Elif Batuman: Get a Real Degree

September 15, 2010 | 5

Elif Batuman’s provocative essay “Get a Real Degree” is up at the London Review of Books: “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.”

is an associate editor for The Millions. She works for the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NY Chapter of the ACLU. She was formerly a writer for The Atlantic's news website The Wire, and a co-editor of NY media blog FishbowlNY. Her writing has appeared in The Millions, TheAtlantic.com, Newsday, National Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and is partly collected at her website, TheCivilWriter.com. Follow @ujalasehgal.

5 comments:

  1. Despite being a little dense with academic jargon, she risked the strike out and knocked it out of the park. Nailed it.

  2. “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.”

    Great essay.

  3. I smell a failed creative writer airing her bitterness.

    Elif Batuman’s rambling essay, which relies on sweeping generalizations and skewed logic, reveals more about her personal resentment of MFA programs and their attendees than the viability of McGurl’s argument (yes, this was supposed to be a book review?).

    First, she never defines what “programme fiction” is before asserting that she doesn’t like it — I’m assuming she’s putting all books from authors who ever took a writing workshop or earned an MFA into the same slot. Reductive much?

    Second, she herself got a PhD and not an MFA. She has no idea what goes on during an MFA or of the fact that programs greatly vary in curriculum. Given her ignorance, where her grievances come from, I can’t say—her words: “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?” How would she EVEN KNOW? And her repetition of “THE programme” to denote all programs reveals the reductivism underpinning her argument.

    Third, she states that her grievance with “programme fiction” is that it is disconnected with “any sustained literary tradition.” To explain this perceived lack of history, she goes on to criticize Ken Kesey for musing about close third person narrative because close third is nothing new. Henry James already used third person! So for Ken Kesey not to mention Henry James in his musing–WELL! I dare say he must be totally disconnected from any literary tradition!

    Interestingly, she seems to have quite a bit of beef against non-white writers who write about their own experiences–accusing them of “self-commodifying.” She even snipes at Sandra Cisneros for “assuming that children of privilege don’t have stories to tell,” when it’s obvious that Cisneros’ comment was about finding the value of her own personal experience, which was so different from the lives of her Iowa classmates at the time. Valuing the narratives of non-whites doesn’t preclude valuing the stories of whites. Once again, Batuman is being reductive and taking nonsensical leaps of logic.

    Then Batuman goes on (and on) with more contradictory criteria for what is “literature” and what is “fiction.” I think the reason why her article ended up being so long winded is that she sets out to blast “programme fiction,” but she can’t even settle on any common characteristics for the variety of work that she is trying to pigeonhole.

    It’s probably obvious that I am a graduate of an MFA program. I do agree with Batuman’s point that creative writing programs probably are “as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one.” But behind all the literary posturing, Batuman seems to be arguing that MFA programs should shift their focus from the craft of narrative to writing stories from the POV of PhD candidates. There’s a good reason why the programs are separate. MFAs want to learn how to tell a good story — e.g. how not to bore the reader, how to use language powerfully, how to structure events and write in a voice that gets to some kind of truth about the characters. We may enjoy Henry James and look to him as a master story teller to help our own craft, but we aren’t going to spend hours discussing who first invented close third person narrative. That’s a PhD’s job :)

    It’s obvious from Batuman’s vitriol and ultimately pointless argument that she simply has no clue what it takes to write fiction or a good story. It’s probably a good thing, after all, that she opted for a PhD.

  4. “[Batuman] herself got a PhD and not an MFA. She has no idea what goes on during an MFA or of the fact that programs greatly vary in curriculum. Given her ignorance, where her grievances come from, I can’t say—her words: ‘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?’ How would she EVEN KNOW?”

    Perhaps she was, in McGurl’s words, “refusing the perspectival limitations imposed by her own [non-MFA status].” There is great truth to what Batuman wrote, and that’s exactly why it’s gotten under so many people’s skin.

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