MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?

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Nov. 26 2010 7:21 AM

MFA vs. NYC

America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The following article is excerpted from the latest issue of n+1 magazine. This article is available online only in Slate, but click here to purchase the new issue of n+1 in print.

In his 2009 book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl describes how American fiction has become inseparable from its institutional context—the university—as particularly embodied in the writing workshop. The book is remarkable in many respects, not least for McGurl's suggestive readings of a host of major American writers, not just Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver, the compact form and ashamed contents of whose work have made them program icons, but also verbally expansive writer-professors like Nabokov and Joyce Carol Oates. In terms of the intellectual history of the writing workshop, The Program Era marks a turning point after which the MFA program comes to seem somehow different than it had previously seemed. It feels, reading McGurl, as if the MFA beast has at last been offered a look in the mirror, and may finally come to know itself as it is.

This may seem paradoxical, or backward: The writing program, after all, has long existed as an object of self-study for the people who actually attend such things, or teach in them, usually in the form of satire—David Foster Wallace's "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," Francine Prose's Blue Angel, that movie with the Belle & Sebastian soundtrack, and on and on. But (to borrow one of McGurl's many ideas) the program writer, even if he's been both student and professor, always wants to assume, and is to some extent granted, outsider status by the university; he's always lobbing his flaming bags of prose over the ivied gate late at night. Then in the morning he puts on a tie and walks through the gate and goes to his office. In the university, the fiction writer nevertheless managed not to think of himself as of the university.

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McGurl interrupts this unself-consciousness by filing a full and official report from across the hallway: from the English Department proper, forcing the aspiring novelist to look across that hallway and notice a bunch of graduate students and professors sitting there, in identical offices, wielding identical red pens. You're like me now! is one of the cheerful subtexts of The Program Era—a literary critic's pointing-out that the creative writer is just as institutionally entangled as the critic has long been acknowledged to be. Or, more charitably put (for McGurl is perpetually charitable), that the fiction writer, at last, can cease fretting about how free and wild he is and get to work.

But what kind of work? One good outcome of McGurl's analysis would be to lay to rest the perpetual handwringing about what MFA programs do to writers (e.g., turn them into cringing, cautious, post-Carverite automatons). Because of the universitization of American fiction that McGurl describes, it's virtually impossible to read a particular book and deduce whether the writer attended a program. For one thing, she almost certainly did. For another, the workshop as a form has bled downward into the colleges, so that a writer could easily have taken a lifetime's worth of workshops as an undergraduate, a la Jonathan Safran Foer. And even if the writer has somehow never heard of an MFA program or set foot on a college campus, it doesn't matter, because if she's read any American fiction of the past 60 years, or met someone who did, she's imbibed the general idea and aesthetic. We are all MFAs now.

On the flip side (as McGurl can't quite know, because he attended "real" grad school), MFA programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students' work—especially shocking if you're the student and paying $80,000 for the privilege. Staffed by writer-professors preoccupied with their own work or their failure to produce any; freed from pedagogical urgency by the tenuousness of the link between fiction writing and employment; and populated by ever younger, often immediately postcollegiate students, MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation, or finishing schools for almost-ready writers (in the way of, say, Iowa in the '70s), and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.