In 1936 the University of Iowa became the first school in the United States to offer a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing. Forty years later there were only a dozen such programs in the world. Today, according to an article in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine entitled “The MFA Revolution,” there are nearly 200 creative writing MFA programs worldwide, and at least 4,000 aspiring writers apply to these programs each year in the U.S. alone. “What is clear,” the article concludes, “is that the burgeoning network of fully funded MFA programs is rapidly becoming the nation’s largest-ever patronage system for young artists.”
Whenever the words “patronage” and “artists” appear in the same sentence, questions must be asked. Is this mass patronage system a boon for American fiction, or is it a poison pill? Do creative writing programs nurture genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? And more broadly: Just what good does schooling of any kind do for a writer?
In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl points out the “seemingly banal” fact that virtually all contemporary American fiction writers have attended college. “In previous generations this would not likely have been the case,” McGurl writes, “both because fewer individuals of any kind went to college before the postwar advent of mass higher education and because a college education was not yet perceived as an obvious…starting point for a career as a novelist. Rather, as the un-credentialled, or rather press-credentialled, example of the high school graduate Hemingway makes clear, the key supplementary institution for the novel until mid-century was journalism.”
In a dazzling essay in the London Review of Books called “Get A Real Degree,” the brainiac Elif Batuman deftly fillets McGurl’s claim. “According to the internet,” she writes, “writers have, in fact, been going to college for hundreds of years.” In a footnote she lists dozens of writers, from Balzac to Joyce to Graham Greene, and the universities they attended. She concludes: “I have been able to find only a handful of famous novelists who, like Hemingway, avoided university in favour of journalism.” She names Defoe, Dickens and Twain. (The deftness of this filleting job is greatly enhanced by “according to the internet” – sly shorthand for “as any high school sophomore with a laptop could have found out.”)
Batuman, a Harvard grad with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, argues persuasively that the problem is not that virtually all American fiction writers go to college and that growing numbers of them then go on to grad school; the problem is that they study the wrong things. She comes down squarely in favor of writers studying literature as opposed to studying how to make fiction. After conceding that the creative writing program is equally incapable of ruining a good writer or transforming a bad one, she asks: “Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?”
One result of the creative writing boom, according to McGurl, is that MFA grads are producing “more excellent fiction…than anyone has time to read.” Which, according to Batuman, is precisely the problem: “That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?”
McGurl’s spurious claim about the place of college and journalism in writers’ lives brought back my own experience as a young man trying to figure out a way to reconcile my urge to write with the need to make a living. As it turned out, college and journalism figured largely in the solution.
I went directly from high school to Brown University in the fall of 1970 because that was what was expected of me, the grandson of a distinguished professor and son of a college graduate who became a newspaperman and then a successful Detroit auto executive in the post-war boom years when all Detroit auto executives were successful and almost always sent their children to college. I knew even then that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and so in my freshman year I was thrilled to win a coveted spot in a course called “Writing Fiction” taught by the late R.V. Cassill, who had just published a fat bawdy novel about the Profumo scandal called Dr. Cobb’s Game. The things I remember most vividly about Cassill are that he wore a beret, he chain-smoked Gauloise cigarettes, and he tried to seduce my girlfriend. I guess he was part French.
His weekly classes – now they’re called “workshops” – were torture, a dozen bright sensitive kids sitting around a room tearing apart each other’s stories and egos. In the requisite end-of-semester written summary of my performance and prospects, Cassill needed all of eight words to cut my heart out: “Mr. Morris works hard but possesses limited talent.” I haven’t set foot in a creative writing classroom since.
Cassill’s evisceration did have one positive result. It made me realize that since college couldn’t teach me how to write, I would have to teach myself. I would have to keep reading copiously, of course, but I would also have to live, to gather “experience” I could write about. I was still under the spell of the worst advice anyone ever gave an aspiring writer: Write what you know.
So I dropped out and took off, traveling cross-country and working jobs as a farmhand, racehorse groom, dishwasher and fruit picker while writing an apprentice novel that achieved the one thing such exercises can be asked to achieve: it gave me the courage to keep writing. In time, my resume would grow to include jobs as a bartender, New York City bicycle messenger, telemarketer, porn actor and Nashville disc jockey. Always I was writing on the side, only rarely about my personal experiences.
It wasn’t until many years later that I came to understand that “experience” was beside the point. It was Flannery O’Connor who set me wise. “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she wrote in a collection of essays called Mystery and Manners. “If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”
One hot dusty day I found myself high up in an apple tree in Sonoma County, California. As I twisted a fat green Gravenstein apple off a branch and laid it gently in my canvas shoulder bag – “Treat ‘em like eggs,” was the foreman’s mantra – a voice whispered to me: Do you really want to do this kind of shit work for the rest of your life? I knew the answer. No, I wanted to be a writer, which meant I needed to find a way to get paid to write while continuing my apprenticeship as a novelist. I needed to get a newspaper job. Which meant I needed to get a college degree.
So after a two-year hiatus I went back to school, where I studied whatever interested me – geology, drawing, French novels, Russian history, Italian neo-realist movies, anything but creative writing. I also put together an independent-study project – I spent my senior year researching the history of the city of Providence and writing a book-length monograph. With an eye toward life after graduation, I published a handful of articles in the student newspaper. School wasn’t my death as a writer, it was my birth; and it would not have happened without the guidance and support of inspiring teachers, access to magnificent libraries, and every student’s most precious gift, free time.
When I finally graduated, Nixon had recently flown away in disgrace to San Clemente and every swinging dick in the land ached to be the next Woodward and/or Bernstein. It was a buyer’s market and I was selling untested goods. I spent nine months roaming up and down the Eastern seaboard, from the Adirondacks to Savannah, pounding on doors at podunk newspapers and listening to one editor after another tell me: “Come back when you’ve got some experience.” It was all I could do not to shout at them: “How the fuck am I supposed to get any experience if nobody’ll give me a job?!” Finally the publisher at a small Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania backwater gave me a shot – a job covering local school boards for $140 a week, and don’t even think about asking for overtime pay. Of course I jumped at it.
I’m convinced I would not have gotten even that dismal job offer if I hadn’t possessed a college degree. I still recall the job interview, the way the publisher’s eyes got big as dimes when I told him I had a bachelor’s degree in English from an Ivy League school. The days of Defoe, Dickens, Twain and Hemingway were long gone by then. A college degree was a bare-bones requirement for even the lowliest cub reporter’s job, and in retrospect I can’t say that that turned out to be an altogether bad thing. Newspaper writing flourished from the 1960s until the Internet caused newspaper executives to commit mass hari-kari beginning in the 1990s. (For a hilarious gloss on this unpretty group suicide, I refer you to Jess Walter’s novel The Financial Lives of Poets.) I worked on daily newspapers off and on from 1976 until 1996, and I became so convinced I was part of a golden age that I deluded myself into believing it was destined to last forever. But even during those golden years – or, rather, that long twilight – there were gruff, unsettling voices of dissent.
One of the loudest belonged to Lewis Grizzard, a booze-marinated Atlanta columnist who made a fortune writing best-selling comedy books that trafficked in the author’s cracker upbringing and his disdain for anything that smelled of sophistication, including college graduates, feminists, Yankees and anyone who could write grammatical sentences of more than eight words. A typical Grizzard book title was Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night.
Grizzard had a lucrative side career as a lecturer and stand-up comic, and I remember being sent to cover one of his performances at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. This would have been in the early 1990s, when Grizzard’s fame was at its peak, shortly before the booze and a faulty heart ganged up to kill him at the age of 47. That night in Durham, inevitably, he got off on the topic of how newspapers had gone to hell. Why, reporters wrote on whispering machines called computers instead of on clattering manual typewriters! Newsroom floors were spongy carpet instead of creaky hardwood! The green eyeshades and spittoons were gone – and, by implication, so were the pints of sour mash in bottom drawers! To top it off, newsrooms were crawling with college boys – and, sweet baby Jesus, college girls! (Grizzard’s spiel conveniently omitted the fact that he held a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia.) “When I walk into the average newsroom today,” he moaned, “I don’t know whether to write a column or ask if I can take out a loan.” Of course the audience lapped it up like corn liquor.
Grizzard was not alone in lamenting the passing of romance from the newspaper business, the death of the supposed good old days of “The Front Page” and “Get me rewrite, sweetheart!” What the nostalgists failed to realize – or admit – was that most American newspapers before the mid-1960s were dreadful, full of factual errors, dry writing and dreary layouts. Those computers and college educations Grizzard despised so much helped produce the best written, best edited and most visually attractive newspapers in the history of American journalism – not to mention the flowering of magazine writing, non-fiction books and the uneasy but fruitful marriage of fiction and journalism by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Marshall Frady, Gay Talese and many others. Computers and college educations didn’t kill the American newspaper; on-line car ads and real-estate listings and classifieds did, with a generous assist from newspaper executives who were pie-eyed drunk on years of artificially fat profits.
Furthermore, those newsroom Hemingways with their high school diplomas and their hip flasks were, for the most part, hacks. I know this, second-hand, because my father worked on newspapers in the 1940s and ’50s and he told me stories. The exception who proved the rule, according to my father, was a colleague at the Washington Post in the early 1950s. His name was Al Lewis and he was a legendary police reporter – even though he was barely able to write English prose. He and my father collaborated on a series of articles about a D.C. racketeer that nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. That is, Lewis did the legwork and my father, a fine writer and lightning fast typist, did the writing. Lewis’s street smarts wouldn’t have amounted to much without a college boy like my father to distill his raw knowledge into readable prose. It was Al Lewis, incidentally, who broke the story about a break-in at the Watergate complex in the early hours of June 17, 1972.
So I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today. Flannery O’Connor graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and spent some time at the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and neither experience bleached the color, the humor, the horror – the felt life – from her fiction. Sometime in the early 1960s she wrote: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher… In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.”
Elif Batuman adds in her essay: “In technical terms, pretty much any MFA grad leaves Stendahl in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.”
As if to prove their point, last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review carried a review of a slim new novel called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang. It’s a story, according to the review, of the paths followed by “two budding poets” who come together at “a prestigious unnamed writing school in the Midwest.” Chang, the reviewer notes, is a 1993 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been its director since 2006; she has received fellowships from Stanford, Princeton and Radcliffe; and her new novel poses “provocative” questions: “What is the relationship between talent and craft, genius and mediocrity? Can writing be taught? Does anyone ever improve? Yet the central characters in All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost are neither mad enough, wise enough nor even, so it seems, well-read enough, to dare answer them.”
It’s bad enough that Chang has written about a cloistered world she knows too well. It’s worse that her story is one that you almost certainly can’t bring yourself to care about. What’s worst of all by far, though, is that her characters are not even well-read enough to answer a bunch of inane questions. Apparently they’ve been too busy at their prestigious writing school studying adverbs and themselves.
Like Elif Batuman, I’ll pass. School can’t kill writing. But who, indeed, has time to read such books?