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Creative Writing Programs: Is The MFA System Corrupt And Undemocratic?

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The comparisons to the medieval guild system are obvious, ominous, ubiquitous, irrefutable, and illuminating. Apprentices, journeymen, and masters join together in solidarity to impose control over quantity and quality of production, and enforce rigid rules to exclude outsiders. The oligarchical system sustains itself with well-told myths of internal solidarity and well-timed rituals to enhance fellow-feeling. The "craft" learned in the "workshop" is a thing of mystery, passed on from master to apprentice, a hands-on learning so precious that rules of monopoly must be imposed to prevent its dilution. They have their own religion, their annual banquet, their festival spirit. Modern creative writing program, meet your origin and fate in the medieval guild system!

Just as the guild structure was socially conservative--and hence easily superseded when the more progressive market system, flourishing along with the industrial economy, came along--so is the present MFA credentialing system. Any guild system cannot but be conservative by nature. The limitations on entry, the exaction of high entrance fees, and the social distinctions inherent in the master-journeyman-apprentice division alone dictate so. All this wouldn't matter so much--we might dismiss the system as a mere method of organization--were it not for the fact that conservativeness in organization usually results in conservativeness of product as well.

Let us try to understand how the finely-tuned guild system came about in writing, explore how it operates in practice, and try to imagine conditions under which it might break up.

Just as the medieval guilds came into being as a reaction of craftsmen against the encroachments of feudal lords, to carve out a space of relative freedom for themselves, similarly modern creative writing (though early parallels such as the Iowa Writers' Workshop already existed) really took off in the 1960s, and then went into overdrive in the 1980s and 1990s. Before the 1950s, the majority of literary writers were not part of the academy; writers might sometimes teach as well, but this was not an essential condition of their identity; it was still a minority affair. The ideal was to be free of the restraint the academy, or really any institution, imposes. In 2010, literary writers not attached to the academy are so rare as to be almost nonexistent.

Why the 1960s? Why would integration of writing into academia begin to occur at the same time as the counterculture? Why not accelerated emphasis on doing it yourself? We need to think of the other side of liberalism, the mythologizing of experts and professionals, which very much went hand-in-hand with social libertarianism. The professionalization of human, spiritual, and psychic needs was very much part of the sixties scene. The AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) was founded in the late 1960s, as writers clearly saw the stresses associated with being on one's own in a culture dedicated to hyperconsumerism. The late 1970s and early 1980s became really telling--with the arrival of Ronald Reagan's cowboy militarism, writers were pushed into a corner. Nobody was safe. The culture had lost its senses. The choice was made to retreat behind the barricades as protection from the masses, and to create MFA programs all over the country, where those who were scared of the easy talk of nuclear Armageddon could take permanent refuge.

As with all other institutional developments, it is easy to tell a retrospective tale of origins and growth that makes complete sense, but this has some truth to it. In brief, writers no longer wanted to be part of the market economy. If they could create a self-sufficient guild, they would be removed from its vicissitudes. The inherently conservative nature of this impulse should be more evident now. There is glory in uniting against the abusive capitalist system. Medieval guilds were endowed with the right to combine and make their own regulations--precisely this impetus is behind the MFA system's retreat from the world of unabashed capitalism (also known as "reality" in the industrialized world).

Organizationally, the parallels to the medieval guild system are everywhere. It is the rare freelancer who can shun the creative writing guild, because he would then lack social distinction. The character of the master (the creative writing teacher), as in the medieval guild, is an indispensable element. Here we notice the emphasis on "mentorship," a different tone than the prevalent attitude towards the masters (professors) in the rest of the academy, the overarching guild that accommodates the writing guild. The character of the master should be such that he brings along the apprentice (the MFA student) and even the journeyman (the writing teacher) into the rules of social solidarity upon which the system thrives.

It is not enough to learn the "craft" (the techniques of creative writing, such as "show don't tell," "write what you know," "find your own voice," "kill all your darlings," etc.) but to learn how to put yourself in the shoes of the master should the need arise. What are the ethics of the master when he is approached by an apprentice? How does he evaluate his potential to be a contributing member of the guild? If the master were indisposed, can the journeyman fill his shoes without a noticeable difference in ethical standards?

Let's get more into these standards--what exactly are they? Good conduct for medieval guild masters was extremely important for the maintenance of reputation vis-à-vis the outside world, and without this credibility the guilds would have fallen apart in no time. Freelance craftsmen would have found it easy to identify individual buyers, and the whole system would have collapsed. With the guild product, you had the guarantee of a certain quality. In terms of the character of the master/journeyman/apprentice, what you get--as a cost of removing writing from the hurly-burly world of rude market principles--is a certain tame, politically correct liberalism (universally in effect throughout the American creative writing guild now), which makes appropriate, but extremely subdued, noises about political depredations. Actually, it does not accommodate a political worldview of any consistency and significance, and so the protests are diffuse, vague, honorable, and inarticulate to the point of utter irrelevance. That is very much part of the social bargain whereby writers are "left alone" to implement their craft, as opposed to being harassed or hounded out of existence; they get their NEA and Guggenheim fellowships, and everyone is happy since the power equations in society remain undisturbed.

So we have the profession of faith, the participation in fraternity, and the declaration of oath to the principles of social conduct in the MFA guild. Along with the watered-down politically correct liberalism, the master, journeyman, and apprentice alike should express in public their modesty, their lack of divine inspiration (otherwise the system couldn't sell itself as being able to teach craft), and the predominance of sheer luck and fortuitousness in any success they've had. They should always say that their writing career just happened; it certainly wasn't planned from the very beginning. Such an attitude might scare away potential apprentices (MFA applicants) for implying very high levels of awareness, which they may not possess. The system is utterly undemocratic, once one is a member of the guild, toward the outside world, but for it to survive in today's politically correct world, it must always present itself as the quintessence of democracy (everyone can learn writing, given enough application and discipline--at least we can make you competent, we can teach you the rules of the game, we can save you years of heartache from going it alone and making avoidable mistakes).

But it is an undemocratic system from the inside, just as the medieval guild system was, despite expressions of social solidarity among the chosen fraternity. Certain über-masters (Antonya Nelson, Heather McHugh, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Lan Samantha Chang, Philip Levine, Charles Baxter, Donald Hall, Marilynne Robinson, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, Robert Pinsky, Robert Olen Butler, Jane Hirshfield, Tim O'Brien, Tobias Wolff, etc.) exercise disproportionate control over the distribution of rewards and honors. Woe betide any journeyman, let alone an apprentice, who crosses one of them! It is easy to displease an über-master by getting too big for one's britches--by wishing to undertake political writing, for instance, or violating the narcissistic confessionalism of fiction writing or the pseudo-liberalism of the "poetry of witness" we hear so much about these days. Actually, the whole point of early workshop humiliation (masquerading as instructive peer commentary) is to weed out any such troublemakers from finishing their period of apprenticeship, so in reality outright challenges to the authority of the masters must be rare indeed. The system measures its success by the frequency of non-events.

Social distinction, like with any guild system, is rife. There are MFA programs and then there are MFA programs--the elite on the one hand, the mere go-getters and wannabes on the other hand. Iowa, Michigan, Columbia, NYU, Brown, Hopkins, Texas, Cornell, Irvine, Houston, etc. rule the roost. There was a great brouhaha recently about a journeyman's attempt to rank MFA programs in Poets & Writers magazine according to input from potential apprentices as opposed to evaluations by journeymen and masters themselves; obviously such prospective evaluation couldn't be allowed. There are those star apprentices who get recruited by agents early on, thanks to the support of concerned masters, and there are those who, no matter how hard they try, can never get such attention. There are those to whom the multicultural veneer--and this mode of expression proliferates into many social niches--comes more easily than to others, and such apprentices and journeymen find rapid and early success, toward becoming potential masters one day.

There are the MFA graduates, and then there are the MFA/PhDs--the latter a growing subset, a sure way to social distinction, and having your poetry manuscript plucked from one out of a thousand entered in a "contest." Apprentices must undergo plenty of hardship (or what substitutes for it in the unreal world of the guild) by teaching a lot of classes, and putting up with a lot of stupidity from sub-apprentices (undergraduates with an interest in writing who may one day want to be full-fledged apprentices) to prove their mettle to the masters. The guild is self-governing, and masters theoretically have equal rights. Masters may be fiercely, resentfully, insanely competitive with one another, but this may never be expressed publicly; yet it is clear to the members of the guild which masters are on the rise and which are going down. It is better to anticipate the waves of the future, to be on the good side of the ascendant masters.

The system is profoundly undemocratic when it comes to the quality of the product it engenders, and its relentless crushing of any incipient freelance competition. There is an undeclared boycott in place with the famous residencies, conferences, and awards, and non-guild members need not apply (unless they want to waste their fifty or hundred dollars in application fees). Yaddo, MacDowell, Bread Loaf, etc. among the residencies/conferences, and the well-known awards/fellowships/grants committees do not welcome outsiders. There is a de facto ban, though probably, with the minute number of writers outside the guild these days, it is something they have to worry about less and less. The same is true of the Stanford Stegner fellowship, and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center fellowship, which absolutely exclude those not already privileged enough to be members of the guild. You may pay a few thousand dollars to attend Bread Loaf as a "paying contributor" and soak in the mystery surrounding the über-masters, but you may never become a scholar/fellow/waiter unless you are a certified member of the guild. Yaddo and MacDowell simply will not admit you, even if you have published well, because you will not have the necessary recommendations from über-masters to get you into such places. There is the phenomenon of the roving and repeated fellowship recipient--the few people who seem to go from Provincetown to Stanford to Ucross to Wisconsin to Virginia to everywhere else--as though to hold up to apprentices a model of the hyper-diligent medal recipient. Rather than spreading the wealth around, to concentrate so many awards in a few chosen people year after year holds up these apprentices for imitation of how to work the masters' favor.

This is all in defense of the economic aims of the guild, whose articulation can be found in Poets & Writers, which is a perfect chronicle of the economic principles at work. First, the quotation of first lines of recently published books (along with names of agents, editors, and publicists) by favored journeymen, then valorization of small presses and little magazines and independent bookstores as though they were the drivers of the engine rather than mere appurtenances, the inspirational stories (often from utterly marginal apprentices) to emphasize the democracy of talent, the workshop-style interpretation of a modern master by a journeyman to locate it in the tradition of craft, the interview with the editor or agent which further elaborates the "mystery" (can one learn it in workshop?) inherent in acquisition decisions, and then on to the relentless business of how to get from modest apprentice to having your book's first line be quoted at the beginning of some future issue of the magazine, i.e., the listing of contests and awards and how to send your twenty or thirty or fifty dollars to entitle yours to be one among a thousand manuscripts to be screened by journeymen and finally picked by some über-master for publication.

It might be called "restraint of trade" in modern terms, due to the monopoly of craft exercised by the guild. We are talking about a house style, a uniform product literary magazines (generally affiliated with writing programs) and so-called "independent presses" can buy without hesitation. All this churning activity is predicated on the continuous generation of the MFA house style. In fiction it means generally apolitical, domesticated narrative that remains willfully ignorant of modernism (the highbrow style doesn't work with the guild's self-presentation), leaning strongly toward the confessional, memoiristic, autobiographical, narcissistic, and plainly understood. The same qualities apply in poetry--the standard workshop poem is a narrative or associative slight effort, taking off from the quotidian, to rest in an uneasy or understated epiphany. There is also a language poetry subcomponent, but this has its own utterly predictable rules (the language poets think the lyric and narrative poets are closet fascists, yet they are blind to their own brand of conservatism).

One outcome of the craft monopoly is the extreme specialization among writers. Almost nobody writes in multiple genres--you do lyrical poetry based in a particular place, or creative nonfiction dealing with illness, or surrealistic short-shorts, or hillbilly novellas, or whatever. You do not cross boundaries as a poet into fiction or vice-versa, or, horror of horrors, from poetry into criticism or fiction into criticism. "Literary" writing (choked with metaphors, abstracted from political reality, and overwritten in that peculiarly self-conscious writerly style) is set in opposition to genre writing, merely commercial writing, since part of the mystery of the guild is that it is not aiming for commercial success. Lately, however, the MFA system has started to adopt genre writing, giving it a literary twist, as an accommodation to apprentices soaked in the principles of genre writing; it had to happen sooner or later.

It is in the interest of the mystery of the guild to banish criticism altogether, and they have pretty much succeeded, reducing criticism to glowing, one hundred percent positive 700-1,200-word blurbs masquerading as reviews in the back pages of literary quarterlies, when they are allowed in at all. A new genre of "criticism" has arisen--one hesitates to call it that, since it doesn't meet the definition of criticism, but is rather hollow hagiographic appreciation (something like what criticism used to be in the pre-scientific days, before New Criticism), often written by one master in praise of another. This can be found in journals like American Poetry Review, and is fairly close in language and style to the "craft workshops" taught at conferences like Bread Loaf and Sewanee, getting into the nuts and bolts of fiction or poetry by popular contemporary masters without imposing any rigorous discipline of literary knowledge upon the learner.

The MFA house style is integrally connected with the conditions of production under the guild system; uniformity of product, and severe control over its amount, is essential for the guild to maintain mystery about itself, and without mystery there can be no exclusion of gate-crashers. Not only is the product uniform, but its quantity must be small. Writers cannot be allowed to be prolific--Joyce Carol Oates and T. C. Boyle mess up this paradigm for everyone. Hence the MFA fetish of constant revision--as undergraduates in my day used to talk about how many all-nighters they'd pulled, apprentices, journeymen, and masters these days exaggerate the number of drafts they wrote before daring to publish the book (Twenty! Fifty! A hundred!). This is cause for bragging rights; the more drafts, the more committed the writer declares himself to execution of craft.

In a recent (May/June 2010) Poets & Writers, Ben Percy talks about hearing from Fiona McCrae of Graywolf Press after submitting a novel; the editor wanted him to radically revise the novel, including changing the point of view and adding six different subplots. Happy to oblige, Percy accomplished the task, and then started all over again, when the editor requested further fundamental changes. The writer must never, ever complain about revision; he must only express unqualified gratitude for it. It is the one thing that guarantees democracy of membership: genius is inspirational, it strikes when we don't expect it, it is limited to the rare elect; but revision is accessible to everyone. The guild can keep forever expanding, as long as revision keeps the upper hand. Percy begins and ends his article by talking about buying an ugly house with good bones and rebuilding it to his satisfaction; the whole piece perfectly illustrates the extended metaphor of meticulous craft practiced in workshop conditions.

But the economic aims of the MFA guild would be unrealizable without its social aims, which perpetuate solidarity. All the rituals of medieval guilds can be found in their modern versions here. There is the annual bacchanal, the AWP gathering (with almost 10,000 assembled craft practitioners), which celebrates pedagogy and publication and prestige. Here the social distinctions are manifest, among über-masters, ordinary masters, preferred journeymen, struggling journeymen, and apprentices with widely divergent pedigrees of popularity. The apprentices, of course, constitute the overwhelming number of attendees, so the ritual gathering becomes a celebration above all of the potential of apprentices to aspire to higher levels. There is the vast bookfair at the AWP, the huge exhibition a tangible expression of production--despite harsh controls over quantity of output, the overall output is large enough to shun market forces. These days there is an explicit recognition that only poets buy other poets' work (except for Mary Oliver and Billy Collins), and if a small number of books is sold that way, that is enough to go on. Journeymen conduct panels where they are duly modest, democratic, politically correct, and multiculturally astute. Readings accommodate every apprentice, of however modest talent--this is one of the inborn rights of apprenticeship, to be able to read to an appreciative audience.

The modern reading was initiated by Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg's high performative art. To listen to a recording of Ginsberg reading "America" in 1956 is to hear the echoes of a dream that has died; gone is the revolutionary, or even anti-establishment, potential of the reading; it functions these days not to stir or provoke or enlighten or anger or frustrate or cajole, but as an endorsement of the democracy of talent, and that alone. Writers as stand-up comedians, seeking desperately to hold the audience's attention, to get its love and approval, are not a pretty sight. But the ritual purpose is well-served, and it is an extension of the ultimate justification of MFA programs: this too is a space for apprentices to develop themselves without criticism of their essential identities in the company of peers, that is, removed from the tribulations of the marketplace. No major foreign writers are invited at AWP, and they're typically not part of what we think of as the national reading circuit, stopping at bookstores, universities, and auditoriums across the country. I haven't seen Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Kenzaburo Oe or Chinua Achebe as keynote speakers at AWP, have you? No, it is typically some über-master (2010: Michael Chabon) who must at all times, in front of apprentices, declaim modesty and commitment to the common religion. Note too that most of the durable writing in this country is by writers either only peripherally or not at all associated with MFA programs--Tom Perrotta, Dana Spiotta, Laila Halaby, Joseph O'Neill, for example--but these are not who we think of as über-masters presiding over the AWP banquet. In any event, after some success, incorporation into the guild and employment as journeyman is all but inevitable for almost everyone who has had even modest success in the marketplace; the guild is eager to remove such authentic literary writers from the marketplace as soon as possible, to eliminate the competition.

The medieval guild was deeply rooted in its local community (the rise of industrial capitalism was a
nationalist movement, and precisely the locality of the guild was merchants' bete noir); it is part of its prestige, its aura, its mystery, its honorable secrecy. MFA programs follow the local orientation. They are diligent about performing readings in the local community. Creative writers perform a number of "community" functions: teaching at local schools and prisons, organizing local festivals at a small level, and instructing adults or school children, that is, those without aspirations to becoming full-fledged apprentices, as a mark of honor. It is a necessary act of philanthropy, as is the peculiarly local flavor each major MFA program acquires over time, so that the flow of writers in and out of the program is supposed to be a boon to the community, which may come and join in appreciation of the invited masters and be a part of the ongoing celebrations from time to time.

Are there natural limits to the creative writing guild system? What are its prospects for the future, and is there any chance that the guild might collapse of its own weight? The answer seems to be that given present political and social conditions, there appear to be few natural limits to how far it can expand. The writing guild's opposition to literature departments comes in very handy--in recent years, the guild has been preferred by many who would previously have gone into the study or teaching of literature or other humanities, since the intellectual requirements (to write a memoir of illness or dysfunction, or a story, which these days is more or less indistinguishable from memoir) are minimal, compared to, say, writing a dissertation on Chaucer or Wittgenstein. So the writing guild is rapidly eating into the rest of the humanities, and at the MFA level, it is very profitable too. It somehow humanizes the whole university.

A really depressing fact is that in the last few years the MFA house style has been finding increasing acceptance among the major New York publishing houses. It is one thing to talk about a renaissance in the American short story (is there really?) confronted with stacks of unread literary journals, and another thing for major houses to put out books by journeymen who have mastered competency but lack any trace of genius; it seems another way to kill the American short story. Yet some journeymen have ascended to truly great heights recently--Wells Tower would be a good example of someone in complete mastery of the house style, who works commercially as well, because of the minimal demands he places on the reader's attention. Reading him is like taking in a horror movie of relentless brutality that leaves one feeling rather complacent because at least one possesses basic human emotions. In poetry, the talentless journeymen Michael and Matthew Dickman might be apt examples of favored stars, whom the masters--and their friends in the New York publishing and reviewing communities--have decided must ascend to the top.

The inauguration of such stars comes with the grandiose gestures familiar from the old Hollywood studio system (the Dickman brothers received a New Yorker profile). Three or four of these stars-in-the-making are necessary every year to keep hope alive among the legions of apprentices and journeymen that fame and fortune can be theirs too. The major publishers have become part of the grand bargain by accepting that so-called literary fiction has a minimal audience anyway, so they might as well go with the chosen stars (getting into the Best New American Voices, a celebration of workshops, pretty much guarantees a contract by a significant publisher), so that their commitment to literature may remain unquestioned, and the book in question at least generate some minimal level of sales (all those famished apprentices), awards, recognition, reviews, buzz, etc.

The medieval guild system collapsed in the end because its exclusivity, control, and mystery didn't accord well with the rise of the industrial system. It was a transitional phase between feudalism and capitalism, allowing relatively pleasant, even sometimes leisurely, space for creativity. It was a retreat from barbarism into a predetermined aesthetic zone. When a greater system, with all-embracing aspirations, came to the fore, the guild system died--although it survived in some forms, primarily the university guild, and its vestiges can be seen in labor unions. Yet recall that the MFA guild system was carved out of an already existing fully omnivorous postmodern capitalist system, so it has already, in a sense, confronted its own worst enemy (the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon militarist/capitalist/liberal state with extreme emphasis on professionalization of all aspects of life, and its predictable even worse successors) and dealt with it. So collapse on those terms is unforeseeable. In fact, all the present trends in publishing--certainly the rise of digital publishing--herald continued strength for the MFA guild.

Again, the most important thing about this discussion is the socially conservative writing that results from the socially conservative organization of the literary writing guild. In thinking of an analogy for the medieval guildmen as they related to the Counter-Reformation, we might think of the rise of the creative writing programs at precisely the time of the Reagan ascendancy, when liberalism with a commitment to even the mildest redistributionist philosophy went into permanent retreat. A new kind of conservative writing--Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Amy Hemphill, Mary Robison--became ascendant at the time. A continuous Inquisition has been in place in American cultural life, and certainly in the writing guild, ever since then, and the writing product is shaped by that. In essence, the writing guild makes it possible for apprentices to internalize the principles of the Inquisition. One is made to feel guilty and ashamed if writing compels one to move toward areas forbidden by the Inquisition. Workshop humiliation is very much part of this enforcement of Inquisition rules; it is astonishing to notice--even at the undergraduate, non-guild level--how quickly students acquire these principles of writerly conduct, and rake their fellows over the coals for the minutest transgressions ("You switched point of view in the story, you're not allowed to do that!"). One quickly becomes invested in the Inquisition; the advice manuals written by the masters convey these gently, in the guise of techniques of writing, but the social principle behind them is manifest.

Talent, in the modern writing guild, has been discounted; it is craft that counts. When the writing guild was in its infancy, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, one heard of arbitrary, cruel, even violent masters, legendary for their drinking, womanizing, and sheer idiosyncrasy. These have been snuffed out. Now the code of conduct proscribes any such flouting of the rules for even the most accomplished master.

The system is in a very fine state of consolidation. All writing produced under the guild system has the dual purpose of not only functioning as writing but also as social manifesto for the guild system which produced such writing; this is the dual aspect in which we must read today's acclaimed master fiction writers and poets. The apprentice produces a "masterpiece"--a chief d'oevre--to pass muster and receive the license to teach--the ius docendi--upon conclusion of his period of training in the workshop. This signifies adherence to standards of production, and forever after, as a journeyman and perhaps as a master himself, he must not deviate from these standards. The master always retains the right of correction--the ius corrigendi of the medieval guilds--to guarantee quality; there is an infinitely intricate system of withholding rewards and recognition from deviants.

(Originally appeared in Fall 2010 Boulevard magazine)

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