In The New Yorker’s current Summer Fiction issue (June 8 & 15, 2009), in an essay that is called “Can You Teach Creative Writing?” on the contents page and titled “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing be Taught?,” on the page where it begins, the critic Louis Menand makes great claims for the general excellence of contemporary American fiction. His essay springs in part from, and is in part a review of, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (Harvard, 2009). The resultant double-layered piling on of superlatives from a famous critic and quotes from a book published by a still more famous press makes it difficult to say “Wait, let’s think about this a bit more.” Still, that is what I would like to do.
The general points made by both author and reviewer seem to be (1) that, in the post-World War II era, college writing programs and writing workshops have proliferated, (2) that innumerable writers have been involved in these programs as students, teachers, or both, and (3) that American writing has risen to new heights because of them. “The rise of the creative-writing program,” McGurl is quoted as saying, “stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history.” Impressive statistics lend their weight to the argument: from a handful of programs in 1945, the number has risen to “eight hundred and twenty two” degree programs. Thirty-seven schools, it is said, now offer a Ph.D. in Creative Writing – not to mention a growing list of online PHD programs. The argument is buttressed by long lists of writers who attended various programs, met other writers who are also listed as being in attendance at the time, and then went on to teach at still other programs, where they met other writers, who taught other writers, who . . . and the beat goes on.
After a good deal of this, doubts and questions begin to insinuate themselves into the mind of a reader. If there are “eight hundred and twenty-two degree programs” shouldn’t there be at least eight hundred and twenty-two distinguished writers who teach in these programs? But the names of distinguished writers listed as associated with writing programs do not (I think—I gave up counting) amount to anywhere near that number. What do the graduates of all these programs do for a living? They teach, of course, some in famous programs and many in less famous ones. Many teach part-time in an academic market where there are far more aspirants for full-time jobs than there are funds to support them. Most writers earn nowhere near the annual incomes of the headliners and bestsellers among them: annual incomes for writers when figures are given either as averages or medians generally amount to no more than $40,000—when there is any income at all. On this point the dues structure of the Authors Guild is instructive: dues are assessed according to income from writing, and the first two categories, of four, are for writers who earn, respectively, less than $25,000 and $50,000. Try rising a family on that. A part-time teaching position begins to look pretty good. Can it be that the proliferation of writing programs is partly the response to the need for graduates of writing programs to find gainful employment while they work on books that don’t find publication, or that pay very little when they are published?
Let’s return to the question of quality. By what measure is creative writing better now than it was before1945? Many great American writers of the nineteenth century had little or no college and no tutoring in writer’s workshops. From 1900 to 1945, colleges and workshops continued to remain outside of the lives of many of our best writers. The New Yorker essay makes the point that writers seek out good writing and commonly associate with other writers, and as far as that is true, it used to be true in earlier times as well. In an era when many more people attend college than their ancestors did, it follows that those who love literature will take literature classes and that those who aspire to write will enroll in creative writing classes. It is also possible that with a total population of the United States vastly larger than it once was we now have more potential for the emergence of creative excellence. None of this means that if there is an expansion of good writing today the programs have been responsible. In the early years after 1945, Freshman English classes commonly included a unit on logical thinking that featured an explanation of the post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy, and this seems an occasion to invoke again that kind of intellectual rigor. Yes, classes in creative writing have expanded and have enrolled more students than they used to. But it does not clearly follow that better writing, if it exists now, is the result of that development.
Moreover, the evidence given in The New Yorker does not come close to supporting the idea that the writers and programs mentioned have produced a level of writing that can be compared with the work of the great writers of America’s past. On the contrary, a good argument can be made that writing programs, whatever successes they may have had in increasing the annual production of books, have not contributed much to the production of lasting literature.
A list of prose writers of our time who might be measured with some success against the best writers of earlier periods would include James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Don DeLillo, Ralph Ellison, Louise Erdrich, Jhumper Lahiri, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Toni Morison, Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, I. B. Singer, Anne Tyler, John Updike, and Eudora Welty. Most of these names are not mentioned in the lists of authors trumpeted in The New Yorker as proof of the success of creative writing classes and most have had little or nothing to do with such programs except for occasional guest appearances that came after their success, not before it. Yet these are the contemporary writers most frequently taught in present-day American literature classes and they are the ones whose works can be most easily compared in strength and beauty to the works of Hawthorne, Melville, James, Twain, Wharton, Hemingway, Faulkner and others of our illustrious past. Perhaps the best that can be said for creative writing programs is that they do little to hurt anybody and may possibly inspire a few to find the genius that lies within.