In the New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews The Program Era, a book by Mark McGurl about the institutionalization of creative-writing programs. Creative writing classes are an easy target for cynics (including me) who don’t believe that “creativity” can be taught or should even be isolated and reified as a concept, yet are also skeptical of the idea of transcendent genius separating the true Wordsworthian artists from the rest of the plebes and philistines. Neither McGurl or Menand seem to be as cynical as that—McGurl argues (and Menand agrees) that creative-writing programs as an institution are the most important development in the history of American literature since World War II, and in many ways is more significant than any particular author produced by the programs. Menand writes:
As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature. McGurl’s claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.
I’m not entirely sure what is meant by “serious fiction”—I assume that means the fiction that most people don’t bother to read because it doesn’t conform to the expectations generated by popular genres. Though McGurl rejects this idea, creative-writing programs, perhaps, can best be understood as the attempt to standardize that heterogeneous mass of non-genre fiction, codifying it into an identifiable (if still not all that marketable) product known as “literary fiction.” They also fortify the walls that separate genre fiction from the precincts of capital-L Literature. This helps protect literature from the sort of economically grounded analysis that best explains the popularity and specific features of mass-market fiction, which is clearly crafted as an entertainment product to appeal to well-delineated audiences. Literature, according to the professors sworn to defend its reputation, is above such craven pandering; it is a matter of geniuses serving the muse, of aesthetic struggle in the name of art, not commerce. But creative-writing programs, though they help stabilize the definition of literature and carry it forward into contemporaneity, seem to be primarily about commerce—about networking and forming the connections that will allow as-yet-unknown writers to possibly make a living by writing (or teaching others how to write). This, and not a cosmically serendipitous concentration of talent, is what allowed so many renowned writers to all inhabit the same university classrooms, as Menand details.
Lots of fields are essentially networking cliques. What makes the creative-writing programs so suspect is not the networking aspect but the intense egocentricity they seemed geared toward generating. Menand highlights this aspect of McGurl’s anlalysis and renders it in telling metaphors of machines and carpenter ants:
Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and the creative-writing program is a means of tooling. But McGurl treats creative writing as an ant farm where the ants are extremely interesting. He never reduces writers to unthinking products of a system. They are thinking products of a system. After all, few activities make people more self-conscious than participating in a writing workshop. Reflecting on yourself—your experience, your “voice,” your background, your talent or lack of it—is what writing workshops make people do.
McGurl thinks that this habit of self-observation is not restricted to writing programs. He thinks that we’re all highly self-conscious ants, because that’s what it means to be a modern person. Constant self-assessment and self-reflection are part of our program…. So the fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs may appeal to readers because it rehearses topics—“Who am I?” issues—that are already part of their inner lives.
Again, fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs has an extremely limited appeal—to those hardy few who routinely read The New Yorker, for instance. As Menand notes, “university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit—the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace.” So when McGurl talks about self-conscious ants, he’s really talking about a small slice of well-educated middlebrows who tend toward a certain status anxiety and are also probably prone to the peculiar kind of identity crisis that afflicts those self-selected members of the “creative class.” Like the Calvinist elect, the people of the creative class are fairly certain they are destined to be creative, but can never be certain about just how creative they are. So they must seek outward signs of their blessed inner superiority, must seek or contrive recognition for their creativity whenever possible. This is that class’s essential self-consciousness, and when it is acute, it becomes hipsterism.
Part of this crusade for recognition involves writing and reading and commenting on literary fiction, which is perhaps the purest materialization of that personal creativity, the ore of hipster selfhood. In literary fiction, plot is often replaced with meticulous observation, a kind of careful surveillance of surfaces that are then subject to a hermeneutics of authenticity or cool. The same spirit that animates identity creation in the various online forums, mediums, and social networks is what has long animated creative writing programs, so it may be that the programs don’t reflect identity-obsessed audiences so much as they have fostered them. Self-proclaimed creative writers are an elite group that teaches the rest of us and the generations that follow how to be minutely worried about the status of the self, the micromechanisms for conveying identity or computing that of the people we encounter. Creative-writing programs institute trickle-down narcissism.
The “habit of self-observation” seems to me a most unfortunate curse, an inability to escape from oneself or see past oneself and become immersed in experiences, in dialogues, conversations. Instead there is only workshops, which are rudimentary rough drafts for the sort of reciprocal “sharing” that now takes place in rolling fashion online. We are all creative writers now. Maybe those who come after us will have the lucky chance to be something else.