Louis Menand’s New Yorker review of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, a history of the rise of university writing programs and workshops, is subtitled, “Should creative writing be taught?” Despite itself, the review does not encourage a positive answer. Menand tells us that “by 1975, there were fifteen creative-writing M.F.A. programs in the country. Today, there are a hundred and fifty-three.” And what do we have to show for it? McGurl says that the “system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period” shows that the writing programs have helped, but we don’t see how this can be proven: while the rise of American aerospace engineering, say, can be connected to America’s supremacy in space, we don’t know how you connect the explosion of writing classes to advancements in literary quality. The sort of cultural product that distinguishes America around the world, such as rock songs, blockbuster movies, and potboiler novels, can hardly be attributed to Bread Loaf. There is something to be said for fine literature, but America produced enough of that to suit our needs before schools started mass-producing MFAs.
Other insights from the review are equally discouraging: for example, that “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.” This makes writing programs sound like a make-work schemes for aesthetically-inclined redundant laborers, and stirs suspicion that many of us currently struggling as scribes have been unfortunately discouraged from more useful lives as upholsterers or surveyors. We often think so, anyway.
Menand does supply fun anecdotes about the trade (“[John Gardner’s] preferred pedagogical venue was the cocktail party, where he would station himself in the kitchen, near the ice trays, and consume vodka by the bottle while holding forth to the gathered disciples”), and he looks back fondly on workshops, saying “I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.” Maybe writing programs, then, are the information-age equivalent of shop class. If so, tuition should be adjusted to reflect this.