Review – McGurl, “The Program Era”

Mark McGurl, “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing” (2009) – The short story workshop! For a certain kind of liberal arts student, no setting conjures up quite that same combination of dread and hope. One such class was the only literature or writing class I took in college. It was my second semester, freshman year. I scribbled some stupid high-concept alternate history nonsense, then a twee family thing. Some other people did some ok stuff. I don’t remember if anyone was particularly nasty. The teacher was a decent sort (he might be reading this!) who seemed to genuinely believe in the type of stories that come out in those “best American short story” books- not that he liked all of them uncritically, just that he believed in the project.

I hadn’t formed an opinion on the project, but I would. I learned literature, to the extent that I have, because I was learning history. I’d say I did it on my own, but that’s not quite right. I did it by the light of a few constellations: sometimes friends and family, but most often, publications like the old Baffler and the Exile. Their style of criticism – erudite but irreverent, aiming to wound and not just to act as an adjunct to the publishing industry – spoke to something in my young-adult soul. I gobbled up their archives, and worked on learning literature along two tracks: their recommendations (and sometimes, their denunciations), and “the canon.” Test and control. Taking this task seriously meant honest, rigorous engagement not just with the works, but with myself, the critics, the world around me. It’s a test, given the many ways all of us can – I think all of us do, however temporarily – decide to lay down in the snow and nap, faced with the blizzard of bullshit and easy outs that surrounds critical discourse, at any time but it feels especially totally now. 

Woof! This took a turn. The point is- all of my teachers after that nice fellow in Dalrymple (who may or may not be reading this- hello if you are!) despise the project of the contemporary establishment literary short story of the kind published in the “best of” series. Most of them despise it hard enough to have developed critical frameworks that also condemn most official alternatives to said establishment- these have a way of getting folded in, after all. Moreover, most of the people I’ve met post-undergrad who participate in literature in any way are also deeply skeptical of the entire literary enterprise as it currently exists. Some have fled for the Croatoan of alternative literature of various kinds, and seem to be doing ok out there. Others keep “playing the game” as best they can, compelled by a love for the act of writing and reading and trying their best to “keep the faith” (and ironic distance). All of them are at the least ironic about contemporary Anglophone literature, and most of them are strongly critical of how it is produced: the publisher, the pitch, the agent, the query, the review, the blog, the tweet, the MFA, and above all, the workshop. 

The workshop has become symbolic for much of what is wrong with contemporary American fiction. Somehow managing to manifest both a gummy sort of Disney-populism (“anyone can write!!”) alongside tacky elitism (“for a price!!”), grad-school pretense and high-school social dynamics, the workshop is widely considered unpleasant to participate in, not notably good at improving people’s writing, deleterious to the quality of American letters, and also a scam. And it’s hard to disagree, really. Look at the state of American literature, and of English language literature in general. It’s really not great! And a lot of the problems do feel pretty “workshop” – self-indulgence, predictability, stylistic conformity. I’ve said so- so have numerous literary friends with many more workshops under their belt than mine (and more to come!). And I mean… a dozen-odd people, mostly kids, who want to be writers, posturing and passive-aggressively sniping at each other, ridden herd by some poor son of a bitch who believes in literature? Woof!

So! Whomst amongst us would defend the workshop, or anyway, the workshop’s centrality to the production of contemporary American literary fiction? It’s too much to say that literary historian and critic Mark McGurl defends the workshop, or the MFA programs that use the workshop as their basis. But he does complicate our critiques – which are borderline received wisdom in critical circles – in the process of illuminating the contours of post-WWII American literary history. 

McGurl begins with that would have seemed – what did seem – like a paradox: programmed creativity, especially in a university setting. The hierophants of literary modernism, especially the Americans, mostly fled universities, which they considered (rightly) to be strongholds of hidebound literary traditionalism. Hemingway hated school; Faulkner spent more time on Hollywood studio lots than in a classroom; everyone who could fled not just American schoolrooms, but America, for Paris. Paris, London, New York- that was the “school” for modernist writers. 

In discussing the history of the writing program, McGurl takes the fiendishly simple step of wondering why the critiques so common to us of program writing would not have occurred to the people who created these programs. More than asking a probing question of the past, McGurl’s move here is a showing up of the anti-program cliches we live with. In other words- it’s not that profound to figure out that critiques like “creativity can’t be taught” would have occurred to Wallace Stegner and other godfathers of the creative writing program, but it is an interesting lacuna that people go on making that criticism as though their interlocutors hadn’t heard it. In many ways, us critics of the writing program have taken its existence, and our antinomy to it, for granted, like it’s always been there, even though the implied teleology of it all – once, there were writers, then the MFA came along to corral them into conformity – implies a “before.”

In short, McGurl is a historicizer, an erudite and witty one, operating in a field that neither its proponents in literature nor critics like me on the outs have really put in its context. He’s got something like a fresh field, and he makes the most of it. As it turns out, very, very few literary writers, even those nursed in its gardens, have unambiguously good feelings about writing programs. The people who founded them, often in a fit of Dewey-an enthusiasm and thinking it would be a good way for returning WWII vets to “process their feelings” and maybe get a start at writing, weren’t sure they would work, and often proved ambiguous about their product. One such was Wallace Stegner, who carried on a long feud with his writing workshop protege, Ken Kesey. Kesey, you’d figure, would be a big critic of programmatic creativity, and he was- but McGurl points to many ways in which the “Magic Bus” experience comes closer to the workshop than anyone would like to admit. Famous writers who supplemented their incomes with workshop money (Roth, Vonnegut), others who got their start with workshops (Momaday, Cisneros), long-time critics (Reed), all of them had careers and writings that defy simple schematization.

This is ultimately because, in McGurl’s take, the writing program is more than just a way of producing literature that one can agree or disagree with, accept or refuse. It is an institution in, around, outside, against, parallel to, perpendicular to, orthogonal to, running screaming away from, has helped define American literature in its period because the concerns with which that literature dealt found echoes in its structures and practices… and vice-versa. McGurl tracks a dozen or more currents or movements within the literature of the time pertaining to “the program,” one way or another, all of them his own invention, at least retooling well-known critical concepts if not making them up himself. Questions of race, class, gender, the role of the writer in public life, the Cold War, capitalism, and more don’t just get isolated chapters like they do in a lot of cultural histories- they are all woven together into a single strand. More than a history of literature (which it is a fantastic example of), “The Program Era” stands as an example of a truly holistic history, a work that understands that protagonists, antagonists, and the entire ecosystem of other actors exist inseparably from each other in any given historical form- absent one, and the form is not that form, but another (systems theory is one of McGurl’s inspirations here). It’s a real bravura performance, and I took my time with it, not just because I was busy but because I was really enjoying it. 

McGurl is probably somewhat more sanguine about American literary fiction of the postwar period (and ours- we are, indeed, post-WWII, but are we still “postwar”?), and the possibilities of the writing program. He doesn’t really take on the literary fiction/genre fiction divide. It comes up but it’s not his subject. If it were… well, it would be that other form I talked about, and the picture might involve more dichotomous antagonisms – the forces that kept scifi, fantasy, crime, romance, etc. on the margins of respectability while creating this vast edifice of literary fiction that now no one knows what to do with, a white elephant from previous generations – than what McGurl wants in this project. Still and all! A fascinating and toothsome read. *****

Review – McGurl, “The Program Era”

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