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George Saunders on the state of creative writing


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#1 Ray

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Posted 16 November 2010 - 07:09 AM

In "You Are Not the Only One Writing About Mondavian Zookeepers," George Saunders, the fiction writer whose short stories often appear in the New Yorker, discusses the state of creative writing teaching in the university. Aside from the institutional critique (which may not be interesting to BT-ers), he has a lot of insightful things to say about fiction writing and the creative context, such as the following, where he addresses cliches about creative writing programs--I particularly like the final sentences in re culture and tradition:

"Most critiques I read re: Creative Writing programs or writing in the academy are kicking entities that don’t actually (in my experience) exist. The trope about CW students not reading, or being encouraged to be sort of ahistorical and New Agey—I don’t see that. [...] Everywhere I go, people are reading, and reading deeply, and not just in contemporary fiction either. And people seem to realize they are part of a tradition, and had better know that tradition if they hope to further it. Likewise, the trope about “producing writers who all write alike.” That trope is so well-known that it is a cliché [...]It could be argued that any time you get 10-40 people together and have a core group of teachers, some homogenization is going to happen, but, in a sense, isn’t that what culture is? The establishment of a standard and then a resulting attempt to mimic that standard, followed by a passionate revolt against that stupid repressive reactionary standard, which is then replaced by a lovely innovative pure new standard, etc., etc.?"

#2 Quiggin

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Posted 16 November 2010 - 09:36 PM

Elif Batuman has written a review on "The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writin" by Mark McGurl in the "London Review of Books" and has taken a different point of view on the subject - coming down on the side of the "cliches and tropes", as George Saunders characterizes the criticism of the programs.


If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.


... Writing remains the ‘invisible vocation’ of Proust’s narrator, for the greater part of seven volumes. Marcel’s desire to write comes not from some inner need to tell the world about medieval churches or his grandmother, but from a love of reading. Many writing students today would be ashamed to admit, as Marcel does, that they long to write a book exactly like The Arabian Nights or Saint-Simon’s memoirs (or whatever their favourite childhood books were).

Might the ideal of ‘creativity’, taken as a supremely valuable, supremely human faculty, be harmful to a writer’s formation? It seems ominous that the role of creativity in American education originates, as McGurl observes, in Cold War rhetoric: through creativity, America was going to prevail over its ‘relentlessly drab ideological competitor’ and ‘outdo the group-thinking Communist enemy’ ...


Down With Creative Writing

#3 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 17 November 2010 - 08:13 AM

There's a related, lengthy essay in the latest (Fall 2010) issue of N+1, which is not (yet) available online. It's unsigned, but Elif Batuman appears on N+1's masthead as "Senior Writer," so perhaps she wrote it as well.

The author posits that there are two "literary fiction" cultures in the US. One, "NYC," networks through the NY publishing industry's book parties, reads about itself in the New York Observer and Gawker, meets up at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and is primarily focused on novels written by superstar authors such as Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Gary Shteyngart, Nicole Krauss, Rivka Galchen, et al.

The other "MFA," networks through MFA program readings and workshops, reads about itself in Poets & Writers, meets up at Association of Writers and Writing Programs conferences, and is primarily focussed on short stories written by MFA titans such as Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Aimee Bender, et al. Within the MFA culture, the reputations of authors who have written well-received novels, such as Junot Diaz or Denis Johnson, may rest more on their story collections than their longer works.

The bias towards novels on the one hand and short stories on the other is at least in part a function of each culture's "business model." NYC funds itself through readable blockbuster novels; MFA funds itself through tuition and, in the case of state university programs, tax dollars.

It's a fun read.

#4 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 26 November 2010 - 01:44 PM

There's a related, lengthy essay in the latest (Fall 2010) issue of N+1, which is not (yet) available online. It's unsigned, but Elif Batuman appears on N+1's masthead as "Senior Writer," so perhaps she wrote it as well.

The author posits that there are two "literary fiction" cultures in the US. One, "NYC," networks through the NY publishing industry's book parties, reads about itself in the New York Observer and Gawker, meets up at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and is primarily focused on novels written by superstar authors such as Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Gary Shteyngart, Nicole Krauss, Rivka Galchen, et al.

The other "MFA," networks through MFA program readings and workshops, reads about itself in Poets & Writers, meets up at Association of Writers and Writing Programs conferences, and is primarily focussed on short stories written by MFA titans such as Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Aimee Bender, et al. Within the MFA culture, the reputations of authors who have written well-received novels, such as Junot Diaz or Denis Johnson, may rest more on their story collections than their longer works.

The bias towards novels on the one hand and short stories on the other is at least in part a function of each culture's "business model." NYC funds itself through readable blockbuster novels; MFA funds itself through tuition and, in the case of state university programs, tax dollars.

It's a fun read.


MFA vs.NYC, the article I referenced in the previous post is now available online at Slate.com. It's credited to Chad Harbach, one of N+1's editors.


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