Probably you don't need to read this New Yorker article, Show or Tell, by Louis Menand unless you're thinking about applying to a creative writing program somewhere. Or you're already attending a creative writing program. Or you attended one. Or you taught at one.
Probably the same goes for this post which if I was in a creative writing program and it was being workshopped would have people shouting at me, Why are you putting your readers off with your opening? You should be drawing them in, not pushing them away!
And I'd sit back smugly in my chair and fold my arms and shake my head at how good everybody else was at missing the point and wait for one of my friends to come to my defense. "Don't you get it? How he's establishing a mood of alienation? The narrator is full of such self-loathing that he can't be bothered to care about his own thoughts. Readers are going to want to know. How does a guy become that boring to himself? It's a fascinating question. And it sets up the ending perfectly where he decides to order the hash browns with his eggs and not the blueberry pancakes."
Actually, nobody ever shouted at anybody in the workshops I was in at Iowa. We were a very polite bunch. Teachers and staff remarked upon it. "You don't hate each other at all. What's wrong with you?"
And I never sat back smugly when my stories were being discussed or wrote a story with an ending that relied on readers finding deep meaning in a main character's breakfast order at a diner. All my stories ended with hearts broken, bodies dead on the ground, and thieves making off into the night with their ill-gotten booty. And their ill-booten gotty. But I did have to read and comment on a lot of stories that ended with the equivalent of the symbolic import of those hash browns.
Everybody in the Workshop those two years read and loved Raymond Carver but me.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch.
Menand is reviewing a book by Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing , a literary survey of the last seventy or so years that attempts to trace the effects of creative writing programs on the shape, direction, fads, and styles of American fiction. Menand, though, seems more interested in the questions, can people be taught how to write and if not (the answer he leans towards) what good are workshops?
Ok. Someone taught Shakespeare the form of a sonnet. No one taught him how to be a genius within the form.
People can be taught to write. Have been taught to write. It's been going on for centuries. The Greeks started it. Students can learn to write with craft, intelligence, and persuasive effect. They can be taught proper grammar and usage, spelling and punctuation. They can be taught how to organize a paragraph, how to structure an argument, how to evaluate evidence and bring it to bear in support of their points. They can be taught how to use all the rhetorical devices. They can be taught forms. They can even be taught what has worked well within those forms and why it has worked, and the cleverer among them can learn how to mimic those successes for their own purposes.
Students who aren't tone deaf can train their ears to hear the music behind the language. They can train their eyes to see more and see more clearly. They can increase their vocabularies, break the habit of employing cliches, develop the knack for timely quotation and allusion. They can broaden their frames of reference.
They can't be taught to have talent or to think originally, but they can be taught skills without which, no matter how much talent or originality they possessed, they would be effectively mute.
But all that should have been taught and learned before they were halfway through high school. And almost none of it gets brought up again in creative writing programs even though it's often the case that many students did not in fact learn those skills and lessons, at least not to the point of having mastered them.
That doesn't mean that no teaching or learning goes on in these programs.
As I said, someone taught Shakespeare how to write a sonnet. No one taught him how to write brilliantly when he was writing sonnets. But it's likely that someone along the way said something to him that flipped a switch in his brain and turned on his genius.
There's a scene in Shakespeare in Love in which Will sits down at a bar with a slightly drunken Christopher Marlowe to talk shop. Up to this point in the movie, Will's been what Shakespeare was in real life at the same point in his life, a talented hack, skilled at turning out historical melodramas and slapstick comedies and with a knack for ripping off other writers and making their old stale stuff sell like new. Marlowe is the genius. But he gives Will an offhand piece of advice about his play, which is about pirates, and almost all at once Will knows how to rewrite the play into Romeo and Juliet.
Did it happen like that? Sure, why not? Shakespeare and Marlowe knew each other. A young and smart writer like Shakespeare would have been paying close attention to whatever Kit Marlowe had to say about poetry and playwriting.
After a certain point, good writers become their own best teachers. They teach themselves how to be better writers and, if they are also natural teachers, they can explain how they did it to students who may or may not benefit from following their example.
Marlowe may or may not have tried to teach Shakespeare a lesson in writing. But almost certainly he would have said something that Shakespeare could have used to teach himself.
What he needed from Marlowe, then, was his company.
And that's what creative writing programs offer. The company of other writers.
Writers need each other's company, for moral support if for nothing else. A while back I wrote about how Richard Yates went to France hoping to find there what Hemingway and Fitzgerald found there. The problem was that one of the best things Hemingway and Fitzgerald found in France was each other's company. In Paris, Yates was just as all alone as a writer as he'd been in New York. He had no one to learn from but himself, and, since he didn't like himself very much, his classes tended to be rather tense and depressing.
Meanwhile, back in America, at around the same time Yates was moping about New York and dreaming of Paris, Wallace Stegner was setting up shop at Stanford and Flannery O'Connor was finishing up at Iowa.
I'm not saying Yates would have been happy, or productive, at Iowa or Stanford or another creative writing program. Just that the company of other writers was more available to him closer to home.
The teaching that goes on at creative writing programs occurs haphazardly outside the classroom, in the conversations students have with each other in bars, in the aisles of bookstores, on long walks around town, on the floors of apartments, in bed.
This is the best thing about writers' workshops. Every night for one or two years there is the possibility that you will blunder upon the opportunity Will Shakespeare had, of sitting down at a bar next to a slightly drunken fellow writer who will happen to say something that flips a switch in your brain that will turn on your genius.
Of course, just because it could happen doesn't mean it will happen.
But it's far likelier to happen in a bar in a town that's home to a creative writing program than anywhere else.
Now, here's the problem.
Students at creative writing programs are learning from each other all the time. But what are they learning?
According to Menand, they aren't learning to write well. They are learning to write what is fashionable well. This is what McGurl's looks at in The Program Era, what has been fashionable and how fiction writing programs have responded to and shaped those fashions.
I went off to Iowa full up to my eyeballs with the works of Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Herman Melville, only to find that just about every other fiction writer there was only interested in what was in the New Yorker that week. My pal Miller was the only one there who'd read a word Richard Yates had written. My friend Ed was a fan of Peter Taylor and Scott Fitzgerald. My friend Ann was wild about Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. When the four of us tried to talk about our favorites in a workshop, other students could barely stifle their yawns.
Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason were the literary heroes of the day.
Minimalism was the fashion.
You'll notice that among my literary heroes of the time there's nobody who could be by any stretch described as a minimalist.
The upshot of this was that one of the lessons I learned at Iowa was that Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason were my mortal enemies.
I set about teaching myself to write what was not fashionable which is another way of saying that I taught myself how to write what was not publishable.
Even Shakespeare had to write what was fashionable in order to make money.
We don't know why Shakespeare retired from London when he did, but I don't think it's a coincidence that he gave up playwriting at the same time the fashion had changed. The fairy tales he was turning out at the end of his career have nothing in common with the blood and sex soaked melodramas that were the rage of the Jacobean and Caroline theater and he probably didn't have much interest in---and no financial need for--rehashing perversities he'd dealt with in Titus Andronicus twenty odd years before.
Fashions come and go. That's practically the definition of the word. It's not really a criticism of creative writing programs to say that they teach what is fashionable. It's just something prospective students need to be aware of.
What I'm wondering though is if creative writing programs do teach what is fashionable anymore.
As far as I know, every reputable fiction writing program in the country operates as if there is only one kind of fiction writing, the kind that is sometimes called literary fiction, often called serious fiction, the kind that might be better called domestic realism, the kind that is not mystery writing or science fiction or romance, the kind that does not sell and that relatively few people read.
The fashion has changed, significantly.
Steve Kuusisto has a somewhat demoralizing post up called Why the Novel Isn't Dead Exactly. In it he includes an extended quote from Gore Vidal delivering the bad news that there are no more famous novelists anymore nor are there likely to be again:
How can a novelist be famous--no matter how well known he may be personally to the press?--if the novel itself is of little consequence to the civilized, much less to the generality? The novel as teaching aid is something else, but hardly famous.
There is no such thing as a famous novelist now, any more than there is such a thing as a famous poet. I use the adjective in the strict sense. According to authority, to be famous is to be much talked about, usually in a favorable way. It is as bleak and inglorious as that. Yet thirty years ago, novels were actually read and discussed by those who did not write them or, indeed, even read them. A book could be famous then but today's public seldom mentions a book unless, like The Da Vinci Code, it is being metamorphosed into a faith-challenging film.
But this isn't quite true, is it? J.K. Rowling and her books are famous in the way Vidal says novelists and novels used to be famous, nevermind the success of the Harry Potter movies. Terry Pratchett---Sir Terry Pratchett---is famous. I'd say Neil Gaiman's on the cusp.
Is Stephen King still famous?
I don't know if it's the case, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is, but if you're a young writer looking for the company of other writers and you're full up to the eyeballs with the work of Rowling or Pratchett or Gaiman or King, or of any fantasy and science fiction writers, my guess is you aren't going to get admitted to a creative writing program, no matter how well you've learned all those lessons I mentioned above.
I don't know where I thought I was going with this post. I had a great time at Iowa, despite the fashions of the time. I wish I could have been more open-minded. It probably would have been good for me if I could have read Carver's short stories without resenting the hell out of them.
I might have learned something.
Hat tip to Maud Newton.
Related: Jaquandor takes a Book Quiz.