Creative writing

Elif Batuman is a Turkish-American writer who opted to study literature rather than creative writing. A couple of years ago she reviewed Mark McGurl’s study of the MFA writing ‘Programme’:

Here are a couple of links for the defence, from a creative writing professor and McGurl himself:

As readers of literary magazines can attest, the establishment of the master’s as a station on the way of the aspiring American author has led to a body of work that dots every politically correct (post-colonial, feminist, post-realist) ‘i’ and crosses every stylistic ‘t’, but has no life behind it. Fredric Jameson’s altogether more sympathetic and arid recent review of the paperback edition of McGurl, also in the LRB, fleetingly mentions “the increasingly self-centred and obsessively reflexive cast of this literary production”, only to defend it as a “colonisation of subjectivity, its transformation into new experience(s)”. Ouch! But education, in the school of life or the academy, isn’t about turning inward. You have to have something to write about. “Show don’t tell”, “find your voice” and the like are no more than practical maxims to avoid egregious unwriterliness(es) — for instance, didacticism or pastiche. Once adopted as a programme of indoctrination, they are a recipe for uniform vapidity, however sensible they might be as rules of thumb (or ladders to be thrown away) while we remember that they are just other writers’ prejudices. Batuman is witty about this and also about meeting real, oversized Russians while writing her thesis.

It also depends what you are trying to do. Jameson analyses how such prescriptions, when taken as a programme, favour a whole literary approach. But that is the opposite of fresh and innovative. For example, a writer might be more interested in his characters’ voices than his own. Of course an author is no more a ventriloquist than a great pianist is, but it’s in the attempt to be faithful interpreters of Mozart and Beethoven that Brendel and Perahia are so splendidly themselves. They aren’t showy virtuosi. If you want “the colonisation of subjectivity” there is Friends.


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