Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘Get a Real Degree’

with 2 comments

To my mind, the real cause of shame here is the profession of writing, and it affects McGurl just as much as it does Carver and Oates. Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims. Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ‘disciplined’ by the programme – as McGurl documents with a 1941 promotional photo of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa workshop, seated at a desk with a typewriter and a large whip. (Engle’s only novel, McGurl observes, features a bedridden Iowan patriarch ‘surrounded by his collection of “whips of every kind”, including “racing whips”, “stiff buggy whips”, “cattle whips”, “riding crops” and one “endless bullwhip”’.) The workshop’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ ‘Show, don’t tell’ – also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: ‘Writers’ Workshops’).

As long as it views writing as shameful, the programme will not generate good books, except by accident. Pretending that literary production is a non-elite activity is both pointless and disingenuous.

Elif Batuman, against MFAs. Via MetaFilter.

Written by gerrycanavan

September 14, 2010 at 8:33 pm

2 Responses

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  1. And this about sums it up for me:

    “I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world. At least that way I’d learn something about some less privileged culture – about a less privileged culture that some people were actually born into, as opposed to one that they opted into by enrolling in an MFA programme.”

    Alex

    September 14, 2010 at 8:46 pm

  2. I do like this, though: “Ironically, a preoccupation with historic catastrophe actually ends up depriving the novel of the kind of historical consciousness it was best suited to capture.”

    Alex

    September 14, 2010 at 9:03 pm


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