We Wanted to Be Writers
Performing Literature

The Organized Effects of the Program (On McGurl's The Program Era)

To say, as Mark McGurl does in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, that "far from occasioning a sad decline in the quality or interest of American literature, as one so often hears, the writing program has generated a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems that have been explored with tremendous energy--and a times great brilliance--by a vast range of writers who have also been students and teachers" is not to say creative writing programs themselves have been responsible for the "tremendous energy" and frequent "brilliance" that I agree does indeed characterize a great deal of American fiction in the post-World War II period (especially the period of the 1960s and 70s). Although I wouldn't necessarily claim that a "vast" number of energetic and brilliant writers have been "students and teachers" in creative writing programs, still, a large enough number of such writers, from Flannery O'Connor to Donald Barthelme to Stanley Elkin, have participated in the creative writing "program" to one extent or another, but surely these writers would have been just as energetic and just as brilliant if they had not had creative writing to jump-start their careers or to provide them with a reliable livelihood.

Nor is it to say that, on the whole, the "program era" has produced "a rich and multifaceted body of literary writing," to say that, however "multifaceted" it might be," this body of work is "rich" all the way down. Again, just to list some of the writers who have been associated with creative writing is to show that much of the best postwar fiction can be claimed by "the program," even if it is hardly responsible for providing these writers with their talent. That creative writing has help to nurture writers from previously underrepresented groups of Americans is undeniable (and one of its greatest accomplishments), but this does not mean either that it can be credited with the quality of what the best of these writers ultimately produced or that the fiction created by these groups is uniformly "rich." I believe that creative writing programs can help aspiring writers achieve a minimum level of competence with certain kinds of writing tasks they may not have been able to achieve as quickly on their own, but they surely do not manufacture good writers simply through the fact of their existence.

McGurl does make a claim on behalf of the enhanced "excellence" of postwar American fiction that is based on the fortuitous rise of creative writing:

Because of the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool coincident to the advent of mass higher education, and the wide distribution, therein, of elevated literary ambitions, and the cultivation in these newly vocal, vainglorious masses of the habits of self-conscious attention to craft through which these ambitions might plausibly be realized, is it not true that owing to the organized efforts of the program--to the simple fact of our trying harder than ever before--there has been a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period?

Many readers and reviewers seem to have taken The Program Era as a brief on behalf of the salubrious effects of creative writing on American literature (really just American fiction), but this is as concrete an account of the way in which creative writing "improved" American literature as we get—it was there to take advantage of the greater accessibility to higher education, and the increase in "literary ambitions" this inevitably entailed, and to encourage "habits of self-conscious attention to craft." Nothing in the overwhelmingly most popular method of creative writing instruction adopted by writing programs—the "workshop" method—is shown in particular to have resulted in the "excellence" of the system, although the focus on "craft" has presumably helped foster a more widespread technical competence in the "literary fiction" that gets published.

That is why Elif Batuman's critique (London Review of Books) of creative writing in the guise of a review of The Program Era, which otherwise makes some perfectly good points worthy of debate, was really beside the point as a response to McGurl's book. McGurl is more interested in the way in which writers, finding themselves in an environment in which they were systematically exposed to "a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems," unavoidably considered and addressed those problems, and how American fiction in the postwar era unavoidably shows the influence of this engagement. Thus, when Batuman (among others) focuses on whether creative writing is good or bad for writers, she's not really discussing the subject of The Program Era, and when McGurl himself takes up Batuman's indictment (Los Angeles Review of Books), he has to alter his own focus and consider the questions she raises about the baneful effects of creative writing on would-be writers. His book describes the ways in which writers and their work have reflected or embodied the "complex" problems they encountered from within the system, a description to which Batuman's reservations about creative writing as a discipline simply aren't germane.

Ultimately The Program Era isn't much different from many other academic studies of postwar or "contemporary" fiction that attempt to find just the right formulation or critical insight that captures the essence of postwar fiction, or at least an important practice that is distinctive of postwar fiction. Other books propose such terms as "systems novel" or "radical innocence" or "dirty realism" as candidates. ("Black humor," "metafiction," "minimalism," and, indeed, "postmodern" began as such terms.) McGurl proposes "program fiction." As an interpretive tool, this formulation works pretty well in McGurl's analysis, and in my opinion The Program Era is a valuable addition to the collection of scholarly studies of postwar American fiction attempting to give this period some critical definition.

Such books have been numerous, of course, because as a scholarly discipline, "contemporary literature" is by definition undefined. The literary "fields" predating the contemporary have already been intensively, and more or less permanently, sorted and categorized, their important authors, works, trends, and movements identified and established for further study. As an academic field, contemporary literature is unsettled and in flux (although perhaps the immediate postwar era, say 1945-1975, is becoming more stable in its outlines), which on the one hand provides an opportunity for an assiduous and well-read critic to map the territory, but on the other hand this effort probably can't help but be reductive unless the critic merely intends to treat all writers and works equally, including as many of the former as possible and restricting discussion of the latter to simple summary.

Thus if The Program Era is not as comprehensive as it claims to be, this does not make it less useful as an examination of that large enough slice of American fiction on which McGurl concentrates—the fiction that can plausibly be understood at least in part by its author's affiliation with writing programs. But just to name a few of the writers that McGurl excludes from consideration indicates the limitations of "program era" as interpretive lens: Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Gilbert Sorrentino, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Norman Mailer. Elkin, Gass, and Sorrentino were associated with creative writing programs, but their work nevertheless doesn't quite fit McGurl's notion of "technomodernism," his renaming of one the tendencies usually identified with the postmodern. Bellow, Updike, and Mailer are perhaps the three most obvious examples of writers who had nothing to do with creative writing, and it is really implausible to claim that postwar American fiction can be adequately measured without discussing them.

"Program fiction" becomes in McGurl's analysis a perfectly coherent concept for thinking about this kind of contemporary fiction, but finally "program era" doesn't suffice as a label for the whole period. The book is very good in its chronicling of the way the pool of literary talent was expanded by creative writing, and in analyzing the dynamics of the interaction between those who found themselves part of "the program" and those "aesthetic problems" swirling around it. But, however much American society was transformed by the swell of enrollment in higher education, American literature was not completely subsumed into the university. (Indeed, another book considering those writers who resisted the migration of literature and the literary vocation into the academy would be an interesting project.) "Creative writing" did not entirely replace "fiction" and "poetry" as the name for the form to which poets and novelists aspire to contribute.

And if McGurl is trying to characterize an entire literary era, then his neglect of poetry and the role of poets in the creative writing program is also a debilitating problem, however much he needed to limit his focus to make the scope of the book manageable. In my opinion, this omission is a much more serious problem, even for the thesis that the creative writing program is the most important postwar development in American literature, than McGurl seems to think. In almost every way—number of faculty, number of students recruited, influence of  a program's graduates, etc.—poetry has been on an equal footing with fiction in the development of creative writing. Is it less important to understand how the institutionalizing of literary practice has affected American poetry in the postwar years than American fiction? Is taking and teaching a poetry workshop less reflective of the democratization of higher education than taking or teaching one in fiction?

Perhaps most importantly: Are the same forces McGurl describes as influencing the work of fiction writers through creative writing programs similar in shaping the work of poets, such forces as the injunction to "write what you know" or the impulse to find one's "voice" or the pressures of class and ethnicity? If so, then we need an account of how such forces can be seen affecting the work of individual poets just as McGurl provides for fiction writers or the overall claims he makes about their salience are less convincing. If not, then those claims are much more questionable to begin with. Arguably both the writing and the criticism of poetry have been absorbed by the academy even more thoroughly than with fiction, and a history of the creative program that deliberately avoids reckoning with the place of poetry and the consequences of its absorption seems, if not fatally flawed, then certainly incomplete.

A full account of the effects of creative writing on American fiction would also require an assessment of the role played by literary magazines in providing publication for the students and graduates of creative writing—particularly that first publication, which often determines whether a writing career will be possible. The vast majority of these magazines are either sponsored by creative writing programs themselves or publish primarily writers with ties to creative writing. They have become de facto a part of the academic system that created and maintains creative writing, and it is fair to say many if not most of them exist to keep the system working. While also rising from the "little" magazines pre-dating creative writing, these journals are now firmly entrenched as part of the academic machinery that confers status and enables promotion within the system, and their part in determining the direction of literary history—past, present, and future—needs scrutiny as well.


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