Blackwell on Writing: A Geography of Fiction

By Elise Blackwell

A particularly active stretch of anti-M.F.A. online hate culminated in a satirical video titled “So you want to write an article about M.F.A. programs” that blamed those programs for problems both geopolitical and personal. That the Internet has not slowed the pace of M.F.A. criticism call and response isn’t surprising. What does surprise me is the tenacity of one particular criticism: that M.F.A. programs churn out “cookie cutter” fiction.

Deriding M.F.A. fiction as the “house style” of a medieval guild, gleeful provocateur Anis Shavani characterizes it as “generally apolitical, domesticated narrative that remains willfully ignorant of modernism …, leaning strongly toward the confessional, memoiristic, autobiographical, narcissistic, and plainly understood.” A milder but similar dismissal surfaced in Cathy Day’s recent assertion that M.F.A. programs shortchange the novel. The most extreme arguments imagine scenarios like Palin’s “death panels” in which groups of well-credentialed whitebread writers plot the exclusion of the interesting and talented. Softer imaginations blame a vaguer villain: workshop process among tables of people-pleasers.

Defending programs against such a strike to the heart requires answering the various questions raised: What actually goes on in workshop and how uniform is that? Do M.F.A. faculty share an aesthetic and attempt to transmit it? How malleable are opinionated young people who have chosen to be writers over more sensible careers? Is fiction written outside the academy more brave and heterogeneous? Some interesting and varied answers have appeared, including Mark McGurl’s The Program Era and Louis’ Menand’s review of it. My favorite recent retort was among the briefest: A blog post from Cornell’s J. Robert Lennon, written with the full exasperation of one feeling blamed for the fact that some of the fiction finding print isn’t all that exciting. “If the publishing world appears to be drowning in a flood of mediocre short stories,” he writes, “that’s because it is. It always was.”

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What I’d like to consider here is a single protective factor against homogeneity in M.F.A. programs: the geographical diversity they generate in a contemporary American fiction so often fixated on a single city.

The University of Mississippi recently announced that Richard Ford will join its faculty, filling the position last occupied by Barry Hannah. Like Hannah, Ford is a Mississippi native, though one whose biography and writing merged with the West and then New England. In the Ole Miss press release, Ford is quoted as saying “I need Mississippi more than Mississippi needs me.” A gracious line to be sure—good public relations for a writer certainly being paid handsomely for a teaching load many writers would humiliate themselves to have. Yet Ford speaks truth, though the place he named need not have been Mississippi.

In a recent interview with The Quarterly Conversation, Siddhartha Deb says, “I haven’t been satisfied by most contemporary novels, especially those set in very well-trodden territories like New York. Even the geography of these novels is limited, where all we see are small strips of that city.” Deb praises nonfiction writers for doing “the business of talking to the people who are not like them: farm workers, immigrants and taxi drivers,” though he thinks fiction can do a better job of representing what’s interesting about America if they will “engage with what is out there.”

Engaging with what is out there—or at least seeing some of it—is a requirement for many writers who pursue degrees. Given the extreme competition for slots in good programs, I encourage my students to apply to 10 places, more if they can afford the fees. They go to the best (or best-financed) program that accepts them, heading off with fresh eyes to California, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, and points other. This characterizes many fields, but in creative writing location often defines the work itself. Writers draw on personal observation, and their work tends to be informed heavily by place.

This year applications to our program here in South Carolina bore postmarks from every American region and several foreign countries. We sometimes court locally, but this year our top prospects are all non-Southerners, several of whom have lived abroad. We didn’t rank these applicants highly because of their geographic dexterity—we rank the writing samples cold—but it’s not a coincidence.

There are writers who stay put their whole lives. These folks tend to quote Georgia-rooted Flannery O’Connor: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” and “When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.” But most writers are improved by relocation, if only because they can better understand what’s most interesting about where they come from. An undergraduate here applied to M.F.A. programs without success. Despite talent, her work lacked something like perspective or air—a sense that she understood more than one kind of person. (There’s a lesson for young writers in St. Augustine’s assertion that “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”) She then spent two years teaching in Korea and another working in New Orleans. Her material expanded, her writing matured, and the characters populating her work diversified. When she reapplied, she was accepted into multiple good programs.

As a system, the M.F.A. encourages (even enforces) greater geographical variety than the non-M.F.A. writing world, which sometimes doesn’t see farther past Manhattan than Brooklyn. The difficulty of getting into a good program and the steeper odds of gaining a stable teaching position mean that would-be students and faculty are often willing to live anywhere (including places some Park Slopers would never step). Writing programs put writers all over the map. Tijuana-born Luis Urrea teaches in Chicago. Antonya Nelson hails from Kansas and teaches at New Mexico State by way of an Arizona M.F.A. The South Carolina native Percival Everett earned his M.F.A. at Brown and teaches at the University of Southern California. The Texas-born, Chicago-raised George Saunders is at Syracuse. New York State’s Lorrie Moore writes in Wisconsin by way of Cornell. M.F.A. programs have landed Southerners in New England, Midwesterners in Los Angeles, Beltway writers in Hawaii, and New Yorkers in Nebraska. Even when they’re there for the health insurance, many of our best writers live in fly-over country. Inevitably some of them write about where they’ve landed. And talented writers from all 50 states (and many countries) hone their voices and first gain readers at M.F.A. programs elsewhere. Some go home, and some keep moving.

There are writers who write well about home from a distance. Brad Watson, another Mississippian, lives in Laramie, Wyo., courtesy of a faculty position. In a recent interview he said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever write about Wyoming, although I’d like to become fluent enough one day to do that. But right now my head is still full of unwritten stories that take place in the South.” As great as his debut collection was, his most recent is even finer. Meanwhile his colleague Joy Williams, whose biography has crisscrossed the country, writes devastating stories set far and wide.

All this geographical promiscuity isn’t good for every writer involved—some feel trapped in miserable towns or so misplaced that they can’t write well—but mostly it’s good for contemporary literature. Writers have always traveled, but the M.F.A. system has them strike out for places less obvious than Paris or Hollywood. This movement broadens fiction, expanding the number of people and places whose stories get told and how and by whom.

Elise Blackwell (photo by Nancy Santos)

The author of four novels, Elise Blackwell directs the M.F.A. program at the University of South Carolina.

(A&A illustration derived from photos by Flickr users Hannah Rosen and Adikos)

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