Thursday, June 04, 2009

New Yorker Article on Teaching Creative Writing

This article came our way through a blog reader. Thank you Catherine. Passing it along.

15 comments:

Eric said...

Great article. Some very interesting ideas put forth by this McGurl fellow, especially the bit about immigrant fiction and MFA programs. In a way, it makes complete sense to me, as attending an MFA program is a form of assimilation for writers, if you think about it; it's the perfect way for an immigrant or a child of immigrants to adapt their writing to the language, values, and culture of the country they live in.

One thing that did irk me about the article though, was the bit where the book asserts that "university creative-writing programs don’t isolate writers from the world. On the contrary, university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit—the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace." Bleech. Nothing against higher education -- I will be attending a grad program next year after all -- but isn't that kind of thinking a little elitist? That there's nothing especially rare or lucky with working in academia, that that kind of experience is closer to real life than working as a waiter or a desk job? That line of logic seems a little off to me.

SeeMoreGlass said...

i agree, that part was snobbish sounding. it basically said that it will help writing students learn to write for other writers - that these programs produce literature with a capital L that is not consumed by the masses the way, say, Dan Brown or Steven King might be. Which is too bad.

insertbrackets said...

I don't think he is asserting that writing in a university setting tailors one's writing exclusively for writers, or that working in the university setting is superior to other forms of non-academic work.

I think McGurl is saying that contrary to popular belief, writers are not plucked out of the world by being stationed at the university. It's unavoidable. The world is a smaller and smaller place, it is a lot harder to escape from.

To be honest I think it is a bit naive to think that other writers (and the highly educated) are not going to be your primary readership, at least in the early days before Oprah has added you to her book club. Perhaps as a poet this is more the case, but I fail to see what exactly is wrong with that.

CashewElliott said...

Read the article two days ago. I was in a bit of a hurry, so I didn't so much get the authors point as I got my own thoughts running on the subject for the past bit here. I especially have been thinking about the workshop model, since most of the workshops I've been involved in in the past 4 undergraduate years have been somewhat useless, except in regard to the instructor/professors comments. I mean, really, I've gotten as much from meeting with a prof. for 10 minutes as I got from sitting there listening to a bunch of kids ramble on about nothing, having probably not read my story till five minutes before class. Then I get a note after class from the professor, "Don't worry about section X. It works fine. I think [fellow student] was way off in her assessment.

Anyway, I remember the article mentioned "batches" of students in programs, and that makes sense to me. I think there really isn't that much to learn from a poor student, who hasn't read your story all the way through. Although there's always value in having a fresh pair of eyes take a look at your words, no matter who the eyes are attached to, I think the value of workshopping really comes down to the students, and especially the professor.

IMO.

CashewElliott said...

so, if you are in a strong batch, the workshop model is helpful, if you are not, it's less so.

Caroline said...

I thought the article was entertaining and well-written -- speaking of learning to write! For much of the piece, however, it seemed like Menand was ambivalent about creative writing programs & workshops so I was surprised by the warm fuzzy ending, including the admission that he himself was a product of undergraduate creative writing workshops. It was a bit abrupt, not a particularly elegant conclusion to an otherwise enjoyable article…. As someone who believes that writing can be taught, but who is critical of the university creative writing program as an industry, I think they tend to standardize writing much like Humanities graduate programs standardize research and/or literary criticism. Lately, I feel like I’m reading the same book over and over again – and then I look at the back cover and all the published contemporary writers went to Syracuse or Iowa or Irvine. While I can appreciate the draw of participating in MFA programs – for the crucial resource of time that elite/well-funded programs, especially, offer their graduate students, time for reflection, writing and dialogue, I think it’s worth seriously discussing what the implications are for the kind of literature that’s produced, published and consumed (and then taught in the university). In his summing-up of the book 'review', I was disappointed that Menand sort of brushed over that interesting question in the end, instead of just leaving it unresolved, i.e., the point that universities are now restaurants that bake their own bread.

Vince said...

We're not doing ourselves any good. Even amongst ourselves, we are extrememely skeptical and critical of the work we do. Something has happened that is really sad. Creative writing programs are basically the poorer relatives of their fine arts siblings. CW MFA programs are more than Writers Funds. It is a case of self-mutilation. I'm repeating myself here: basic writing (aka...Freshman Composition, Effective Writing 101, English Composition 101) will always need qualified professors teaching it. Questions start popping up when one starts talking about teaching Creative Writing and CW programs.

mister trickster said...

Well, the article was interesting, if not always persuasive, but I think in the end it was fair to the teaching and study of creative writing. (Although the question is irksome, given that the visual arts don't seem to get the same questions.)

I am a little surprised though by the comment that universities are now baking their own bread: just because a certain number of books are being written by MFA graduates, does not mean that the quality and similarity of the writing reflects more on the programs they attended than on the quality and perseverance of each individual writer.

Generally we see in the arts (and across most disciplines) a mass of similar, mediocre work, and then only a small percentage of unique-seeming, innovative and quality art. That most writers have spent some time in a writing program is I think no more responsible than that they played baseball as children, or enjoy foreign films. Those are different kinds of practice and experience. The art speaks for itself.

Claire said...

Having earned my bachelor's in music, I always think it's interesting that there's a question of whether writing can be taught in the first place. Music both can and can't be taught - technique can be taught, concepts breached, ideas shared, advice given, but ultimately it comes down to how much work you're willing to do and a certain amount of natural ability. But part of the learning process is performing for an audience and learning what works and what doesn't - as well as listening to other people learning how to give a compelling performance.

Why should writing be any different? Writing programs give you exactly what music programs do - an audience that is willing to sit through your amateur "performance", offer advice and critique, widen your perspective - and in turn you do the same for them.

Kevin said...

^ I agree with Claire.

Lincoln said...

I wish that both MFA programs and the critiques of them didn't focus so much on the workshop model. While obviously central to MFA programs, I think craft classes can be just as helpful if not far more helpful to a student studying writing.

Vince said...

i guess we sort of live with the status quo. i don't know. it seems like a raw deal. On the great estate of fine arts disciplines, we're sort of in the guest house instead of having residence in the main house. help. we're underdressed.

Nancy Rawlinson said...

Lincoln: I believe that craft can and should be taught in workshops - that's how I teach, anyhow. And readers of this post can check out (and take) the New Yorker's poll on the subject here.
The not-altogether surprising results: people who have MFAs generally think that their time was well spent, and fiction graduate have to turn to nonfiction to make money as writers after graduation...

nancorbett said...

The article was thought-provoking for me on a lot of levels.

I abandoned the creative writing major during my undergraduate degree because the workshop classes were little more than a circle of students with slingshots, waiting for their turn to zing their classmates. Most were not serious about developing the craft of writing, but merely wanted an easy 3 credits. I left that and went into Comparative Literature.

So, now, I'm examining the possibility of going back for an MFA in Creative Writing. I've been operating on the assumption that the workshops will be different than the undergrad ones, being populated by people committed to writing. I guess I'm imagining the experience to be like a two-year pressure cooker that I will take the skin off, leaving only the meat and bones.

The article showed that there are as many opinions about the worthiness of MFA programs as there are people to experience them. The responsibility resides within me to make the experience what I need.

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