In Defense of M.F.A. Programs, Part 2

“A good workshop challenges the student to become the writer they are, not the one others expect them to be.” –Mat Johnson

Last month I partially refuted the assertion that M.F.A. programs generate “cookie cutter” fiction, arguing that the geographical realities of creative-writing programs are one protection against a literature produced by the same recipe. Before leaving the subject, I’d like to offer some anecdotal evidence that fiction written by those working in the academy is richly varied. While sampling some of this aesthetic diversity, I hope to highlight some trends in contemporary fiction—and call attention to a few of the many interesting writers who also teach.

It would be easy to name ringers. (Some of the world’s best-known writers either hold M.F.A. degrees or rent their famous names to programs with deep pockets.) Instead I’d like to highlight writers—some quite well known and others less so—who actually get their hands dirty reading applications, supervising theses, and, yes, teaching workshops. My list is partial, even haphazard, which is part of the point. I didn’t need to strain to generate a long list of university-based writers who are writing fiction that is neither domesticated confessional autobiography nor directly descended from Raymond Carver (to name two descriptions sometimes intended to disparage M.F.A. fiction).

I’m not conceding that all “domesticated confessional autobiography” is unworthy, but I have read boring stories that fit the stereotype—stories in which nothing happens but the understated expression of sibling or marital tension during the tossing of a salad in an upper-middle class American home. (It should be noted that this sort of fiction was as prevalent outside the academy as within, including between the covers of certain well-paying glossy magazines, and was never the only kind of fiction being written.) One of the most obvious reactions against that sort of thing has been the expansion of subject matter both culturally and historically. This is nothing new, and diversity of content doesn’t necessarily equate with variety of style, but novels about other classes and other times and other places can feel refreshing after one too many stories that never step outside a well-decorated loft.

A fair amount of the cultural diversity seen in contemporary fiction stems from the diversity of backgrounds of writers in the academy, many of whom write about the cultures they or their parents come from. In this regard, I think of Moroccan-born Laila Lalami (University of California at Riverside), Tijuana-born Luis Urrea (University of Illinois at Chicago), and Iranian-American Porochista Kakpour (Bucknell). And many writers, regardless of where their families hail from, have turned to the past as source material. Practitioners have included Yiyun Li (University of California at Davis), Howard Norman (Maryland), and Rebecca Johns (DePaul). My own novels about the siege of Leningrad and the Great Flood of 1927 may or may not be any good, but they certainly are not autobiographical.

A major current trend in fiction—both within and outside of the academy—is genre bending and sampling: literary writers working with the tropes and conventions of suspense, horror, gothic romance, and so on. Mat Johnson (University of Houston), who has also worked directly in comic-book and graphic-novel forms, deploys elements from horror, epic adventure stories, mystery-thrillers, and slapstick comedies to write about such issues as race and gentrification in his literary satires. In a recent email he says, “I think there is an aesthetic ideal of literary fiction that exists in the MFA world, but I don’t find it a confining one. Many of my influences have been genre and pop writers in addition to traditional literary ones, and I haven’t felt overly constrained to fit into an expected mode.” Writers using genre in their work include Benjamin Percy (Iowa State), whose fiction is saturated with horror and the grotesque, and Dan Chaon (Oberlin), whose most recent novel pays homage to the sinister mysteries he read as a kid.

Other writers work with alternative narrative sources. Kate Bernheimer (University of Louisiana in Lafayette) writes fairy tales, and many working in the big tent of magic realism and surrealism make liberal use of myth and archetype. Even just among them, there’s incredible stylistic variety: Compare the dark, caustic projections of George Saunders (Syracuse) to the softer, more suburban fabulism of Aimee Bender (University of Southern California). Harder to classify is Steve Tomasula (Notre Dame), who draws an enormous range of narrative forms, including comic books, travelogues, journalism, code, Hong Kong action movies, and science reports to produce work that has been called “a reinvention of the novel.”

Some critics who use the “cookie cutter” epithet against M.F.A. fiction assert that such fiction willfully ignores the fact that Modernism happened. Given that half the students in my current graduate fiction workshop are simultaneously enrolled in a seminar on Modernism taught by a Joyce scholar who holds a lively Finnegans Wake discussion group at his house, I find this particularly ridiculous. Not every program is like ours, but we’re not the only one with Modernist texts on our reading list. The academy is a natural home for continued formal experimentation. In this area, I think of the fascinating and rewarding prose puzzles of Alexandra Chasin (New School); the beautiful novel AVA, in which Carole Maso (Brown) moves to create a feminine language, and the experiments in ergodic literature and hypertext going on at multiple universities.

Finally, I’d like to trumpet the work of a writer whose books resist every accusation hurled at “M.F.A. fiction,” including the two that ring most true: that it’s not funny and that it’s not political. Percival Everett (University of Southern California) writes fiction that is frequently hilarious—not wryly humorous but side-splittingly mirthful—as well as biting, even damning, in its cultural critique.

Since my small sample ranges across multiple institutions and generations—and largely ignores the tremendous diversity of both content and style even within “mainstream” literary fiction—I’d like to close with Alexander Chee’s report on his experience of aesthetic diversity in a single University of Iowa cohort: “The idea that the M.F.A. forces all of you to write the same … is a mistaken idea. All I can tell you is that I write nothing like Brady Udall, Benjamin Anastas, Whitney Terrell, or Tom Piazza. I do not write like Kirsten Bakis, Emily Barton, or Chris Adrian. And what’s more, they do not write like each other. Brady and I did not like each other’s work at the time, but this is, I think, one of the values of a workshop: You are exposed to the views of people who do not agree with you.”

Is there an M.F.A. program or two out there forcing a dozen people to write alike for two or three years? I hope not, but it’s probably the case. Is the “M.F.A. system” making thousands of writers write alike across their careers? Of course not.

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

(A&A illustration derived from photo by Flickr user sfxeric)

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