Stop blaming Iowa! MFA vs. NYC is a phony debate

The book world has a new phony debate. On the good side, at least we're not arguing about Franzen anymore

Topics: Books, Editor's Picks, MFA vs NYC, Iowa Writers Workshop, chad harbach, Ayana Mathis, eleanor catton, J.D. Salinger, Alice Munro, Lan Samantha Chang, keith gessen, n+1,

It’s become so customary for writers to stake out their opinion on the value of master of fine arts programs that it’s also customary to begin by venting their exasperation about the debate itself. Yet still, every few months a new think piece drops like an Alka-Seltzer into the half-empty glass of online book-chat (plop, plop).

Among the most recent is a Chronicle of Higher Education essay by Eric Bennett, “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” a hymnal of familiar aspersions against the fiction MFA system, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in particular: in short, that it promotes unambitious, formulaic, anti-intellectual, sentimental prose. Bennett, an Iowa alum, was “disappointed by [the IWW’s] reduced form of intellectual engagement” and “narrow definition of what counted as ‘literary.’” He lists the three workshop-approved styles: “cold” modernism (represented by Flaubert, Joyce, Carver, Hemingway, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson and Denis Johnson); “winningly loquacious” prose (Cheever, Fitzgerald, Ethan Canin); and magical realism (Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Italo Calvino).

Conversely, the IWW spurns “postmodernism”; its students can’t “coordinate the personal with the national or international,” and haven’t “read enough to feel the oceanic movement of events and ideas in history.” What Bennett had hoped for was to engage with “heavy books from a bunch of different disciplines,” like “monetary policy,” “string theory,” “the Gospels” and “analytic and Continental philosophers.” He wanted to write “a novel of ideas, a novel of systems,” but since there was an “unspoken proscription” against them, he didn’t.

These critiques retread a popular narrative: that the MFA program is an assembly line, adhering to algorithmic mantras (“Find Your Voice,” “Show Don’t Tell”) that stifles the creativity it’s meant to nurture — “a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into.” And Mark McGurl has rigorously dissected this narrative in his admirable 2011 book “The Program Era,” compiling a genealogy of postwar American fiction, which includes other programs than Iowa, expresses literary movements in fine detail through the creative criticism of their influences, and addresses the complex interchange between program and non-program fiction movements. (With diagrams!)

What McGurl and Bennett’s critiques share, however, is an emphasis on bygone chapters of the IWW’s history — mainly those of Paul Engle and Frank Conroy, two notoriously heavy-handed administrators who pushed their aesthetic and cultural agendas loud and hard. Having graduated in 2000, Bennett may be giving an accurate account of his experience at Iowa, but in purporting to criticize “today’s MFA culture,” he elides the major reforms to the program introduced by Lan Samantha Chang, who became director in 2006.

Chang’s contributions have been understated, primarily because she herself is unostentatious, and has carried this ethos into the program. For all its potential “brand leverage,” she has actively resisted publicizing or bringing the IWW online anywhere beyond its minimal homepage. Her most notable accomplishments have been achieved away from the podium: securing full funding for every student, and introducing greater demographic and aesthetic diversity into the program. Her teaching style, too, is antipodal to Conroy’s dismissive authoritarianism (he “shot down projects by shooting down their influences”). Eleanor Catton, 2013 Booker Prize-winner, writes:

One of Sam Chang’s first acts as director was to purchase an enormous round table for workshop discussion: the traditional rectangular table with opposing sides, a head, and a foot did not suit her. If the syntax-to-symbolism pyramid was Conroy’s motto and coat of arms, I would say the round table is Sam’s. Her workshop is a conversation, one that includes and listens to every person in the room. If there’s showboating or intimidation, it doesn’t come from her … when she speaks she tends to question rather than to answer. I couldn’t tell you which novels she despises, which authors bore her, which authors irritate her, which attitudes to fiction she can’t stand.

Bennett’s criticisms should be considered in light of the work of Chang-era graduates — like Catton, whose manuscript for her debut novel, “The Rehearsal,” enabled her admission into Iowa in 2008, and is unmistakably “postmodern” with its self-deconstructing nested narratives. Later, Catton submitted to Chang’s workshop the story that became the Booker Prize-winning “The Luminaries,” a novel that addresses the “movement of events and ideas in history” — not merely “oceanic,” but astral. The Guardian notes that Catton’s books were influenced by “Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou,’” “the collected works of Carl Jung,” “feminist performance theory,” 19th-century New Zealand history, and astrology, duly satisfying Bennett’s eclectic prerequisites.

However, if Bennett wants his “novel of ideas” to engage explicitly with philosophers like Agamben, Chalmers, Freud, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, he’d appreciate the mind-body conundrums of Bennett Sims’ “A Questionable Shape.” (Far from facing discouragement, Sims writes in his acknowledgments: “this book is not for or to Sam Chang, but by and with her.”) Or, to “coordinate the personal with the national,” there’s Ayana Mathis’ “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” a family novel spanning 60 years of American history after the Great Migration.

But there’s no need to cherry-pick recent graduates: there’s Chris Adrian, Kevin Brockmeier, Jane Smiley, Daniel Alarcón, T.C. Boyle, ZZ Packer, Michael Cunningham, Allan Gurganus and so on. It all seems to indicate that the Iowa MFA is, at least, not structurally to blame; that Bennett may have simply been at unfortunate odds with the class of 2000. Using Engle and Conroy’s fiction agendas as metonyms for Iowa’s present culture, and Iowa itself as a metonym for 1,200-plus degree-granting creative writing programs in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, playwriting and translation, is a mistake. Iowa is certainly a flat place. But “flattening”? He flatters himself.

* * *

Bennett’s essay appears (as “The Pyramid Scheme”) in “MFA vs. NYC,” a recent anthology of essays about how “the American literary scene has split into two cultures: New York publishing versus university MFA program.” The anthology also includes “The Invisible Vocation,” by Elif Batuman, who presents a nuanced and inventive case against “program fiction,” in spite of its original blunt-force title in the London Review of Books (“Get a Real Degree”).

Conceding that “the program … is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one,” Batuman nonetheless declares herself “not a fan of program fiction.” She deplores its lack of “historical consciousness,” and argues that “the value placed on creativity and originality … causes writers to hide the fact that they have ever read any other books at all and, in many cases, to stop reading books altogether.”

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In this, her critique structurally resembles Bennett’s: “There’s a dearth of [historically aware / postmodern] literature, because programs don’t teach [literature and history / string theory].” For Batuman, however, the problem is not that the resulting fiction is historically disengaged, but that it naively presents old literary methods as new innovations — like Bennett’s “novel of systems,” the maximalist type that Batuman dismisses with the toe-tag of James Wood’s “hysterical realism.” She wishes MFA programs would “teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves”; in effect, she would reform the MFA into an ersatz M.A. or Ph.D.

The acknowledged raison of most MFAs is to give their students free time; indeed, Batuman says that “the best thing about the program is that it frees would-be writers from material lack.” But she presumes that MFA students spend their ample free time not reading; or at least not correctly. There’s no doubt that a grad-level historical education would serve any writer well, but for Batuman, autodidacticism — reading by preference, instead of by syllabus — is an automatic path to mediocrity, one that Melville, Faulkner, Saramago and Hemingway somehow avoided. (Eric Bennett concludes, more condescendingly: “to write [texts worth reading], you’re going to have to spend some time thinking.”) While every MFA program harbors a few Carver-clones and under-Cheevers who free-fall into various addictions, typical MFAs spend their time doing what writers have always done: read and write, lots, in curriculums of their devising.

Batuman also condemns the program for “ethnicizing novelistic alienation” and overvaluing fiction based on its “real or invented sociopolitical grievances.” These are legitimate annoyances, and they bother lots of MFA students, too, including, and perhaps especially, minority writers — because they know those books kill in New York. Nam Le’s short story about IWW students portrays their frustration at this very phenomenon (and note that Le graduated in 2006, just at the beginning of Chang’s administration):

We had just come from a party following a reading by the workshop’s most recent success, a Chinese woman trying to immigrate to America who had written a book of short stories about Chinese characters in stages of migration to America. The stories were subtle and good. The gossip was that she’d been offered a substantial six-figure contract for a two-book deal. […]

“It’s hot,” a writing instructor told me at a bar. “Ethnic literature’s hot. And important too.”

A couple of visiting literary agents took a similar view: […] “You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?” She tag-teamed to her colleague, who answered slowly as though intoning a mantra, “Your background and life experience.”

Other friends were more forthright: “I’m sick of ethnic lit,” one said.

At any rate, Batuman doesn’t provide much contemporary program fiction to exemplify her distaste. Instead, she takes aim at the literary figures that McGurl cites as influences or mascots for the program, rather than actual program graduates. The exceptions: Flannery O’Connor (neither contemporary nor poorly read); Bharati Mukherjee and Sandra Cisneros, whose fiction she ignores in favor of comments they’ve made about their motivations for writing; and Robert Olen Butler, whose story “Mid-Autumn” represents the kind of “ethnic lit” that Le’s characters are so sick of.

Lastly, arguing that “the real work of the novel … is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays,” she praises David Shields’ anti-novel manifesto “Reality Hunger” — without mentioning that Shields is a product of Iowa Fiction, class of ’80. Has Iowa produced its own most vehement critics? Talk about inclusive.

* * *

“MFA vs. NYC” is edited by the novelist and N+1 co-founder Chad Harbach, whose title essay is blessedly eager to “lay to rest the perpetual hand-wringing about what MFA programs do to writers (e.g., turn them into cringing, cautious, post-Carverite automatons)” and “do away with this distinction between the MFAs and the non-MFAs, the unfree and the free, the caged and the wild.”

Harbach is resigned to the program’s pervasiveness (“we are all MFAs now”) and instead draws sociological contrasts: that “on the level of individual experience, each can feel hermetic,” and each

has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement . Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.

But above all, he stresses the differences based “not on the writer’s educational background but on the system within which she earns (or aspires to earn) her living.” For Harbach, the two cultures diverge professionally — “the MFA fiction writer moves toward the poetic/academic model, the NYC writer moves toward the Hollywood model” — with repercussions for a writer’s longevity and readership. Correspondingly, Harbach downplays his own admissions that the “two cultures overlap in any number of obvious ways, some of them significant,” and that “it’s possible to travel [between the two cultures] without a passport, or to be granted dual citizenship.”

It’s odd that Harbach would cleave the two cultures along economic lines, since in that regard they’re symbiotic, to the point where they shouldn’t be defined apart from, but in terms of one another (perhaps with their own ticker symbol: NYFA? MFYC?). Iowa, Columbia, Michigan, the Michener Center and other programs often serve as farm teams, scouted by New York agents and editors. Every semester, established New York writers are beckoned to teach workshops and seminars, give readings and master classes, do residencies. Meanwhile, the proliferation of MFA degrees actually ensures that a degree alone will not guarantee its holder anything like a living wage teaching job. It’s all adjunct drudgery and freelancing until the book deal — likely brokered in New York. But where to find the time to write that book, with New York’s hustle and high rents? It helps to have a few years off … preferably at a funded program, the likes of which administrators like Samantha Chang and (for better or worse) One-Percenter patrons like the Zell Family Foundation are gradually extending.

So it may feel passingly “alien” for a Brooklynite to attend Association of Writers and Writers Programs conferences or an MFA grad to attend release parties at BookCourt, but if you’ve been in either territory for a while, your passport will likely be stamped in short order. Perhaps Harbach senses this, as he concludes on a note of apocalyptic convergence:

… perhaps this marks the beginning of the end, a sign that in the future there will be no NYC writers at all, just a handful of writers accomplished enough to teach in NYC … No one with “literary” aspirations will expect to earn a living by publishing books … The lit-lovers who used to become editors and agents will direct MFA programs instead; the book industry will become as rational  —  that is, as single-mindedly devoted to profit  —  as every other capitalist industry. The writers, even more so than now, will write for other writers. And so their common ambition and mission and salvation, their profession  —  indeed their only hope  — will be to make writers of us all.

Publishing has been a profit-driven capitalist industry for a long time, underwriting most of its high-lit writers with 50 shades of drab. And while nobody’s arguing that “full-time novelist” is a viable career anymore, the publishing industry doesn’t seem ready to implode into an Ouroboros quite yet — not judging by its continuing jackpot advances, like the $2 million for “City on Fire,” or the seven figures for “We Are Not Ourselves” and “Burial Rites.” Though Harbach holds an MFA and has spoken of lean times, he himself was apparently never tempted into the honey-trap of teaching, and it seems to have paid off; as the Bloomberg headline put it: “Unemployed Harvard Man Auctions Baseball Novel for $650,000.”

* * *

Uniting all three essays is a bottom-line concern for “greatness.” Bennett laments that “we live in an age that cringes at words like ‘greatness’”; Batuman worries that the MFA ethos replaces “great literature” with “excellent fiction”; Harbach extols MFA programs for preserving a canon of “great (Ann Beattie), near-great (Joy Williams), and merely excellent writers, whom publishing has long since passed by.” And in each view, greatness (or its conferral) emerges from certain preconditions: for Bennett and Batuman, it’s a particular study regimen (Bennett wants the contemporary/eclectic, Batuman the historical/canonical), and for Harbach, it’s the professional network.

So: Which culture industry, which pedagogical approach, which economic structure will engender the most great books, the greatest great books? As if great writers were ever overdetermined; as if great books haven’t been written under the direst conditions of adversity, banality, dogmatism, poverty and affluence. Virgil composed “The Aeneid” for Augustus Caesar’s propagandist ends — but then there’s Solzhenitsyn. Nabokov wrote “Lolita” while butterfly hunting and teaching at Cornell; Salinger’s first efforts at “The Catcher in the Rye” were submitted to Columbia’s workshop and refined at war. I suspect that what partly motivates this preoccupation with greatness is authority: possessing the eminence to define who is great, what greatness entails and how it’s “produced.” Declaring that an institution stultifies or promotes greatness for a specific reason implies that fixed universal criteria for greatness exist, and that the critic wields Excalibur.

Do Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize, Ayana Mathis’ Oprah’s Book Club selection, or Bennett Sims’ Bard Prize (a set of accolades representing notably distinct literary cultures) establish that they’ve written “great” or “merely excellent” books? Should any critic’s imprimatur of greatness affect your own? Sure … unless you disagree. And some prestigious authority will probably disagree with you. Nabokov called Bellow a “miserable mediocrity.” Truman Capote called Joyce Carol Oates “the most loathsome creature in America.” Oates tweeted how “Keats, Dickinson, Faulkner, [and] D.H. Lawrence” were all critically panned. At Iowa I heard a highly celebrated author-teacher dismiss”Ulysses” as “a lame joke, carried out at appalling length” — maintaining (over the sound of mouths audibly widening) that one should never capitulate to “canonization by curriculum.” If you don’t like it, you don’t like it.

On an elementary level, every critic knows that writing and reading are both ineluctably subjective, discriminating, leisurely — hence elitist. (Batuman countenances it dead-on: “Pretending that literary production is a non-elite activity is both pointless and disingenuous.”) But some write as though their aesthetic criteria should then be enacted for the good of Greatness, asserting taste as value. In her essay about literary elitism, Catton writes:

We will never agree on a single definition of “elite”. And nor should we. Disagreement among critics ensures that a diverse range of writers and literary practices are supported and endorsed; what’s more, a polyphony of critical voices requires each critic to define, refine, and defend their criteria for what art could be, should be, and is. Those critics who value transparency in art will disagree with those critics who value sleight of hand; those who value rebellion will disagree with those who value conformity; and so on. The more versions of elitism our critical community can countenance, the healthier our literature will be.

Critics vouch for their preferences: That’s good, that’s part of the job. But they shouldn’t scold institutions or writers wholesale for failing to cater to them — least of all, an institution that does its best to enable ambitious artists to cater to themselves. To be so prescriptive is to peddle exactly the “narrow view of literature” that MFA programs are gratuitously blamed for.

* * *

At last, to haul out the full disclosure: I’m a recent Iowa Fiction grad, a friend or acquaintance of most Iowa contemporaries name-checked above, a former student of Samantha Chang, and a current Brooklyn resident.

But in the roll call of my classmates, I hope I’m not taken as cheerleading for Team MFA, because what seems fruitless is the partisanship itself. Problems certainly abound in MFA cultures; it’s just that they’re seldom exclusive to MFA cultures. Does the program foster enclaves of nepotistic cronies? Sure, insofar as it “immerses the writer in a professional academic network” (Harbach), but NYC publishing isn’t exactly an open door. Do some MFA alums produce timid, starchy, frivolous, naively derivative, historically blinkered prose? Yes; Sturgeon’s law requires it. Are some program graduates disappointed by its “reduced form of intellectual engagement”? Is there lap-dogging, pony-racing, fashion-chasing, star-fawning, towel-snapping and eye-rolling? Yes, and so with NYC, etc.

Establishing this oppositional binary — MFA vs. NYC — only obscures their mutuality, while drawing more readerly attention to the two literary cultures that already share most of it. (Why not add “vs. Internet vs. the Rest of the World” into the mix?) If anyone is “flattening” literary output, it’s critics who, by rounding up winners and losers in a Fantasy League of Letters, would needlessly polarize a fine distinction: MFA vs. NYC … or literary vs. genre, high vs. pop, poetry vs. fiction vs. nonfiction vs. journalism vs. academia, or any of the other supposed controversies that serve mainly to boost someone’s cultural authority, tallied in page views.

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