Are MFA programs ruining American fiction?

A critic and a champion face off in the debate over university degrees in creative writing

Published May 18, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

A student fast asleep on her school work.  (Sharon Dominick)
A student fast asleep on her school work. (Sharon Dominick)

Every couple of months, a reader sends me a link to a blog post denouncing the influence of Master of Fine Arts programs in creative writing, apparently in the conviction that such challenges are rare. Yet surely the only thing more unkillable than MFA programs is the idea that no one dares criticize MFA programs.

In fact, everybody does. Griping about the "cookie-cutter" short stories and hothouse atmosphere of the MFA literary world already seemed old hat back when I was first asked to write about it for Salon, in 1997. The mistaken belief that everyone enrolled in such programs writes minimalist stories à la Raymond Carver is also surprisingly persistent. (Of course, the convenient thing about deciding that a whole province of literature is beneath consideration is that you no longer need take the trouble to consider it, and as a result, your notion of what's going on there can soon become out-of-date.)

So Mark McGurl's 2009 book, "The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing," actually was rather daring: McGurl presumed to look at the work produced by MFA holders and find it good. He asserted that university creative writing programs have had a profound effect on American fiction in the past 50 years, but he really went out on a limb when he stated that their influence has resulted in "a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature."

Elif Batuman, an American academic and author, does not agree, and in a lengthy review of McGurl's book for the London Review of Books, she laid out her own objections to "program fiction." Then McGurl, manifestly stung by what he regarded as Batuman's "snarky slurs," wrote a slightly less lengthy riposte for a new publication, the Los Angeles Review of Books. He accused Batuman of being a shameless "cultural conservative" who thinks the "masses of the world" should not presume to encroach on the elite terrain of art. Each of these writers misrepresents the other to a certain degree but McGurl is guilty of greater distortions (as is often the case when one is angry). The back-and-forth has kindled yet another furor of denunciations and soul-searching on the merits of MFAs.

The truth is complicated. McGurl is correct when he claims that the level of craft in the average, traditionally published work of fiction is higher now than it was in, say, 1950; years of browsing among the bookshelves in sleepy rural junk shops have driven home the truth of this for me. Batuman is, however, right when she claims that good writing, "if you take 'good writing' as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition," does not necessarily lead to more interesting or appealing books.

Also credible is McGurl's claim that our literary culture has been enriched by the multicultural movement of the 1980s. But, again, so is Batuman's observation that perspectives that were once revolutionary have -- in the course of time and within the politically anxious confines of the academy -- become the establishment. If the value of a voice lies primarily in the fact that it has previously gone unheard, then what's it worth after it's been talking for a while?

Contra McGurl's accusations, Batuman does not appear to be saying that she disdains disciplined, well-crafted prose or fiction about people who aren't straight, white, middle-class men. She's just observing that these qualities do not in themselves assure a book's merit or make it something she wants to read. The classic gripe about program fiction is not, after all, that it's "politically correct" or synthetically eloquent, but that it's boring.

It's true that MFA programs have produced far more competent mediocrities than shining stars, but that's also true of every other literary ecosystem. Shining stars are by definition exceptional. (This is what Batuman means when she describes literature as "elitist.") Yes, MFA grads with nothing to say are now able to say it more skillfully, but authors were pretty good at being boring before university writing programs came along and would surely go on being boring if every MFA program were wiped off the face of the earth. The programs don't make them dull, even if they also can't make them interesting.

As a reader, I must confess to being completely indifferent to the ongoing MFA controversy. Anything that helps good writers publish more good books is fine by me, and the programs at the very least provide teaching jobs for talented authors who might otherwise have difficulty making a living because their work is insufficiently commercial: too quiet, too experimental, too African-American, too gay, etc. Still, you can publish adventurous work without an MFA, as Jennifer Egan has repeatedly proven, and MFA programs have also produced writers with great popular appeal, such as Michael Chabon.

In fact, it's impossible to generalize about "program fiction." That's the great flaw in Batuman's takedown -- which, given its length, is deplorably short on examples. The weakness of McGurl's defense is that he gives the programs credit for writers they did little to sponsor (like Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem) and whose successes demonstrate the superfluity of an MFA to the process of learning how to write well, get published and win an audience. Young people with the ability, the desire and the drive to write great books will write them in almost any circumstances, and the most that MFA programs can do is to provide them with a more congenial atmosphere in which to do it.

If the majority of MFA fiction is uninspiring, well, mediocre work makes up the majority of all books published in every genre, just as every genre has its standouts. And if the programs raise the average level of quality in those lackluster books, who really cares? No one wants to read lackluster books to begin with. Where MFA programs may have their biggest effect is on those run-of-the-mill students who get a chance to live in a literary milieu and be taken seriously by other writers for a couple of years before they ultimately decide to move on to other aspirations. Is that experience worth their time and expense, even if, for them, it ends in disappointment? Only the MFAs themselves can say for sure.

Further reading

Elif Batuman's review of Mark McGurl's "The Program Era" in the London Review of Books

Mark McGurl's response to Batuman's review in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Excerpts from Char Harbach's "MFA vs. NYC," an examination of America's "two literary cultures," originally published in n+1 and reprinted in Slate

Novelists 'r' Us: Venerable Salon story about MFA programs and their discontents

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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