12/02/2010 08:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can Writing Be Taught? The Systems-Theory Rationalizations Of An Insider

In his book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard University Press), Mark McGurl takes a broad look at creative writing programs as they have flourished in the postwar era, using a systems-theory perspective. He is constrained, however, by his functional apparatus to justify existing literary production as the best possible under the given parameters. If MFA programs are popular and expanding and producing prodigious amounts of writing, then this is what the system has ordained, and it can only be for the good. His systems-theory analysis is simultaneously too broad and too narrow, meaningless in either case. The real importance of the book is that it suggests the deep inroads the creative writing industry has made into the architecture of the academy, and the difficulty of critiquing it from the outside.

Behind McGurl's fancy charts and diagrams is the simplistic idea that because the program era exists, it does so because it serves a useful function; it's easy to see how the creative writing industry would distort his conclusions to serve its parochial needs. However, there are enough contradictions within McGurl's tome to shred his own thesis.

Three major trends, "technomodernism," "high cultural pluralism," and "lower-middle-class modernism" define for Mark McGurl postwar fiction under the domination of the now 350 creative writing university programs, in what he calls the "Program Era." The Program era is supposed to be egalitarian and systemic, as opposed to the elitist, genius-presuming "Pound Era." All are forms of "autopoetics" (self-referring authorship). In his systems-theory analysis, McGurl sets boundaries to answer only what kind of writing is being produced. He states disinterest in judging the quality of the writing, or its political consequences.

McGurl's categories are problematic, muddied as they are by cultural realities exceeding his systemic bounds. What McGurl considers lower-middle-class modernism (established by Raymond Carver) is actually middle-class anomie. The Program Era does not produce working-class fiction. McGurl shuns the hard questions about social influences. Is there more homogeneity in the class origins of program recruits than McGurl allows? Despite appearances to the contrary, do Sandra Cisneros and Jhumpa Lahiri produce the same restricted type of fiction? To understand autopoetics' independent basis outside the academy, McGurl would need to expand his system to the point of meaninglessness, encompassing everything.

Creative writing does not equal writing as we have known it in the past. It is a new form of writing. The rise of the Program Era is the single most important influence shaping American writing. However, it's possible that over time the massive output of the Program Era will vanish, superseded by the writing of those untouched by the programs' mediocre excellence (or excellent mediocrity). It is possible to make the Program Era's influence too inclusive. McGurl considers a program writer anyone who attended college (Updike, though he shunned teaching), taught writing secondarily (Philip Roth), or taught after being established (Toni Morrison). A different ranking would result if we separated those (like Bellow, Mailer, DeLillo, Pynchon) who aren't quintessential teachers. The ubiquitous campus novel is a way to expunge the academy's discipline, not the harmless exchange of energies McGurl presumes. Depending on the academy for a steady paycheck is not the only way to survive. Possibly the uniform model has emerged because of talentless people afraid to independently carve out a broad career in letters as used to be the case.

McGurl doesn't talk about publishing or sales, and he considers only fiction. This is for a reason. The Program Era may not be in steady state equilibrium, as McGurl implies, but may have reached homeostasis. Essential feedback mechanisms are blocked, and the programs are indifferent to markets. Program poetry has explicitly stated its disinterest in broad readership. It's never entirely clear what lies within McGurl's system boundaries. If McGurl had performed a systems analysis on "theory," i.e., literature departments, the articulation would be different but the results, in terms of pluralistic indifference, would be similar. "Systematic creativity," contra McGurl, is still a contradiction in terms, though his whole brief is to argue against old-fashioned uncreated genius and the self-taught nature of great art.

McGurl denies interest in the "pros and cons" of creative writing teaching, but his definition of creativity as whatever the system produces is a moral judgment. This moral disinterest leads to a quagmire in his tripartite historical scheme to understand the last century of American writing. The three-part division is based on the three paradigmatic dicta of "write what you know" (dominant in the 1920s, embodied in experience, and exemplified by Tom Wolfe), "show don't tell" (dominant in the 1950s, embodied in craft, and exemplified by Flannery O'Connor), and "find your own voice" (dominant after the 1960s, embodied in creativity, and exemplified by Toni Morrison). But these three neat divisions are meaningless, since in practice the programs follow all three simultaneously. The first two, "write what you know," relying on experience, and "show don't tell," relying on craft (improvement by subtraction, limitation, elimination, i.e., less is more), have been retained, even intensified, along with "find your own voice."

McGurl's benign posture overlooks the toxicity in the system. His separation of self-expression from self-discipline breaks down upon inspection, so what we have is masochistic expression. Writing that reaches a broad audience (Updike, et al.) does not abide by "creative writing" rules. The academy is obsessed with the authority to speak (one can only write about one's own people; the use of imagination is forbidden). This is a negative consequence of "find your own voice." "Show don't tell" leads to abjuring history, because modernist narrative is proscribed. "Write what you know" leads to solipsism. All three operate intersectingly today, contradicting McGurl's presumption of a dynamically evolving system. The programs' recent reconciliation with genre fiction might have occurred because it's easiest for creative writers. McGurl mocks Joyce Carol Oates's revisionless prolificity ("useless as a model"); the cult of revision follows from pseudo-egalitarianism ("diverse aesthetic democracy"), the denial of genius. Minimalism (fiction stripped to verbal basics, shunning flourish and style), and McGurl's alternative category of miniaturism, are not so much genuine artistic movements as system grotesqueries imitating theory, creative writing's opposite ravenous beast. Literature departments and writing programs are corrupted by the same forces. Minimalism, like theory, is a form of obscurity.

McGurl designates creative writing as part of the liberal arts branch of the university, but doesn't view the university from a transcendent stance as ideological instrument. Creative writing revels in the social engineering clichés of the moment; its three major directives instruct the student to be apolitical. Each dictum enforces masochistic self-disciplining (creative writers celebrate revision, pain, editing, slowness, scant productivity, socialization, teamwork), recursively forming the system's objectives. How much of creative writing is dynamic two-way flow, and how much is imposed by the system's needs? Self-imposed limitations are only accelerating with the system's exponential growth and complexity, further constraining expression, not liberating it. Armchair revolutionizing in theory and lacerating discipline in creative writing flourish in parallel streams.

McGurl eventually betrays his anxieties toward writing (exactly echoing the academy's anxieties). He buys into authenticity (excoriating Ken Kesey's appropriation of a Native American voice). He loathes Kay Boyle's revolutionary politics. Authenticity (as opposed to fantasy) is the ultimate self-limitation. Why is the university so invested in imposing this discipline? "Voice" equals strictly private voice, not a universal voice. The directive to "find your own voice" is rhetorical anyway (commercial publishing doesn't abide radical politics of any kind); it serves conformism to reigning social platitudes, whereas McGurl takes it at face value. Voice does not equal cultural difference.

McGurl's third differentiation, shame (the diffident minimalism of Carver) versus pride (the exuberant, expressive, excessive maximalism of Oates), completely exposes the fracture. Minimalism, the "discourse of beautiful shame," for McGurl "seems to have no politics." But the categories are interchangeable; we might just as easily argue for shame as maximalism, as we might for pride as minimalism. Can't Vonnegut's minimalism be seen as pride? Can't Updike's maximalism be seen as shame? Besides, the dominant value in creative writing for the last two decades has been neither shame nor pride, but grief, spilling over into memoir. There is no true maximalism in America (unlike Grass or Rushdie's); it remains a subset of minimalism (and minimalist politics), so McGurl's "affective dialectic of shame and pride" is false. Sandra Cisneros, as McGurl points out, easily switched from minimalism (House on Mango Street) to maximalism (Caramelo); it's because both reflect the same defeated spirit.

Stripped of the jargon and diagrams, McGurl's book boils down to these assertions: only the imitable are taught, silence equals resistance, only affiliation is possible, the literary field equals the university, cultural pluralism reigns, all writers are self-commodifying, self-doubters like R. V. Cassill and Ronald Sukenick display 'facile tendentiouness," and standardization is unavoidable.
A counterargument would stress that the greatest learning is derived from the inimitable, silence betrays cowardice, disaffiliation and indie culture give the lie to the unavoidability of affiliation, the literary field exists in many sites other than the academy, self-victimization is the reigning philosophy, program writers are more self-commodifying than the disaffiliated, the system purges internal feedback from dissenters, and the end of excellence is well in sight.

(A version of this review appears in Southern Humanities Review)