Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why Do Some People Twist Themselves All Up About Creative Writing Programs?

If this reminds you of the creative writing program you went to, you should have gone somewhere else.

OK, I had to.  Just after I posted that thing yesterday, I came across another anti-creative writing program essay. So here I am. There’s a person writing about poetry and fiction at the Huffington Post. This person writes things that are, at the very least, inflammatory. I’m continually surprised that journals such as Huffington Post and Boulevard will print essays from this person, as they seem, to me, to be meandering and filled with willful misreadings.

But they are getting lots of hits and comments, which makes these essays difficult to ignore. This person says that the point of writing these essays is to get a conversation going, but the tone of the essays themselves seems that it’s more of a flame war that is the goal.

So here’s the major point from the last salvo. What I want to know is am I wrong in thinking that this, even if you kind of agree with the stance (that creative writing programs are bad things [which he calls literary writing guilds]), which I don’t, is flat wrong?

“Again, the most important thing about this discussion is the socially conservative writing that results from the socially conservative organization of the literary writing guild.”

Question: Do you think that poetry and fiction written by everyone who graduates from any creative writing program is socially conservative? It seems an absurd generalization to me. But even if you agree that literary writing in general is socially conservative these days, can you separate out those who graduated from creative writing programs and those who didn’t? And then there’s the time issue. This is an argument that this is a new development that started in earnest in the 1980s. So do you agree that writing now is more socially conservative that it was, say, before 1980?

Ah, such were the joys.

The point goes on, continuing what I think is an absurd analogy between creative writing programs and the medieval guild system:

“In thinking of an analogy for the medieval guildmen as they related to the Counter-Reformation, we might think of the rise of the creative writing programs at precisely the time of the Reagan ascendancy, when liberalism with a commitment to even the mildest redistributionist philosophy went into permanent retreat. A new kind of conservative writing—Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Amy Hemphill, Mary Robison—became ascendant at the time. “

It’s quite a statement to think of Raymond Carver as a major figure in a socially conservative movement. But if these writers are socially conservative, and they somehow became that way through some sort of creative writing guild, who were the ones before them who were, by analogy, not socially conservative? I don’t know the history of fiction writers well enough to track this, but I do know the history of poets, and I’m having difficulty in tracking 1980 (or even 1960, as is also mentioned in this essay) as some key point in some conservative turn in literature. For every Allen Ginsburg there’s an Archibald MacLeish. These days we have someone like Dana Gioia, who seems pretty socially conservative to me (though I could be wrong), and then we have someone like Rae Armantrout, whose poetry seems to me a critique of social conservative positions. Dana Gioia doesn’t teach in an MFA program and Rae Armantrout does. This just doesn’t seem a very helpful way of thinking of contemporary literature. Not only that, but it actually seems harmful, as it posits a whole host of dissimilar things (creative writing programs are wildly different places from each other, depending on the philosophy behind their administration) as one thing. That kind of reductive thinking smears over the real problems that one might investigate when thinking of the avenues to literary awards and prestige. Here’s the rest of the paragraph:

“A continuous Inquisition has been in place in American cultural life, and certainly in the writing guild, ever since then, and the writing product is shaped by that. In essence, the writing guild makes it possible for apprentices to internalize the principles of the Inquisition. One is made to feel guilty and ashamed if writing compels one to move toward areas forbidden by the Inquisition. Workshop humiliation is very much part of this enforcement of Inquisition rules; it is astonishing to notice—even at the undergraduate, non-guild level—how quickly students acquire these principles of writerly conduct, and rake their fellows over the coals for the minutest transgressions (“You switched point of view in the story, you're not allowed to do that!”). One quickly becomes invested in the Inquisition; the advice manuals written by the masters convey these gently, in the guise of techniques of writing, but the social principle behind them is manifest.”

Is this what happens in creative writing classes? And if so, is something like the example above of a point of view shift indicative of a socially conservative point of view? It reminds me T.S. Eliot. How he was quite adept at all sorts of shifts and point of view changes . . . and how he was, without dispute, socially conservative.

I feel like I’m wasting my time this morning, reading this piece and writing about it. And I know if Jordan sees it, he’ll say what he’s said before, that I’m just feeding a troll . . . but you know, people do read this stuff. A lot of people, apparently. And when I see a sentence like this:

“Talent, in the modern writing guild, has been discounted; it is craft that counts.”

It astounds me. Wasn’t I just reading a condemnation of creative writing programs a few weeks ago that was saying the thing wrong with them is not enough attention to craft, and too much talk of inspiration and genius?

More interesting to me is why these arguments?  Why now?  Why is the idea that there are people out there sitting around talking about writing stories and poems so irritating to people? I don’t teach in an MFA or Ph.D. program, but I did attend a couple.  I find the idea that there was some sort of humiliation economy going on to be counter to my experience.  There were moments that were difficult, but shouldn’t conversations about what one is doing, if one is taking it seriously, at times be difficult?  There were other moments where someone would do the unexpected and we all felt the air shift.  My teachers lived for those moments, and I still do. 

That's a well-endowed chair you've got yourself there . . .


At 10/23/2010 8:57 AM, Blogger C. Dale said...

I am not even going to go looking for this to read it. I refuse. We live in the Age of Arguments posited without logic, without reason, and without any proof whatsoever. This isn't just in looking at creative writing, but in looking at almost anything. We live in an Age where opinion stands as argument because rhetoric is now as alien to folks as Latin.

At 10/23/2010 9:06 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

I think most of the outrage about MFA programs -- both their existence and the ranking of them -- is born out of insecurity and defensiveness. It's either A) There are too many writers, oh my God, so many crappy writers that my own brilliant writing is getting lost in the noise, and B) Oh my God, if some MFA programs are better than others, maybe the one I went to or the one I'll end up going to isn't the best, and people will judge me. These people are afraid that their writing won't be found or won't be appreciated or won't be judged on its own merit. Of course, all of these things may in fact be the case. :)

At 10/23/2010 9:08 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Amen. I shouldn't have either. I really do feel like a little life was just stolen from me.

I'm cheering myself up with a new song from Freelance Whales I just came across. They're giving it away for free. That and a cup of hot chocolate. I love hot chocolate, even if it's an emblem of social conformity.

At 10/23/2010 9:10 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yeah, that feels right to me. This must mean I'm a very secure person. Most people I know will be suprised to hear that.

At 10/23/2010 1:05 PM, Blogger Renaissance Girl said...

I'm not interested in damning the whole MFA world (having a couple of those degrees myself), but I do think that he's got a point about the structural investments of the MFA system being fundamentally conservative. Otherwise, the principle upon which MFA programs are founded (that one can learn craft/technique and gain greater control over them in order to develop as a writer) would be lost. The self-perpetuating machine of poetry apprenticeship must throw its lot in on the side of there being parameters within which to work, and much workshop discussion, even done very well, makes use of existing parameters in order to secure its discourse. That's conservatism of a kind, to be sure--as is any aesthetic project that acknowledges the persistence of a tradition esp as a set of potentialities. AS mistakes to call it "social conservatism," but the idea doesn't seem like much of an insult to me when it's isolated from the right-wing taint of that phrase.

At 10/23/2010 1:16 PM, Blogger Jeannine said...

I think most MFA programs actually introduce already-conservative new writers - whe are conservative because their high schools and undergrad programs only introduced them to the most mainstream, and usually older, classic work - to a wider range of poets - and that's actually encouraging of the opposite of conservatism, isn't it? Places like UCSD's new MFA program actively encourage the weird, which I think is excellent. I myself teach in a pretty "conservative" program - most of my students have read dead poets and Billy Collins, and that's it - but I try to shake things up by introducing them to the poets I like reading, which covers a fairly wide range (though they may complain the first time they read Matthea Harvey - "she's so difficult" - they usually aren't complaining by the end of the quarter.)
So, I agree - this is just a bunch of hot air.

At 10/23/2010 1:54 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree that institutions tend toward conservatism. That does seem to be their nature. But I think the difference is in the space between the university administration, or even the college or department administration, and the ones actually teaching the classes. If one wants a glimpse of what is possible in what at times is a radical structure, you should look at Joshua Marie Wilkinson's anthology on teaching, Poets on Poetry: A sourcebook.

That is a book I'd be interested to see AS engage.

At 10/23/2010 1:56 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That mirrors my experience, except that, as I only teach undergraduates, usually none of them can name a living poet when they enter my classes for the first time.

At 10/24/2010 6:48 AM, Blogger morescotch said...

Setting aside that his argument is way too vague and extreme, my thing is, this dude doesn't know what he's talking about to begin with.

Are these really the names of the people who control the rewards and honors?

"Antonya Nelson, Heather McHugh, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Lan Samantha Chang, Philip Levine, Charles Baxter, Donald Hall, Marilynne Robinson, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, Robert Pinsky, Robert Olen Butler, Jane Hirshfield, Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, etc"

A couple maybe, but mostly I'd say this is a list of famous writers, and not necessarily the ones who are distributing whatever rewards he's talking about.

At 10/25/2010 1:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you don't want "conservative" teachers--don't go to "that" school! BTW, does this same twist occur with MFA art/dance/music students? Or is it just us?


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