Although, as a question of policy, asking "should creative writing be taught" may be a worthwhile inquiry when deciding how to allocate educational dollars, as a writer, I don't think the question of whether writing can be taught is relevant to whether writers should attend the programs. As Menand makes clear (if inadvertently), no one really goes to creative-writing programs to learn to write. They go:
- to engage with their readers' world ("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 . . . . Putting [writers] in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.");
- to learn "craft" - e.g., discipline necessary for writing, general rules about sentence and paragraph structure, techniques for plotting, etc. - as opposed to how to learn how to have talent ("What is usually said is that you can't teach inspiration, but you can teach craft");
- to have space and time to write without having to worry about earning a living ("[Wallace Stegner] founded the program at Stanford [in 1947] by persuading a wealthy oilman to fund a place where returning veterans who wanted to write could get away from their families and hang out");
- and to be around like-minded people ("I just thought that [poetry] mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other's poems, seemed like a great place to be.").
From the perspective of an individual writer, I don't find any of these reasons - singly or in combination - satisfactory. (Full disclosure: three years ago, I enrolled in a Humber College correspondence course for novelists, but I did so because D.M. Thomas, my literary mentor, suggested that the Humber program would be a good structure for our work together. While my work with Thomas was phenomenally rewarding, I didn't see what value Humber College was bringing to the interaction. Also, about fifteen years ago, I attended classes at the Gotham Writers Workshop, which may have influenced my reluctance to attend any writing workshop thereafter.)
Where Menand and I part ways is on the issue of navel gazing. Menand argues that immersing writers in an environment saturated with issues pressing to writers and their readers is a positive methodology for incubating literature ("For, in spite of all the reasons that they shouldn't, workshops work"). I, on the other hand, think such immersion is a form of narrow-minded self-absorption that produces literature of a like nature.
The last thing I want to do with my non-writing hours is hash over my work with other writers. My creative process isn't served by jumping up and down on the same nerves ad infinitum. Rather, my creative process blossoms when I turn my conscious attention to unrelated matters and let my subconscious have a stab at whatever creative problem is puzzling me.
Moreover, as a reader, I don't gravitate to books that cover familiar ground; I want to expand my world through my reading. Perhaps for this reason, as a writer, I'm most interested in stories about people who are forgotten by, unknown or invisible to Menand's "world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace."
Finally, I perceive risks in creative-writing programs that Menand either doesn't recognize or neglects to discuss. First, literary feedback is more frequently destructive than it is helpful. Like all processes that require personal chemistry for maximum effect - therapy, sex - the provision of constructive literary guidance can only come from a rare person. When the relationship between writer and critic lacks that crucial, intangible connection, a writer can suffer a devastating withering of his or her desire to write.
Second, immersion in any topic for whatever reason produces myopia. That's why specialists tend to be assholes. And while it's almost de rigueur for writers to be assholes, if they're any good, they're not myopic. For the individual writer, the struggle is always to encounter the greater breadth of human experience; and for the literature of a people, the achievement is always in its universality.
McGurl argues that "There has been a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period," and Menand agrees, citing John Barth in The New York Times Book Review ("Writing: Can It Be Taught?"), claiming that there's more good, contemporary fiction than anyone has time to read.
With due respect, such reasoning is sloppy. That Americans lack time for all the good literature on the market doesn't prove that our literature is as good as it could be (if, for example, we were to expect our novelists to train in the world itself, rather than in an M.F.A. program). Moreover, the fact of the post-war rise in the excellence of American literature - if it is a fact, and I'm skeptical - doesn't prove that university creative-writing programs were its cause. (Factors that seem more important to me include the undoubted facts of: increasing rates of college attendance; more people with leisure time to write; great urbanization; and increasing interest in the voices of non-white and non-male authors.)
Indeed, McGurl and Menand are at odds with the most prestigious arbiter of literature in the world. An American hasn't won the Nobel Prize in Literature for sixteen years, and last year the words "isolated," "insular" and "ignorance" were used by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, to describe the U.S. literary world. Harsh words and potentially more hurtful than constructive - but to ignore or dismiss them only reinforces their accuracy.