Louis Menand on Creative-Writing Programs


Louis Menand has really been on a roll this year. First the must-read article about how the Village Voice changed journalism, then the article on Donald Barthelme, and now this week, an essay about The Program Era by Mark McGurl, a book dealing with the origins of creative-writing programs, their development over the past half-century, and how they have affected American writing over those decades. As Menand describes it: “McGurl’s book is not a history of creative-writing programs. It’s a history of twentieth-century fiction, in which the work of American writers from Thomas Wolfe to Bharati Mukherjee is read as reflections of, and reflections on, the educational system through which so many writers now pass.”

Menand starts on a typically acerbic, dismissive note — “creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem” — an easy swipe to get a laugh. But he immediately sets mockery aside, and goes on to write yet another unbelievably valuable essay: not merely an assessment of the book at hand, but also his own view of the history it describes, with full contextualization of every argument and claim, and as a bonus, entertaining facts and anecdotes throughout.

Menand’s reading differs somewhat from Mark Greif’s, whose review in Bookforum we wrote about last week. Grief found the book agnostic about the moral calculus of creative-writing programs, but according to Menand, the argument of The Program Era is that teaching creative writing

should always be a scandal, since it’s a scandal that suits everyone. It allows people in creative-writing departments to feel that, unlike their colleagues in the traditional academic disciplines, they are not cogs in a knowledge machine; and it allows the university to regard itself as what McGurl calls a “difference engine,” devoted to producing original people as well as original research. He points out that teachers in creative-writing programs were asking “Can it be taught?” right from the start, but that virtually no one has ever tried to lay down rules for what should go on in the classroom. This is because not having an answer to the “Can it be taught?” question—keeping alive the belief that all this training and socialization never really touches the heart of the imaginative process—is what marks creative-writing programs as “creative.” Academic creative-writing programs are, as McGurl puts it, examples of “the institutionalization of anti-institutionality.” That’s why institutions love them. They are the outside contained on the inside.

But on the other hand, these programs have encouraged developments that are undeniably positive:

The absorption of fiction writing into the university has a lot to do with the emergence of robust traditions (as opposed to scattered works) of so-called multicultural literature. As McGurl notes, virtually all the major figures in Latino literature have been American academics. The same is true of Asian-American novelists, many of whom have held university appointments, and of Native American writers. N. Scott Momaday was a student of Stegner’s at Stanford, which is where he began work on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “House Made of Dawn” (1968).

These writers have a special relation to the “outside contained on the inside” feature of academic creative-writing programs, and many of the most celebrated have been accused of inauthenticity. McGurl tells the story of the attack on Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” by Karl Kroeber [who] criticized Momaday for attempting to “evoke an ‘Indianness’ for his readers (the majority of whom will presumably not be Indians) through an Anglo-American literary structure that must prohibit any authentically Indian imaginative form.” … McGurl’s response to Kroeber is sensible: since Momaday is a Native American, and since he developed his literary style by studying white modernist writers at Stanford and other universities, “rather than being contaminated by modernism, Indian art now includes modernism as one of its elements.”

Very thought-provoking stuff. The full article is here.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →