I’m doing a series of posts about that MFA vs NYC book, edited by Chad Harbach. Here’s part 1.
In Part 2, I’m responding to the essay “A Mini Manifesto” by George Saunders. The essay in the book is taken from this Faster Times one. Thanks to the Fiction Advocate for finding all the free essays.
George Saunders is a very respected short story writer, perhaps the most respected living short story writer. He’s in a unique position to advocate for the creative writing workshop model–he leads these thins and he basically writes stories that would fit in that model. That’s a place very few get to be in, the state of short story sales being what they are. His essay is numbered in to sections within the book, and this quote from #2 brings up a point worth discussing.
Starting from the stereotype that all creative writing programs are the same, he writes:
It could be argued that any time you get 10-40 people together and have a core group of teachers, some homogenization is going to happen, but, in a sense, isn’t that what culture is? The establishment of a standard and then a resulting attempt to mimic that standard, followed by a passionate revolt against that stupid repressive reactionary standard, which is then replaced by a lovely innovative pure new standard, etc., etc.?) (It’s also possible that the perception of homogeneity is a function of the fact that, as CW programs expand outwards so that every town has 15 of them, more average writers are being let in (see #11, below) and so what we are really seeing is a bunch of average writers doing what average writers are supposed to do, which is write average.
Is culture really homogenization?
I do see the positives in that. But the problem is the cycle he describes in the second part of it, the mimicry and then the rejection. I just don’t think that process is happening fast enough.
Because of the “legitimacy” professors are bringing to the creative writing process, students are couching their writing into the formulas that will hopefully please the teachers, which is sucking a lot of innovation out of it. Then the teachers can only instruct to their accepted systems, because they are (typically) producing work that they hope falls into the same system they’re advocating, and have been instructed to believe in.
And when I say systems, I don’t necessarily mean the publishing model, but a system/style of writing. The rest of the book has some persuasive essays about what is “favored” in writing models, but one of the things hurting writers in this system is the consistency of voices, rather than really being challenged “creatively.”
Take Some Other Courses
One thing that would help break the “homogeneity” of the MFA program is to add in some other courses. We need to realize that a creative writing degree is different than just a standard “study” of the history of literature, it’s supposed to change and disrupt. That’s why classes on design, typography, the internet and other art courses could really expand what writers are doing. Maybe this is just one or two classes per program, but it could only help move the form forward.
I liked the recent Other People Podcast with Douglas Coupland, who is trained as a visual artist. He commented many times about how he’s able to give new words to cultural trends and actions because of his visual background, and I think something like this could be valuable.
In addition, maybe students just need to be encouraged to reflect on their own educational history somewhat. Instead of “writing what you know” maybe “discover what you don’t know.” I took several classes on politics, it might be a good exercise for me to dive back into a few of those issues and topics and see what I can write, what stories I can generate.
I’ve taken a few creative writing classes (I don’t have an MFA), but some cross-disciplinary work could really impact fiction.
In the aforementioned section 11, Saunders goes on to say that there are too many writing programs. It seems to be a growth industry, everyone selling the ability to be a writer. The low-residency makes some sense, but it comes to reason that not every writer in a program is necessarily a good one, and that after spending the money that they’ll be any better or publishable. Students have to think about that before enrolling, because there are many more writers who are not in these programs at all. I guess programs need to be more straight-up with people and define goals before enrolling.
The problem is that the “average” writers are being instructed to write in the same way as those above them, which is diluting the “culture” that Saunders purports. But average writing can definitely find an audience, in fact it’s probably more popular than “great” writing. I can crack open most thrillers and find average writing, but also find better book sales.
Again, it’s about expectations. If a creative writing program was a factory for genre writers, it would do really well. And if that’s what the students want, then go for it. I guess we’re just all very earnest in wanting to be “literary” even when no one cares how “literary” we actually are.