The MFA Octopus: Four Questions About Creative Writing

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Mark McGurl

Frank Conroy  © Bruce Davidson
1. Why do people hate creative writing programs so much?

Well they don’t really, not everyone, or there wouldn’t be so many of them—hundreds. From modest beginnings in Iowa in the 1930’s, MFA programs have spread out across the land, coast to coast, sinking roots in the soil like an improbably invasive species of corn. Now, leaping the oceans, stalks have begun to sprout in countries all around the world, feeding the insatiable desire to be that mythical thing, a writer. Somebody must think they’re worth founding, funding, attending, teaching at.

But partly in reaction to their very numerousness, which runs afoul of traditional ideas about the necessary exclusivity of literary achievement, contempt for writing programs is pervasive, at least among the kind of people who think about them at all. In fact, I would say they are objects of their own Derangement Syndrome. Logically, any large-scale human endeavor will be the scene of a certain amount of mediocrity, and creative writing is no different, but here that mediocrity is taken as a sign of some profounder failure, some horrible and scandalous wrong turn in literary history. Under its spell, a set of otherwise fair questions about creative writing are not so much asked as always-already answered. No, writing cannot be taught. Yes, writing programs are a scam—a kind of Ponzi scheme. Yes, writing programs make all writers sound alike. Yes, they turn writers away from the “real world,” where the real stories are, fastening their gazes to their navels. No, MFA students do not learn anything truly valuable.

Never mind that all of these answers are—at least in part—demonstrably wrong. The interest in slamming creative writing programs soars above the niceties of measured assessment and factual demonstration, catapulted there by deep-seated feelings about the nature of creativity, which we all love, and school, which we emphatically don’t, at least not in this context. The broadsides against creative writing programs have grown so regular in their appearance, and so predictable in their conclusions, that the people who attend and teach in them—and who might have their own misgivings about this or that aspect of the MFA machine—tend to greet the latest salvo with a shrug and a roll of the eyes. As though to say, in a thought bubble, “in the time it took you to write that, another writing program was founded.” And yet, in the last year or so, in response to a book I wrote on the importance of writing programs to recent American literary history, a few newish questions about them have been raised. They are no less hostile than the usual questions, and their answers no less foreordained, but their novelty does open up to a broader view of what literary fiction means to us these days, whether it issues from a creative writing program or not.

2. Is writing inherently elitist?

Elif Batuman thinks so, and she also thinks that to pretend otherwise is “both pointless and disingenuous.” She says this in a much-discussed review of my book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, in which she unloads as many charges against the discipline of creative writing as one can easily pack into 8000-plus words (which turns out to be quite a few), and scolds me for my equanimity in the face of its many sins or, rather, dubious virtues.

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