From the Newsstand: Workshop Porn

June 3, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 1 2 min read

coverIts laudatory impulses notwithstanding, Louis Menand’s worthwhile essay in the current New Yorker on Mark McGurl’s The Program Era – an account of the rise of the creative writing program – doesn’t quite save the book from sounding depressing. For those with ambitions to write fiction, Menand offers a whirlwind tour of a sausage factory. Except that in this case you’re not the guy who likes to eat sausage, but the guy (or gal) who raises the hogs. Or maybe you are the hog itself. Reading Menand reading McGurl, you get the very same sense of a vast, tentacular, and mildly deterministic academic-industrial complex you might get in… well, a creative writing program. Which speaks to the characteristic thoroughness of Menand’s writing. And, presumably, of McGurl’s book.

Largely absent from Menand’s account (and Mark Grief’s review in Bookforum), however, is the question of money. Even for those who agree emphatically with Menand that “there is no ‘craft of fiction’ as such,” the value of two or three years of subsidized writing time is hard to understate. Rilke had the Princess of Thurn and Taxis; we have AWP. And though the rise of the M.F.A. program may well exert a systemic pressure on the writer, it need not, as Menand is at pains to point out, vitiate the visionary. By far my favorite nugget in the Menand piece is his mention of two workshops filled with idiosyncratic talent:

  • Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Wendell Berry taught by Wallace Stegner at Stanford
  • John Irving, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, and John Casey taught by Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa.

I’ve also heard tell of a workshop that included

  • Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Peter Ho Davies, and Marshall Klimasewiski taught by our guest contributor (and National Book Award finalist) Joan Silber at Boston University.

If any of you out there have taken, or know of, similarly stacked workshops, we’d be curious to hear about them, if only as a way of letting M.F.A. applicants cling to a little of the glamor McGurl and Menand have done the rest of us the great favor of dispelling. Somehow the prospect of participating in an aesthetic of “class-based self-consciousness” pales next to the thought of getting drunk with Richard Ford and ripping on Jay McInerney… and hasn’t that always been (along with the financial assistance, of course) the most compelling reason to apply to a writing program?

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.

One comment:

  1. I didn't spend too much time getting drunk with now-famous writers during my MFA years, but I DID spend a whole lot of time grading freshman comp. essays and concocting ways to keep my 23 students engaged every day (yes, the class met every day, and it was a required course). The Stanford program is subsidized, but most are not. Some offer no funding at all, in my case the funds came with a teaching position which was ultimately just as time-consuming as the full-time job I left to come write for two years. I'm thankful I didn't accrue any debt doing my MFA, and teaching experience is a good thing to have, but it wasn't the escape into an artist's salon I'd imagined or hoped for. I will say that I keep in touch with a number of my classmates, and they are some of the smartest, most talented people I know.

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