doctrine of intradiegetic narration.

The analogy is as brilliant as it is implausible. I just can’t believe that, by either failing or declining to invent some brain-exploding new kind of narration, Kesey was subversively formalising the thematic institutionalisation of free Native American consciousness. His ‘choice’ of a non-imaginary form of narration surely constitutes a meaningful sign of submission to Wallace Stegner to the approximate extent that my not skyrocketing off the face of the earth right now constitutes a sign of my submission to Isaac Newton. And, when Kesey describes McMurphy as an ‘almost two-dimensional’, Shane-like character, who ‘gains dimension from being viewed through the lens of Chief Bromden’s Indian consciousness’, I don’t think he is staging ‘an imaginary transcendence of the institutional scene of the novel’s making’. To the contrary, Chief Bromden’s ‘Indian consciousness’ strikes me as an institutional device par excellence: a non-white narrator intended to confer the illusion of depth on an otherwise ‘two-dimensional’ white protagonist, borrowed from a recent Western.

The discussion of Chief Bromden’s narrative ‘voice’ leads McGurl to a particularly ambitious defence of programme fiction (‘as rich and multifaceted a body of literary writing as has ever been’), wherein he decides to prove that the slogans ‘write what you know’ and ‘find your voice’ were enormously productive for 20th-century fiction. As it turns out, he views these catchphrases not as interchangeable exhortations to authenticity, but as philosophically opposed dictates. ‘Write what you know’ really does seem to mean ‘write what you know,’ but ‘find your voice’ actually means ‘find someone else’s voice’: thus Styron ‘found his voice’ in Nat Turner, reimagining ‘authorship as a kind of ventriloquism … which is an offence against the rule of writing what you know’.

McGurl never quite articulates the law that enjoins some writers to write what they know and others to find their voices, but he comes close to it during a discussion of Bharati Mukherjee’s essay ‘Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!’ (1988). Mukherjee, an Iowa graduate who writes about Bengali Americans, claims perspectival mobility ‘as the special property of the immigrant writer’, enabled ‘without difficulty to “enter” lives, fictionally, that are manifestly not [her] own’. ‘Chameleon-skinned, I discover my material over and across the country, and up and down the social ladder,’ she writes, striking that note of naivety mixed with self-congratulation often sounded in the programme discourse by ‘writers on writing’. As McGurl astutely observes, the ‘facts of literary history’ belie Mukherjee’s claim: it has been largely ‘white writers like William Styron and Russell Banks and Robert Olen Butler and Neal Stephenson who … assert the privilege of other-narration’, while ‘minority writers … have typically been asked to slot themselves into a single ethnos.’

But McGurl doesn’t follow this thought to its logical conclusion. The point is less that Mukherjee has been ‘asked to slot [herself] into a single ethnos’ than that she has never been made to feel that her writing would be ‘richer’ or more ‘multifaceted’ if she wrote from the perspective of an autistic concentration-camp survivor. In the programme discourse, ‘virtuosic’ chameleonism is the purview, not of immigrants, but of people like the Iowa graduate and Vietnam vet Robert Olen Butler, whose story ‘Mid-Autumn’ (1992) is narrated, ostensibly in Vietnamese thought-language, by a pregnant woman to her unborn child:

We are lucky, you and I, to be Vietnamese so that I can speak to you even before you are born. This is why I use the Vietnamese language. It is our custom for the mother to begin this conversation with the child in the womb … It is not the custom among the Americans, so perhaps you would not even understand English if I spoke it.

There is no arguing with taste, and there are doubtless people in the world who enjoy ‘the virtuosity of Butler’s performance of narrative mobility’. To me, such ‘performances’ are symptomatic of the large-scale replacement of books I would want to read by rich, multifaceted explorations whose ‘amazing audacity’ I’m supposed to admire in order not to be some kind of jerk.

The law of ‘find your voice’ and ‘write what you know’ originates in a phenomenon perhaps most clearly documented by the blog and book Stuff White People Like: the loss of cultural capital associated with whiteness, and the attempts of White People to compensate for this loss by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures. Hence Stuff White People Like #20, ‘Being an Expert on Your Culture’, and #116, ‘Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore’. Non-white, non-college-educated or non-middle or upper-class people may write what they know, but White People have to find the voice of a Vietnamese woman impregnated by a member of the American army that killed her only true love.

The situation is summed up in McGurl’s construct of the ‘World Pluribus of Letters’ (a play on the critic Pascale Casanova’s ‘World Republic of Letters’):

While the citizen of the Republic of Letters disaffiliates from the nation in order to affiliate with art, the citizen of the World Pluribus of Letters disaffiliates from … the super-nation, in order to reaffiliate with a utopian sub-nation, whether that be African or Asian or Mexican or … Native American … The expression of formerly enslaved, immigrant or indigenous populations, these subnational cultural interventions … forge symbolic links to an international literary space which is not, however, the space of universal literary values but a pluralised … space of decolonised global cultural difference.

The World Pluribus of Letters has replaced a primary standard of ‘universal literary value’ with a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemised as ‘difference’. It seems strange to me that McGurl, who sees the situation so clearly, seems not to view it as a problem. Perhaps his status as a White Person prevents him from objecting to the ideals of the Pluribus. But my hardworking immigrant parents didn’t give me a funny name and send me to Harvard for nothing, so I’m going to go ahead and say how damaging I think this all is. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the non-persecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.

This really is the message that some young people take from the programme, as we learn in a quotation from the Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street, 1984):

Until Iowa I had never felt my home, family and neighbourhood unique or worthy of writing about. I took for granted … the strange speech of my neighbours, the extraordinary lives of my family and relatives which was nothing like the family in Father Knows Best … What could I write about that my classmates, cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids, could not? … What did I know that they didn’t? … What did I know except third-floor flats … that’s precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands throwing rocks through windows … anything as far from the poetic as possible.

There is nothing objectionable in a young writer plumbing her childhood and family for literary material. It isn’t even a huge problem that poor people have been a “poetic” subject since at least Romanticism. But I was deeply depressed to learn from McGurl that Cisneros here is making ‘canny use of an operational paradox involved in … the “wound culture” of the contemporary US: a paradoxically enabling disablement’. ‘Almost all artistically ambitious authors in the postwar period “self-commodify” in this sense,’ McGurl continues, inviting us to ‘think of Tim O’Brien and his lifelong use of nine months in Vietnam.’ Indeed, think of Tim O’Brien. As a White Person, he couldn’t write about most of his life experience, which was probably just like Father Knows Best. Instead, in If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home and the several novels that followed, he had to write about the period of his life when he – like the conscripted Native Americans, like the napalmed Vietnamese – was the victim of the murderous policy of the White Man.

Defending Cisneros and O’Brien against charges of cynicism, McGurl suggests that both authors are really concerned not with ‘market value but aesthetic value: how does one write good fiction? What interesting stories do I have to tell?’ To argue that the writers of victimhood aren’t out to make a quick buck is beside the point, since what’s at stake here is literary, not financial, capital. But how does one calculate the literary value of sociopolitical grievances? If you spend any time living in a ghetto or fighting in a war, might this be objectively the most narrative-worthy period of your life? As Tolstoy put it, ‘All happy families are alike’: isn’t literature all about wounds, otherness, trauma, alienation and persecution? It is. But it’s equally true that all unhappy families – not just ‘formerly enslaved, immigrant or indigenous’ families – are unhappy after their own fashion. Tolstoy wrote equally compellingly about war and peace. Literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest. The danger of Cisneros’s dig at her Iowa classmates, ‘cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids’, is the implication that the children of privilege don’t have stories to tell; that, because they aren’t from the barrio, they all have families like the one on Father Knows Best.

This danger is inherent to ‘high cultural pluralism’, which tends to assign novelistic alienation to the domain of ‘the alienated ethnic outsider’. Novelistic alienation – the realisation that lived experience doesn’t resemble literature – was invented in Don Quixote. And, ever since Don Quixote, the novel has been concerned with social inequality. Class and religious difference are, after all, two major reasons why certain forms of human experience don’t get documented. Hence Cervantes writes not only about windmills mistaken for giants, but also about prostitutes mistaken for noble ladies, and Moriscos who carry ham under their arms as a badge of racial purity. But, in Don Quixote, race and class have no higher an order of significance than, say, a hidalgo’s typical weekly diet, or the noise produced by a textile mill: aspects of an undocumented historical present. What was missing from the older literary forms, in other words, wasn’t social justice, but the passage of time – a dimension the novel was specifically engineered to capture. The novelistic hero is by definition someone whose life experience hasn’t yet been fully described, possibly because of his race or class, but more broadly because he didn’t exist before, and neither did the technology for describing him. The durability and magic of the novel form lies in the fact that, having gained a certain level of currency, the latest novel is immediately absorbed into the field of pre-existing literature, and becomes the thing the next novel has to be written against. In this dialectic, the categories of outsider and insider are in constant flux. For an outsider to become an insider isn’t ironic or paradoxical: it’s just the way things work.

The danger of ethnicising novelistic alienation is that it removes this dialectical and historical element from the novel. Instead of striving to capture real life by describing the disjuncture between pre-existing literature and the historical present, ‘high cultural pluralism’ simply strives to describe the greatest possible disjuncture from some static, imagined cultural dominant. The basic novelistic claim – ‘my early writing imitated the conventions of earlier literature, and wasn’t about my comically mundane and eternally surprising life’ – is politicised and dehistoricised: ‘my early writing imitated the conventions of privileged literature, and wasn’t about my people, whose sufferings have rendered them more raucous and hilariously alive than the uptight sons and daughters of privilege.’ We have heard this credo from Cisneros, and we hear it, via McGurl, from Philip Roth:

It ‘did not dawn on’ [Roth] that the ‘anecdotes and observations’ of his boyhood in lower-middle-class Newark with which he entertained his highbrow friends ‘might be made into literature’. Instead, the ‘stories I wrote, set absolutely nowhere, were mournful little things about sensitive children, sensitive adolescents and sensitive young men crushed by the coarse life … The Jew was nowhere to be seen; there were no Jews in the stories, no Newark, and not a sign of comedy.’

There is no implication that those ‘highbrow friends’ were ever themselves outsiders or made jokes. How could their stories be funny, with ‘no Jews’ and ‘no Newark’? Eventually Roth’s outsider becomes an insider and Zuckerman’s literary celebrity becomes a subject for later novels. (This isn’t really, as McGurl claims, a sign of Roth’s ‘vertiginously “postmodern” reflexivity’; Cervantes does the same thing in Book Two of Don Quixote, in which Sancho and Quixote have already been made famous by Book One.) There was nothing postmodern about such mobility. Pushkin was initially an outsider because he used colloquial Russian and had an Abyssinian great-grandfather; Dante was an outcast wandering Italy in penury and exile. It’s jarring, then, when McGurl characterises the success and assimilation of Roth and Cisneros as a ‘phenomenon of American culture’, originating in the 1960s university scene, and marked by a ‘vertiginously dialectical mobilisation of the distinction between “inside” and “outside”’. In literary terms, the effect of these cultural changes was not so much mobilising as politicising, even ossifying.

Historically, this ossification probably originates less in the 20th century’s social advancements than in its worst atrocities. As an example, consider the changing treatment of the Jew in the European novel. At a certain point in the history of the novel, Jewishness, having ceased to be a merely comic or villainous attribute, had come to operate as a reality principle that exposed the machinery of social life. Swann’s way – the prosaic way of the narrator’s half-Jewish next-door neighbour – revealed the truth about the Guermantes way, and Jewishness became, to an extent, identifiable with the mechanism of the novel itself: the comic, slightly vulgar exposure of the world as a place where would-be knightly heroes have to eat, sleep and carry money. This identification perhaps goes some way to explain the theory of Cervantes’s Jewish converso ancestry, proposed by Américo Castro in 1966. In the wake of the Second World War, the aesthetic imperative to ‘keep it real’ had also acquired an ethical dimension; in 1962 Sylvia Plath wrote ‘Daddy’: ‘I began to talk like a Jew./I think I may well be a Jew.’ If you had to write imaginative literature about your overbearing father, you now had to make him an engine chuffing you off ‘to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen’, at risk of falling into the ‘barbarism’ famously decreed by Adorno (who, somewhat less famously, amended this decree in later years: in light of the continuing diversity of human unhappiness and its inalienable ‘right to expression’, he wrote, ‘it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz’). To justify its perpetuation, the novel itself had somehow to become Jewish. Jewishness, which had once been a codeword for the changing of the times, came to represent a kind of tragedy that would never change, no matter how much time passed.

Ironically, a preoccupation with historic catastrophe actually ends up depriving the novel of the kind of historical consciousness it was best suited to capture. The effect is particularly clear in the ‘maximalist’ school of recent fiction, which strives, as McGurl puts it, to link ‘the individual experience of authors and characters to the kinds of things one finds in history textbooks’: ‘war, slavery, the social displacements of immigration, or any other large-scale trauma’; historical traumas, McGurl explains, confer on the novel ‘an aura of “seriousness” even when, as in Pynchon or Vonnegut, the work is comic. Personal experience so framed is not merely personal experience,’ a fact which ‘no amount of postmodern scepticism … is allowed to undermine’. The implication is that ‘personal experience’ is insufficient grounds for a novel, unless it is entangled in a ‘large-scale trauma’ – or, worse yet, that an uncompelling (or absent) storyline can be redeemed by a setting full of disasters.

This is the kind of literary practice James Wood so persuasively condemned under the rubric of ‘hysterical realism’ (‘Toby’s mad left-wing aunt was curiously struck dumb when Mrs Thatcher was elected prime minister’). Diachronicity is cheaply telegraphed by synchronic cues, and history is replaced by big-name historical events, often glimpsed from some ‘eccentric’ perspective: a slideshow-like process, as mechanical as inserting Forrest Gump beside Kennedy at the White House. As Wood points out, the maximalist fetishisation of history is actually anti-historic: the maximalist novel ‘carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added’.

McGurl’s taxonomy includes one group of writers who, though descended from neither slaves nor genocide survivors, are still allowed to write what they know: ‘lower-middle-class modernists’. Neither white nor non-white, they ‘silently aspire to become “white”’, such that Raymond Carver was apparently wont to say, in the early years of his success: ‘This makes me feel just like a white man.’ Carver gets away with writing what he knows, partly by not writing very much (minimalism), and partly by not really knowing what it is to be white.

The most exhilarating pages of The Programme Era sketch a dialectic between Carver, the father of minimalism, and Joyce Carol Oates, the great graphomaniac who ‘during some periods of her career … has produced “40 to 50 pages [of fiction] each day” for a total of “well over 500 published stories, companion to the 40 or so novels and other books”’. While Carver’s stories are characterised by a ‘relative invisibility of racial self-consciousness’, Oates, it turns out, has always manifested guilt about ‘the unjust advantages of a white skin’. The heroine of I Lock My Door upon Myself, walking through a black neighbourhood, realises that the residents’ ‘immediate ancestors had been ownedLike me they are outcasts in this country. Not like me: they are true outcasts.’ In this persecution contest, the winner isn’t predetermined. Who is the real outcast? Oates literally dramatises the contest, which acquires the mesmerising, morbid fascination of a hot-dog eating contest between a human and a grizzly bear. Is the real outcast the professor’s grieving widow alone in the empty house in the college town, or the paranoid Bosnian graduate student threatened with deportation? Which estranged cousin is the real outcast: the German girl who survived Auschwitz and became a successful but caustic and solitary anthropology professor; or the American girl who narrowly avoided being murdered by her own father, then became a good wife and mother, but ended up getting cancer? Oates is the rare and admirable programme writer who never forgets that every unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

The brilliant insight in McGurl’s chapter on Oates and Carver is the determining role played in their work by shame. Shame engenders both Carver’s taciturnity and Oates’s graphomania, which is really a compulsion to restage the outcasts contest, doing everyone justice, and constituting a proof that writing, too, is real work. I disagree with McGurl, however, that the shame shared by Oates and Carver is produced by the writing programme in particular, or school in general. ‘Shame and pride are the affective fuel of the school, the motive force of its everyday machinations,’ McGurl observes, plausibly enough – except that people were going to school for hundreds of years before the Iowa workshop. In his fascination with the GI Bill, McGurl occasionally conveys the impression that writers didn’t go to college before 1945, as when he draws our attention to

the seemingly banal fact that virtually all contemporary American fiction writers … have attended college … In previous generations this would not likely have been the case, both because fewer individuals of any kind went to college before the postwar advent of mass higher education and because a college education was not yet perceived as an obvious … starting point for a career as a novelist. Rather, as the uncredentialled, or rather press-credentialled, example of the high school graduate Hemingway makes clear, the key supplementary institution for the novel until mid-century was journalism.

The GI Bill dramatically increased the percentage of college-educated Americans, but did it really affect the percentage of college-educated American writers? According to the internet, writers have, in fact, been going to college for hundreds of years.[*] The claim that the GI Bill produced a generation of unprecedentedly shameful young people, meanwhile, is weakened by the fact that outsiders, from Balzac’s parvenus to Proletkult, have been joining the intelligentsia for nearly as long as there has been an intelligentsia to join.

To my mind, the real cause of shame here is the profession of writing, and it affects McGurl just as much as it does Carver and Oates. Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims. Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ‘disciplined’ by the programme – as McGurl documents with a 1941 promotional photo of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa workshop, seated at a desk with a typewriter and a large whip. (Engle’s only novel, McGurl observes, features a bedridden Iowan patriarch ‘surrounded by his collection of “whips of every kind”, including “racing whips”, “stiff buggy whips”, “cattle whips”, “riding crops” and one “endless bullwhip”’.) The workshop’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ ‘Show, don’t tell’ – also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: ‘Writers’ Workshops’).

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. It’s not impossible to be a writer and non-elite; I recently heard a profile on NPR – Stuff White People Like #44: ‘Public Radio’ – of two New York white-collar workers, a Wall Street tech consultant and his best friend, who quit their jobs, cleared out of their apartments, changed their names to Obsidian and Hobo Bob, and lived on the street, just so that they could write poetry full-time. They became known as the Homeless Poets at open-mic nights around the city, where they would read works like the following:

Waking up achy, and out in the open.
Guard dogs are barking, before words are spoken.
Wrought iron benches that cause sufferíng,
These are a few of my favourite things.

One admires Obsidian and Hobo Bob for putting their money where their mouths were. But writing, especially nicely turned prose, demands a certain surplus of money and leisure. Very little of it can be done on iron benches surrounded by barking dogs. The best thing about the programme is that it frees would-be writers from material lack.

As for the project of redeeming literature as a means to social change, this is a more complicated issue. Despite the recent trend in viewing fiction as a form of empathy training, I’m pretty sure that writing short stories isn’t the most efficient way to combat injustice or oppression. In recent years, however, a uniquely ambitious and ingenious attempt to transform literature into a force for public good has been embodied in the career of Dave Eggers. After writing one highly lucrative book about his personal experiences as a White Person, he diverted his wealth and fame to various specifically literary forms of social work, establishing writers’ workshops for underprivileged children and oral history programmes for the witnesses of human rights abuse. Meanwhile, he began writing books like You Shall Know Our Velocity! – which dramatises the difficulty of getting on a plane to Senegal to give away $80,000 to poor Africans, doubtless an allegory for the frustration of trying to help the persecuted through belletristic writing – and the more successful What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. In What Is the What, Eggers ingeniously outsources the knowledge part of ‘write what you know’ to someone with a more historically important life than his, removing the offensiveness from the project of virtuosic ventriloquism (not least by diverting the publishing proceeds to a foundation in Deng’s name, designed to pay for his college education and to rebuild his village in Sudan). Eggers’s Zeitoun, similarly, relates the true story of a Syrian-American’s experiences after Hurricane Katrina: a character whose fate combines ethnic alienation and world-historical events. Eggers, even more than the Homeless Poets, is admirable for putting his money where his mouth is. Although (or, perhaps, because) he isn’t a programme graduate, he has found a coherent and satisfying solution to the problematic of writing and shame that the programme has institutionalised. If writing is what the programme says it is, this is how people should write.

But if everyone wrote like Eggers, what would happen to the novel? Eggers’s recent books don’t read to me like novels. I found the backstory of What Is the What – the facts of the collaboration between Eggers and Deng – more compelling and more novelistic than the text itself, which at once omits Eggers and renders him eerily omnipotent. As a counterexample, Christian Jungersen’s The Exception successfully addresses many of the same problems, but reads like a genuine novel. Set in an office at the fictitious Danish Centre for Genocide Information, The Exception explores the psychological affinity between office bullying and genocide, and is based on observations made by Jungersen while working in an office in Copenhagen. Told through the frame of the author’s real life as a White Person, it explores and expands the concept of ‘persecution’ to encompass the dynamics between bourgeois Danish government employees. It works as a novel and ‘bears witness to genocide’. Although many American programme writers are more stylistically and technically sophisticated than Jungersen (or at least than Jungersen in English translation), I would rather read The Exception than the latest technomodernist multigenerational Holocaust novel. This is probably as much a question of personal taste as of literary philosophy, yet it makes me wonder: are Jungersen’s strengths inherently less teachable than the skills that are being taught to American writers? In other words, is content less teachable than style?

Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique taken as telos. The raw material hardly seems to matter anymore: for hysterical realism, everything; for minimalism, nothing much. The fetishisation of technique simultaneously assuages and aggravates the anxiety that literature might not be real work. McGurl writes of the programme as a manifestation of ‘the American Dream of perfect self-expression’. Taken as an end in itself, self-expression is surely sensed, even by those who pursue it, as a somehow suspect project, demanding shame and discipline.

The ideal of self-expression also explains the programme’s privileging of ‘fiction’: where ‘non-fiction’ is burdened by factual content, and ‘literature’ is burdened by a canon of classics, ‘fiction’ is taken to be a pure vessel for inner content. As if the self were a ready-made content, and as if the wish to become a writer – a complicated, strange wish, never fully explored in The Programme Era – were simply a desire to learn the skills with which to express it. McGurl cites a manual called The Story Workshop, by the founder of the Iowa programme, Wilbur Schramm, according to whom great stories ‘are written not because someone says, “Go to! I shall write a short story. Now – ho hum – let me see. What shall I write about?” They are written because someone has a story aching to be told.’ The anxieties generated by this misguided piece of pedagogy are illustrated in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Crop’, a story about the laughable efforts of an ‘amateur “penwoman”’ to find a subject for a story: ‘There were so many subjects to write stories about that Miss Willerton never could think of one. That was always the hardest part of writing a story she always said.’

McGurl persuasively suggests that O’Connor wrote ‘The Crop’ as an ‘auto-exorcism’ of her own inner amateur, who must occasionally have wondered what she was going to write about. The story had to be disguised as a satire about someone else, because no real writer would admit to such a shameful lack of ‘creativity’. But what is there to be ashamed of? Proust was surely speaking for many of his colleagues when he wrote that the desire to become a writer often comes long in advance of an ‘authentic’ subject:

Since I wished, some day, to become a writer, it was time I knew what I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, trying to find some subject … my mind would cease to function, my consciousness would be faced with a blank, I would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent or that perhaps a malady of the brain was hindering its development.

Writing remains the ‘invisible vocation’ of Proust’s narrator, for the greater part of seven volumes. Marcel’s desire to write comes not from some inner need to tell the world about medieval churches or his grandmother, but from a love of reading. Many writing students today would be ashamed to admit, as Marcel does, that they long to write a book exactly like The Arabian Nights or Saint-Simon’s memoirs (or whatever their favourite childhood books were).

Might the ideal of ‘creativity’, taken as a supremely valuable, supremely human faculty, be harmful to a writer’s formation? It seems ominous that the role of creativity in American education originates, as McGurl observes, in Cold War rhetoric: through creativity, America was going to prevail over its ‘relentlessly drab ideological competitor’ and ‘outdo the group-thinking Communist enemy’. The value placed on creativity and originality causes writers to hide their influences, to hide the fact that they have ever read any other books at all and, in many cases, to stop reading books altogether. One telling result of this value is a gap in quality between American literary fiction and non-fiction today. Many of the best journalistic and memoiristic essays in the world today are being written in America. 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. This is one of many brilliant observations in David Shields’s recent manifesto Reality Hunger, in which he argues that we had best give up the novel altogether. But I don’t think the novel is dead – or, more accurately, I don’t see why it has to be dead. It’s simply being produced under the kinds of mistaken assumption that we don’t make when it comes to non-fiction. Non-fiction is about some real thing in the world, some story that someone had to go out and pursue. It’s about real people and real books, which are, after all, also objects in the world. Why can’t the novel expand to include these things, which were once – in Don Quixote, for example – a part of its purview?

In the final pages of his book, drawing up the merits of programme writing, McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

McGurl has an explanation for why programme writing seems so unexciting and unspecial. It’s a weird explanation. ‘As with the disappearance of the .400 hitter in professional baseball’, so technical excellence has produced an ‘optical illusion of encroaching mediocrity: being the dominant figure in Shakespeare’s or even Pound’s time was, by comparison to today, easy as pie’. In other words, the programme era has produced so many books as good as The Red and the Black that we don’t notice them anymore. I find this very difficult to believe. I am also unconvinced by the analogy with technology and sport. Despite today’s mindboggling variety of unprecedentedly powerful machines, we can all agree that computers are constantly getting better, and we recognise a particularly dramatic new innovation when we see one. As for the drop in batting averages, it’s mainly a result of the increasing value placed on home runs: hitters are more willing to risk a strike in hope of hitting the ball out of the park – and they do hit more balls out of the park. We have more baseball stars than ever before, reflecting the expectation that a growing talent pool and capital outlay should lead to higher highs, and not, as McGurl suggests in the last paragraph of his book, to a plateau of ‘excellence’:

Laying aside our anachronistic prejudices for the One over the Many Ones, moving our minds from the Pound Era into the Programme Era, do we not bear daily witness to a surfeit of literary excellence, an embarrassment of riches? Is there not more excellent fiction being produced now than anyone has time to read?

What kind of traitor to the mission of mass higher education would you have to be to think otherwise?

The continual production of ‘more excellent fiction … than anyone has time to read’ is the essence of the problem. That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?

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? The programme stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch. Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. One isn’t stating conclusively that Father Knows Best, but who knows whether Father might not have learned a few useful things on the road of life, if only by accident? When ‘great literature’ is replaced by ‘excellent fiction’, that’s the real betrayal of higher education.

[*] Goethe studied at the University of Leipzig, Swift and Beckett at Trinity College Dublin, Fielding at Eton and the University of Leiden, Balzac at the Sorbonne, Flaubert and Baudelaire at the Paris law faculty, Tolstoy at the University of Kazan, Dostoevsky at the Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, Chekhov at Moscow State University, Babel at the Kiev Institute of Finance, Solzhenitsyn at Rostov State University, Hawthorne at Bowdoin, Poe at the University of Virginia and West Point, Hardy and Maugham at King’s College London, D.H. Lawrence at University College Nottingham, Fitzgerald at Princeton, Steinbeck at Stanford, Henry James at Harvard, T.S. Eliot at Harvard and the Sorbonne, Pound at the University of Pennsylvania, Sinclair Lewis at Yale, Jack London at Berkeley, Dreiser at Indiana, Pirandello at the University of Rome and the University of Bonn, Camus at the University of Algiers, Giovanni Verga at the University of Catania, Kafka at the University of Prague, Joyce at University College Dublin, Proust at the Ecole libre des sciences politiques, Mann at the University of Munich, and Musil at the University of Berlin. Byron, Carroll, Donne, Forster, Galsworthy, Greene, Marlowe, Milton, Sterne, Tennyson, Thackeray, Waugh, Wordsworth and Wilde all attended either Oxford or Cambridge. Many of these writers failed to complete their degrees, but they all spent some time at university. Of writers who didn’t go to university, many attended elite lycées or secondary schools (Trollope, Pushkin, Maupassant, Melville, Borges). I have been able to find only a handful of famous novelists who, like Hemingway, avoided university in favour of journalism (Defoe, Dickens, Twain). For women, of course, university was a later development.