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Monday, October 18, 2010

Creative Writing Programs (the cultural and critical problems)

Elif Batuman has written a wonderful review of Mark McGurl's The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing for London Review of Books, perhaps mistitled Get a Real Degree. (I'm not sure how long it will be on line.) She points out a number of issues raised by our addiction to MFA programs in creative writing. For example, she reflects McGurl's grouping of MFA prose into three groups: technomodernism (Barth, Pynchon) high cultural pluralism (Morrison, Cisneros) and lower-middle-class modernism (Carver, Oates). Next she describes the exasperating quality of most writing programs, "oversophistication combined with an air of autodidactism". It's not that history is critical, but what happens when we create books like the new car market, releasing shiny covered but basically the same objects three times a year?

Batuman also zeros in on a key contradiction of our literary culture. I'll sum it up briefly: the writer disaffiliates with the nation, including self and history, to affiliate with art, in other words, students must learn how to write appropriately (the rules of art) in a high literary style but the other described as someone from Africa, Asia, someone Native American, the formerly enslaved, etc. is asked to write what he or she knows and experienced, in other words, feel free to ignore the rules of art because your story is so fascinating. Apparently North American readers find it rather sharp to appreciate the culture of such others through their books. This should be on the list of Stuff White People Like. Most recent case in point is the New York Times' review of Dinaw Mengetsu's How to Read Air, where the headline reads "A Novelist's Voice, Both Exotic and Midwestern" commenting on the fact, evidently, that Mengetsu lived all but the first two years of his life in the USA after his family moved from Ethiopia. I feel like I'm shooting fish in a barrel and I'd let it rest except it is ongoing as North America shifts it's voracious appetite for consuming the cultures of the world through novels, we went from India to China and are now in a desperate search for the next big, small other.

Batuman's review is really worth reading, reminding us of McGurl's premise that any convincing interpretation of the literary works themselves, from this point forward, has to take the influence of creative writing programs into account.