This week in the New Yorker Louis Menand reviews a book called The Program Era by Marc McGurl. According to Menand, the book attempts to make the argument – and I’m simplifying here – that the proliferation of creative writing programs has not only affected the way we write but the way we read, and that this is a good thing. Menand concludes the article with a personal bit, where he reflects on his MFA days. He says he hasn’t published or written a poem since graduation, but he wouldn’t trade the experience. What Menand does best in the article is give a concise and clear history of creative writing programs in America, and worldwide, but, in the end, he does nothing to further the argument, one way or the other, or answer the question whether creative writing can be taught or not. The best I can glean is that, he thinks, indeed, it can be taught because, well, look how many programs there are out there teaching it, and how many good books – more books than can be read – are being written.
Of course, the full impact of the MFA program, as it has been experienced in the later half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first, can’t yet be measured. The books that have been written, the magazines that have been established, and the writers that have relied on its patronage have yet to stand the test of time. I suspect there will be as many lasting writers outside the MFA circle as in, and that it won’t matter much whether a truly great writer had been exposed to a workshop or not. The worst effect of the workshop might be temporary, and that is it has the tendency to encourage a sameness, which, if done well, can mask mediocre work and make it seem good. Moreover, if one learns to read and make aesthetic judgments solely by attending workshops, then those judgments may be compromised by one’s erroneous expectations regarding what is beautiful. There is something to be said for the statement I used to hear all the time in workshops, and that is: Kafka’s stories wouldn’t last a second here. When we said that we meant to criticize the limitations of the workshop and not Kafka’s genius.
But before the eager writer or reader gets carried away regarding the evils of the workshop, one caveat must be mentioned. It isn’t true either that just because you feel alienated from the workshop world that you are the next Kafka. A friend of mine recently emailed me a correspondence he exchanged with a man, quoting Emerson, who believed that – again I’m simplifying, to make a point – because he was misunderstood, he must be great. Sometimes the pith of genius is knowing the difference between divine madness and just plain, old ordinary shit house bonkers. The safe bet, for me, is not to make that judgment about a self proclaimed genius lest I be judged, too, I guess. It is best to judge the work on its own merits, should there be perceptible merits, and leave it at that. Further, it is probably best to widen one’s aesthetic gauge to include all of what is beautiful. This is the job of the writer and the reader of imaginative literature. Again, the danger of the MFA mentality is that it can monkey with this gauge to the point of near uselessness. But it is also true that a rejection of the workshop may lead to the same danger of dismissing what is good.
For me the question isn’t whether creative writing can be taught, but whether it should be taught. I warn you that I’m biased. I make my living teaching, among other things, creative writing at a community college in Suffolk County. And yet, it has been my experience that teaching creative writing, especially to the non-creative writer – and for the most part, no one in the classes I teach has any intention, at least at first, of becoming a writer – is a benefit. In fact, I would go so far to say that freshmen ought to be required to take a creative writing class before they ever step foot into a literature class. Perhaps, before the program era, this wasn’t necessary. Perhaps, when imaginative literature seemed in and of itself a good thing, this wasn’t necessary or warranted. But now… Well, now, it is. A student who attempts to make a thing, and fails or seems to succeed, is better suited to criticize that which is far superior to his efforts. It may be the poet, who fails and knows he has failed, that is best suited to begin to appreciate, for the first time, who and what greatness is.
I just want to say, before I close, that what I mention in the paragraph above has nothing whatsoever to do with encouraging greatness in literature. Greatness can’t be encourage nor discouraged. It is a thing, which is. If it never becomes, it never was. Whitman says that to have great poetry there must be great audiences, too. This is true, from Whitman’s point of view. But hadn’t he been great, really and truly great, what would a statement like this matter? Perhaps the workshop creates the illusions that our audiences are greater than our poets. This might explain some of the panic one occasionally hears surrounding the question of greatness and the weak arguments to counter such arguments. These, the defenses and the criticisms, point to a tremendous lack of faith in the human spirit, which workshop or not endures, or rather, to be more specific, triumphs, despite and perhaps to spite our doubts.
There is one more thing, and this may have nothing to do, at all, with the argument so far. But as I reread the post, it occurs to me that what is true for the poet may be doubly true for the seeker of the divine. (I’m not sure these two ought to be separated, by the by.) A lack of faith in greatness corresponds, in many cases, to one’s lack of faith in – or misunderstanding of – God. For many, it is enough to accept defeat or victory, whatever it looks like or feels like, before one has sought thoroughly, before one has risked all or anything. This not only points to a lack of faith but a lack of humility, which as Eliot says, is endless. One must be as humble before the divine as one is before that which is great in us. And if what is great in us is going to outpace us, then, perhaps it is true that it can’t be taught. But neither can it be harmed, ultimately, by our feeble efforts to contain it.