Education, Fiction, Literature

“All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books!”

The September 14th issue of the London Review of Books features an extended, combative review by Elif Batuman of a recent book from Harvard University Press, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Though Batuman takes issue with many of McGurl’s points, her essay is the sort of review any author ought to be happy to get, one that takes the book seriously enough to engage deeply with its ideas.
Ultimately, however, Batuman is simply much more critical of university writing programs and the fiction they’ve spawned than McGurl is, arguing, among other things, that their ahistorical approach to fiction is a short-sighted, narcissistic mistake. “Literary scholarship,” writes Batuman, “may not be an undiluted joy to its readers, but at least it’s usually founded on an ideal of the collaborative accretion of human knowledge.”
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Batuman’s essay brought to mind one of our books, D. G. Myers’s The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880, which takes a longer view than McGurl’s book, surveying and analyzing more than a century of debate over how—and even whether&#8212creative writing should be taught. Myers draws on a wide range of writers—including Longfellow, Emerson, Frost, John Berryman, John Dewey, Lionel Trilling, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, and Saul Bellow—and buttresses his account with relevant background information on nineteenth-century educational theory; shifts in technology, publishing, and marketing; the growth of critical theory in this country; and the politics of higher education.
Ultimately, Myers’s take, like Batuman’s is highly skeptical—and in fact, at his Commonplace Blog, where he rarely seems to pull punches or hold back opinions, in a post titled bearing the unambigious title “Against Creative Writing,” he wrote,

As it is now conceived and organized in the university, creative writing is not a discipline of knowledge at all. It is merely a bureaucracy for the public employment of writers and the boost­ing of English course enrollments. It has no larger purpose; or none that has been thought through.

Ouch. As you might expect, Myers’s post has launched a vigorous, contentious discussion in the comments—if you’re feeling feisty, quickly read your LRB, grab a copy of The Elephants Teach, and dive into the discussion.