As video killed the radio star, creative writing programs killed fiction. Or so the story goes. There are regular complaints about creative writing programs, claiming that they foster predictable, cookie-cutter fiction and narcissism. They promote writers who know little of the real world and write about their small concerns.
Mark McGurl?s most recent book, The Program Era: American Fiction and Creative Writing (Harvard University Press, 2010), disabuses us of this commonplace. It is the first book to take seriously and without prejudice the effect of creative writing on fiction. Starting with the premise that creative writing programs and higher education in general became a major part of American culture during the postwar years, McGurl notes how many writers found their way through programs, how those programs might have influenced their writing, and what kinds of fiction resulted. Overall, he argues that this provided the conditions for a remarkable flourishing, rather than a decline, of fiction.
Most academic books of literary criticism take one motif and discuss how it occurs in four or five novels. The Program Era is much more ambitious than that and refreshing in presenting a wide-screen view of fiction since the Second World War. It distinguishes three main strands of contemporary fiction. The first is the technomodernism, or what people usually call postmodernism, of writers like Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and their heirs like David Foster Wallace. The second is high-cultural pluralism?represented by authors like Toni Morrison. The third is lower-middle-class modernism, of writers like Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates. You wouldn?t think those three modes had much in common, but McGurl sees them all as inheritors of modernism.
Though modernism arose in the first half of the twentieth century, it had a second life when it was introduced into the American university, particularly under the auspices of a group called the New Critics, who held high the statements of T. S. Eliot. They arose mid-century, when the iconic creative writing program at Iowa was also founded. Their ideas?which favor literary works of complexity, honed language, and irony or ambiguity?inflected the taste and literary values of those in the university thereafter.
I see McGurl?s book as part of a new generation of historicist critics. He doesn?t simply do close readings of literary works but elucidates their cultural and historical context to understand them. In particular he focuses on institutions, although he does not take Michel Foucault, the French theorist of major modern institutions like hospitals and prisons, as a lodestone, as did the generation of critics arising in the 1980s called the New Historicists. They talked about discourse, and McGurl, too, is in a sense talking about how creative writing formed the discourse of the postwar era. But he relies more on ?systems theory,? inspired by the German social theorist Niklas Luhmann; he discusses how the writing program is a system that calls for a response and that in turn is altered through its feedback. This perspective leads him to neutrality about creative writing: a system delimits a boundary but it is not a constraint; rather, it enables creativity. Put a lot of people in a workshop and someone will write a decent book.
This is a different framework from that of Richard Ohmann, perhaps the leading critic of the institution of literary studies, whose 1976 English in America: A Radical View of the Profession examined literary studies not in terms of literature but in terms of how they supported the status quo and reinforced class differences. Ohmann has likewise looked at the institutions surrounding contemporary fiction in ?The Shaping of the Canon: American Fiction, 1960-1975? (Critical Inquiry 10 ; reprinted in Ohmann?s Politics of Letters, but surprisingly not mentioned in McGurl?s book). Ohmann?s approach is like the social studies exercise, ?how a bill becomes a law,? examining all the stations on the path to a book?s success: it has to be deemed valuable by agents, editors, advertisers, reviewers, and professors to gain standing. The thing these people have in common is that they all belong to the same class?what Barbara and John Ehrenreich call the professional-managerial class (PMC)?and have similar taste and sensibility. Thus, according to Ohmann, the novels deemed to have literary value tend to exhibit their concerns. Ohmann observes that novels from the period of 1960 to 1975 gravitated toward ?illness narratives,? which he interprets as expressing the alienation of the PMC of the time. Think of J.D. Salinger?s Franny and Zooey or Sylvia Plath?s Bell Jar.
Though it is an institutional history, The Program Era leans more toward literary history than English in America. It rehearses a good bit of information about the formation of creative writing programs, especially at Iowa and Stanford, but it focuses mostly on the lives and careers of artists, the formal variants of fiction, and interpretations of particular novels. In this it is an inheritor of its namesake, Hugh Kenner?s major book about high modernist writers like Eliot and Joyce, The Pound Era. The program, for McGurl, is a character that looms over fiction as Ezra Pound did over poetry for Kenner.
One interesting response to The Program Era was a recent editorial in n+1 (?MFA vs. NYC,? n+1 10 [fall 2010]). It points out that there are actually two leagues of fiction writers, those creative writers who have MFAs and earn their livelihood teaching, and those who live largely in New York (or Brooklyn) and earn their livelihood writing. The former favors short stories, the latter novels; the former leans toward complexity, the latter toward ease of readability; the former is more oriented toward an academic audience, the latter toward a larger public; the former sees books as a credential, the latter as a living.
However, both McGurl and the n+1 Brooklynites still see fiction as a major form of cultural expression. One wonders if fiction remains the way in which people learn character?or is it reality shows? Or Wii?