I’m reading Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, which chronicles and analyses the amazing rise of creative writing programmes in the United States. It’s a fascinating account, with McGurl placing the main origins of creative writing in the progressive education movement of the 1920s, and describing how the first classes sprang up, such as the Drama 47 workshop at Harvard. He is excellent when he points out the strange but inescapable bind in which modern creative writing takes place: an emphasis on both individual creativity (“find your voice”) and an impersonal dedication to craft (“show don’t tell”). And a truly great point is his argument, made with such calm poise, that the central story in creative writing fiction, or indeed in twentieth century American literature, is the immigrant story, or the “difference story”—in which writers must, in order to embark on a fictional project at all, single themselves out from the great horde of America, and explain, implicitly or otherwise, how they are marked and separate from it, whether through culture, race, orientation, or just plain weirdness (Thomas Pynchon).
However, a reader can sympathise with McGurl’s anxiety that he has chosen a field of study none of his colleagues may respect (the pseudo-subject of creative writing), and also admire his obvious erudition, while at the same time disliking his tendency to put twentieth century writers in their place, either through a tone of “can you believe it?” wryness, or through the workshop-esque advice he offers Nabokov for improving Pale Fire.
That tone makes the book feels oddly self-contradictory, proposing one thing through argument and another through performance. As a conscious argument, McGurl explains that he admires the phenomenon of creative writing principally because it affirms the idea of a general creativity within all of us. Yet as a performance, the book is a familiar application of that worldview that often seems de rigueur in the Humanities—the Marxist faith in superstructures, false consciousness, and halfway-hidden economic forces. Individuals are always caused, in this model, by something that is not an individual, and any disagreement with or adjustment of this worldview is only more false consciousness. Hence, for me, it is hard to feel comfortable with McGurl’s amused air, as if the whole literature thing is little silly, from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison to Joe Nobody taking his hour in a classroom to answer a writing prompt. To McGurl, the field’s own interests, what he calls, “the therapy of enchantment… the aura of rarity… the supposed benefits of sympathy-training” are just ridiculous, idealisations that have “clung to and justified literature for so long.”
One might point out some of the limitations of such a scholarly worldview. It tends to privilege modern times as the only real times, as its primary interest is showing the effect of capitalism, in its many forms, upon the individual. Yet Western literature spends much of its time looking back to early modern Europe and considerably earlier periods, and as soon as we remember this, we remember that telling stories and reciting poems dates back all through recorded time. There is no need to cling to and justify this: if there is anything universal in humanity, telling stories in heightened language must be part of it. And there must surely be a good reason why we do this—why we write poems about stealing camels, about lost love, about the creation of the universe—or nothing else we do can have much worth.
Instead of testifying to a permanent condition of disadvantage in the face of physical necessity, or to the relentless humiliations exacted by social institutions, or to a perpetual process of wounding at the hands of history, “personal experience” is redeemed in this manner as a proud and vibrantly reflexive textual presence.
My response will seem overly dramatic, but there have been political movements in the recent past that would have precisely agreed with this, who considered story-telling to be mere illusion, a deceiving opiate that prevents us from getting on with the real business of making the world a better place. Many of these movements, when they put this philosophy into practice, did not maintain a good record of making the world a better place; the opposite, in fact. And while Nabokov or Philip Roth may indeed not be good examples of it, much “great” “literature” does produce a feeling that is neither the stricken worry of the liberal, nor the satisfied solipsism of the dandy, nor the unthinking hero-identification of teenage boys watching Transformers 2. Watching the climax of a play like Arcadia, or reading the final lines of the Iliad, or absorbing the singsong narration of Morrison’s Jazz, or listening to Stephen Dunn read his poems aloud, one can experience something larger than oneself, and then know that what is unreal is the self that is listening, the small angered wretched personality, not the art—the art is the real thing, reaching to one’s truest places, allowing one to make contact with, and perhaps even be, for a short time, that larger self. To feel this way is also to know that if everyone in the world could share this feeling, and keep on feeling it, then history as we know it, as we fear it, would end.
The feeling doesn’t last—it can be broken by a rude bus driver outside the theatre, or one’s lover sending a text message during the poet’s Q&A—but it is the end goal that many poets and novelists, when they have written about literature, have described. Read Shelley, read Blake. Or go to Florence, and see Michaelango’s David, that incredible thing one cannot really call a statue, more a sort of intrusion into the universe, a gleaming perfection that is surely saying something, only one is not quite sure what.
Looking at art from this angle, some of the contradictions between personal expression and hard practice become less significant. Something like David makes both of those ideas about human creativity seem too small.
Of course, this is not to claim that the apocalypse occurs every time Joe Nobody submits a story to a workshop. And there is enormous sociological interest in determining why, at this time in history, Joe is willing to pay so much money for an education not even its teachers say they believe in, and why Joe does not want to exercise his creativity in some other way, like oil painting, prayer, or—even—business or law. However, I don’t think we can fully understand Joe without starting to understand the thing that calls to him, the great legend that feeds into all the smaller myths that form and fuel our schools and resumes.
Since publishing The Program Era, Mark McGurl has become a champion of the creative writing industry and post-WW2 American fiction, defending both against critics like Elif Batumen. Living writers may feel concerned, however, to have such a luke-warm defender, who, when he tries to sum up the value of post-war fiction, describes it merely as “interesting reading.”