Mark McGurl author of the book that got everyone talking about MFA programs, The Program Era, mounts a spirited defense against Elif Batuman’s much discussed review of the book. Among his ripostes: “One can be all for the deflation of liberal pieties without being a gleeful ignoramus about it, as though literary journalism needs its own Ann Coulter.” Zing!
1. A Writer-Teacher Consults Her Magic 8-Ball
Why did I spend twenty years of my life writing short stories as opposed to novels?
Reply hazy, try again.
Because I know without a doubt that when I was growing up, I absolutely loved to read novels and rarely read short stories unless they were assigned in a class.
All signs point to yes.
Is it my nature to write short stories, or is it nurture?
Concentrate and ask again.
Have I really just spent two decades writing short stories for no other reason than because it’s the only prose form for which I’ve received explicit instruction?
Without a doubt.
And what about my students, the next generation? Have I passed this short story inclination to them?
It is decidedly so.
2. We are Not Experiencing a Short Story Renaissance
Today, most writers are raised in the creative writing classroom, where the fundamental texts are stand-alone poems and stories. As you progress from the introductory class to intermediate and advanced-level courses in your genre, you concentrate on aspects of fictional craft within these short forms, becoming more proficient in their creation and execution. At both the graduate and undergraduate level, most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers. In his new book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”
So. This is me. Paying attention.
Don’t get me wrong. I love stories, yes I do. I love teaching them and writing them. Some of my favorite writers work almost solely in the form. Stories have been very good to me. They are not easier to write than novels, they are not in any way inferior to the novel. So let’s get that straight. I am not dissing the short story nor its many practitioners.
But I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.
3. A Story is Not a Paper
Inevitably, students falsely equate the short story with another form with which they are intimately familiar: the paper. I know this is true because my undergraduates say odd things to me like, “I need to meet with you about my paper.”
I say, “What paper? Do you mean your story, that art you’re creating?”
The required studio art and dance classes I took in college didn’t transform me into a painter or a ballerina, but they certainly taught me to appreciate other forms of artistic expression. I was evaluated by things I made (a clay pot, a watercolor) or performed (a dance routine), and I never confused those products with the papers I submitted to my sociology and philosophy professors for evaluation. Students confuse writing stories with writing papers because of the same-seeming word itself—writing—and because the final results are indistinguishable from each other: a Word file, paragraphs of text on the screen or on 8½ x 11 sheets of paper. Another reason students confuse the two forms is that they probably create stories the same way they write papers—clock ticking, one or two intense sessions of writing, a euphoric, semi-magical flowing of words. Save. Print. Done.
4. Origin Story
I was in my second year of graduate school and taking a workshop with John Keeble. I knew I wanted to write something akin to Winesburg, Ohio, but instead of emerging one by one, the stories came out hopelessly fused. Imagine if Sherwood Anderson had sat down and written the title, “New Willard House” and proceeded to describe the characters in his fictional boarding house. The end. That’s a pretty good approximation of the story I’d submitted to Keeble for discussion, a big, messy failure of a story. I knew it, and everyone sitting around that table knew it.
And then the most amazing thing happened. Keeble opened the discussion by saying, “Some of you are working on stories, on the small thing, but I think this piece wants to be a big thing. Rather than talk about whether or not this works as a story, let’s talk about it as material toward a larger project.” Just like that, Keeble shifted the default setting of the workshop from dissection to enlargement, from what’s wrong to what could be. My peers weren’t allowed to say, “This story is muddled and digressive. There’s no main character and no dramatic arc.” (Which would have been absolutely true.) Instead, they said this:
Cathy, here’s a story.
And here is a story.
Over there, that is a story, too.
Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.
I was lucky.
Typically, workshops prescribe. Here’s what’s not working. Here’s what I had a problem with. Somebody—if not John Keeble, somebody—has to step up and change the default setting, to frame the conversation so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.
But how to you do that?
5. This is Not How You Do It
I know some people who took a novel workshop in college. This is how it went down.
First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.
Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.
Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.
And then the semester was over.
6. This is Not How You Do It Either
Syllabus: Fiction Workshop
This course is an intensive study of fiction. You will write, read, and critique fiction. Everything you write, read, and critique will be 8-15 pages long, or approximately 5,000 words. In other words, you will write, read, and critique short stories. In other words, this course is really a short story workshop. We hope that is why you are here—to learn to write a story that is 8-15 pages long. If not…well, could you just do it anyway? Thanks.
If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you will learn to artificially inflate your story so that no one will think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you will learn to artificially deflate your story because don’t you know that more than 15 pages makes people cranky?
A few years ago, we had a very contentious meeting of the Curriculum Committee to discuss enrollment caps in this course. Because it is a 300-level class, some of our esteemed colleagues from Literature felt the cap should be 30, which is how many students they have in their 300-level seminars. We argued that this was impossible, that the difference between a Fiction Workshop and a Seminar on the 19th Century Novel is that in the workshop, student work is the primary text. We said, “For us, the difference between 20 and 30 is not a matter of 10 more papers to grade. It’s a matter of 10 more manuscripts that must be discussed by the entire class. It would be like us telling you that rather than teaching six doorstopper novels, you must cover eleven.”
This argument proved to be quite persuasive.
The question then turned to page-output requirements. How many papers would students write in a fiction workshop? Because the accepted standard in 300-level literature seminars are two papers of 5-7 pages and one final research paper of 25 pages, for a total of 35-40 pages.
We said, “Our students don’t write papers, per se. They journal…”
This raised eyebrows, so we moved on.
“They write critiques of each other’s work.”
Some satisfied nods. Critique. Critical. Impersonal. Okay, this is working…
“They write responses to the assigned stories.”
Papers? they asked excitedly.
“Well, sort of. They don’t interpret. They don’t write about what something means but rather how it means. They analyze craft. They imitate. They steal.”
“No, not exactly.” Sigh. “And they write fiction.”
Our esteemed colleagues said, Yes, yes, yes, but how looooooong are these fictions?
And we said, “They are as long as they need to be,” which we admit sounded a bit flakey and was not persuasive. So we assured the Curriculum Committee that you would write fictions of substance and gravity of approximately 8-15 pages. Remember: we are artists striving for institutional respect within a sometimes inhospitable academic bureaucracy. Please help us prove that creative writing is a valid discipline. Please write stories that are as long as academic papers.
Methods of Evaluating Student Performance:
Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.
This Short Story Anthology, That Short Story Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and one novel by the successful writer who is visiting campus.
7. A Metaphor: Running Sprints vs. Running a Marathon
In his essay from Further Fridays, “It’s a Short Story,” John Barth says that while some fiction writers move back and forth between long and short modes, congenital short-story writers and congenital novelists do exist.
There is a temperamental, even a metabolic, difference between devout practitioners of the two modes, as between sprinters and marathoners. To such dispositions as Poe’s, Maupassant’s, Chekhov’s, or Donald Barthelme’s, the prospect of addressing a single, discrete narrative project for three, four, five years…would be appalling…Conversely, to many of us the prospect of inventing every few weeks a whole new ground-conceit, situation, cast of characters, plot, perhaps even voice, is as dismaying as would be the prospect of improvising at that same interval a whole new identity.
Perhaps the reason why so few fiction workshops provide explicit instruction on writing novels is because there’s no clear rubric. How-to-write-a-novel books run the gamut from the extraordinarily regimented (such as Robert McKee’s screenwriting tome, Story) to the queasily motivational (such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) to the intellectually impractical (such as E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). A few years ago, I announced in a class that fiction writer Walter Mosley was coming to town. “He’s the author of the Easy Rawlins books. Oh, and he just published a book called This Year You Write Your Novel.” One of my students guffawed. “Sounds like a self-help book.”
Inspiration, encouragement, support: these aren’t accepted pedagogical stances in academia. In order to be taken seriously within one’s institution, a writer-teacher must approach teaching with intellectual rigor, not inspirational vigor. This is college, not a rah-rah writing group. But to return to Barth’s analogy, writers of big things, like marathon runners in training, need to go on long runs regularly —alone or in small groups. They need water. They need good running shoes. And every once in awhile, they need someone driving by to beep their horn and give them a thumbs up. What they don’t need is for someone to stop them after the first mile and say, “You know what? Your first step out of the block wasn’t that great. Let’s work on your stride for awhile.”
8. Another Metaphor: Building a Writing Studio vs. Building a House
You decide to build yourself a writing studio in your backyard, a little room of one’s own. You lay a foundation, put up the frame, the walls, the windows, the door, the roof. Depending on where you live, you figure out how to heat it, how to cool it. You decide whether or not you want a toilet. You run electricity. You insulate. You put up the drywall, lay the floor, select fixtures. Then you paint the outside. Then you paint the inside, buy carpet maybe, and a desk and a chair and some framed art. And voila! You’ve built a small, one-room house!
This is how you write a story.
This is not how you write a big thing.
You don’t construct the kitchen—foundation to finish—and then move on to the living room—foundation to finish—and then move on to the bedroom—foundation to finish. You build a big thing in stages, which means that the house isn’t really habitable until very close to the end of the process. This is why it’s hard to workshop a big thing in progress. It’s like someone wants to show you the house they’re building. You show up for the grand tour, but the house is nothing but concrete and a frame. Still, your friend is so darned excited, gesturing at empty space. “This will be the kitchen!” What are you supposed to say? You smile and nod your head and try to seem interested, but really, you’re mad, because this seems like a big waste of your time. Why not wait until the house is all the way done to show it to you?
Your friend asks if you want to come back next week to watch them install the plumbing. You think, Please God, kill me now, but you say, “I’ll tell you what, friend. Why don’t you focus on finishing the bathroom? That I can help you with. I love to look at tile and showerheads. If you’ll do that, I’ll come back next week.”
And so you do that. Of course, you never finish building your house because you run out of money, but you love that bathroom dearly. That sunken-garden tub. That jungle-rain shower head. Italian tile. A Restoration Hardware polished chrome shower caddy. Ahhhhh.
9. Another Metaphor: Writing Right-handed vs. Left-handed
Ideally, a fiction workshop meets at a conference table. But most of the time you wind up in a classroom with desks scooted into a circle, and most of those desks accommodate the right-handed short story writers, not the left handed novelists.
Often, left-handed novelists don’t even realize they are left-handed, because as soon as they start fiction school, their teachers place the pencil in their right hand and say, “Write.” And when the 15 pages that emerge are woefully incomplete, a real mess, the teacher says, “What are you doing? That is not a story. Write a story.” And gradually, the left-handed novelist learns how to write a right-handed story, even though there’s always something about doing so that feels a little off.
Sometimes a left-handed novelist is wise or stubborn enough to realize that he is not a right-handed story writer with horrible penmanship, but more accurately a beautiful left-handed novelist with perfectly fine penmanship. When he is alone, away from school, he brandishes the pencil in his left hand and sighs. Ahhhhhh. Then in college, he takes a workshop, which is full of nothing but right-handed desks. He puts the pencil in his right hand. Out of necessity, he’s become ambidextrous. And so, he goes through the motions of writing right-handed short stories for class. Assignments that must be completed. Hoops to jump through so that he can be in this class, read books for credit, and get a degree in the writing of fiction. At night, he goes home and puts the pencil in his left hand and works some more on his novel, the pages of which he never submits to his teacher, whose syllabus clearly states that they are to submit short stories that are 8-15 pages long.
Then there is the left-handed novelist who gets an idea. Optimistically, she opens a file on her computer, types away, and names this document “novel.doc.” She asks her creative writing teacher if she may submit a chapter of her novel-in-progress to the workshop. She wonders why her teacher grimaces when she says the word “novel,” then reluctantly consents. A week later, she is “up.” There is a discussion. Everyone wants to know more, more, more. They want her to fix this and fix that. With her right hand, she revises the chapter (as required by her teacher, who uses the portfolio method of grading) and with her left hand, she writes Chapter 2. The next semester, she asks her new creative writing teacher if she may submit Chapter 2 to workshop, but this teacher says that no one will understand Chapter 2 without Chapter 1, and submitting both chapters is out of the question because that’s 30 pages and the limit is 15 pages. So she resubmits the revised Chapter 1, and everyone who read Chapter 1 last semester gets pouty. “Haven’t we seen this already?” And everyone else, well, they pose an entirely new set of questions. Dejectedly, the left-handed novelist sits down to revise Chapter 1 again (as required by her teacher, who also uses the portfolio method of grading). She opens the file “novel.doc,” which is still 30 pages long. Her left arm hangs useless from her shoulder, the muscles atrophying. After finals, she never opens that document again, but for years afterward, she thinks about those 30 pages. All the time.
So I ask you: whose fault is it that she didn’t write that novel?
For a long time, I would have said it was the student’s own fault.
But these days, I’m not so sure.
10. Shame Management
In This Year You Write Your Novel, Mosley suggests writing for about an hour a day, producing 600-1,200 words a day, seven days a week. In this way, it’s possible to hammer out a first draft in about three months. “The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, most first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen.” It’s the same advice Anne Lamott offers in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter of Bird by Bird.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed.
Bird by Bird is a popular text in college creative writing courses, so why not the Mosley book? I’ll tell you why. Because the principle of “Shitty First Drafts” is fine if your students are all working on short stories; theoretically, there’s time for shitty to become shiny. Not so with novel writing. If we offered a class called This Semester You Start Your Novel, we’d be confronted by work that’s hard to critique and hard to grade. So many pages! So many mistakes! This is why we just keep teaching a class called, This Semester You Write Two Papers Whoops! We Mean Two Short Stories.
The long-term propulsive momentum necessary to write a big thing is continuously interrupted by workshop deadlines, which demand that a work-in-progress be submitted for group critique. Anyone who has been through creative writing instruction knows that being “up” in workshop means opening oneself to the potential negative judgment of your teacher and your peers. And so, you prepare your manuscript for workshop to maximize your chances of walking out of that classroom feeling good, not bad. Feeling pride, not shame. In The Program Era, McGurl says that students must—out of sheer psychological necessity—participate in a form of self-retraction or “shame management” that is endemic to the workshop model.
I taught in an MFA program for five years, and this is what I saw happen every year—without fail. It’s their last year in the program. They’ve taken all the required workshops, and reality strikes: they need a 150 page manuscript to graduate. After considerable fretting, they sit down to revise some story they don’t completely hate—and something thrilling happens. The story swells to 25, then 75 pages, or it becomes not one story but four interrelated stories. Freed from worrying about workshop page requirements and whether their peers will like it or not, they finally move from the small thing to the big thing. For the first time, they feel like they are writing a book, which is why they sought out creative writing instruction in the first place.
Which begs the question: Do students write stories because they really want to or because the workshop model all but demands that they do? If workshops are bad for big things, why do we continue to use them?
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to think outside the workshop.
(Image: College Math Papers from loty’s photostream)
In 1936 the University of Iowa became the first school in the United States to offer a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing. Forty years later there were only a dozen such programs in the world. Today, according to an article in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine entitled “The MFA Revolution,” there are nearly 200 creative writing MFA programs worldwide, and at least 4,000 aspiring writers apply to these programs each year in the U.S. alone. “What is clear,” the article concludes, “is that the burgeoning network of fully funded MFA programs is rapidly becoming the nation’s largest-ever patronage system for young artists.”
Whenever the words “patronage” and “artists” appear in the same sentence, questions must be asked. Is this mass patronage system a boon for American fiction, or is it a poison pill? Do creative writing programs nurture genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? And more broadly: Just what good does schooling of any kind do for a writer?
In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl points out 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,” McGurl writes, “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 un-credentialled, 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.”
In a dazzling essay in the London Review of Books called “Get A Real Degree,” the brainiac Elif Batuman deftly fillets McGurl’s claim. “According to the internet,” she writes, “writers have, in fact, been going to college for hundreds of years.” In a footnote she lists dozens of writers, from Balzac to Joyce to Graham Greene, and the universities they attended. She concludes: “I have been able to find only a handful of famous novelists who, like Hemingway, avoided university in favour of journalism.” She names Defoe, Dickens and Twain. (The deftness of this filleting job is greatly enhanced by “according to the internet” – sly shorthand for “as any high school sophomore with a laptop could have found out.”)
Batuman, a Harvard grad with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, argues persuasively that the problem is not that virtually all American fiction writers go to college and that growing numbers of them then go on to grad school; the problem is that they study the wrong things. She comes down squarely in favor of writers studying literature as opposed to studying how to make fiction. After conceding that the creative writing program is equally incapable of ruining a good writer or transforming a bad one, she asks: “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?”
One result of the creative writing boom, according to McGurl, is that MFA grads are producing “more excellent fiction…than anyone has time to read.” Which, according to Batuman, is precisely 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?”
McGurl’s spurious claim about the place of college and journalism in writers’ lives brought back my own experience as a young man trying to figure out a way to reconcile my urge to write with the need to make a living. As it turned out, college and journalism figured largely in the solution.
I went directly from high school to Brown University in the fall of 1970 because that was what was expected of me, the grandson of a distinguished professor and son of a college graduate who became a newspaperman and then a successful Detroit auto executive in the post-war boom years when all Detroit auto executives were successful and almost always sent their children to college. I knew even then that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and so in my freshman year I was thrilled to win a coveted spot in a course called “Writing Fiction” taught by the late R.V. Cassill, who had just published a fat bawdy novel about the Profumo scandal called Dr. Cobb’s Game. The things I remember most vividly about Cassill are that he wore a beret, he chain-smoked Gauloise cigarettes, and he tried to seduce my girlfriend. I guess he was part French.
His weekly classes – now they’re called “workshops” – were torture, a dozen bright sensitive kids sitting around a room tearing apart each other’s stories and egos. In the requisite end-of-semester written summary of my performance and prospects, Cassill needed all of eight words to cut my heart out: “Mr. Morris works hard but possesses limited talent.” I haven’t set foot in a creative writing classroom since.
Cassill’s evisceration did have one positive result. It made me realize that since college couldn’t teach me how to write, I would have to teach myself. I would have to keep reading copiously, of course, but I would also have to live, to gather “experience” I could write about. I was still under the spell of the worst advice anyone ever gave an aspiring writer: Write what you know.
So I dropped out and took off, traveling cross-country and working jobs as a farmhand, racehorse groom, dishwasher and fruit picker while writing an apprentice novel that achieved the one thing such exercises can be asked to achieve: it gave me the courage to keep writing. In time, my resume would grow to include jobs as a bartender, New York City bicycle messenger, telemarketer, porn actor and Nashville disc jockey. Always I was writing on the side, only rarely about my personal experiences.
It wasn’t until many years later that I came to understand that “experience” was beside the point. It was Flannery O’Connor who set me wise. “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she wrote in a collection of essays called Mystery and Manners. “If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”
One hot dusty day I found myself high up in an apple tree in Sonoma County, California. As I twisted a fat green Gravenstein apple off a branch and laid it gently in my canvas shoulder bag – “Treat ’em like eggs,” was the foreman’s mantra – a voice whispered to me: Do you really want to do this kind of shit work for the rest of your life? I knew the answer. No, I wanted to be a writer, which meant I needed to find a way to get paid to write while continuing my apprenticeship as a novelist. I needed to get a newspaper job. Which meant I needed to get a college degree.
So after a two-year hiatus I went back to school, where I studied whatever interested me – geology, drawing, French novels, Russian history, Italian neo-realist movies, anything but creative writing. I also put together an independent-study project – I spent my senior year researching the history of the city of Providence and writing a book-length monograph. With an eye toward life after graduation, I published a handful of articles in the student newspaper. School wasn’t my death as a writer, it was my birth; and it would not have happened without the guidance and support of inspiring teachers, access to magnificent libraries, and every student’s most precious gift, free time.
When I finally graduated, Nixon had recently flown away in disgrace to San Clemente and every swinging dick in the land ached to be the next Woodward and/or Bernstein. It was a buyer’s market and I was selling untested goods. I spent nine months roaming up and down the Eastern seaboard, from the Adirondacks to Savannah, pounding on doors at podunk newspapers and listening to one editor after another tell me: “Come back when you’ve got some experience.” It was all I could do not to shout at them: “How the fuck am I supposed to get any experience if nobody’ll give me a job?!” Finally the publisher at a small Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania backwater gave me a shot – a job covering local school boards for $140 a week, and don’t even think about asking for overtime pay. Of course I jumped at it.
I’m convinced I would not have gotten even that dismal job offer if I hadn’t possessed a college degree. I still recall the job interview, the way the publisher’s eyes got big as dimes when I told him I had a bachelor’s degree in English from an Ivy League school. The days of Defoe, Dickens, Twain and Hemingway were long gone by then. A college degree was a bare-bones requirement for even the lowliest cub reporter’s job, and in retrospect I can’t say that that turned out to be an altogether bad thing. Newspaper writing flourished from the 1960s until the Internet caused newspaper executives to commit mass hari-kari beginning in the 1990s. (For a hilarious gloss on this unpretty group suicide, I refer you to Jess Walter’s novel The Financial Lives of Poets.) I worked on daily newspapers off and on from 1976 until 1996, and I became so convinced I was part of a golden age that I deluded myself into believing it was destined to last forever. But even during those golden years – or, rather, that long twilight – there were gruff, unsettling voices of dissent.
One of the loudest belonged to Lewis Grizzard, a booze-marinated Atlanta columnist who made a fortune writing best-selling comedy books that trafficked in the author’s cracker upbringing and his disdain for anything that smelled of sophistication, including college graduates, feminists, Yankees and anyone who could write grammatical sentences of more than eight words. A typical Grizzard book title was Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night.
Grizzard had a lucrative side career as a lecturer and stand-up comic, and I remember being sent to cover one of his performances at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. This would have been in the early 1990s, when Grizzard’s fame was at its peak, shortly before the booze and a faulty heart ganged up to kill him at the age of 47. That night in Durham, inevitably, he got off on the topic of how newspapers had gone to hell. Why, reporters wrote on whispering machines called computers instead of on clattering manual typewriters! Newsroom floors were spongy carpet instead of creaky hardwood! The green eyeshades and spittoons were gone – and, by implication, so were the pints of sour mash in bottom drawers! To top it off, newsrooms were crawling with college boys – and, sweet baby Jesus, college girls! (Grizzard’s spiel conveniently omitted the fact that he held a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia.) “When I walk into the average newsroom today,” he moaned, “I don’t know whether to write a column or ask if I can take out a loan.” Of course the audience lapped it up like corn liquor.
Grizzard was not alone in lamenting the passing of romance from the newspaper business, the death of the supposed good old days of “The Front Page” and “Get me rewrite, sweetheart!” What the nostalgists failed to realize – or admit – was that most American newspapers before the mid-1960s were dreadful, full of factual errors, dry writing and dreary layouts. Those computers and college educations Grizzard despised so much helped produce the best written, best edited and most visually attractive newspapers in the history of American journalism – not to mention the flowering of magazine writing, non-fiction books and the uneasy but fruitful marriage of fiction and journalism by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Marshall Frady, Gay Talese and many others. Computers and college educations didn’t kill the American newspaper; on-line car ads and real-estate listings and classifieds did, with a generous assist from newspaper executives who were pie-eyed drunk on years of artificially fat profits.
Furthermore, those newsroom Hemingways with their high school diplomas and their hip flasks were, for the most part, hacks. I know this, second-hand, because my father worked on newspapers in the 1940s and ’50s and he told me stories. The exception who proved the rule, according to my father, was a colleague at the Washington Post in the early 1950s. His name was Al Lewis and he was a legendary police reporter – even though he was barely able to write English prose. He and my father collaborated on a series of articles about a D.C. racketeer that nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. That is, Lewis did the legwork and my father, a fine writer and lightning fast typist, did the writing. Lewis’s street smarts wouldn’t have amounted to much without a college boy like my father to distill his raw knowledge into readable prose. It was Al Lewis, incidentally, who broke the story about a break-in at the Watergate complex in the early hours of June 17, 1972.
So I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today. Flannery O’Connor graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and spent some time at the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and neither experience bleached the color, the humor, the horror – the felt life – from her fiction. Sometime in the early 1960s she wrote: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher… In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.”
Elif Batuman adds in her essay: “In technical terms, pretty much any MFA grad leaves Stendahl in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.”
As if to prove their point, last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review carried a review of a slim new novel called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang. It’s a story, according to the review, of the paths followed by “two budding poets” who come together at “a prestigious unnamed writing school in the Midwest.” Chang, the reviewer notes, is a 1993 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been its director since 2006; she has received fellowships from Stanford, Princeton and Radcliffe; and her new novel poses “provocative” questions: “What is the relationship between talent and craft, genius and mediocrity? Can writing be taught? Does anyone ever improve? Yet the central characters in All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost are neither mad enough, wise enough nor even, so it seems, well-read enough, to dare answer them.”
It’s bad enough that Chang has written about a cloistered world she knows too well. It’s worse that her story is one that you almost certainly can’t bring yourself to care about. What’s worst of all by far, though, is that her characters are not even well-read enough to answer a bunch of inane questions. Apparently they’ve been too busy at their prestigious writing school studying adverbs and themselves.
Like Elif Batuman, I’ll pass. School can’t kill writing. But who, indeed, has time to read such books?
Its 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 StanfordJohn Irving, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, and John Casey taught by Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa.I’ve also heard tell of a workshop that includedJhumpa 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?