In this week's New Yorker (the Summer Fiction issue), Louis Menand asks if creative writing can or should be taught at universities. As a recent (two weeks ago!) graduate of a university creative writing program, I had to weigh in.
Menand is responding to a book called The Program Era by Mark McGurl, which makes the pretty uncontroversial argument that the rise of the creative writing programs in the United States has had an effect on American fiction. It's fashionable — or at least it was when I started my program two years ago — to argue that this effect has been a negative one, that creative writing programs produce bloodless, uninteresting "workshop stories" and teach everyone to write the same way. Rather than going to school, detractors said, writers should "live," as though living was something that could be avoided. The standard example of a writer who lived instead of going to some sissy school was Hemingway, revealing that the concept of "life experience" for writers is still a stereotypically manly one (hunting, boozing, womanizing) and explaining why so many men in creative writing programs feel the need to prove their masculinity.
Luckily, neither McGurl nor Menand makes this tired argument. McGurl's most interesting point — and one he made when I saw him speak last year — is that creative writing programs allow writers whose race or class puts them outside the mainstream to gain positions of cultural authority. Rather than making their writing less authentic (the idea that the "authentic" experience of people of color is a fundamentally uneducated one is, as McGurl points out, insulting and reductive), creative writing programs can make former cultural "outsiders" into authority figures, their work into instructional texts. McGurl points out that many of the most prominent Latino, Asian-American, and Native American writers have been on university faculties, and although some have argued that the university's privilege a certain kind of fiction (i.e. inoffensive) especially from writers of color, the truth is that creative writing programs have had a hand in making multicultural literature something all serious writers and readers are expected to know about.
Menand mentions something in passing that is much more important than he acknowledges — graduate creative writing programs are really cheap. In many cases they pay you to do them. They don't pay you very much — at almost all levels, writers could make more doing something else — and people with kids to support or hefty undergraduate loans to pay off sometimes struggle. But the relative cheapness of creative writing programs — coupled with the relatively short time commitment, usually two years for an MFA — makes them far more economically diverse than other academic programs. My undergraduate institution prided itself on its diversity, but in my creative writing program I encountered a community whose variety of ages and educational, economic, and geographical backgrounds was unlike anything I'd ever seen before.
A friend and classmate of mine recently said that our program was a place where people who ordinarily never would have met in their entire lives could become best friends. It's true that everyone in our program shared the same passion and the same privilege — the opportunity to pursue that passion pretty single-mindedly for two years. But in that time, we met and became close to people totally different from us, and incorporated their opinion into our views of writing and the world. We may not have hunted like Hemingway (although actually, several of my classmates do), but we certainly lived.