Teachability of the Form

on MFA vs. NYC

by Drew Dickerson

Illustration by Felipe di Poi

published March 7, 2014

The MFA takes conceptual center stage of MFA vs. NYC, as it probably should. According to Poets and Writers (purveyors of the annual MFA Index, which ranks highand low-residency creative writing programs along such criteria as selectivity, student-faculty ratio, and funding opportunities), 120 new programs were founded within the first 30 months of the current decade—this versus 97 new programs founded in the same such length of time in the early aughts, 39 in the ’90s, 28 in the ’80s, and 11 in the ’70s.  Where NYC’s publishing industry faces the prospect of increasingly diminished relevance in a media environment becoming all the time more information-centric, the MFA’s workshop culture is faced with an oppositely-oriented existential anxiety: the fact that the graduate creative writing program has quickly become one of the fastest growing, lowest-utility disciplines within the university.  

     Of course, in actual fact, the contemporary literary landscape does not divide neatly into the antagonistic terms suggested by MFA vs. NYC’s title—and Chad Harbach, editor of the collection, admits as much in the book’s first essay:

The NYC writer most probably earned an MFA; the MFA writer, meanwhile, may well publish her books at a New York House. There are even MFA programs in New York, lots of them, though these generally partake of the NYC culture. And many writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC world, whether over the course of a career or within a single year.  

However, the rhetorical strength of the title obtains. Despite the inevitable existence of exceptional or mixed circumstances, it does feel to the lay reader, would-be novelist, or closet poet looking in on the world of professional print culture that a writer must, in the final instance, declare institutional allegiance to one camp or the other.  This allegiance is one most likely foregone in whether a particular writer earns a living by publishing or by teaching, by his or her own sales figures or by a salaried faculty position. Distinction thus drawn, MFA vs. NYC offers essays from a variety of contributors detailing the respective merits, drawbacks, and plain facts of each marked-out territory. In any case, no one can accuse Harbach (or the partnered publishers at n+1 and Faber and Faber) of burying the lede. 

     Most charges levelled against the first MFA programs cite a perceived homogeny of workshop output. The specter raised is one of a literature comprised of technically unimpeachable pieces virtually indistinguishable from one to the next.  Raymond Carver is often named as stylistic lodestone and forebear here, with his seminal collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral ranking two among the most influential books of post-war American short fiction.  Incidentally, this fact raises another interesting feature of the graduate creative writing program: its formal tendency toward the short story. If the two competing cultures of contemporary fiction have assembled two competing and alternative canons, the MFA program leans more towards the short story collection and NYC the novel.  Harbach suggests that this is most likely attributable to the former’s teachability and the latter’s salability. It’s easier to get someone to buy a 400 page novel at the same time that it’s easier to get someone to actually read a 15 page story. Specific illustration of the MFA vs. NYC dynamic might then take the form of something like pairing Jesus’ Son against Bright Lights, Big City, Lorrie Moore against Donna Tartt, Drown against The Corrections, Lydia Davis against Paul Auster.    

     This formal proclivity as well reveals a tacit (because obvious) feature of the creative writing program generally: the tenet that writing literature can be taught.  It would be impossible for a workshop leader to read and usefully respond to full-length, semi-amateur student novels.  The short story is then prevalent because it is practical, because it can be read in a single sitting and fairly excerpted, and because it rewards economization and technical polish. From the workshop’s specific pedagogical limitations, an aesthetic philosophy in-part emerges. 

     A lot of this is a gloss of Harbach’s argument in the title essay. 

     Where MFA vs. NYC becomes most interesting is in its examination of the conjunction between the so-called “workshop style” and regularity of form.  For the most part, stylistic arguments brought to bear against the MFA program are old hat, dating back to the fiction students of the ’80s and early ’90s and their emulation of so-styled “Dirty Realists” such as Carver above, these writers working for the most part in a minimalist style with spare and flattened affect. However, the reading and writing communities have obviously changed a great deal in the past 30 years. The mega-novel enjoyed a brief period of cultural currency. Gordon Lish (Carver’s editor, Amy Hempel’s editor, hyper-sexual lothario whose misadventures Carla Blumenkranz details here in part) no longer enjoys the influence he once did. All the while, creative writing programs have continued to popup incessantly. If there is today a unitary MFA aesthetic, it is no longer dirty or realist—nor does it look at first blush like the charge of an MFA-specific literature could reasonably hold up at all given the sheer number and variety of students and programs.     

     However, if writing can indeed be taught, it would seem that there must be something to it at once self-same and determinate. How otherwise would one impart technique?  If there is an argument to be made against the MFA with respect to the uniformity of its output, it would (given the wide variety of programs, students, and subject matters) likely have to move from this specificity of craft.  David Foster Wallace’s “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young”—excerpted in MFA vs. NYC as “The Fictional Future”—seems to anticipate just this possibility of standardization: 

A larger issue is whether Writing Programs and their grinding story-every-three-weeks workshop assembly lines could, eventually, lower all standards, precipitate a broad-level literary mediocrity, fictional equivalents of what Donald Hall calls “The McPoem.” I think, if they get much more popular, and do not drop the pose of “education” in favor of a humbler and more honest self-appraisal…we might well end up with a McStory chain that would put Ray Kroc to shame.  

(Quick clarifying note: Ray Kroc was the Czech-American franchising agent who made of McDonald’s the McDonald’s it is).

     Wallace’s insight is in the fact that an MFA-specific creative writing style does not stem from overbearing, please-me professors (although surely, on a circumstantial basis, this must sometimes be the case), but from the program’s professedly education-oriented structure. From the basic fact of what a program is and how it operates—structured, as all curriculums, to make regimented, regular demands on students’ and instructors’ schedules—the risk of a McStory franchise opening on your campus becomes here apparent. Rarely in MFA vs. NYC are there any horror stories of programs themselves insisting upon a house style. What the writers instead rankle at are the expectations tacit in instructor comments, reading lists, and classmates’ conversation. There is, as well, in the workshop leader’s assessment of a short story as “exemplary” or “teachable,” something of a normative claim. Which is to say that canon-building always gives the rule to the literature it curates.     

     Nobody here, at least on the face of it, is putting one over at the expense of anybody else. To judge by this collection, most writers attending graduate creative writing programs (as well as those attached to such programs at the faculty level) are relatively sober in their language and professional expectations. The love-hate relationship that most writers and readers enjoy with the MFA comes in alongside the peculiar and ambiguous place it occupies with respect to the rest of the university proper. The graduate program in creative writing is an academic department concerned definitionally with the production of literature, and the historic novelty of this situation (a space carved out in the culture for large numbers of people to go about the business of creating fiction, poetry, and essays) is not to be underestimated. Though it is a situation with certain unresolved problems, it is a situation without a bad guy—apart, maybe, from Gordon Lish, who comes off truly diabolical under Blumenkranz’s treatment. Instead, one’s dissatisfaction with the MFA program is coincident with the necessary suspension of several fundamental questions: “Can writing be taught? Am I a writer? Is any of this, in short, worth my while?” These questions remain unanswered in the form of a blanket “yes” because, if the answer to any one of the three were to turn up conclusively negative, one could not be an MFA student.  

     Such reservations arise because of the creative writing program’s educationally-motivated organizing principle. MFA thinks of itself and grows in the consideration of comparative rankings and metrics such as P&W’s MFA Index. NYC takes its cue instead from sales data reports such as Nielsen BookScan. The value of the first arrangement is its existing largely outside of a market logic. The value of the second is its quantitative demonstrability. Though the publisher today fears for his or her job, this job is unambiguous and will remain the same (in its basic, money-making form) tomorrow. Though NYC culture struggles to stay afloat, its battle is not one of self-justification. If the MFA story must work to legitimate itself artistically, the MFA program must work to legitimate itself intellectually.  

     What then are MFA’s aesthetic and academic functions? It does not seem an overstatement to suggest that the foundation of academic creative writing (and its disciplinary distinction from the university English department) is one of the most basic determining factors in all of postwar/contemporary letters. Eric Bennett’s essay “Pyramid Scheme” suggests that, at its inception, the MFA program was concerned with the articulation and codification of a particularly American literary experience, a concern that lives on vestigially today:     

In the chemistry department, you fabricate new molecules; in the creative writing department, you give voice to an undocumented American experience… Until the 1960s, creative writing programs entailed an inclusive ideology whose time had not yet come; then its time came (and accounts, I think at least in part, for the boom). The universal white male subject…stopped having to be white and male.    

Bennett also writes that the CIA funneled money into the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop through and organization called the “Farfield Foundation” during the Cold War. The interesting dynamic here is that between regularity of form and particularity of content. In this way, the universal subject is liquidated in favor of a formal universality. By this account, increasingly specific aspects of American experience are subsumed under written “craft” and so detailed. Literature is then functionalized in the exploration of literary identity. I am myself uncertain how convincing I find certain movements in Bennett’s piece, but it seems to me (considered in conjunction with Wallace’s McStory anxiety) that the formation of creative writing as a discipline concerned with the uniform exploration of plural circumstances is right on.     

     MFA tries at one and the same time to own and to disown its place within American higher education. Whether or not writing is teachable, the fact remains that it is being taught all over the country. Proponents of the creation of literature, however, often characterize it as an emotionally intuitive (where not downright anti-intellectual) act. The paradoxes of program structure are in this way similar to the paradoxes of story structure. Creative pedagogy necessarily involves a critical reexamination of the creative discipline. As the MFA program navigates this tangle between literature and the academy so far as each is independent of the other, a weird intermediary space emerges. Queasiness arising from the directions of both NYC and the university evinces this ambivalent and equivocal status.

     MFA vs. NYC raises in this way (and leaves largely open) several critical questions, all of which are especially germane to the young creative person facing the professional world, perhaps facing as well the imminent prospect of college graduation. What does it mean that one can earn an undergraduate degree in creative writing? Why are more and more short stories being written at a time when, paradoxically, fewer and fewer are being read by the general-interest public? Does the fact of literature’s increasing orientation towards (and reliance upon) campus culture represent a sort of death knell? Should I be reading Annie Dillard? What can I reasonably expect if I am to try to earn my living by being a writer (whatever that means)? Am I temperamentally suited for journalism? Publishing? The Academy? Am I, in an honest estimation, temperamentally suited for any of this?   

     The book, in any case, was released February 25.

DREW DICKERSON B’14 gets his stories to-go.