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1 LITERARY FICTION IN ACADEMIA AND THE MFA PROGRAM: A QUALITATIVE STUDY OF DILEMMAS IN THEORY, STRUCTURE, AND PRAXIS By ERIC TREVOR MCCHESNEY A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DE GREE OF MASTER OF ARTS I N EDUCATION UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2012
2 2012 Eric Trevor M c Chesney
3 To the unceasing critics who, like good physicians, possess the resolve and the audacity to wound that which they lov e most deeply, in hopes that it will grow stronger from the wounding
4 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank my closest friend and companion Amanda Bruce, for her unfailing care and support of me during the creation of this thesis. I would also like t o thank my colleagues here at the University of Florida, including Professors Sanchez, Pace, and Fu for their subtle and intelligent discussion of many of the themes and difficulties present in this work. My highest thanks is given to my advisor, colleague and friend, Dr. Townsend, who has provided continual inspiration, keen insight, rousing discussion, and invaluable guidance to me during my time at the University of Florida.
5 TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ................................ ................................ ................................ .. 4 LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS ................................ ................................ ............................. 7 ABSTRACT ................................ ................................ ................................ ..................... 9 CHAPTER 1 WHY STUDY CREATIVE WRITING? THE BACKGROUND, SIGNIFICANCE AND SCOPE OF THE STUDY ................................ ................................ ............... 10 Significance ................................ ................................ ................................ ............ 10 Scope ................................ ................................ ................................ ...................... 15 2 METHODS ................................ ................................ ................................ .............. 22 Data Gathering and Participants ................................ ................................ ............. 22 Limitations ................................ ................................ ................................ ............... 24 Researcher Biases ................................ ................................ ................................ .. 25 3 LITERATURE REVIEW ................................ ................................ .......................... 28 Research Questions ................................ ................................ ............................... 28 Theoretical Framework ................................ ................................ ........................... 30 Critics of the Master of Fine Arts ( MFA ) System ................................ ..................... 33 Advocates of the MFA Syste m ................................ ................................ ................ 40 4 RESULTS ................................ ................................ ................................ ............... 50 Views of Two MFA Professors on Theoretical Paradoxes in the Field .................... 50 Views on How the Field is Represented and Shaped by Educational Texts by Two Writers of Creative Writing Textbooks ................................ .......................... 66 Motivations, Expectations, and Hesitations of an MF A Applicant ........................... 76 5 INTERPRETATION, CONCLUSIONS, AND SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT ................................ ................................ ................................ ..... 84 Theoretical and Pedagogical Difficulties ................................ ................................ 85 Structural Difficulties ................................ ................................ ............................... 92 APPENDIX A INSTITUTIONAL REVIEW BOARD APPROVED INFORMED CONSENT FORM 103 B INTERVIEW QUESTIONS ................................ ................................ .................... 105
6 C COLLECTED ARTIFACTS: SELECT SYLLABI AND COMPILATION OF SYLLABI TEXTS ................................ ................................ ................................ ... 107 David James Poissant Syllabi ................................ ................................ ............... 107 Janet Burroway Syllabi ................................ ................................ ......................... 116 Alphabetized Compilation of All Stories Taught According to A ll Gathered Syllabi ................................ ................................ ................................ ................ 120 D SELECTIONS FROM INTERVIEWS ................................ ................................ .... 124 Transcriber s Note ................................ ................................ ................................ 124 David Leavitt Interview ................................ ................................ .......................... 124 Janet Burroway Interview ................................ ................................ ...................... 126 Jessica Langford Interview B ................................ ................................ ................ 127 LIST OF REFERENCES ................................ ................................ ............................. 129 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ................................ ................................ .......................... 132
7 LIST OF ABBREVIATION S & When used in a quotation from an interview tr anscript, the ellipse represents pauses or non lexical vocables such as may be represented elsewhere as umm err and the like. [ & ] When used in a quotation from an interview transcript, the bracketed ellipse represents sections of the transcript that have been excluded from the quotation, filling the role usually performed by an un bracketed ellipse in a standard textual quotation. AWP Association of Writers and Writing Programs created in 1967 to support writing programs and to coordinate their eff orts remain established and to establish new programs. Originally composed of 1 3 academic creative writing programs, the association was founded by George Garrett and R. V. Cassill. Oddly, in 1982, 15 years after he co founded the association, Cassill atte mpted to disband the group, arguing that the association with academic institutions had severely degraded the artistic integrity of works produced in AWP programs, and that writing was now being published as a way of enhancing resumes and attaining academi c positions instead of for purely artistic purposes. The AWP survived this criticism and now comprises 449 programs. CREATIVE WRITING Writing that is solely and deliberately artistic in aim comprising fiction, poetry, and creative non fiction. Here, the definition is confined to that creativ e writing produced as part of a Master of Fine Arts ( MFA ) or similar academically supported literary program. LITERARY FICTION There is much controversy regarding the precise definition of this term, and one of the g oals of this study is merely to define it with greater precision. To some, the term does not denote a genre, but is merely a catchall phrase applied to any text of literary merit and quality that happens to be fiction, encompassing everything from The Illi ad to contemporary flash fiction. To others, it denotes a very specific genre, primarily found in the University setting, published in modern literary and artistic journals such as The Kenyon Review Plowshares and The Paris Review To proponents of this view, the genre is often sharply divided from genre fiction which includes all other genres, such as speculative and science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, and so forth. Under this conception, literary fiction appears as an almost uniquely American pheno menon, and is rooted in the work of writers such as William Faulkner, Earnest Hemingway, and Flannery O Connor, and often includes techniques that might be called realism, naturalism, or minimalism. Stress might be placed on depicting pedestrian character s and situations, precision and economy of style, and a focus on character rather than plot,
8 resulting in a literary form that might be said to be more representational than ideational. In the present study, I have attempted to avoid falling into this semi otic maelstrom by simply using the term to signify precisely the same body of literature referred to by writers of textbooks used in MFA programs and professors in the same who ostensibly teach literary fiction W ORKSHOPPING A process in which the author presents his or her class and professor with a copy of a work, usually no more than a single short story or a single 20 page section of a book. The professor and students analyze and annotate the work, then discuss it during the next class period, suggest ing revisions, noting strengths and weaknesses. The annotated versions with their suggestions are given to the author at the end of the class as input for revision that may be accepted or disregarded at the author s discretion.
9 Abstract of Thesis Pre sented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in Education LITERARY FICTION IN ACADEMIA AND THE MFA PROGRAM: A QUALITATIVE STUDY OF DILEMMAS IN THEORY, STRUCTURE, AND PRAXIS By Eric Trevor M c Chesney December 2012 Chair: Jane Townsend Major: Curriculum and Instruction (ISC) This study explores the views of several participants involved in Masters of Fine Arts in the Writing of Fiction programs and attempts to id entify reported areas of significant concern in the educational theory, praxis, and structure of such programs. Triangulation of such concerns is attempted via interviewing participants involved in teaching in, writing textbooks for, and applying to such p rograms and interpretation of such concerns is conducted through drawing upon grounded theory and case study methods. Tentative postulates are offered as to how these areas of concern arise, synergistically const ruct, and influence one another; and sugges tions are offered to mitigate their detrimental effects.
10 CHAPTER 1 W HY STUDY CREATIVE WR ITING? THE BACKGROUN D, SIGNIFICANCE AND SCOPE OF THE STUDY I earnestly believe in the existence of the communal soul of a society, though those who may recoil in skept ical disgust at that term may at least grant me the existence of such a thing as the co mmunal psyche of a people. In either occurrence, the state of the co mmunal soul or psyche of a society may be most easily perceived through the arts that that society pr oduces and holds in highest esteem. The relationship between the art of a society and its nature is more than that of a mere symbol or barometer, but rather, each shapes the other: the cultural virtues and values producing the guiding principles of the art it creates and selecting those which it lauds and which will go on to achieve great influence in the society, and the art itself creating new values, philosophies, tastes, and modes of action, and disseminating these values across the culture in which it arises. Therefore, when concerns and criticisms arise of one of the prominent arts of a society, and when these concerns appear to be grave, substantially supported, and systematic in scope, the situation asks to be investigated by parties suitably skeptic al, but nonetheless invested in the shaping of their own culture, and reasonably knowledgeable of the specific art under scrutiny. Significance Criticisms of this magnitude have been recently raised by B.R. Meyers (2002) Anis Shivani (2011) John Gardner (1978) and Mark McGurl (2009) all of them concerning the state of contemporary American literary fic tion and attributing the rise o f the Master of Fine Arts ( MFA ) writing program in academia as one of the leading contributors to what all but McGurl perce ive to be a troubling artistic and philosophical decline. The qualitative study you now hold was designed primarily to explore
11 concerns, and if possible, to shed some small light upon the causes of such changes in the literary fiction field, and where pos sible, to tentatively suggest solutions for those amendable difficulties it encounters. There are numerous secondary reasons why this study has been performed, not the least of which is quite simply the dearth of scholarly research into what creative writi ng MFA programs actually do, and what teachers and students within them believe about the nature of their art or, increasingly, of their profession. Important contributions in this vein have already been made by Carla Cogliotti, who took it upon herself in 2010 to compile and publish in her dissertation a sizeable amount of both quantitative and sociological data on the pedagogical methods, recruitment rhetoric, costs, administrative choices, applicant selection, and prevalence of MFA writing programs in th e United States. Such fundamental data are necessary if the phenomena of the MFA program are to be placed in their proper context, and with many of the aforementioned books critiquing the MFA system being published in the past decade, I believe the stage i s set for serious scholarly interest by academics in how these programs are being run and what precisel y they are teaching and perhaps some deep soul searching on the part of MFA professors, directors, and students as well. Unfortunately for the long ter m utility of this thesis, the field has shown tendencies in the past five years that indicate a substantial ideological and material flux is imminent, or has already begun to occur. Take, for example, the fact that the premiere writing guild, the Associati on of Writers an d Writing Programs (AWP) was founded with 13 members in 1967, and as of 2012 contains 4 4 9 member programs at universities across the US an increase of 3,3 54 % over the 45 years of its existence, creating an average
12 growth of 7 4 5 % each year (AWP AWP Member Programs Section, para. 1 ). Further reasons to suspect an imminent material shift comes from the testimony of Curtis Sittenfeld, the current director of the most highl y rated writing program in the U.S., the Iowa Writer s Workshop, and a former graduate of the same institution. In a 2011 interview with Salon, she revealed that with the recession, the number of applications we ve received at our program [the Iowa Writer s Workshop] has jumped. In 2010 it jumped by 50 percent resulting in roughly 1,300 applicants in fiction alone that year ( Salon 2011 para. 13 18 ). The sudden proliferation of criticism represents an increasing scrutiny and increasing pressure that may cause MFA s to alter their modus operand i, or give more extended thought to the nature of the writing they help to shape and promote. Unfortunately for the seriousness with which the criticisms have been taken by the MFA community, many of the criticisms a imed at MFA programs and their associated writing have been salvos fired from a safe distance I ntelligent though they may be, the bombardment arises primarily from those outside of the MFA system and therefore may be more easily dismissed as merely the bi tter recriminations of those jealous of the system s successes, or potshots taken by those with little real understanding of how MFA systems and graduate level workshops operate. However, criticism has begun to aris e from within the system itself, notes of caution have been sounded by a handful of prominent members of the field. Traditionally looked to as one of the official barometers of the state of the art, the yearly Best American Short Stories anthology (BASS) for 2011 contains a remarkably telling in troduction by its principle editor, Geraldine Brooks, that deserves quotation at length, both for the position of prominence such statements hold being included in such
13 an anthology, and because many of the concerns she raises are echoed by Meyers (2002) Shivani (2011) and Gardner (1978) She tells us that at the risk of calling down the wrath of the MFAfia she has the following advice for American short story writers: 1. Enuf adultery eds. Too many stories about the wrong cock in the wrong cunt/anus/armpi t/Airedale. 2. Eros "` thanatos necessarily. Not all love stories have to have bleak outcomes. 3. Foreign countries exist. 4. There s a war on. The war in Afghanistan, in the year it became America s longest, appeared as a brief aside in only two of the one hundred and twenty stories [selected from many thousands and reviewed for inclusion in this anthology]. 5. Consider the following: Caravaggio s Conversion of Saint Paul, Handel s Messiah Martin Luther King. Female genital mutilation, military funeral picketers, abo rtion doctor assassins. So why, if religion turns up in a story, is it generally on ly there as a foil for humor? & I should stipulate that the above carps refer to a hive mind that became apparent only because I read a mass of stories in a compressed time f rame. There s nothing wrong with stories set in bedrooms, classrooms, kitchens. These are the places where we spend large slabs of our lives. But the air becomes stale there. And after a dozen a hundred such stories, I bec ome claustrophobic. Brooks, G. & Pitlor H., 201 1, p. xvii xviii These complaints are not at all new, but it is extremely uncommon, in my own experience, for the field of literary fiction to subject itself to a form of intense self criticism in so open and public a manner, or at least, t o do so in a manner designed to alter those flaws that such s crutiny discovers. Such avoidance of self wounding is highly understandable when one considers that the field of literary fiction and the MFA programs that support it are still relatively new and have been struggling for much of their existence to justify their presenc e in the academy, present themselves as a serious discipline, and avoid being entirely eclipsed by the prominence of English Literature and
14 Theory Nonetheless, it appears that this is an interesting moment for the field of literary fiction, and that many of the old nostrums, the now familiar tricks, the old concepts of the purpose and the nature of the art, will simply no longer suffice. Brooks inveighs at the end of her introduction that our current literary fiction paradigm must change, or risk flirting with its own downfall: the next generation of short story writers & will come to the form at what might be the most perfect time in its history & but here s the caveat: these kids have b een raised on actual stories with plot, where x leads inexorably to y with x being interesting and y being more interesting; on wizards and dragon riders, on Eoin Colfer s inspired Die Hard with fairies mashup and Philip Pullman s Milton meets string theo ry. I might be wrong, but I don t think affectless Carveresque minimalism, no matter how liminal or luminous is going to cut it for them. Brooks, G. & Pitlor, H., 2011. p. xviii. Even Heidi Pitlor, who has been the series editor for Best American Short St ories since 2007, begrudgingly agrees that plot has clearly become distasteful to many American short story writers & A new normal has evolved & one conspicuously void of momentum and uninterested in maintaining the readers attention ( Brooks, G. & Pitlor H ., 2011, p. xii). A bold statement coming from one who could easily be charged with promoting just such fiction through BASS for the past five years. On the one hand, one wonders if such self criticism will actually cause change in any real, large scale ma nner. Will this kind of criticism cause MFA programs to willfully disband (if your sa lary was on the line, would you? )? Will it cause editors and publishers to take up the halberd of profound and unflinching criticism once more and guard the gates of publi cation more carefully (if it slashed your profit margin dramatically, would you ? )? Will the old texts be abolished, the idols of past writers be cast down and crushed beneath a Nietzschian heel (And leave our MFA professors bewildered? Thrown upon their ow n wits and tastes?)? Such changes would seem tame in the 16 th century, or the 18 th or the 19 th or
15 even the first luminous decades of the 20 th century, but here at the dawn of the 21 st century, it becomes hard to see any bold actions being taken by more t han a handful of human beings. The momentum of systems and their entanglement with one another, at times, appears too strong. Yet, one cannot shake the feeling that a critical mass has been reached or will be in the imminent future, after which there shou ld be, there must be, a reaction and considerable transformation of how practitioners in the field conceive of the nature of their study. Predicting the future is tricky business, and whether the fears of Brooks, Pitlor, and others are confirmed or whether they become a quaint footnote in the history of the MFA program remains to be seen, and can in no way be determined with any certainty at this time. Rather, the purpose of the present study is merely to examine several of these concerns, and to investigat e if and how they manifest themselves in the way that several professors of creative writing, two prominent figures in the field of literary fiction, and one aspiring MFA applicant conceive of the field, its nature, its prospects, and its challenges. Scop e This qualitative study focused on investigating and defining precisely how several parties conceive of and attempt to accommodate the theoretical paradoxes of their profession the practical conundrums of attempting to teach a highly abstract form of art and what they consider the nature of the field or the discipline to be. Where the participants have identified significant obstacles in the theory, nature, or application of teaching creative writing, attempts were often made to collectively conceive of and posit possible solutions or improvements that may smooth the path for future students and teachers of literary fiction. The study examined two professors of fiction writing (David
16 Leavitt and Jill C iment) who currently teach in a MFA program; two promi nent voices in the field of literary fiction (Janet Burroway and Peter Selgin) both of whom are currently or have previously been professors of MFA programs and both of whom have published textbooks dictating what they believe to be the best method for th e teaching of creative writing at the university level; and finally an applicant to MFA programs in fiction (referred to by the pseudonym Jessica Langford 1 ) who was rejected by the same MFA program the first two professors are employed by and who was acc epted to several other prominent MFA programs instead. Supplementary data were collected from a variety of sources and will be cited and included when they are of particular relevance, provide disconfirming data, when they present a distinct and importan t viewpoint not touched upon by the core data, or when they present a viewpoint with unusual lucidity, force, and artistry. These supplementary data sources include six syllabi from active creative writing courses, a recorded classroom observation of an un dergraduate introductory poetry course taught by a graduate student in an MFA program, and three interviews with undergraduate students who have taken creative writing courses. A compilation of all primary sources (that is, the stories assigned by the crea tive writing professor for study) assigned in the syllabi is available in Appendix C, along with a compilation of all secondary sources (textbooks, or essays/interviews in which writers talk about the act of wr iting), and the syllabi themselves. All primar y and secondary sources listed are arranged by frequency of appearance in the syllabi, then alphabe tically by author s last name. The study itself and 1 Unless otherwise stated, all names of undergraduate or graduate students are pseudonym s. However, the interviewed professors and writers of textbooks universally requested that their names not be replaced by pseudonyms.
17 the specific methods used to collect data were reviewed and approved by the University of Florida Behavio ral/Non Medical Institutional Review Board (IRB 02) and are listed with that committee under Protocol # 2012 U 0043 The first two professors of writing who were interviewed form half of the fiction faculty at a university creative writing program in the Southeastern United States. The host university is of moderate repute and is particularly known for producing quality research in the arts and sciences. As such, it enrolls many tens of thousands of students and a considerable faculty of professors and res earchers, many of whom have the ability to pursue their particular specialties and interests. The host university is located in a small city with many vibrant artistic and cultural opportunities; however, these drop off sharply as one leaves the city and e nters the surrounding countryside, much of which is rural and consists of large swathes of land devoted to livestock farming and agriculture. The creative writing program itself is relatively small, employing only a handful of faculty that specializes in either fiction or poetry with no professors of non fiction, though there is a seminar on translation. The program is a member of AWP and is not unusual in terms of prominence; though it is certainly well regarded and ranked among notable programs, it is no t among those regarded as the pinnacle of writing training, nor is it by any stretch of the imagina tion disreputable or regarded with disfavor by those in the field. As of the year of this writing it is ranked by Poets & Writers as the 24 th overall best cr eative writing program in the United States though this refers to both the fiction and the poetry sections of the program combined (Poets & Writers, 2012 ). As with many other prominent MFA programs such as those at Kenyon University, the University of
18 Mic higan and Florida State University, the creative writing division of t he English department publ ishes its own literary magazine. T he chief editor is a member of the faculty and the graduate students enrolled in the MFA program are encouraged to participa te as associate editors of the magazine as well. The fiction writing facul ty consists of active writers that have been awarded numerous honors in the field of literary fiction Betwee n them, the four members of the division have received numerous Guggenhe im and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) fellowships, been named New York Public Library Literary Lions, been finalists for the PEN/Faulkner literary award, and the National Book Critics Award, and one of the members has recently occupied a very high p osition within the Association of Writers and Writing Programs for several years (University of Florida, n.d. a, b, c, e). Further, the majority of the faculty is very well traveled, often teaching in numerous colleges and university writing programs befor e becoming part of the faculty of the current university, and many continue to teach writers workshops or conferences that are hosted by other universities during summer terms, sabbaticals, and other academic breaks. The fiction faculty is prolific each member has produced at least 3 novels, often more, and usually accompanied by several collections of short stories as well. They are well represented in the realm of respected and influential literary magazines through their numerous publications in The Ne w Yorker, Harper s, The Paris Review, The New York Times, Harvard Magazine, Tin House, The Southwest Review, The Washington Post, Oxford American, The New York Times Book Review, GQ, and Harvard Magazine among many others, and some of the programs works have been included in the influential annual anthology of literary fiction Best American Short
19 Stories. All but one member of the fiction faculty possesses an advanced degree specifically in creative writing, either a Master of Arts, or a Master of Fine Ar ts, and many have studied directly under writers who have become prominent names in the last generation of writers of literary fiction. The faculty receives several hundred applications to join the MFA program each year, usually selecting from this flood only twelve students, evenly divided between poetry and fiction. The students will participate in the program for three years, always enrolled in at least one creative writing workshop. They will be expected to shoulder a moderate teaching load, acting as TA s in their first year, and then teaching full introductory creative writing courses to undergraduates from their second to third years. Their interaction with the rest of the English department consists of three graduate seminars in some form of literat ure there are no requirements that these focus on any par ticular time period or movement; all is left to the student s creative discretion. As with nearly every program I have encountered, the students are required to have produced a publishable manuscrip t in either fiction or poetry by the end of their third year (University of Florida, n.d.) Many graduates indeed have their manuscripts taken up by editors and publishing houses, and do, eventually, find their way to the presses. No student must pay the u niversity to receive this education as their tuition is universally waived in fact, they are paid a modest sum by the university for their roles as TAs and Fellows of the department. Finding an MFA program that does not offer similar incentives and reward s to its students has become a rarity. Indeed this program appears archetypal in many ways. If one swaps the names of some of the faculty awards (switching some for their analogues such as the O. Henry
20 Award, the Booker Prize, the Pushcart, the Pulitzer, the Flannery O Connor Prize for Short Fiction, the Robert Olen Butler Prize, or the Hemingway Foundation Prize ) and perhaps replace s a publication in The Paris Review with one in Prairie Schooner or Ploughshares and adds a MacArthur Fellowship for good me asure, and this same list of descriptions and awards could be ascribed to many of the MFA programs currently operating in the United States. Moderately tweaking the requirements placed upon students (asking for four years instead of three, offering an aid package slightly more or less generous, or perhaps making editing the literary magazine a requirement rather than an assertive suggestion) completes the transformation This is not to suggest that the methods, natures, and products of many of these MFA pro grams are identical, but merely to illustrate that many of the faculty members of the program in question are decorated and published in similar ways to the faculty members in several other MFA programs. The two writers who were interviewed due to their p rominence in the field are Janet Burroway and Peter Selgin. Professor Burroway co authored a textbook with Professor Elizabeth Stuckey French titled Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. This book has been one of the standard texts used for teaching in undergraduate writing and MFA programs, and was required by several of the collected syllabi. Now in its 8 th edition, the Amazon book description claims it is the most widely used and respected text in its field an assertion that is lent credence by an examination both of the number of times it is included in the syllabi, and, perhaps more significantly, by the number of stories assigned by MFA professors that are also included in Writing Fiction (Amazon, 2006) This information, available in Appendi x C, suggests a level of influence and
21 codification that extends beyond the book itself and into the field of MFA teaching. Peter Selgin s text 179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers was published in 2010 and does not enjoy t he same level of influence as Writing Fiction ; however, professor Selgin himself is highly honored and widely published in a number of fields ( Selgin 2006 ). Jessica Langford, the MFA applicant, provided several in depth interviews, as well as artifacts d emonstrating her evolving technical skills and aesthetic viewpoints. She had attended several creative writing courses in her undergraduate career, and had been active in a community writer s circle for roughly two years at the time that the study took pla ce. She had never been published in any magazine, literary fiction centered or otherwise, and had never previously applied to MFA programs. She had previously used creative writing as a teaching tool in high school English classrooms and for adult English language learners. She was rejected from the MFA program of which Professors Ciment and Leavitt are a part, but was accepted to several others. The intensive case study conducted with her participation contributed greatly to my understanding of the desires expectations, apprehensions, and preconceptions of those who enter the MFA system, and what precisely they expect to get out of it.
22 CHAPTER 2 M ETHODS Data Gathering and Participants All participants in this study, with the exception of the undergraduate students of creative writing, were contacted by e mail. The introductory e mail explained the nature of the study, and asked if they would be willing to contribute a copy of their current and past syllabi. Those who responded were contacted a gain, thanking them for their participation, and asking if they would like to partake in an interview. If the participants responded positively (often they did not respond at all) they were sent a copy of the Institutional Review Board informed consent for m and either a face to face or a phone interview was conducted. Copies of the semi structured interview methodology containing the interview questions and the IRB form are available in Appendices A and B, respectively. The undergraduate students were conta cted through personal knowledge, or through the classroom observation. I endeavored to gain a spectrum of opinions and experiences and arranged for interviews with those undergraduate students I perceived to be the most engaged in the creative writing cour se, and those who appeared to be the least engaged; however, none of those who appeared disengaged showed up for their scheduled interviews, and all declined further contact. The recordings of these semi structured interviews were then transcribed into wri tten form, coded, and analyzed. For the purposes of clarity, focus on ideological content, and ease of use, all recordings were transcribed using Standard English spellings and grammar. Whole interviews or significant selections from t hem may be found in A ppendix D
23 The MFA applicant, Jessica Langford, agreed to participate in an extended case study, and the data gathered from her w ere considerable. The intensive case study was performed over a period of four months and examined her conceptions of and atti tudes towards the act of creative writing, the field of literary fiction, the functioning of MFA programs, and the nature of teaching creative writing. It also examined her past interactions with text and writing in detail, and catalogued her aspirations, her reasons for applying to MFA programs, and what expectations she had of them and of the life that she might live after being accepted. Data w ere collected in three ways, the first of which was conducting semi structured interviews that centered upon her current and past views of creative writing and how they interacted with her views of the field of literary fiction, her hopes and aspirations for the future and how she believed entering an MFA program would aid or hinder them, and finally, how she had us ed creative writing in her own classroom (as a teacher of both h igh s chool and adult English l anguage l earners) and what pedagogical strengths and challenges presented themselves while doing so. These interviews lasted between twenty five minutes to nearly one and one half hours. The fourth and last interview was a form of member checking that was conducted after the bulk of the analysis was complete. The second method of data gathering involved acquiring artifacts from the participant that chronicled her writing development and, implicitly, her evolving theories about the nature and the purposes of creative writing. These included drafts of poems from her undergraduate courses roughly seven years prior to the study, some of which were then converted into w orks of prose fiction, refined, and included in her MFA submission portfolio; it also included multiple drafts of the same poems, and multiple
24 drafts of several of her finished prose works, some of which were polished and complete, some of which were in ve ry early stages of development. Finally, the subject participated in a video recording of her revision process as she refined one of her prose works. This activity was conducted by the participant alone, an d recorded on her laptop webcam. During these rec ordings, she performed a speak aloud in which she attempt ed t o narrate what alterations she wa s m aking to the work and why These recordings were then converted into a transcript and analyzed along with the marked up hardcop y of the work she was revising Limitations This study examines only the tiniest fraction of the field with which it is concerned, only a corner of the vast edifice that is literary fiction and creative writing programs. Even within the limited scope of the study, there were some data sources that could not be accessed that may have provided a richer and more far ranging picture of the field. For example, two professors of literary fiction employed in the MFA program at the University of Florida declined to be interviewed or to provide any syllabi, allowing me to only gain the perspective of half of the shapers of the fiction program at that university. Additionally, I was unable to interview Elizabeth Stuckey French who, with Janet Burroway, co wrote the popular textbook Writing Fiction nor was I able to gain the perspective of other writers of popular post secondary writing texts with the exception of Peter Selgin. It was also untenable to perform involved case studies on all the applicants to the UF MFA program, and the selection of J essica Langford from this population necessarily results in a limitation of viewpoint, although the depth of understanding her case study provided is undoubtedly beneficial to the present study. Finally, though I had contacted and arranged interviews with several undergraduate
25 students of writing who appeared to be the least involved in the writing course they were taking at the time, none of them showed up for the interviews and all declined further contact, depriving the current study of what may have bee n a productive and important viewpoint, especially when examining the praxis of writing courses. The data gathered for this study represent a collection of single viewpoints from which different interpretations of the art of writing and its teaching may b e triangulated. As with any qualitative study of inherently social and cultural phenomena, the complexity of variables along with the diversity and scope of the phenomena in question prevents generalizability or any implications of definitive proof. These data represent only themselves, and cannot stand in for the plurality of phenomena in the field itself. Through these data the reader m ight see instantiations of more universal concerns ; indeed the study would be of no utility if it did not interact in som e more general way with the class of phenomena being investigated, but proof of any such connection is both beyond the scope of the present study, and beyond the capability of any qualitative study to assert This study can only definitively attest to the data gathered nothing else. Researcher Biases In the spring of 2007, as a freshman English major, I enrolled in an introductory creative writing course and first encountered the concept of literary fiction as a definite field. During this course i t becam e impossible not to notice certain peculiar patterns of the field, for example, the distinct disconnect between the texts studied in my Literature courses and those studied in my writing courses, or the fact that t h ough authors such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck were said to be seminal writers in the field, their works were studied rarely or not at all in the writing community, and were often not
26 included among the texts set forth as exemplars to learn from and aspire to. I also noted the distinct d issatisfaction with many of my colleagues at the content of the course, its theoretical peculiarities, and its teaching methods, and, in some cases, I shared this dissatisfaction with them. The limitation of creative fiction writing to include almost ent irely literary fiction struck me as a curious development at the time, and I became intrigued as to what degree my own experiences were shared by other students of creative writing, and whether the patterns I perceived in my own courses were representative of larger practices in the field. As my education continued, I encountered many instances in which these patterns were broken or reversed entirely, and my desire to examine the phenomena of post secondary writing education deepened. It would be entirely untrue and unethical to claim that these experiences have not left their marks upon my psyche, my views, and my interests, and indeed, to be intere sted at all is to be biased. The question for all qualitative research then becomes, to what extent are the i nherent ideologies and biases of the researcher controlled and prevented from invalidating the data gathered and the conclusions expounded? If the researcher cannot be an objective and value neutral observer, can he nonetheless possess sufficient will to p ursue his investigations dispassionately, to make decisions based not upon his desires, but upon the evidence before him, to seek out and confront data that clashes utterly and even threatens his own personal ideologies in the pursuit of a value higher tha n his own self affirmation, the value of truth? If and only if he is capable of fulfilling these dictums will he be able to produce relevant, valuable scholarly research, and only if he is able to pursue truth at the price of his own ego will he ever be ab le to suggest real improvements on the field he is so invested in. Whether I have
27 earnestly worked for the good of an art and a society that I hold dear, or whether I have wasted every ounce of the effort, time, and research presented in this study in pars imonious self indulgence, the reader alone must decide.
28 CHAPTER 3 LITERATURE REVIEW Research Questions The research presented by Caglioti (2010) address es many of the most fundamental and material questions that may be raised about MFA programs in the United States, giving the scholarly community a clearer i dea of what MFA p rograms claim to do, the demographics of those who enter them, how much the programs cost and how they are funded, an d the common elements of the program of study often required by MFA programs. The present study attempts to extend upon that research a n d examine many of the pressing ideological questions associated with MFA programs that remain unanswered. For example, though we may have a better i dea of how much a professor of creative writing may be paid, t he information provided by Caglioti cannot tell us why a writer would prefer being co opted by an MF A program and devoting a large amount of their time to teaching rather than choosing to r emain outside academia and focusing their creative energies upon creating lasting and relevant works of art. We do not know how precisely the explosive rise of MFA programs has altered the fundamental aesthetic and philosophical values of the field of literary fiction and of our artistic and creative society as a whole. We do not know how the paradoxes of attempting t o teach the un teachable art of writing or to work exclusively in the genre less genre of literary fiction are conceptualized and resolved by t hose who direct and work in MFA programs. We do n o t know precisely what motivates the seething droves of MFA applicants to attempt to enter MFA programs, especially given the consideration that only a small minority is accepted at all, and an even smaller minority is able to use the MFA experience to launch careers that are successful on artistic grounds alone. We
29 do not know how the struggle fo r legitimacy and the c odification that usually attend s such struggles ha ve changed the programs over the roughly f orty years of their existence. We do not know how relevant the writings produced in MFA programs and by academi c literary fiction in general are to the wider public, or whether names that carry such artistic weight in the field, such as Raymond Carver, Tob ias Wolff, or Donald Barthelme, would even be recognized by the average layman, or even by the average highly educated, well read person. We do not know whether the claims made by the proponents of MFA programs that they are worthwhile endeavors that raise the artistic quality and cogency of our society and that often produce excellent writing are to be believed, or if they are, precisely what actions and philosophies allow this effect to occur. Likewise, we do not know if the critics of the MFA system, who declare that the writings they produce are often of inferior or mediocre quality, are ideologically questionable, and are largely culturally irrelevant or simply trite, are correct in their assertions, and if so, what may be done to correct such a grave s ituation. In short, though we may postulate and harbor suspicions, there has been very little scholarly research to support or challenge our hypotheses, and though the present study may shed some light on these questions, it will inevitably raise far more questions than it answers. As the scholarship on creative writing education expands, it is my hope that we may eventually arrive at answers for many of the above questions, and through these answers, we may have the power to improve upon the science and t he art of writing education. The present study, however, is directly concerned with the few and very specific questions that follow: 1. ) How do two professors of literary fiction who are
30 employed by a prominent MFA program conceptualize their profession an d the theoretical paradoxes and challenges it entails? 2. ) How do two writers of literary fiction education textbooks conceive of their chosen field and how do they choose to both shape and represent it through their texts? And 3.) What motivates an applic ant to MFA programs, and what does she expect to gain out of such an enterprise? Theoretical Framework The above are primarily questions of educational, artistic, and professional philosophy, and therefore, a method of analyzing ideologies beneath the exam ined discourses is needed. To this end, the theories put forth in Lev Vygotsky s Thinking and Speaking (19 62 ) are particularly helpful. He informs us that the relation of thought to word is not a thing, but a process, a conti nual movement back and forth f ro m thought to word and from word to thought. In that process, the relation of thought to word undergoes changes that themselves may be regarded as development in the functional sense. Thought is not merely expressed through words; it comes into existence through them. p. 218 T his theory works on two distinct planes of inquiry in the present study. On the first and most immediate plane, the ways in which the participants talk about how they conceive of their professions and the nature of writing also tell us a great deal about their more general philosophical outlook and how they fundamentally order the world. For example, if one of the participants w ere to tell us I don t believe in genres of any kind it raises the question of how much she believes real ity itself to be classifiable. The grammar, the mode of expression, the deliberate use of one word instead of another, all combine to inform the attentive reader of the fundamental ideology required to order reality in such a way. At times, associations or conceptions that are not entirely conscious will make themselves apparent when one attempts to elucidate a thought for the first time, or
31 attempts to elucidate it in response to some stimuli that has not before been encountered: a new setting, or a dialog ue with an unfamiliar person whose mode of thought is different from one s own. Therefore, it is possible, at times, to see in one s words shadows of thoughts and deep structures of their philosophies that were not previously conscious until evoked by dial ogue, and that subsequently alter the thought itself, adding new dimensions to it and clarifying previous connections. One must be careful, however, when ever the leap is made from what a participant states and what one believes their underlying worldview t o be, as the traps of folk psychology, seeing only what one wants to see, and drawing invalid conclusions are easy to fall into. Hence, the usefulness of this method is limited to those situations in which the researcher may member check with the participa nt regarding implied and half conscious concepts. The second plane in which the theory is useful regards the interaction between society and art. All art is in some ways a societal artifact, and of course it is situated in a certain place, time, and tradit ion, but to discount the effect that writing has, that words have, on reshaping the prominent ideas of a society, is to deny half the function of language. While this may seem to r educe to the obvious statement sometimes books contain ideas the implicat ions of the statement run far deeper: all writing is inherently thought laden, communicative of some form of meaning (even if that meaning is this art is meaningless ), and didactic. Every word written contains implicit statements about the nature of real ity, the nature of art, the nature of thought and expression, and what it says about these natures is unavoidably polemical. If a society regularly produces and praises works of art that, to take a trivial example of style, continually uses mixed
32 metaphors or combines phrases in ways that suggest a plethora of incomplete meanings instead of a single, definite meaning, then these actions foster a cultural viewpoint in which singular or objective meaning is impossible, and multiple, unreliable, shifting meani ngs take its place. It would not be logically invalid to infer that in such a society, ideologies that are more fluid and open to self contradiction may have more prominence than ideologies based upon more firm, objectivist concepts of reality. In other wo rds, a generalized reflection of reality is the basic characteristic of words & language is a practical consciousness for others and, consequently, consciousness for myself ( Vygotsky 19 62 p. 256). Therefore, even the most ideologically empty writings, f or example asemic writings, are already laden with philosophical claims, in this case, the paradoxical claim that meaning is impossible. Jerome Bruner, in his landmark 1990 book Acts of Meaning, posits that the ability to craft believable narratives that are able to weave unusual occurrences into an accessible and understandable framework of how reality operates is one of the most crucial skills for maintaining order that a society can possess. He tells us that the existence of interpretive procedures for adjudicating the different construals of reality that are inevitable in any diverse society is of extreme importance for the coherence, functioning, and stability of a culture ( p. 95). When these interpretive procedures are absent or inadequate, cultural fracture, strife, or utter incomprehensibility between parties results. He lists three factors that threaten to cause such a breakdown, the first being a deep disagreement about what constitutes the ordinary and canonical in life and what the exceptional or divergent & [this may be seen in the] battle of life styles, exacerbated by intergenerational conflict. A second threat inheres in the overspecialization of narrative, when stories become so
33 ideologically or self servingly motivated that distrust displ aces interpretation & F inally, there is a breakdown that results from sheer impoverishment of narrative resources & [where] the worst scenario story comes to so dominate daily life that variation seems no longer possible. Bruner 1990, p. 96 7 One might ad d to that list narratives that are inaccessible highly fragmented or that are wrought in such opaque te rms, either stylistically or via plot that the reader is left uncertain of what precisely i s said and done in the story and of what actually constitut es a normative event and a non normative event. Critics of the MFA system often hold that the stories created by the system often violate these narrative imperatives: for example, the lines between a normal and an unusual event are often blurred by the sto ry suggesting that nothing unusual happens (the plot less or entirely character driven stories) or that everything unusual happens, and therefore ceases to be unusual (found in the more absurdist stories; quirkiness appears to be the defining character istic and highest ideal here think Flannery O Connor s Good Country People or Eudora We lty s A Visit of Charity ) The charge of overspecialization is leveled at the field by those who believe that literary fiction has little to no impact on society as a whole, or that its often domestic concerns do not sufficiently draw upon the universal human condition to serve an explicatory, or reconciliatory function. Finally, some critics charge the field with producing a great number of stories in which all virtue and politics are unmasked, revealed to be empty, and from which no redeeming philosophy can be salvaged, and none but the most transitory hope can be gleaned. Critics of the Master of Fine Arts ( MFA ) System One of the most prominent critics of the MFA sys tem and a noted writer of literary fiction himse lf, John Gardner, in his 1978 collection of essays and criticism On Moral Fiction asserts that the nature of contemporary art (that is, art contemporary to the
34 publication of his writings, though many of the same patterns are evident in the art of the present, and, I believe, have become magnified over the intervening years) has ceased to be, in a profound and philosophical sense, moral. By this, he does not imply any form of conventional morality: he does no t mean to rebuke the field for filling the world with art that offends the sensibilities of the delicate, that aggrieve the ancientry, or that erect value systems sharply at odds with those held by the majority of mankind in the present era. Nor does he me an that art is no longer didactic, as in the Christian morality plays of the late Middle Ages or in the propaganda factories of the second world war, which he regards as inherently anti artistic to begin with. Rather, he conceives of the purpose of art in much the same way as Aristotle, Tolstoy, and Dante, in that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us ( Gardner 1977, p. 5). He claims that modern art, in parti cular modern literary fiction, has abandoned this fundamental premise, and as a result, one can find little art that holds up ideals to which a human can aspire, but is instead filled with the cynical degradation of previous value systems, or merely concer ns itself with trivia, rhetorical acrobatics, domestic frivolity, and small concerns that are incapable of addressing the universal human questions on the nature of good and evil, and the purposes of life and existence. He elaborates that the literary fict ion then in vogue is art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, [and] is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy ( Gardner 1977, p. 6 ). Without serious art, art that in some way affirms human values, that provides some deep reason why taking another breath is superior to simply suffocating yourself, the trivial art
35 that is purely escapist, lightheartedly benign in nature, or satirical has nothing to work against, no anchor against which to strain. Without a beautiful vision to ridicule, criticism and cynicism fall in upon themselves. Without blood deep values to shape the fabric of reality and to stand upon, all becomes chaos, and friv olity loses all meaning, loses the stable reality it previously danced upon and is swallowed up in a lurid sea of seething and unstable meanings. Gardner contends that this loss of ideological art (in the best sense of the term) coincides with the loss o f plot from literary fiction, as plot forces the author to systematically test ideologies against one another, to create a fictional world that operates by clear and unchangeable rules, to passionately, yet objectively, give each character with their separ ate viewpoi nts and values, a fair opportunity to react to one another in this world, creating a cauldron of thought where virtue battles virtue. He asserts that plot forces the true artist to fully enter the mind of their characters, even the most unsympat hetic of them, and by testing the character s actions against the author s crafted reality, to ultimately sympathize with them, making both author and reader more sensitive, more humane, more intelligent, and more virtuous. In contrast to these values, he believes that literary fiction instead tends to present worlds that are not full of competing important values but only of values mislaid, emotions comically or sadly unrealized, a burden of mysteries no one has the energy to s olve ( Gardner 1977, p. 80 ). This loss of honestly held values has caused literary critics to likewise lose sight of the fundamental purpose of criticism to identify the life affirming, the soul cleansing, the heart wrenching, and the virtue crafting works of art. Instead, he find s that
36 t he language of critics, and of artists of the kind who pay attention to critics, has become exceedingly odd: not talk about feelings or intellectual affirmations not talk about moving and surprising twists of plot or wonderful characters and idea s but sentences full of large words like hermeneutic, heuristic, structuralism, formalism or opaque language and full of fine distinctions for instance those between modernist and post modernist that would make eve n an intelligent cow suspicious Gard ner 1977, p. 4 The result is that the bulk of the literary fiction created criticizes and destroys values, without providing any replacements, or more often in the modern literary fiction publications, suggest that no replacements, no new virtues, no pa ths forward, are possible. Anis Shivani writing thirty three years later, objects to many of the same trends that he claims have morphed from a series of questionable artistic movements to the dominant modes of thought and aesthetics in academia and lite rary fiction. In his collection of essays, polemics, and even one particularly revealing letter from a literary agent to a recent MFA graduate from the University of Michigan (oh, and one thoroughly hilarious faux rejection letter from a modern literary pu blisher to Charlotte Bronte regarding Jane Eyre ) Shivani assaults the creators of literary fiction, the critics of the same who are unable to distinguish good writing from bad, even according to their own stated standards, and the MFA programs that he beli eves fuels it all. In Against the Workshop (2011) Shivani states that: contemporary American fiction has become cheap counseling to the bereaved bourgeois. Its scope is restricted too much to the trivial domestic sphere. It promotes grief, paralysis, inact ion: a determinism for the post politics society, where ideology has no place. p. 12 He believes that a combination of the loss of elite liberal consensus, the removal of common cultural standpoints, the democratization of writing and literary criticism, the erosion of elitism and the standards it previously upheld, and the passive acceptance of
37 post modern viewpoints as accurately describing reality, has caused literary fiction to lose all ability to elucidate a better vision of human existence, creating works of art that are very nearly ideologically empty. When characters in literary fiction do experience epiphanies Shiv ani often holds forth that they are of the most trivial and superficial kind, puffed up by pretense, and artificially elevated to the p osition that the thought rich works of the past once occupied. He asserts that It is not so much that new media are sapping the appeal of the novel, reducing our attention spans, leading to forms of perception that can only be fragmented and disjunctive & It is not that there are no w t oo many competing media to take in reality, but that reality itself has vanished into the ether of too much reality. Fiction writers, bred through the democratic process, are told that their every insight is valid (no, it s no t); that there can be no judgment banishing them to the ghetto of the failed and uninspired (yes, there must). 2011, p. 19 This lack of interest in the external validity of one s thoughts leads to abandonment of grandiose ideas in favor of focusing solely on the self and the individual life s often trivial concerns that touch the fate of one s species, nation, and people only obliquely, or not at all. In other words, the works produced are not, in the Gardenerian sense, moral, nor do they strive to be, nor do many of them appear to believe that moral fiction is even a possibility in the modern world where every virtue is unmasked, and every ideology crippled by its own history and implications. This categorical loss of fait h in the possibility of ideologica l progress leads to an unhealthy focus on making literary fiction that is highly textured full of linguistic artifice intended to dazzle and attract, but that only adorn vacuous plots and characters. Shivani (2011) believes that this pattern is reinforced by the MFA system, which has become a self replicating tautology, supported by the vast resources of academia. He tells us that, among the MFA crowd,
38 there are no Promethean, or Nietzscheian writers to be found, no flame tongued prophets of a new god and a deeper vision, but only overly prudent, unobjectionable academics, in thrall to heavy teaching workloads, enamored of conferences and colonies & in love with distractions, domesticity, family values, self restraint, and linearity. They are university empl oyees who happen to ha ve a slight talent for writing & Writing is now an industry, with precisely the economics informing any industry & supply creates its own demand (obscure literary journals that even graduate writing students don t read, but use as credi ts to land jobs teaching other illiterates how to become writing teachers). p. 17 Domination by economic and academic influences has led literary fiction into a self desired obscurity, a willing exile from any significant contact with the bulk of society, an intentional irrelevance and abrogation of the traditional duties and functions art performs in a society. Shivani (2011) protests that contemporary literary fiction has chosen to marginalize itself from mainstream culture. It has its own niche, like s pecialized Foucauldian sociology or Derridean philosophy, catering to the sensibilities of other experts in the field. p. 21 He believes this hyper specialization is aided by the sheer volume of fiction now being published, by the proliferation of publish ing outlets (more established literary fiction magazines such as The Atlantic, or The New York Times the literary magazines published by so many of the MFA programs themselves, the online magazines, literary supplements, e book markets for short stories a nd serialized distribution of novels, etc.), and the staggering number of literary awards being given to this mediocre or inferior fiction (the Pulitzer, Booker, O. Henry, Pushcart, Flannery O Connor, Whiting, NEA, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships, th e list goes on and on). Finally, Shivani (2011) reserves special vitriol for the theory and praxis of the MFA system itself, calling it a closed, undemocratic medieval guild system that represses good writing and that systematically excludes writers who do not bend to the prominent modes and theories
39 of writing espoused in MFA programs and codified in literary fiction publications and awards ( p. 286 7). One of the final critics, and one who draws extensively on highly lauded passages from literary fictio n to support many of his points is B.R. Meyers. His lighthearted polemic entitled A Reader s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose caused a firestorm of criticism when published in book form in 2002 In it, he ass erts that some of the most widely acclaimed writers of contemporary fiction have earned their acclaim through two main methods: utter and deliberate incomprehen sibility in their prose, and sycoph antic reviewers and critics who praise the authors and their products regardless of whether the writing is of such quality as to deserve praise. To back up his assertions, he chooses prominent reviewers or reviewing institutions (such as The New York Times or Granta ) critiques of prominent writers, and examines in detail the sections of the writer s work that the reviewers single out for especial praise. Take the following example: The Half Skinned Deer [by Annie Proulx] & starts with one of the most highly praised sentences of the past ten years: In the long unfurl ing of his life, f ro m tight wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns. A conceit must have been intended here, but unfurling or spreading out, as of a flag or umbrella, clashes disastrously with the images of thread which follow. (Presumably unraveling didn t sound literary enough.) A life is unfurled, a man is wound tight, a year is spooled out, and still the barrage of metaphors continues with kicked down, which might work in less crowded surroundings, though I doubt it, and hinge, which is cute if you ve never seen a hinge or a map of the Big Horns & I t demands to be read quickly, with just enough attention to note the bold use of words. Slow down, and things fall apart. p. 11 Meyers only rarely delves into the ideological content of prominent stories in literary fiction and instead focuses alm ost solely on the prose itself if anything attempting to
40 judge literary fiction by its own standards, yet even so, he believes that many literary fiction pieces praised for their powerful prose are in fact simply making use of cheap semiotic tricks. Devot ing a chapter each to the works of Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Paul Auster (all writers of considerable prominence ), he asserts that contemporary writers of fiction, literary critics, an d the cultural elite want us to believe that if o ur writers make no sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren t worthy of them ( p. 83) Meyers (2002) tells us that the post modern paradigm is used as a shield against serious criticism, saying The joy of being a writer today is that yo u can claim your work s flaws are all there by design. Plot doesn t add up? It was never meant to; you were playfully reworking the conventions of traditional narrative. Your philosophizing makes no sense? Well, we live in an incoherent age after all. The dialogue is implausible? Comedy often is. But half the jokes fall flat? Ah! Those were the serious bits. p. 128 More important is playing the part of the serious literary writer and demanding that the work be judged by any but the traditional standards of art. Meyers focuses on the least important aspect of any piece of art the execution, the mere technical prowess and ability to convey basic meaning, and contends that even by this lowest of standards, the most celebrated writers of contemporary literary fiction still fail. Advocates of the MFA System The M FA system has its fair share of defenders and advocates as well as critics though most have not published their defenses in so extended a form as the books of the previously cited critics. One possible exception to this is Mark McGurl, whose hefty 2009 publication The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing examines the different productive, philosophical, institutional promotional, and other systems at play in the creation of liter ary fiction from the establishment of the first post
41 war writing programs to the year of the work s publication. Far less interested in whether or not the rise of MFA programs has ultimately made American Literary Fiction better or worse than in the co mplex interactions that led to the creation of the programs and that have resulted from their founding, McGurl self consciously enjoys the historian s prerogative to withhold ultimate judgment to note a plethora of effects that are both beneficial and det rimental, or vice versa based on one s point of view. Reserving any attempts to place a value judgment on the phenomena the 466 page tome examines until the work s afterword, McGurl ultimately appears ambivalent on the matter. Forewarning the reader that a nalyzing the MFA phenomena according to the scale of the individual student, the artistic community, or humanity as a whole will lead to vastly different conclusions, he strives to make the reader aware of the arbitrariness of attempting to answer the ques tion of the ultimate value of the MFA program. However, after countless caveats and rhetorical roundabouts he ultimately does elaborate some form of position on the topic, though one suspects that this position is not, in fact, his own. He begins with a h ighly specific and unusual definition of the term excellence He asks If the sprawling modern university is an assemblage of centrifugal pluralisms of splintered knowledges, divergent research agendas, and multiplying bureaucratic expressions of cultur al and other forms of difference how does the system hold together? McGurl, 2009, p. 405 Without the unifying epistemologies and purposes of contributions to culture, the arts, or nationalism, he suggests the value that allows such a fragmented state to continue as though in a unity is excellence (p. 406). Re working Bill Readings suggestions that excellence, as an integrating principle & [I s] entirely meaningless, or to put it more precisely, non referential McGurl states that it is nonetheless rela tional, and can be
42 used to measure the relative value and distinction of work in diverse fields, even though such measures are necessarily and wholly self referential (Readings, 1996, p. 22 3, quoted in McGurl, 2009, p. 406). He further asserts that this n ew standard, excellence has taken the place that culture or nationalism used to hold, and that insofar as American culture has become a corporate culture, the rhetoric of excellence could be understood as a deep expression of that national culture, and seems for now to be holding educational institutions together fairly well. It is safe to say, then, that creative writing in the university will exist as long as it seems simply too excellent to resist. p. 407 Therefore, to approach the question of wheth er or not MFA s are beneficial to our society from a standpoint that is traditionalist and holds the shaping of a humane culture as its core metric is in many ways an inauthentic task the MFA program operates on and within an entirely different gestalt tha t values the ability to hold multiple, opposed values simultaneously and still function, while producing work that is relatively good according to the separate rubrics of each of those values. However, parts of this newer value system might not be entirel y without merit. If nothing else, he insists MFA programs have produced far more writing than in any previous era of human existence. He tells us Because of the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool coincident to the advent of mass higher educa tion, and the wide distribution, therein, of elevated literary ambitions, and the cultivation in these newly vocal, vainglorious masses of the habits of self conscious attention to craft through which these ambitions might plausibly be realized, is it not true that owing to the organized efforts of the program to the simple fact of our trying harder than ever before there has been a system wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period? ...Is there not more excellent fiction being produced now than anyone has time to read? What kind of traitor to the mission of mass higher education would you have to be to think otherwise? McGurl, 2009, p. 409 10 Yet that s precisely it: if the real mission of mass higher education has become comm ercial viability and systemic stability instead of deep engagement with the other
43 systems active within society, the forging of a common culture, the improvement of that culture, or the renewal of mankind s more noble, compassionate nature, then is it real ly a mission we want to excel at? More importantly, does it matter what kind of mission we would prefer? If this is the only mission possible in the contemporary commercial culture, do we really have a choice? And if not, why not try to be as excellent a s we can? Despite McGurl s somewhat darkly celebratory evaluation of the MFA system, he does manage to find a number of aspects in the programs that he can praise more wholeheartedly. For instance, he asserts that the presence of professors of writing on a college campus serves as an inspiring social example to students that may be even more valuable than the actual writing training they provide. Every professor of writing is therefore half a performance artist: making his name, doing his job, owning the product of his labor of self expression, the artist or writer in residence is in a sense the purest version of the kind of worker & that so many college students are preparing to be (McGurl, 2009, p. 408). Due to the individualistic nature of the creative process, these professors are seen by the students as being, at least in some ways, less generic and interchangeable than many of the others they encounter in college, and therefore co opted by the desires of the university to a lesser degree and more aut hentic to their own purposes. In addition to that very specific role, the professors add significant cultural capital and richness to the systems they inhabit, and transmit this richness to those they interact with in the university community, much the sam e way that a faculty that contains an East Asian scholar, a geneticist, a Jungian psychologist, and a mixed media artist may provide richer insights than one composed entirely of Germanic
44 language scholars. The presence of MFA professors and writers may al so attract students to the university that are highly creative in the medium of the English language, incentivizing the incorporation of this group of students into t he university and adding to its diversity. Finally, McGurl elaborates that MFA programs pr ovide a critical and personally beneficial form of therapy to some of these students & in advance of their lifelong capture by the usual cubicle (2009, p.408). You may note that this function of the MFA program is precisely what raises Shivani s ire, and t hat the true purpose of the MFA system is to produce literature, but as McGurl cautions, whether this function is a boon or a deficiency depends on one s point of view. A similar line of defense is eloquently argued by Arielle Greensburg in her Poets.org article A (Slightly Qualified) Defense of MFA Programs: Six Benefits of Graduate School (n.d.). She views the program in a more purely humanistic light, advocating the many side benefits of entering the MFA system. She asserts t hat being part of an MFA program helps her to develop as a human being, and that being forced to produce creatively, regardless of whethe r or not the quality of what she produces reaches the level of real literature, also forces her to think deeply about the issues plaguing her i nternal li fe makes her deeply imagine and consider other people s points of view, and encourages her to expand her knowledge of the world, literature, and herself This idea is eloquently echoed by Julie Schumacher in her 2012 article In Defense of the M FA in which she compares entering an MFA program to a sort of draft in reverse: instead of summoning each citizen to donate several years of his or her life, this program & [gives] the years back. I am all for it, and the more years the better (Para. 7) In other words, who is harmed by allowing lovers of writing to have roughly
45 three years to devote to their art? If the chance to do so was given to you, wouldn t you take it? And as supporters of a liberal and humanistic education, should we not attempt to allow as many as possible to explore their own creative capacities and offer them the chance to write creatively ? Jason Sommer of the popular creative writing blog Bark wrote an article in 2010 within which he argued that the primary function of the MFA system is not so much to create quality literature, which is a difficult process to teach at the best of times, but rather to provide young authors with potential a chance to hone their skills without outside interference, and then to provide them with the networking and mentoring apparatus to launch their career if they indeed do have the talent for it ( In Defense of MFA Programs (Which are Sometimes Run by Old White Men) ). This sentiment is echoed by Greensburg (n.d.) who asserts that in the contemporar y artistic world, the majority of the best writers work in MFA programs, and entering their programs is one of the best ways to gain access to their advice, wisdom, and network of literary agents and publishers. Kate Harding elaborates on this in a 2007 on line article, in which she states today s young Fitzgeralds and Hemingways and Wolfes simply won t get the benefit of the doubt from [modern editors], no matter if they ve got potential leaking from every pore. They have to figure out all by themselves ho w to get the thing written & W e re not going to get [writing advice] from an editor at Scribner who sees promise in a manuscript that s about 80 percent hot mess. In Defense of the MFA Section 6, para. 1 2. She goes on to lament the loss of the literary salons of the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries, and the demise of the editor in the contemporary writing world, saying that the MFA system has arisen to fill in these gaps in the artistic process between creation and publication and that simply cannot be filled in any other way. Connected with the benefits of learning how to publish from a more experienced writer, the MFA system
46 offers a highly intellectual, driven, artistic community that is no longer available through the general community. Greensburg ( n.d.) tells us the sad truth of the matter is that we are living in a culture where anti intellectualism reigns. There are few places to turn in America for serious engagement with aesthetic, intellectual, ideas ( A (Slightly Qualified) Defense of MFA Pr ograms: Six Benefits of Graduate School, Section 6, Para. 2). This group of skilled peers helps budding writers to refine their craft, find publishing opportunities, revise their teaching methods, edit their works, and struggle with the difficult aestheti c and philosophical decisions that must be made to create a quality work of literature. Finally, some assert that, contrary to the homogeneous picture painted by critics, MFA programs often strive to provide artistically authentic, highly diverse experien ces that are specifically aimed at creating fiction just as heterogeneous and rigorous. J. Robert Lennon, a professor of the highly prestigious MFA program at Cornell University, wrote a spirited defense of his work at that university on his blog Ward Six in 2011 entitled Blame Grad School. In this article he argues that if there is much mediocre writing coming out of MFA programs, this is merely the result of there being many mediocre writers, and that this phenomena is anything but new. The programs the mselves often actively discourage such sameness in genre, technique, content, media, structure, purpose, and tradition. He tells us These stories are not like processed meat, dumped out of a can. They are wildly different from one another. And we accommoda te students longer works too and their memoirs, graphic novels, poem cycles, opera librettos, dance/literature hybrids, experimental film scripts, fine art printing projects, and collaborations with composers & Is your writing program not like this? Then fix your writing program, because it sucks. Para. 7.
47 This is seconded by Elise Blackwell, the director of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina who, in 2011, published two well argued articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled B lackwell on Writing: A Geography of Fiction, and In Defense of M.F.A. Programs, Part 2 She presents the argument throughout that MFA fiction is, in fact, extremely diverse and spans a multitude of styles and artistic concerns, and that this has two par ticular sources: the locality of MFA programs and the diverse backgrounds of MFA students. She asserts that students at MFA programs are actively encouraged to interact with the location in which they find themselves for the 2 4 year duration of their prog rams, and to allow their artistic foci and their voices to be altered by the uniqueness of these locations. The very geographical and cultural diversity encountered in each area ensures that the writing produced by each program offers a snapshot of an enti rely different environment and people with ways of thinking and concerns that are necessarily different from one another ( Blackwell on Writing: A Geography of Fiction, Para. 7 9). In addition to this richness the racial, cultural, and spatial diversity of the MFA students ensures an additional level of heterogeneity, as each individual will interpret the program and their environment in a different way based upon their individual histories and modes of thought. She tells us that the diversity of backgro unds of writers in the academy & [leads many to] 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 Chicag o), and Iranian American Porochista Kakpour (Bucknell). In Defense of M.F.A. Programs, Part 2, Para. 4. In addition to their individual pasts, they may draw upon cultural pasts and place their settings and characters in any place and time, as well as exp erimenting with different combinations of genres like magic realism and horror.
48 Several of the reasons for the creation and continuance of the MFA system that have been raised by advocates concern activities in th e writing world that were once carried out by classes of people or professions that no longer exist, or that have become so enfeebled in the contemporary era that they can no longer fulfill their traditional functions. However, these functions are vital to the existence of a thriving national and international creative writing community. Without some manner of placing promising artists into contact with one another, they will be left to struggle on alone and without the benefit of the artistic and intellectual stimulation and support that has histo rically been so important to the creation of great works of art. Without some manner of gaining talented, honest feedback, writers will have only their own vision through which to perceive their works, which many will readily admit, can become highly myopi c when personally invested in the work they create. Without some way of objectively screening what is and is not ready for publication and arranging the distribution of those works that are ready, writers would be left to try and sell their works themsel ves a highly difficult task that detracts from their artistic focus and robs them of precious time and energy. MFAs fulfill these roles and several others, and i t seems likely that, should MFA s be entirely disbanded, something similar to them would have t o be created in their place, whether through a resurrection of older professions like professional editors and critics, or through another, as yet un guessed form. In addition to this, they seem to offer a broadly humanistic experience that seems unquestio nably enriching for those who are lucky enough to be admitted to the programs. If they do not always produce wonderful writers, it seems likely that they almost universally produce wonderful readers, and people who will remain invested in
49 the state of the literary arts for the rest of their lives. A thriving artistic community depends upon a large amount of just such readers, who possess taste, are interested in the health of the field, and who willingly support writers. Even if highl y interested, skilled r eaders are all that MFA programs produced and they did not generate a single work of fiction deserving of being included in the literary cannon, is that really such a terrible situation?
50 CHAPTER 4 R ESULTS Views of Two MFA Professors on Theoretical Paradoxes in the Field The two professors interviewed identified severa l areas in the theory o f creative writing education that caused them significant concern These included the question of whether or not the indescribable virtu es that come together to create a truly enduring and quality work of art could be taught, whether the workshopping process was more of a help or a hindrance to the development of great art, whether or not the development and expansion of the MFA system its elf was, on the whole, more beneficial to literature and the arts than detrimental to them, whether or not the codification necessary to gain legitimacy as a field induces a standardization of the art produced by MFA programs, whether or not literary ficti on is itself a genre, and, if the MFA system has significant flaws, what aspects of artistic training does it accomplish well? One of the most fundamental paradoxes of the field seems to be the question of whether or not skill in the art of writing is, in itself, teachable and communicable. If the answer is yes then there is no reason not to accord to the field of creative writing the same legitimacy and status as is accorded to the other fine arts such as ballet, painting, or sculpture, and we m ay turn to the matter of how the field is best taught and the refinement of principles and praxis to achieve our desired end in a more effective fashion However, if the answer is no then the entire field is lacking in legitimacy of any sort, the entire corpus of published textbooks promising to teach writing is no more than a parasitic exploitation of false hopes, and the creation of MFA programs is merely, as Dr. Ciment at times suspects, a Ponzi scheme designed to support mediocre writers who are not able t o achieve success through their artistic vision, but must
51 instead get 30 people to study under [them], and if they want to continue, they have to find 30 people to study under them [as well] (Ciment 2012, p. 7). The question dates back to the time of A ristotle where, in a treatise outlining precisely the formal aspects and principles that regularly produce better and worse writing, we are nonetheless told by far the most important matter [in the crafting of effective diction] is to have skill in the us e of metaphor. This skill alone it is not possible to obtain from another; and it is, in itself, a sign of genius ( Aristotle 1981, p. 41 ). Caglioti s study (2010) reports a deep bifurcation among directors of MFA programs on the possibility of quality wr iting being the result of a communicable set of skills. Though only 16 MFA directors took the time to respond to her survey, 6 responded (some of them vehemently) that quality writing could be taught, 2 replied that it could not, 6 replied that craft could be taught while talent could not, and 2 directors made it clear that they had no stance on whether the programs they ran were actually capable of accomplishing their primary goal, and, by extension, whether or not those programs are worthy of existence ( p 96 7). Such responses bespeak a profound sense of professional anxiety and indicate a high level of consciousness regarding how effective or ineffective the teaching of writing through an MFA program truly is. Scholars in the humanities are often reminde d that one does not have to question whether hard sciences such as physics or chemistry can be taught as the success or failure of the education is easily tested, measured, and apparent; if the student could not predict the motion of a particular particle correctly or predict the crystalline structure of a certain precipitate correctly, but can do so now, then their education has been effective. But it is wise to note that, even when not measurable or quantifiable, if the effectiveness of a
52 form of educatio n is sufficiently obvious, its utility and right to exist goes unquestioned; for example, one cannot quantify how much greater the skill of a sculptor at the end of her training is compared to the beginning of her training but if her sculptures have impro ved, we do not question whether the teaching she has received has been in vain. The two professors whom I interviewed and who worked jointly at the same MFA program seemed supremely aware of the controversy over the effectiveness of their profession, and both gave highly qualified answers when asked whether their teaching was effective. When I inquired as to the specifics of the composing process and how they might be aided, Dr. Leavitt responded : It s a very mysterious process [ & ] and it is one of the thi ngs that is difficult about the teaching of creative writing. My colleague Pa dgett Powell always tells me that our business is teaching what cannot be taught, because & There s a certain fundamental interior process that is, almost alchemical or magical & [tha t] as a teacher, you can t really contribute much to. And as a writer, you can t really explain So & We can talk about craft, we can talk about, sort of, improving what you ve done, but you can t, you, you can t light the spark [ & ] my job is to help them, I help them try to be the best versions of themselves they ca n be. Leavitt 2011, p. 2 Genius, talent, insight, aptitude, these, to the professor s mind, cannot be communicated, cannot be transmitted from teacher to student, from great literature to lesse r, but the purely technical skills needed to create a narrative that, had it possessed that same artistic vision, would become a magnum opus, that can be taught. Hence, the emphasis is placed upon the formal and technical aspects of the education, not upon the r aw content itself, which can only be the product of the student s own heart and mind. Dr. Ciment elaborated upon the question in much the same terms: EM: Is there a specific method that seems to be really good at [helping students create quality wri ting] ? At alerting them to the different facets of what makes a really quality piece of writing and of helping them to develop those?
53 JC: No. EM: Does it vary to each one of those facets, or to the person, or is it just different every time? JC: You kno w, I don't know if any of th at can be taught, quite frankly [ & ] You know, it is the one class at college, maybe if they took a philosophy class, but this is the one class in college they will have where you can see if they have anything unique to say abou t the human condition. And if they have a unique way to say it. So there's no way to teach that & So & Instead of teaching that, because that's not teachable, but you, what you're trying to get them to imagine is another existence [ & ] basically, you re teac hing them empathy. Ciment 2012, p. 3 4 Some possible consequences of abandoning the pursuit of genius and believing that inspiration or artistic vision are qualities that are entirely inherent and that cannot be created or strengthened will be discussed in the implications section. Both professors seem to view the question of whether or not the ability to create quality writing can be taught as a gross oversimplification certain aspects that lend themselves to creating great writing can be taught, others are impervious to even the most skilled of teachers. A more interesting question then becomes, is genius or talent an essential part of creating writing of superlative quality? And if so, is it the habit of this MFA program to choose applicants based upo n their technical proficiency, or their genius? And, if someone of supreme genius did enroll in an MFA program, would the program s effects upon their writing necessarily improve it? Genius is often an unconv entional and disruptive element; would it be abl e to survive in the MFA environment? Great works, created through the obvious and unquestionable genius of someone who has participated in an MFA program would support the view that genius and an institutionalized form of artistic training are commensurabl e, but both professors at times expressed concerns about the revision by committee that is entailed in both the workshop and the publishing process. Dr. Leavitt, for example, made several
54 unequivocal statements of concern about the effects of systematizi ng artistic expression. He tells us One of the dangers of this sort of MFA & phenomena is that it has created a sort of academic & track for creative writing which is so & so contradicts, to me, the whole essence of being a writer, which is essentially about be ing an outsider, about being outside of systems. Once you have a system that is this rigid, and this is Shivani s point, people start writing to please the system. And that's a very, very dangerous thing. Leavitt 2011, p. 9 While thoroughly confident tha t really great writers are not going to be stifled by anything Dr. Leavitt nonetheless seems to worry that having a support system such as an MFA program may lead to a certain lack of ambition and of self reliance among writers because they are no longe r judged solely by the impact that their writings have on society as a whole and on the artistic world in particular (Leavitt 2011, p. 9) Furthermore, having such an academic track to become versed in something that is not an academic practice, but an artistic one, threatens to strip the artist of one of their most traditionally valuable tools: societal insight. The ability to criticize the society in which one is embedded, and to do so honestly, and at times, mercilessly, is precisely what propelled m any of the great writers of the past to fame, and at times, even led to changes in the society itself. Think, for example, of what the works of Virginia Woolf, J. D. Salinger, or Oscar Wilde would be without this central, critical faculty, or if it were ne cessary for them to quietly adhere to the norms of the society they sought to criticize in order to receive their next paycheck, or in order to be certain of their future. Should an MFA student, at this point in history, criticize the very program that sup ports him, and do so as unsparingly as Wilde criticized high society in fin de sicle England, he may put his prospects of being published by literary journals (often hosted by MFA program s run by MFA students, and edited by MFA
55 professors), or by the lar ger corporate presses (who, by printing such material, may outrage those whose submissions they rely upon) at serious risk. And to be hired as an MFA professor oneself without publishing a novel is, in the contemporary world, almost unheard of (Leavitt 2011, p. 12). Dr. Ciment is likewise highly and explicitly aware of what she believes are the shortcomings of the MFA workshop technique, saying that, at its worst, it ends up makin g literature into some sort of & Gallup poll, where you are asking "Does eve ryone like this ending?" And you reduce it to some sort of & Thing that ten people can all agree on. That's not necessarily the best way to create idiosyncratic works. I mean I'm certain that if Melville brought in the first chapter of Moby Dick there would be people in the workshop whining that it s too wordy. And you know, do you really want that kin d of & Consensus and similarity? Ciment 2012, p. 5 6. A disruptive and idiosyncratic literary genius may very well not be admitted to an MFA program, or once wi thin it, the revolutionary vision they possess may be diluted or destroyed on the workshop floor. T he workshopping process is further complicated by the fact that the other students who are conducting the workshopping are often reported to be woefully poor ly read, or to have extraordinarily poor literary taste, and as a result, to give advice that can be unreliable, inexpert, clumsy, or simply wrongheaded. Critiquing a nascent work of literature in a manner that will make that piece better is undoubtedly on e of the most d ifficult endeavors to undertake and requires deep literary knowledge to develop sufficient sensitivity to the nuances of the text, vast knowledge not only of the literary tradition, but of how various writers of the past have produced differ ent effects on the audience, and the principles beneath such techniques that make them effective. Perhaps most importantly of all, it requires a profound knowledge of ideas and emotions themselves such that the writer s artistic vision can grow brighter, t heir narrative can become more effective, and their insights into human nature can
56 become deeper. All of this must be employed without ego, and with the sincerity and humility requisite to taking the aims of the author as one s own, and to allow ing the wor k to achieve according to its own merits. Unfortunately, if some batches of students are [not] that well read and cannot perform this very difficult form of literary analysis, it opens the possibility of the lowering of standards, the retarding of ambit ion, and the homogenization of the literature produced (Ciment, 2012, p.6) Both professors interviewed seemed acutely aware of these potential faults in the theory behind the MFA workshop, yet despite the considerable intelligence of the participants, and their obvious earnestness and desire to improve the system of which they are a part, they have yet been unable to envision a perfect solution. As Dr. Le a vitt intoned I think it s not perfect, that there are actually a lot of problems with it, but I haven t been able to come up with anything better (Leavitt 2011, p. 3). Another area that seemed to cause the professors deep concern was the expansion and popularity of the MFA system itself, and they often expressed what seemed to be disappointed awe at th e sheer number of MFA programs, the volume of work that was produced and published by them, the relatively small, niche market that these publications actually reach, the number of graduates that were sent out into the world every year by the collective pr ograms, and the tiny, highly competitive, highly unpredictable job market that the graduates of MFA programs face when their 2 4 years at the university are over. Dr. Ciment cited this particular feature as the only part of the MFA program that really & tha t s where my moral qualms are [ & ] out of those 20,000 people getting their MFA s [every year], knowing that only 25 are going to make it in the & the high literary New York world & that means there s going to be 19,975 people who are going to be totally bewil dered by the shape their lives are taking. Some of those people are going to becom e embittered and crazed by it. Ciment 2012, p. 14 5.
57 Both professors expressed sincere worry that the aggressive growth of the MFA system, though it may have started as a lo gical, benevolent, and effective endeavor, is now falling prey to the business mod el of education, or, as Shivani would phrase it, the last great Fordi st model of production ( 2011, p. 17). And it must be borne in mind that graduates represent only a ver y small fraction of those who apply to MFA programs, who very well may choose to cont inue their writing education o n their own and outside of the academy, providing further competition to the graduates themselves for those few publishing deals each year. D r. Ciment, though highly displeased with the number of graduates produced each year, also speculated that, if programs are being run on a business model, it is likely because the university is losing money in other words, the latest economic contraction has caused universities to lose much of the public funds and private grants and donations that traditionally subsidize programs in the arts and humanities, and so, the universities are forced to open more programs and accept more applicants (Ciment 2012, p. 13) If the applicants produce mediocre work, it is at the least not actively harmful to the arts, it supports the applicant s exploration, allows them to have an opportunity for success, helps preserve the arts from being entirely devastated by econom ic forces, and retains the possibility that genuinely good art will be produced as well as inferior specimens. Considered in this light, the MFA program can be thought of as sort of a welfare system for writers that affords a certain level of opportunity and stability rather than expressly being an intensive, product focused training system, or a self replicating training system for even more teachers of writing (Leavitt 2011, p. 11). However, the desire and, to a certain extent, the expectation that the program will in some way cause the student to produce publishable work to be used
58 as the foundation for a career never seems to be out of the picture entirely for many graduate students. Despite numerous, open, and voca l warnings that writing is not a li velihood, it is an avocation and that it is simply wrongheaded to enter an MFA program with a career in writing or as a writing teacher in mind, students still seem to be drawn in by the hopes of an illustrious artistic career, or, more commonly of a secu re, humble, position as a professor of writing (Ciment 2012, p. 11). Of course, to create powerful, visionary, culturally significant works of art requires immense discipline, knowledge, and self sacrifice. Writers often face extreme loneliness, psycholog ical hardship, and financial duress in pursuit of their goals, and a great many highly talented artists never achieve the fortune and glory they strive for throughout their lives. Despite these challenges the number of people who aspire to join MFA progra ms and become professional writers is staggering. Dr. Ciment postulated that perhaps people have a false idea o f what an artist s life is like & and it looks like it s really attractive. But it s [ & ] a very brutal life, that a lot of people aren t really eq uipped for and terrible consequences can result from the statistically certain failure of the overwhelming majority of MFA graduates to find careers in writing or academia (Ciment 2012, p. 14) She tells us that I know more people who have been destroy ed by art than by drugs. And I can count 10 ODs [Over Doses (of drugs)] on my, you know, on my memory. People think that they want to be artists and they think that they want to be creative, but they don t have it, and they feel like failures in life becau se they didn t succeed. And I ve watched that destroy just as many people as heroin. So in a way that s & that s the shame. Ciment 2012, p. 14 Though both professors informed me that they offer unambiguous warnings to the students about the dangers of the writing career, and that they are at all times realistic about their chances of publication, professorship, and general success, every student
59 says I m going to be different while ignoring the roughly 1 in 500 chance that they will receive a professorsh ip or book publication at the end of the program (Ciment, 2012, p. 15) The sheer number of programs and number of courses that are being taught in writing would itself create pressure to create a standard, generalizable model for creative writing educati on. When this desire for codification is intensified by the search for academic legitimacy and rigor, it would be very surprising if a corpus of generally agreed upon knowledge, techniques, and texts did not emerge to define the limits, scope of interest, and nature of the field. However, as previously noted, many prominent critics have accused the field of creative writing and the MFA system of regularly producing mass quantities of homogeneous writing the quality of which is often mediocre or substandard. When asked if there was a certain MFA style or a certain discernible formula to MFA writing, Dr. Ciment replied T here is. I believe good programs fight against it and that while she hoped her own program was eclectic, open minded, and forward thinking enough to avoid such pitfalls, not all MFA programs seemed to be as discerning (Ciment 2012, p. 11). Dr. Leavitt largely agreed, though he noted that the style seemed peculiar to American literary fiction, which he described as being very provincial and very hermetic at times (Leavitt 2011, p. 10) When asked if he could describe the stories and styles that seemed characteristic of American literary fiction, he identified two prominent strands the first of which is a kind of dreary realism in which there is not much humor & very little happens. [ Laughter ]. There s a sort of fear of plot [ & For example,] A couple is standing on the edge of a beach, skipping stones for & 30 pages. And at the end of 30 pages you discover that the wife had a miscarriage. An d that's the whole story. And so it's just 30 pages
60 of & Kind of & Stone & Stone & Are you okay? & Stone & Stone & I'm fine. & Stone & Stone & Are you sure? & I mean, there s this kind of & Super precise rendering of not very much [ & ] And a great fear of actually having a nything happen. Or there s the story which ends on an ambiguous note. Leavitt 2011, p. 10 15 The second strand he perceived is stuff that is written entirely to shock [ & ] which isn t really all that different from the other kind, because neither one is really very interesting ultimately (Leavitt 2011, p. 10). Dr. Ciment elaborates that many stories within the first strand tend to have a really poetic ending & they all, like, end with that same kind of just short of epiphany and that there is a discern ible eccentricity [ & ] to the work (Ciment 2012, p. 10). These observations seem to echo the complaints that Brooks & Pitlor (2011), Shivani (2011) and Gardner (1978) m ake against the field (that is, the small ambitions, focus on the domestic or academic sphere, emphasis upon quirky characters and their psychological concerns rather than external plot, highly economic diction that focuses on clarity and borders on minimalism, overwhelming atmosphere of apathy, confusion, grief, or paralysis, highly ambiva lent characters and occurrences, focus on realism and plainness of style, and the general effect of equivocating on or disaffirming prominent values, often with a sense that the affirmation of values is no longer fully possible). Both professors put forwa rd several different theories as to how these formulas came to be so prevalent in the literary fiction community. One possibility mentioned is that the original stories and authors that were are considered foundational for the field (such as Raymond Carv er, Flannery O Connor, John Cheever, William Faulkner, Richard Ford, etc.) were held up as exemplars of what literary fiction should be when the first generation of MFA programs had just come into being, and that the present focus upon similar styles is a form of academic and creative lag. Another possibility is
61 that whatever the students feel is easy to imitate, those are the pieces that they are drawn towards, because they re trying to figure out how to do it. So in a certain sense & the plainer the piece, the more it becomes imitated (Ciment 2012, p. 12). This inherently subtractive process progressively leads to a form of minimalism, while the more florid style of Joyce or the highly rigorous style of Cynthia Ozick, though they may still be considered f ine pieces of literature, are gradually pushed to the margins of the field. As with any imitative process, the further that one gets from the original subject of imitation, the worse the imitation tends to become. When a first year MFA student does not loo k to the visionary writers of the past for his inspiration, techniques, and material, and instead begins studying the style of the latest successful MFA graduate, who was herself drawing upon the style of a successful graduate before her, the chain of imit ations can cause significant stylistic alteration and degradation. With that said, however, bad prose is certainly not the invention of the MFA system, and both professors pointed out that the total literary output of our society (and very likely, the soci eties that came before us) has always contained a rather appalling amount of very poor and mediocre writing, and the undue praising of mediocrity is not at all a new occurrence. Nonetheless, such a profound absence of good criticism and the fact that our s ociety tolerates its absence, may say much of our society s lack of critical skills and lack of investment in our society s artistic future It may be, upon reflection, a highly disturbing phenomenon, and the mark of a society that has willfully set aside or rendered itself incapable of or uninterested in translating the profound and archetypal struggles of the human spirit into a new, comprehensible form to guide the present age b ut it is not a new phenomenon. Dr. Ciment suggested one possible explanatio n was
62 that publishing houses needed to make enormous profits from each publication taken on, and therefore could not survive a misprint or flop, leading them to s lavishly s tick to the tried and true stories, continually trying to replicate the latest best seller, endlessly aping one another in a cycle of self reference and stagnation to which any real innovation could be fatal (Ciment 2012, p. 13). Even when professors champion outcast modes of thought and writing in their courses an d personal lives, the t ide is woefully turned against them, and they find themselves competing against the popular taste, the stifling competition and fearful monopolies of the great publishing houses of our time. In such situations, good taste and the desire for more adventurou s, unusual literature provides only the s mallest and most tenuous refuge, a bomb shelter in which to huddle that one cannot venture from without encountering highly oppressive and omnipresent forces that, even without being antagonized, may breach the shel ter in time. Such an environment necessarily stifles innovation and elements that may disrupt the stability of the system, bu t too much stability eventually leads to a fata l ossification, and without the ability to reinvent the core aesthetic, philosophica l, and artistic values upon which such a system rests, it is carried forward by momentum alone, and must, eventually, grind to a halt. The issues of self reference, of circularity, of homogeneity in style and plotli ne begs the question of whether or not l iterary fiction is itself just another genre. Both professors were absolutely clear that they did not believe that literary fiction was in any way the same as literature proper, that is to say, that literature, to them was an authentic thing that is unmis ta kable that i s wrought with profound honesty, has an artistic rathe r than a commercial moti ve, and that by its very nature transcends genre
63 (Leavitt 2011, p. 9; Ciment 2012, p. 8 9). MFA programs were o rigin ally designed to support the creation of li terature in precisely this sense, and many of the prominent patterns that one can detect in many of the writing s in the literary fiction field are descendants of these or iginary principles. Literary fiction, as it was first conceived, merely comprised a ve ry general method that was designed to force students to create original works that did not rely on clich compelled them to create their own plots, settings, and characters, and that focused on emotional honesty ( Leavitt 2011, p. 5, 7 8, 10; Ciment 201 2, p. 1, 8 9). The use of formulas to create fiction nece ssarily contradicts these goals and allows the students to avoid the real lessons t hese principles a nd the style associated with them are meant to teach hence the great con cern over whether or not t his is what is actually happening in the literary fiction field. Dr. Ciment, while she did mention that she perceived a certain MFA formula, was adamant that her MFA program doesn t teach any genres and actively discourages the stylistic shortcuts assoc iated with writing that follows the MFA formula (Ciment 2012, p. 8). That she believes the formula exists nonetheless and that many of the mediocre pieces of writing produced in MFA programs is at least partially derived from that formula suggests sever al possibilities. It may be that the MFA program in which she and Dr. Leavitt work exerts the same pressure to use these formulas as other programs, but that the students often choose n ot to give in to such pressures ; it may be that Drs. Ciment and Leavitt s program uses a different pedagogy that steers students away from these shortcuts far more effectively than other programs; or, it may be that the pedagogies o f many MFA programs discourage the use of f ormula, but that it is picked
64 up by the students non etheless from other sources, such as literary fiction magazines and anthologies. Dr. Leavitt, when asked if literary fiction was itself a genre, replied DL: That s a very good question. It s a very hard question to answer. EM: That's why I ask it. DL: I think it's an arguable question. I think you could argue that literary fiction is as much a genre as any of those others, and that has its own rules and its own commerce and currency and its own economy. I think you can make a very strong argument to that effect [ & ] But I will say that there is something that when you see & You know & The authentic & Is never, you never have any d oubt about it when you see it. Leavitt 2011, p. 8 Thus, we seem to have two different definitions of what exactly literary fiction is, and the identification of antithetical trends in contemporary creative writing that are called the same thing is repeated to such an extent in the data gathered that, for reasons of clarity, it is necessary to disentangle the two categories. The first I will term ideal literary fiction which possesses no formulaic patterns, is of the highest artistic quality, is wrought with technical skill, filled with ideological or emotional honesty, eschews clich, and would be readily recognized by intelligent re aders and critics as literature. The second category I will term applied literary fiction which possesses many of the traits characteristic of a genre, uses many of the formulae discussed by the professors above (negligible plot, boring or dirty reali sm concentration upon the domestic, usually limited to the American literary scene, either highly textured prose or minimalist prose, ambivalent or inconclusive endings, etc.). Both professors believed th at their purpose and duty in MFA programs was to t each literary fiction of the former kind, yet, to their o bvious displeasure, the field very often seemed to produce fiction of the latter category. The corruption of ideal literary fiction into applied literary fiction may provid e a causal explanation, but these data nonetheless raise far more questions than they answer
65 Why should this particular corruption have gained prominence rather than any of the other possible corruptions? What cultural forces came into play to aid in its rise? And if so much applie d literary fiction is so mediocre, then why is volume after volume of it published? Who controls the means of production for such literature and what do they stand to gain or lose by its popularity? Who, in the end, benefits from its prevalence, and who lo ses? And, most importantly of all, what must we do to re invigorate the production and popularity of ideal literary fiction? I must pause here to consider the impression that must be conveyed by presenting the data given by these two professors in such a way. This study focuses upon those sections of the MF A system that, for one reason or another, work poorly, and seeks to use this knowledge to aid in the repair of those sections as best they may be repaired. Some of the theoretical difficulties commented upon may truly be irresolvable, and the best that can be hoped for is to mitigate their ill effects or at the least, to be prepared for and aware of those effects when they do occur, and not to teach without full knowledge of the consequences of one s act ions Nonetheless, this exclusive focus upon the failures and inadequacies of the MF A system should not imply that these two professors were in any way accomplices in those shortcomings, and if they must collude in those failings, they do so unwillingly. I believe, if anything, the prior section demonstrates just how sensitive the professors are to the pitfalls of their profession and their sensitivity is rooted in a profound desire to avoid such dangers and failings. Ob viously, if they believed that MFA p rograms ultimately caused greater harm than good, they would not participate in them, and each believes profoundly, if not in the reality then in the promise of the humanizing capacities of MFA programs. If the
66 programs often produce mediocre writing, they also teach students deepe r and more meaningful forms of e mpathy. If programs train them to replicate easy styles, they also train them to pursue, spread, and believe deeply in the civilizing potential of art. If the programs are pursued as an academic tra ck to external rewards like publications and professorships, they are also pursued as a path to life giving internal rewards. Those who struggle to turn these difficult pedagogical imperatives to good are no doubt the most sincerely interested in finding i mprovements upon them, and I believe they would forgive me for subjecting their profession and thoughts to such severe scrutiny, and for excluding a great many of the more noble aspirations they so eloquently professed, as they offer little insight into th e present difficulties faced by the field. Views on How the Field is Represented and Shaped by Educational Texts by Two Writers of Creative Writing Textbooks The two composers of MFA creative writing textbooks professed similar knowledge of and concern w ith many of t he theoretical difficulti es cited above, and indeed, both of the textbook makers have been or currently are professor s of MFA programs themselves an d were well acquainted with the various travails that unique c lassroom often presents. I do not mean to imply that their viewpoints were identical to those of the professors cited above, but merely that the same areas of concern tended to crop up in the conversation of the former as well as the latter. As writers of textbooks, these two professors h ave the opportunity to exert significan t influence on the pedagogy of the f ield and through deciding which methods to propose to the students, which paths to guide them on, which dictums t o retain, which to alter, and which to dispose of, the professors ca n alter the shape the field will take in the future. One of the most immediate questions to be answered is, how did these t w o professors decide to
67 represent their chosen field? How did t hey position it withi n the academy? How did they describe, whether dir ectly or indirectly, the nature and purpose of their field? What manner of story or writer do they often use as exemp l a rs of their field? Dr. Burroway presented the position of the creative writing field in the academy as sharing a common root with the di scipline of English literature and criticism, and used many of the same principles and values explored in these more academic disciplines to create the initial pe dagogy for the field of writing She tells us When I first started teaching creative writing, I really did not know how to do it, and after a couple of years it occurred to me that in lit classes people were asked to look at motivation, and characterization, and structure, and imagery, and so forth, and point of view. And that if these were the th ings that the reader and the critic saw in the fiction, they must be the things that were put there. And so from the writers point of view, could you, could you look from the writers point of view and see & How to produce that in & I n your fiction? Burroway 2011, p. 11. The values described are those of formal or structural criticism, and are decidedly different than those values that may have arisen to guide the field if she had instead drawn the original principles of the discipline from the commercial s ector which might value demographic appeal and viability, from aesthetic criticism which might value the vision of the artist and their combined emotional and intellectual daring, or from ideological criticism which may value the clear presentation of idea s embodied in characters and the exploration of the human condition, position, and moralities. While the structural elements above are necessary for any successful work of fiction, and while instructing students in the nuts and bolts of the fictional sto ry seems to be a perfectly reasonable idea, it is worth noting that these values could have been otherwise, could have been mixed with many other forms of discipline, and wer e in no way fated to become dominant. Due to the structural and formal focus of th e textbooks,
68 great emphasis has been placed on craft, while not nearly as much emphasis is placed upon the inspiration or genius of the writer, the impact of the work upon society, or the ideological soundness of the work, all of which undoubtedly play a r ole as well in the critical appraisal of a work of literature. Thus, while the pedagogy and values of creative writing pedagogy are certainly drawn from the values of academic literary criticism, they are only drawn from very specific quarters of the Engli sh criticism field. Indeed the forms of pedagogy and composition promoted in creative writing programs suggest that the field has little consciousness of such fundamental theorists of English composition as Peter Elbow or Linda Flower & John Hayes and seem s to ignore the many theorists who work with younger writers (such as Fran Claggett) whom it is very likely would be even more difficult to teach to write in an authentic and creative manner. When the field resists being influenced by such rich sources of educational and writing theory it deprives itself of several extraordinarily useful tools for helping creative writing students to overcome common obstacles such as writer s block and lack of inspiration/motivation as well as more theoretical difficulties such as formulaic writing. Such willful ignorance makes the task of the MFA professor far more difficult than it needs to be and may deprive students of a writing education that is as useful to their development as it could be. Despite the strength of some of the ties between the disciplines of writing literature and reading literature, Dr. Burroway sees creative writing as fulfilling an entirely different role in the education of a well rounded, liberally educated human being, a role that no other discipli ne can perform. She inveighed I would like to see writing be treated, not as a pathway to fame & But as an enriching activity. I think when I first started teaching myself, I thought I
69 was & Treading water waiting for the genius & [but I later realized that] t he point was not to find a professional writer any more than the point of teaching history was to find a professional historian. On the contrary, it is part of a liberal education, to look at the world from the point of view of someone trying to write imag inatively. So I d like it to go more in that direction, I would like to kill the notion of the career arc for an undergraduate[ & ] And see it accepted as part of a liberal education. A necessary part. Burroway 2011, p. 11. The capacity to imagine the viewp oints and details of the existence of an other human being vastly different from oneself is necessary for good literary criticism, but in order to base a creative work around such a figure and to do so successfully requires a far deeper use of the imaginati on and strengthens the capacity for human empathy. Furthermore, while the analysis of a text may focus on the rational and logical and may employ those faculties to illuminate patterns and tease out implications, an act of creation calls upon the emotional and intuitive capacities to a far greater degree. In the eyes of Dr. Burroway, this intensive use of one s imaginative faculties can lead to a necessary regeneration of the human spirit. She tells us the thing I most want to convey is tha t I do believe i n the enriching and ennobling power of art. And I think that we need fiction more than we ever have (Burroway 2011, p. 16). While literary criticism within the academy is upon firm footing and now occupies an uncontested and promin ent position, critics w ho are versed in the creation of literature will be able to perform their criticism more sensitively, insightfully, and humanely. In a discipline focused on the creation of high quality writing, the prose in which a textbook is couched can say much to rea ders about the field, and of how effectively pedagogues can move between writing beautiful creative literature and beautiful instructive literature. The second textbook writer interviewed, Dr. Selgin, took issue with the way in which Dr. Burroway s prose w as written. While he admitted that most
70 textbooks aren t very well written and that the material included within Writing Fiction covers all the ground reading it was nonetheless like eating a piece of Formica (Selgin 2011, p. 12). It is possible th at the plainness of style in Writing Fiction was a deliberate choice by Dr. Burroway and Dr. Stuckey French in order to align their field more closely with the serious style of literary theorists, or they may simply have been choosing the path of least r esistance while writing it. Regardless of why it was created using such a style, Dr. Selgin, when conceiving of his own textbook very purposefully set out to write a guide that had a little kick to it, and that was, I feel, is a work of creative nonfictio n (Selgin 2011, p. 12). Though his own textbook was published many years after Dr. Burroway s Writing Fiction it represents a clear repositioning of the field and of how Dr. Selgin desires others to see it as a discipline that no longer needs to prove its legitimacy or to adopt a serious, transparent style, but rather, as one that is creative in nearly every facet, and that is flexible enough to bring this creativity and ability to create pleasure in the reader to a variety of different writing contexts Prose style, however, is n either the only, nor perhaps the chief method by which the discipline is rep resented through its textbooks, and a more prominent facet may be the writers and works that are selected to exemplify good writing. Dr. Selgin refraine d from incorporating any stories into his textbook, stating that homogeneity could be the result of such codification. He believes that it is very dangerous when everyone drink[s] at the same well and studies the same writers, such as Raymond Carver, and Cheever, and all the 12 usual suspects (Selgin 2011, p. 11). Instead, he urges students to find unique influences [ & ] go to the library or a buddy at a big, stuffy, old used bookstore, and comb the shelves. Find some book that no one but you is rea ding.
71 And fall in love with it and let that be your influence (Selgin 2011, p. 11). Such an approach forces a student to develop his own taste s by stating only the principles that can be used to evaluate whether a particular work is of high quality or n ot, a student must actively discern which works are effective and why they are so instead of studying a work that someone in a po sition of authority has told him is effective. This approach allows for more play of individual values, though it also deprives the very novice writer and reader from having concrete examples of quality literature, and may make their entry to the field more difficult. In addition to the way in which the field is represented to new students, fellow academicians, and the public at large, textbooks also help to craft the future state of the field. Through altering and improving pedagogy, suggesting one method of composing instead of another, and emphasizing different elements of craft, these two professors present slightly different visions of what the discipline of writing should be and how it should be taught to new generations. One of the areas in which the writers disagree is whether or not asking novice writers to produce fully plotted stories early in their training is benefici al or detrimental Dr. Selgin seems to lean towards the latter viewpoint, and offers the following justification: I really urge them not to try to finish stories because then you get these real rush jobs where in three or four pages they make all kinds o f things happen and it ends up being very melodramatic and sensational or gotcha and then those things never work. Selgin 2011, p. 2. Instead, he suggests it is better for students to develop the skills necessary to make a scene work or make a character believable before attempting to create a unified whole from the materials the student produces. For example, he tells us that the first thing I might do is have them write a character sketch. And it might even take the form of a fictional biography & Then [ & ] I might say O kay
72 write a scene in which this character is doing something. Try to describe & Try to get as much of their personality into the, into their actions, into what they are doing, and into their reactions. Then I say O kay let's have someone else walk into the scene and then see this character talking to someone so you know both through action and dialogue. And then, you know, I tell them you know Let's introduce a concept. Let s figure out what this character wants that they don't have, or what the character has they don't want. And, and then we start working towards the stories. And that's the way we start to build, possibly, a narrative & With a, with a plot. Selgin 2012, p. 2. The potential difficulty with this form of bottom up strategy is that the students may then fall into a routine of writing characters or scenes and then later attempting to weave them into an effective, comprehensible, organic narrative rather like gathering boards, bricks, and mortar into a pile and then attempting to arrange them into a beautiful house Another potential danger is that the students will produce writing in which plot does not play a great role as a result of the style in which it is composed. Dr. Burroway takes a different approach, informing me tha t one of the first things she tries to teach students is what a story is. How, how the [ & ] accepted shape of conflict, crisis, and resolution has many, many, many manifestations, and, and if you can identify that core in story, you re likely to find a goo d narrative arc in it (Burroway 2011, p. 5). In Burroway s pedagogy, students are encouraged to think of the story as a whole, and to develop some manner of plotline before delving into significant detail, character, setting, and style. Just as the botto m up method has potential risks, the difficulty that may arise from this method of composition is that the stories produced may be far less technically adept, and students may create works that are beyond their abilities to draft and execute well, or they may at times suppress the spontaneous in favor of retaining the shape of the story.
73 One of the subjects upon which the two professors agree is the importance of the technique of showing instead of telling in one s descriptions and characterizations. Dr. Burroway explains the theory behind the adage thus: [ I t derives from] Elliott's notion that the emotion of the artwork is contained in the things, or the experience. I talk about John Cia rdi saying that literature is not only about an idea, about ideas, b ut about the experience of ideas, and I then talk about how emoti on can be contained in things & how the personality o f a character can be caught by & Expressions clothing, gesture, and so forth [ & ] A significant detail involves both detail and significance. And the detail will sp eak to one of the five senses & A significant detail will also carry an emotional punch. Burroway 2011, p. 5 6. The danger such suggestions attempts to avoid is that the students will produce drafts that are filled with generalization s and analysis, both of which stem from the rational functions of the mind and do not involve the imaginative faculties nearly as deeply as attempting to replicate what a character experiences sensually in a moment to moment way. Too much generalization ma y also throw the reader out of the body of the observer, resulting in a narrative that depends on the action of the plot and the abstract ideological struggles of the characters to involve the reader. However, like all remedies, if taken to an extreme, thi s solution becomes far more harmful than helpful, and the impulse to embody William Carlos William s dictum that there are no ideas but in things can lead to work that is almost purely texture, or that appears entirely devoid of ideology and thought. For example, Gardner s On Moral Fiction stresses that a proper balance of detail and generality, the particular and the universal is necessary for a work of art to be successful, and one cannot read many undoubtedly effective older works, such as Jane Eyre or Frankenstein without discovering generalities in nearly every line (1977, p. 53).
74 Another area in which the two professors and crafters of writing guides seem to be in agreement is in the value that emulation can have for novice writers. Asserting that it is one of the best ways for a writer to learn the specifics of effective prose, we are told that almost anything a writer needs to learn is in the books and stories that are published all around them if they are willing to really, really closely observ e what other writers are doing. Down to noticing how, how writers punctuate a passage. Not noticing just the clever overall effects, or not noticing what is moving them emotionally, but notice what is happening, technically, on the page Selgin 2011, p. 4 This makes students deeper and more sensitive readers, and allows them to assimilate effective techniques more easily, and to understand the principles that cause those techniques to be effective in the first place. The learn by doing approach ensures that the students can perform as well as intellectually understand the deep mechanics of good prose, and they can slowly build a repertoire of diverse techniques that will allow them to create more varied effects and achieve more varied ends. Dr. Burroway likewise suggests using emulation to increase the technical flexibility of her students, saying as a student myself in literature courses I had several teachers who asked for imitation s of Pope of [ unintelligible ] of Shakespeare & Of Milton & And I, I f oun d those & t hat kind of technical stretch was fabulous for me [ & ] I don t actually think emulation is harmful unless you get stuck in it. Burroway 2011, p. 4. Therefore, if emulation is to be used as a pedagogical tool, it should be exercised on a variety o f styles, and the student should be encouraged to combine and develop their own styles to find their own voice instead of accepting the style of another as their own. Also of concern, is the quality of the writers who are being emulated, and it is some what natural to expect that those writers who are highly praised at the time of the
75 student s training or writers that are included in their textbooks are more likely subjects for emulation. Beyond never moving beyond the emulation of a writer, the most da unting challenge seems to be preventing the students from emulating content as well as style. As Dr. Selgin tells us it's not a good idea usually to emulate content. When you emulate form give yourself a, a vessel into which you pour your own content and, and you re just taking someone else's cup and filling it. Which is what poets do all the time. For instance, if they write a villanelle. If a poet writes a villanelle, he s using a ready made cup, a ready made vessel, and pouring in his own ideas. There's nothing wrong with that, but when we use other writers ideas and content, then we end up in the area of clich Selgin 2011, p. 4. This prevents them from developing the all important skills of observation, extrapolation, and imagination that are the gr eatest benefit s of creative writing. Drawing inspiration from the great writers that have preceded you, and having a profound knowledge of the tradition of which you are a part is certainly something to be striven for and, in fact, it seems likely that man y MFA professors might wish that their students were even more versed in other writers than they ar e at present; however without tact, moderation, and foresight, it too can stunt a student s growth. While it may not be the worst fate imaginable to be the literary reincarnation of Alexander Pope or (more likely) William Faulkner, if performed by many it will lead inevitably to stagnation and the recycling of styles, characters, plots, and themes, and will convert something that was once fresh and surprising into something that is predictable and hackneyed. Style, content, and manner of composition all influence one another; for example, if one desires to create a novella in which the plot is extremely w ell crafted and tightly woven, in which all actions see m to be inevitable consequences of prior actions, and in which no t even the smallest incident can be excised without causing the entire narrative structure to come tumbling down, then one must begin the story with plot rather than
76 style setting, or charac ter. On the other hand, if one desires to create a stream of consciousness styled work in which the point of view jumps from one character to another without notifying the audience, it may be best to begin with character and voice. Therefore, the codificat ion in a textbook of one principle of composition instead of another influences the fiction that is written based on those codes, and this subtly influences the prevalence, prominence, and cultural capital possessed by different styles of fiction in the cr eative writing world and shapes the future of the field. Motivations, Expectations, and Hesitations of an MFA Applicant As has previously been discussed, the MFA system is certainly not at a loss fo r applicants and it has become common for several hundre d applicants to compete for the same valuable handful of positions w ithin graduate writing programs. For the chance to acqui re one of these positions, the applicants are willing to perform a considerable amount of work preparing their applications pac kets and polishing their story writing portfolios, pay application fees that range from the minimal to the exorbitant, and to face very very low odds of success in being accepted. Even after the applicant s are accepted into the program, the novice writers will face many of the same theoretical difficulties outlined above, in addition to the usual occupational hazards of a writer s life, often including very modest means of living and a certain degree of professional instability and uncertainty in one s future. When they graduate, if they are searching f or a teaching job, they face odds that are just as daunting if not more so than when they first applied; the competitio n for these few stable position s is fierce, and often requires the publication of a book by th e applicant. Should they choose public ation alone and attempt to make thei r livi n g not as a teacher of art but as an artist, the prospects are even more daunting, and though t he potentia l financial rewards are greater, they are
77 often disappointing even f or mode rately successful writers. In an attempt to understand precisely what motivates s tudents to apply to MFA programs, what they expect those programs will be able to do for them, and what hesitations they have about the nature of the p r ograms an d their relative chances of acquiring the kind of life they desire once they graduate, we will examine the relevant portions of an in depth case study perfor med with just such an MFA applicant : Jessica Langford (a pseudonym) When asked about why she wanted to e nter an MFA program, the reply Jessica made most often and at the greatest length was that she viewed it as a path to self improvement, telling us that I guess I have things I need to say for myself, and I think that this is a good way for me to do that, and to [ & ] make myself the best I can be, even to my self, you know, the things I write for myself. And, you know, it would be great if other people liked it, but t hen again if other people don t like it, that s fine. It s not so much like a gift to the wor ld it s definitely that I want to express myself [ & ] We write to communicate with other people, but that s not my primary source of affirmation. Langford 20 12 b, p. 1. Therefore, when asked if she would be disappointed if the MFA program did not lead to the publication of her stories or of a book, and did not lead to a position as a teacher of writing, as a moderately prominent artist, or as an editor, she replied that it would definitely not be overly disappointing, and that she desired to enter the pro gram for more personal and humanistic reasons. Another primary reason why she wanted to join an MFA program was because of the opportunity to participat e in a creative community that was s pecifically tailored to writing at a high level of quality, that was devoted to helping one another, and that was to a certain extent shaped and monitored to provide an environment t hat was safe as well as helpful. She tells us that she believes that going through an MFA program will help her
78 grow as a person [ & ] I would like to become more self disciplined as a writer, and to build my literature base more, my knowledge of other writers, I would like to collaborate with other people, more than anything I want to be a part of the creative community of people & Because I thin k tha t wi ll help me grow as a person, an d also because I mean & my own personal ethics, or ethos about the world is that we need creativity in the world and & I want to support & you know those kinds of communities. And I want to be part of one of those communit ies. Langford 2012 b, p. 3. When asked why she did not try to find this creative community among her more literary friends or among the general populace of the university town in which she lived, she responded that it is difficult to find other people th at genuinely want to collaborate, and that genuinely want to offer constructive criticism and that you feel you are in a safe environment to do so and that as a result MFA programs have had to commercially create the opportunities to be involved in a c ommunity of talented, literary minded peers (Langford 2012 a, p. 6). Indeed, she seems to often desire the university writing program to fulfill the various needs in a writer s life that were often previously filled by professional editors, friendly lit erary critics, and fellow writers. She tells us that she is very much looking forward to the mentorship that she expects to receive from the older professors of writing and from her peers, elaborating that Both programs I ve been accepted into, they have you work one on one with one of the faculty members and [ & ] I m also very, very excited about that. Because & working one on one with someone is great, and I know this as a teacher [ & ] and I m really looking forward to being on the oth er end of that. Langfo rd 2012 b, p. 7. Her previous experie nces as a teacher of English at a loca l hig h school gave her great respect for the ability of individual writing conferences and th e focused attention on the revision of individual works to improve the writing of her s tudents. During the time period of these interviews she often performed this job for others, as she was employed by the
79 local universit y as an English instructor for students who have a different primary language, but her lifestyle and the community resour ces available to her did not allow others to give the same amount of care and critical thought to her writing. One of the other ways in which she was looking forward to the mentoring aspects of the MFA program was in the realm of publication. She was unpub lished at the time of the case study, and when asked if she ever planned on publishing, she responded I m really scared about that, and that s another side of why I really want to be part of an MFA program, is because I think that would simplify the proce ss. To me it seems overwhelmi ng to look at all the different & places you could submit to, an d all the different channels that you could go th rough, and I don t even know & I have no idea how the system works and no idea where to start, and I would like guidan ce. I think that if I had guidance I would be able to do it, but right now it just seems really overw helming to me. Langford 2012 b, p. 4. As has previously been mentioned, many MFA programs print their own literary magazines, though not all of them are o f the same stature, and many of them contain online supplements or separate online editions. When combined with attempting to get published in various anthologies, to traditionally publishing an anthology of one s own stories in novel form, and submitting stories for any of the numerous literary awards available, the various paths to publication become increasingly tangled. With such a flood of magazines and venues for publication, the possibility arises that even if one gets published, the work may actuall y be read be very few people and will end up merely as another addition to one s resume. Jessica did state her desire to become a published author, and therefore the motivations for joining a program are not entirely internal. She tells us Part of my moti vation for doing that [joining a program and gaining an MFA degree] is that at the end you publish a, or you don t get published, but you have a creative t hesis, so try to g et published (Langford 2012 b, p. 1). If her publication
80 did not meet with great s uccess in the artistic world, she stated that she would not be overly perturbed by it, and would attempt to keep involved in the creative community one way or another, either through writing and continuing to publish herself, or through editing the work of others and offering them guidance. One of the other, more material expectations of joining the MFA program, is that it would allow her to teach creative writing at a community college as that is her dream teaching job but that without an MFA degree or a great deal of artistic success, acquiring such a position would be extraordinarily difficult, especially given the already heated competition for the teaching jobs available in the writing world (Langford 2012 b, p. 2). The final practical benefit t o joining an MFA program would be the protection the university offers to graduate students of writing. She informs us that I think peo p le that don t go through the [MFA] program have to be very self disciplined, because it must be very, very hard, obviou sly it is very hard to balance working and writing [ & ] under the auspices o f the university you are kind of given time and funding and things like that to write. Langford 2012 b, p. 8. The communities such a program makes available to students and the di scipline that it demands can be very beneficial to the creative work ethic of the graduate students enrolled, though once the student graduates, he or she may have to rely on self discipline and an ability to discover good sources of criticism once more. W hen asked why she wanted to write at all, Jessica responded that the nature of creative writing is exploration. And & often times I have an image that is frozen in my mind or emotion, or so mething about life that I don t understand, or something that I rec ently came to understand, and want to investigate more, and you do creative writing & it s a great place to explore the potential of life. I mean, the potential of an idea. Langford 2012 a, 6.
81 Throughout her life she has used creative writing as a method o f gaining deeper insight into the nature of the experiences she has, and why she believes certain things or experiences certain emotions. We are told that when I can t understand something, I have to stop and write it up, and then I think about it aga in. I can t integrate into the moment. I have to live my life and then I have to take this extra time off on the side to figure it out, and then I write it again in a story after I have it in my journal & so I don t know, it s really, it s super reflective. But the more I can write my journal the more I kind of understand my own & like. The more creative I can be. Langford 2012 a, p. 9. Thus the act of writing plays a deeply important psychological role for Jessica, and being able to focus her time and energy on w riting alone, without being subjected to the pressures of her current occupation, would allow her to achieve a degree of self understanding that she has not previously been able to reach, and this will lead to creativity When this creativity and psycholog ical insight are embodied in a work of fiction and then communicated to the world, it inspires others and has the ability to bring them to greater psychological depths as well and to inspire their creativity. For all her excitement at being admitted to an MFA program, Jessica did share some hesitations about various aspects of her future, though these were primarily social trepidations and personal uncertainties. She insisted that she had absolutely no professional reservations about joining a program, espe cially as she had an established career in education that she could fall back upon should she discover that life in an MFA program was not for her, or should she be unsuccessful at being an artist, or finding a position teaching writing herself (Langford 2012 b, p. 1 3). She did, however, have some reservations about the way in which MFA programs are positioned in relation to society as a whole, and to how the programs are structured. She seems uneasy about
82 the ways in which setting up MFA programs to trai n writers may divide their sympathies from those of the society in which they are embedded, saying When you take something away from people and yo u put it in a n isolated context you are making it elitist. Now conversely & I think people should, how do we pr eserve quality in writing and how do we preserve scholarship in literature? I mean, yes we should have literary scholarship & but I don t know, I think there are a lot of incredible writers that don t go to programs [ & ] it also pulls writers away from the re st of the world in some ways. Here I am, I want to be part of these programs, but I kind of don t know if I agree with them. Langford 2012 a, p. 18. What she seems to be alluding to is the critical difference between which kinds of elitis m are healthy an d which are not; for example, an elitism that allows literature of the highest quality to flourish and that properly criticizes mediocre literature is benefi cial, whereas a form of elitism that does not do so, but instead results in literature that is self important, intentionally writerly or, to use Jessica s term snobby is quite the opposite (Langford 2012 a, p. 17). Many of the other major hesitations Jessica Langford spoke of were related to the functioning of the group she was about to join and her role within that group. While she was looking forward to the improvements to her writing that well reasoned, constructive criticism could bring about, she feared destructive criticism, saying that the workshopping experience may be similar to those she encountered in some of her undergraduate courses, where it was just ripping people apart. It was all about, like how many names you can drop, and you know, what experiences you ve had, and it was so much less about like, is this a genuin e expression? (Langford 2012 a, p. 18). This led her to see how fiercely competitive it is. And while competition can be good in causing people to strive for their best, it also kills communities in some ways, because you don t want we re not all in it together, it s I want that spot, so
83 you can t have it. Or, you know I don t want you to succeed because it will hur t my success. Langford 2012 a, p. 18. The sheer number of graduates in comparison to the publishing and teaching opportunities available to them when they graduate ensures that the overwhelming majority o f them will fail, and anything one can do to make oneself distinguished could give one an edge over one s peers. Of course, becoming a highly skilled writer and translating this into social, academic, and publishing success is a wonderful way of distinguishing oneself, but if other applicants achieve similar successes, the distinction loses its competitive value. She made similar comments in which she displayed concern that her artistic contributions wo uld not be suitably unique, and therefore may not be valuable to society, herself, or to the system she was about to join, saying there are so many people out there and everybody has something to say, and that discourages m e sometimes, because it s like What do I have to offer that they don t? (Langford 2012 a, p. 6). These feelings of apprehension were made especially poignant because she at times felt like her knowledge of English literature may be weak in comparison to the others who were going to b e entering the MFA program in her cohort (Langford 2012 b, p. 5). Because she did not place particular value on getting a teaching job when she graduated or on publishing a successful nove l, she did not seem to be overly perturbed by the statistical unlik elihood of these events, and instead focused on how effective the MFA program would be at providing her with the kind of safe, nurturing environment in which her artistic abilities could flourish. Though some of her concerns were certainly accentuated by t he competition between the MFA students that is a necessary result of the sheer number of applicants and the provisions of the job market, the concerns would nonetheless exist even if publication contracts and teaching jobs were plentiful.
84 CHAPTER 5 INTERP RETATION, CONCLUSION S, AND SUGGESTIONS F OR IMPROVEMENT It is difficult to review such evidence, such statements of penetrating concern and open dismay, such professions of frustrated hopes and realities both hard fought and somehow disappointingly dim, wit hout coming to the conclusion that the academic MFA system as it now stands contains flaws that are numerous, serious, and readily acknowledged by those with intimate knowledge of the system. Those who oversee the system and create the policies by which it operates are not ignorant of the system s strengths or of its benevolent goals, and if these overseers can be characterized by any overriding impulse, it would be that of discovering a suitable reme dy for the various flaws of the system Yet remedies have seemed elusive, perhaps due to a lack of systematic study of the pedagogical and theoretical techniques being enacted in the field, perhaps due to the resistance of the burgeoning system to change, perhaps simply due to a lack of that necessary spirit of rebelliousness that so characterized the writers of the past. Whatever the cause, it appears apparent to me that if these flaws are not admitted, confronted, and grappled with, we have no reason to suspect that the situation in which the MFA system finds i tself will in any way improve, and I invite all involved, from the lowliest and most unlikely applicants to the most highly decorated program directors to find solutions in their own ways, to engage in their profession more deeply, and to discover their ow n cures for the flaws identified. Such an endeavor surely can only serve to increase the diversity of pedagogies, theories, and works produced by MFA programs, and that step alone will form an improvement upon the homogeneity that seems to dog the field at every turn.
85 The MFA system appears to work but only partially. Do writers who enter the system as plu cky applicants, leave it after three years having improved their writing? I believe so. Does the MFA system produce writers of supreme and unquestionabl e quality, humanity, and skill? I believe, only very, very rarely. And is this not the precise function of the MFA system and the justification for subsidizing such programs in the first place? Should not the chief defense of the system s existence be the readily apparent quality of the writers it produces? Should we be content with the mere rubric of improvement when quality of literary knowledge and skill are declining so visibly among college graduates, such that our cultural definition of excellence equates to the cultural definition of merely tolerable skill of a previous era? The reader may readily guess my answers. It is telling that despite the extensive and highly competitive selection process, despite the purported intensity and quality of th e training that MFA students receive, that so many of the works produced by them are so unimpressive, and that this feature of the field is so widely acknowledged. None of the conclusions that can be drawn about such a state of affairs are flattering: eith er the massive pools of applicants entering programs contain so few truly talented writers that even a selection rate of between 1 in 100 to 1 in 200 ensures the majority of the elect are still woefully unteachable, or that the programs themselves more oft en than not fail in their object of turning promising applicants into quality writers. Clearly, something must be done. Theoretical and P edagogical D ifficulties Some of the difficulties faced by the MFA system are intractable, incurable, bound too deeply with the nature of art and the nature of teaching to ever be satisfactorily answered, and though we may comment upon them and explore them to their furthest extent, though we may attempt experimental or radical solutions, the outcomes of any
86 changes seem d oubtful. Other difficulties are entirely addressable, and several possible solutions may be implemented with minimal difficulty. The problem of the insularity of American literary fiction that many of my participants commented on is also one of the most e asily solvable, and I suggest we take Dr. Leavitt s suggestion to expand the writing cannon to include international literature post haste, as well as including a greater historical perspective, and tearing down the walls of genre that the worst kind of li terary fiction has attempted to erect around itself. The literary canon is by now highly inclusive of writing that is diverse across time, space, and culture, but the same can hardly be said of the writing cannon, which, if you care to examine Appendix C, focuses to a frankly inexplicable extent upon purely American writing in the modernist or post modernist vein from the 1960 s onwards. Selecting as exemplars of quality writing and assigning as worthy objects of study the works of a single continent out of the six that regularly produce, and of a mere 50 years out of the, not several hundred, but several thousand years in which recognizably great writing has been produced enforces a narrowness of vision that would be unacceptable in any other branch of the literary arts. I would even wager to say that, not just some, but the overwhelming majority of what is presently considered great canonical literature is from foreign countries, and to exclude Goethe, Voltaire, Chuang Tzu, Hugo, Calderon, Sophocles, Cicero Rushdie, Bronte, Shelley, Eco, and countless others as implicitly unsuitable for teaching in the field of writing studies belies a remarkably self satisfied attitude, and denies the field of the richness of which it is surely capable. In the same spirit, I suggest we confront what appears to be the widely held suspicion that the genreless genre of literary fiction has not, in fact, survived half a
87 century of codification and reproduction and remained genreless All of the participants discussed, with the ambiguous exception of Ms. Langford, have noted similar patterns in works of literary fiction. These descriptions share a disturbing number of similarities with Shivani s assertion that the bulk of American fiction today consists of depressing domes tic dramas that are limited in ambition, scope, philosophical content, and that make little pretense to humanistic growth; the object [of many of the stories] seems to be to reiterate to readers how weak and pathetic we are as human beings, and how we sh ould taunt ourselves with this defeat (Shivani 2011, p. 205). Whether it is called boring realism or dirty realism or Carver esque minimalism using these readily available patterns allows students to avoid the hard work of original thought and co mposition just as much as writing about elves or space marines, the only difference being that the minimalist/realist patterns are primarily available to a niche audience of other academic writers. This use of formula circumvents the entire point of thei r writing training, and the students end up writing to please a system rather than from their own sense of artistic rightness, following their own interests, and in their own mode. The only methods, or so it seems to me, to avoid writing to please a syste m is to either deprive the students of models entirely (the worst pedagogical decision possible) or to diversify the influences and patterns they will inevitably absorb. If we must consider the adage that great writing is just a matter of hiding the sourc es of yo ur plagiarism well to be true, and that students will inevitably plagiarize that which they are assigned to study, at the least we can provide the students with more colorful, interesting, and far ranging fare to plagiarize from. As with all other concrete recommendations, this recommendation too will fail unless the way MFA systems
88 critique and reward student writing firmly rewards works based on their originality and the quality of their composition, and disregards the tradition from which the wr iting stems. After all, one can produce a deep, original work that is based on the ancient Babylonian figure of Marduk as much as one based on a contemporary, jaded, existentially confused suburbanite. I have always looked askance at suggestions that a mer e alteration of the names of things will actually do a great deal to change the problems that underlie those categories, but perhaps a change of terms in this area will be clarifying and healthful: perhaps we should state that the purpose of MFA programs i n fiction is not to produce literary fiction, but to produce Literature, with all the standards of quality that term implies, with all the genres it embraces, and with all those works that have historically fallen into that more ambitious and august catego ry. This reclamation of ambition is, I believe, one of the healthiest changes the field can make, and perhaps it is time that the concepts of talent genius and inspiration returned from their long exile in which craft and competence have been the highest values to be striven for. Educational theory suggests that increasing the expectations one has of students usually results in those students objectively perform ing better and living up to those expectations, whereas the lowering of goals rarely causes students to strive to greatly surpass them. Though craft and competence are certainly necessary for students to master in order to create a work of literature, they nonetheless represent a lowering of ambition, a lowering of expectations when they are held as the highest values in the MFA system. A reflective MFA teacher might do well to ask herself if she would rather have a student turn in a draft that sought small goals and achieved them, or a draft that reached for astonishing heights, and fell short of them. Which draft, when
89 given time and care, would produce the better literature? Which student, when given time to strengthen his skills, demonstrates the more promise to be a visionary artist? Consider, for a moment, the work of literary fiction that you, the reader, has most recently read, and compare its ambition to the following: You stand there respectable and stiff and with straight backs, you famous wise men! no strong wind or will drives you. Have you ever seen a sail crossing the sea, r ounded and swollen and trembling with the violence of the wind? Like the sail trembling with the violence of the spirit, my wisdom crosses the sea my wild wisdom! But you servants of the people, you famous wise men how could you go with me! Nietzsche 2005 p. 92. Who would dare write such a thing now? Who would dare to own such ambition? Who would dare create something in the current era that is so insistent on the author s will as the engine of creation? And what happens to literature when we abandon seeing the author s will as central, and focus instead on the craft of his sentences? Perhaps we should expect students to apply to MFA programs when they have traveled a bit further down the artist s path, are more versed in their potential trade, and ar e ready to strive for harder, more difficult artistic heights. Perhaps we should turn away those that are not. One of the pedagogical techniques that seems to have lent itself to the prevalence of dull realism sans ideology found in literary fiction is th e dictum show, don t tell that is universal in MFA programs and textbooks. The desire to wean novice writers away from weak or ineffective generalities and towards a mastery of significant detail is certainly valid and necessary but it is only useful fo r those who have never before seriously analyzed the thought patterns and technical devices that lead to good literature, and once the students have mastered significant detail, perhaps they should move beyond it. Rules exist for those who need them, and w hen followed continuously, show, don t
90 tell creates fiction that is almost entirely devoid of generality, ideology, or analysis, and makes the characters appear nearly thoughtless. As Dr. Ciment said, fiction is the one art form where we can spy on cons ciousness [ & ] if you re only going to imitate film and just talk about the external world [ & ] then you re not doing what fiction does (Ciment 2012, p. 8). Consider the following concrete demonstration: Mr. Rochester, as he sat in his damask covered chair looked different to what I had seen him look before, not quite so stern; much less gloomy. There was a smile on his lips, and his eyes sparkled, whether with wine or not, I am not sure; but I think it very probable. He was, in short, in his after dinner mood; more expanded and genial, and also more self indulgent than the frigid and rigid temper of the morning: still, he looked preciously grim, cushioning his massive head against the swelling back of his chair, and receiving the light of the fire on his granite hewn features. Bronte, 1999, p. 202. The astute balance between detail and generality, object and interpretation, action and thought are evident. We are presented, in this short passage with looked different, stern, gloomy, I think, after dinner m ood, expanded (as it is here used psychologically and not physically), genial, self indulgent, frigid and rigid for the same reasons, and grim, all of which are entirely abstract, non specific, and general descriptions. And they work beautifully in this in stance because, though the words are abstractions, they are balanced out with concrete particulars that lend them the vital specificity necessary to create a fine description However, should this have been submitted to an MFA workshop, one might expect a flood of red ink and criticism. Read it once more, stripping it of the italicized descriptors, and you are left with a thoroughly boring account of a man with a large head sitting in a chair, and a hackneyed description of his eyes and facial features but the mode of description is far closer to those we might find in Carver, Chaon, or Oates.
91 The difficulty with the MFA students and graduates is not that they don t follow the rules of composing well, but that they follow them too well. The MFA system wa s created in order to remove writers from the vicissitudes of the marketplace and create a safe space in which they may take all the risks they want. Instead, it seems many have merely switched the rules of the marketplace for the rules of the program, res ulting in very rare departures from the realist mode of description, and prose that consists more of moment to moment sensual descriptions than anything else. Works of significant philosophical heft have become a marked rarity, as it is entirely incompatib le with this mode of description. Deliberately eschewing interpretation, judgment, and abstract qualities in descriptions seems, unfortunately, to le a d to those same attributes becoming absent from the works as a whole. I hope that I am not alone in thinki ng that many of the greatest works of literature are great in no small part due to their ideational aspects as well as their representational skill. After all, can we imagine Paradise Lost, Fahrenheit 451, Atlas Shrugged or The Heart of Darkness without t heir ideological components? If not, then why should we shun the ideational in description? The underpinnings of creative writing pedagogy, rooted in formalist and structuralist criticism, and deriving from the realist movement are in themselves not object ionable. They hone skills that a great writer cannot be without. But there is more to writing than they suggest, and once mastered, they must be moved beyond, and the dictum must become show and tell write and think, refine character and plot, display i nspiration and craft. Reshaping the field s textbooks, as Dr. Selgin does, is a welcome step forward in concretely addressing some of these longstanding issues, though the fundamental
92 question of what makes great literature great must, I think, be address ed anew if the narrowness of scope, style, and ambition that presently troubles the field is to be challenged. Perhaps it is time that we bring back the antiquated idea that a writer must have something to say as well as the skill to say it, or that being a man or woman of letters requires not just technical skill on the page, but a well ordered, sympathetic, and inquisitive mind. Perhaps it is time that our pedagogy and texts exerted more influence on our young writers to be broadly read, active in the flo w of life, rooted in the times and places in which they live, acknowledging of their own abilities, and yes, of their moral obligations to shape the world around them for the better. Perhaps it is time that we spoke in our classrooms of the humanist ideals of the regeneration of mankind through art and its potential to civilize as well as of the elements of craft. Many of these stances were professed by the participants, sometimes vehemently, but are they the things that are taught around the workshop, that are discussed regularly in the lecture hall, and are woven through our textbook s recommendations on craft? If these are the most important elements of a writer s education, shouldn t we? And would it be so very hard to include them in our textbooks, and make them as certain to be as included in our pedagogy as the nostrum of show, don t tell currently is? Structural Difficulties Many of the difficulties discussed by the participants seem to stem from either the structure of MFA programs as a whole and their situation within the academy, or from the ways in which the production of literature, its promotion, and the profits gained from its sale have become entangled. Many of the professors interviewed cited a deplorable lack of taste among their students ; however this lack of taste points to a larger issue concerning the current state of professional literary criticism in our country. After all,
93 what manner of lessons are learned regarding taste when even so prominent and professional a magazine as The N ew York Times publishes the following in praise of Annie Proulx? Well, says an acquaintance [in Close Range], you rodeo, you re a rooster on Tuesday, a feather duster on Wednesday. On that line Proulx gains the crossroads of great writing, the interse ction of the specific and the universal, of the fate offered by her upland Wyoming and the human condition at large Eder 1999 p. 1 quoted in Meyers 2002, p. 1 9 It is less noticeable, I think, when artistry goes astray than when more solidly material processes go astray. For example, if a surgeon w ere called in to amputate a patient s left foot and instead amputated his right arm, and the hospital administrator declared it the crossroads of great patient care no human with a conscience would allow s uch an error to stand. Yet we allow such empty or misleading verbiage to continue with remarkably little protest when speaking about the arts. Those who should be at the forefront of criticism, namely academic literary critics, seem either remarkably disen gaged with the contemporary literary field, or, as Meyers and Shivani suggest, they have abandoned the kind of practical criticism that investigates issues of the human condition and instead become deconstructionists who have demolished the traditional fu nction of criticism in their arcane race/class/gender academia as battleground linguistic pursuits (Shivani 2011, p. 26 7). Without critics who are not beholden to protecting the interests of the publishing companies that support them, serving the inter ests of the magazines in which their reviews appear, or who are more interested in recond ite academic jargon mongering than in recognizable criticism, the culture has few ways of distinguishing between a great artistic achievement, and a mediocre one. Just a as an Olympic diving judge who gives an excellent dive and an abysmal one both scores of 5/10 likewise the loss of serious and objective literary
94 criticism first causes a confusion of values, and eventually makes them irrelevant. If MFA students do not engage in literary criticism out side of academia, and have only anemic and highly partisan literary criticism with which to judge their own efforts, is it so small a wonder that their productions tend to fall into formulaic patterns? Especially when these patterns seem to generate such prominent and easily acquired praise, as seen above, and no matter if the praise is meritless? What might the existence of such a state of affairs do to an aspiring writer who does possess taste, and their estimation of whet her or not their production of superior work will be noticed ? This is not to say that MFA programs are somehow doomed without a strong critical community to appraise their works, but that the probabilities of such programs recognizing and producing better and better works seems to be very low without such a community. Every participant interviewed expressed uneasiness about the position of the writing program within the academy, and many seemed to think that if there were a way for writers to be supported financially and creatively without being tied to academia, that may be preferable to the present situation. Many of them cited a disturbing tendency towards insularity, a cycle of self reference, and a departure from the concerns of larger society as among the most troubling trends that have occurred since MFA programs were established and began providing an academic track for writers. Many of these difficulties appear intractable so long as MFA systems rem ain part and parcel of academia, but without the se curity and stability that the academy provides how shall serious literature in the United States be supported? Is it worth the risk of plunging the literary community of our nation into what may be an irrecoverable decline simply to remove some of the mor e troublesome side effects of systematization? Is the artistic
95 soul of our community worth the success the programs have brought? Simply put, I do not believe so. I believe that it may be more beneficial for the long term health of our artistic community if the majority of our nation s aspiring writers decide to break the Faustian bargain and, in the words of Milton, choose hard liberty before the easy yoke of servile pomp (Milton 2004, p. 48). I am not advocating the complete abolition of MFA programs but rather, a sharp culling that preserves the few best of them, while eliminating all others, and sharply curbing the birth of new programs. The roughly 19,000 people every year who would stat istically become MFA graduates who do not receive jobs teachi ng or book publications reveal a remarkably heartening interest in the literary arts, and furthermore, they represent a vast resource that can be used to reinvigorate the symbiotic relationship between the artist and society. What would happen if these te ns of thousands of graduates, and what I must assume are hundreds of thousands of rejected applicants or homespun aspiring writers, were to form writers circles at the community level instead of sequestering themselves in academia? What if they set up the ir own literary presses and challenged the hegemony of the major publishing houses? What if they demanded a reintegration of literature into our popular culture? If they demanded that great short fiction once more grace the pages of Playboy Redbook and C osmopolitan ? What if they began criticizing one another s works, judging them, recommending them, and creating a new generation of writer/critics, like Coleridge, Pound, and Shelley before them? And what if we reserved the MFA system for writers who specif ically desired to teach, who were capable of receiving an instruction far more demanding and rigorous than presently common, and who were expected to deliver works of surpassing worth consistently
96 rather than rarely? What if we placed our artistic faith in ourselves and in one another rather than in those in positions of authority? I think that our faith would be well placed. If the growth of the programs and the number of applicants reveal anything, it is how desperately so many of our young generation are interested in the arts, and how desperately they want to write. As Dr. Burroway said the wonder is that so many of [the students] come to universities wanting to write, and passionately wanting to write, [when] they haven t even read [ & ] somehow they kn ow that they want to do something with the language that their & relationship to it in the culture has not been satisfying enough Burroway 2011, p. 7 I believe that the urge to create, and to do so through that most flexible and adaptive of mediums, lan guage, is an innate human desire, nearly as deeply rooted as our sex drives or our desire to adorn our bodies. This desire will find expression somewhere, and if the current sclerotic, academic path created for its expression w ere annihilated, it would fin d another avenue for expression, and perhaps one that would avoid many of the systematic difficulties the MFA system faces. The primary reason why Ms. Langford decided to enter a program was to be allowed access to a group of creative peers who were invest ed in promoting the arts and in bettering one another. These groups have been commercially created, but need they be? If they were created by and in the community instead of in the fiercely competitive MFA world, would this lead to less of the artistic har assment she fears and less of what can only be described as socially acceptable forms of professional sabotage? There will be negative consequences most directly for those involved in MFA programs or who profit from them, such as un iversity financial mana gers, professors of writing themselves, MFA graduates whose employment prospects wo uld become even more dismal, swarms of literary magazines that depend on MFA prog rams to purchase their products ( but that so few seem to
97 read ), publishing houses, those wh o make their living praising Proulx s inane feather duster quip as though it s one of Aristotle s lost dialogues, etc. More importantly, we will lose the short term safety and stability that these programs provided to the students who pass through them, t he 2 4 year welfare system for writers But perhaps with the connection between society and artists re affirmed and re invigorated these budding writers could be supported by society itself. Money to support the arts certainly isn t lacking just think o f the tens of millions of dollars recently spent on any one of the truly abysmal films premised upon board games or children s toys, or spent on creating a largely pre scripted reality television show that is intellectually and artistically neutral at t he best of times. Should these funds be distributed in the right manner, the arts would undoubtedly find their footing once more, and one of the best way s to convince those who hold the purse strings that writing should be funded is to end its deliberate i solation from societal concerns. An art that has little to no impact on society has betrayed its most important function to renew the values that society lives by and to offer a new vision of the future. With the death of art, the ideology of a society os sifies and stops evolvi ng. Without it, there are only three sources left in which an honest debate over human nature, over what is good, over what it means to be a good person, and over what kind of people we should become: politics, economics, and pure ph ilosophy. Pure entertainment is excluded because it cannot perform the serious task of forging anew the foundational values of our species. It remains to art alone to do so in a popular and relatively disinterested way, as politics and economics are not di sinterested, and philosophy is unfortunately no longer popular. In the words of Dr. Ciment A rt is the only place to get some kind of moral lesson without the threat of punishment that is, art
98 is the only place in which value can clash upon value in an exploratory and theoretical way (Ciment 2012, p. 9). The formulaic productions of an unfortunate majority of MFA writers is a refusal to engage precisely this facet of literature, a refusal to look beyond an ideology that has been handed down by others an d accepted with little question. Gardner s most pressing concern s namely that art had ceased to be ideologically honest and exploratory, had ceased to be relevant to the society that supported it, and had therefore ceased to be artistically moral ha ve become more, not less, pressing in the thirty five years since he published On Moral Fiction Likewise, when Shivani speaks of the literature produced by MFA programs as representing a post politics in which no ideology is tenable, no vision of the futur e is valid, and no ways forward can ever be found, he speaks of a certain death in our artistic community a death of faith. Not faith in a deity, nor faith in an ultimate power, but faith in any power or good or certainty beyond the individual s existence Unfortunately we humans cannot live for ourselves alone it is simply not enough. The postmodern viewpoint denies even the possibility of a self presenting only a fragmented, inchoate bundle of discrete experiences in its stead, forever inexplicable, f orever un interpretable, forever un integratable, and forever without ultimate meaning. Such a viewpoint prevents conscious evolution of any kind in a culture. The world changes and passes the society by, the society s status changes, its role changes, an d the society itself is left largely unaware of thi s. This petrification leads to the inevitable downfall of that society. To put it bluntly, we must adapt to survive. We must think to live. We must consider carefully the different values that we strive fo r, and most critically we must then strive for them honestly. We cannot die for values that we do not believe
99 in; how much less can we live for values we don t believe in? I am not asking for propagandistic art such unethical and dishonest trifles leave u s in precisely the same position we occupy presently, but rather, for true artistic debate, pursued in good faith. A strong society is one in which this ideological debate is continuous, serious, respectful, and truthful this alone prevents values from be coming stale, febrile, and irrelevant. Loss of material production and exchange can destroy a people, but loss of ideological production and exchange can destroy them just as surely. We cannot live without ideology, or without beauty, moral pleasure, and v isions of hope for the future; they are as necessary to our survival as water, shelter, and food. So long as writers can remain willfully secluded in academia, divorced from the greater society, and can regularly produce works that are rewarded, but that h ave little to no impact upon society, there is no reason to believe the character of MFA writing will change or the structural issues of the programs will be resolved. When I began this thesis, I asserted that the collective soul of a people was seen in that people s art, and that, healthy or diseased, the state of our art reflects and shapes, the state of our deepest and inmost heart. When our art is empty, so are we; when our art has ceased to strive for something greater, so have we; when our art loses faith in the power of thought, so have we; when our art is sarcastic, nihilistic, or cruel, so are we; and when our art ceases to believe in its own power, we, as a species, have ceased as well. If at times my criticisms are fierce and my demands are extr eme it is because the state of our arts is not a game, not a superfluous concern. The future of our arts is nothing less than a battle for the soul of our people, and the choices we make will determine whether we become a people bright of soul, who face ou r future with tranquil
100 fearlessness and dignity, certain in our capacity to overcome our crueler instincts, or whether we continue down the path of unambitious mediocrity, empty ideology, intentional irrelevance, and distrust in our ability to be anything more than what we already are. The conclusions and suggestions I have voiced are drawn only from the data that I have been able to collect and leave far more unknown than known. The field of creative writing studies, as it currently stands, consists of lit tle mor e t h an the educated guesswork of disparate individuals, each limited in their vision, each constrained by the paucity of even the most bas ic and gener ally a greed upon fact s regardin g the MFA system. If more certain recommendations are to be arrived at, we must deepen and broaden our investigations into the material and ideological practices of the field, and this admittedly small study can make only a miniscule contribution to that endeavor Many avenues of research remain unexplored: for example to what extent do the readings commonly assigned by MFA professors constitute a creative writing cannon ? If such a thing exists, who is place firmly at its center, and who is excluded entirely? How has it changed over the years, and how might it change in t he future? What kind of an effect might this cannon have on the writing of MFA students? Appendix D contains an alphabetized compilation of all the short stories assigned in the syllabi collected, and thus provides a small step towards answering this quest ion, but the paucity of syllabi collected makes drawing any conclusions from such a compilation a tenuous practice at best. What truly motivates the majority of MFA applicants? Is there a difference between the motivations of applicants with English backgr ounds and those without? Between published applicants and unpublished? Between those applicants who tend to be
101 selected for admission and those who tend not to be? Once more, the evidence gathered is so slight that we can do little more than guess, and a b road study of applicants across a multitude of programs might do much to illuminate these questions, and provide the first steps towards answers upon which MFA directors and other interested parties may act. Structurally, how do we resolve the paradox that only 1 in some 150 applicants is chosen, but that first year MFA students are reported to be in need of much basic narrative training, and to have little knowledge of the literary cannon and abysmal taste? Can the applicant pools really be so universally dismal? And what of the presence of mediocrity? Is the production of mediocre literature truly detrimental? Is it better to have a flood of mediocre art as well as some rare great art rather than simply rare instances of great art and nothing else? If medi ocre art is not damaging in and of itself, does it become so when it crowds out the presence of great art or is elevated to prominence that is unmerited? Would the informal community writing groups I have suggested really improve the caliber of our artisti c training, or merely degrade it further and cut it off from the cultural and intellectual richness the university can provide? How might the pedagogy of writing programs be transformed to create, not just good writing, but true, unmistakable literature? I s it possible to design programs that can remain in academia while resisting the more detrimental influences of the university, and the lure of future teaching jobs for ambitious students? We know next to nothing regarding the answers to these questions, a nd without those answers, all our recommendations remain myopic, partial, and at least partially untrustworthy. If any real improvement of MFA programs and their functions is possible, it must be based upon solid, reliable, well conducted scholarly researc h on the subject, of which we currently
102 have little. Though perhaps not the most immediately effective way to improve creative writing pedagogy, the most certain way to do so is for English and Education scholars, and directors of MFA programs to champion research into the theory and practices of MFA programs.
103 APPENDIX A INSTITUTIONAL REVIEW BOARD APPROVED INFORMED CO NSENT FORM
105 APPENDIX B INTERVIEW QUESTIONS Those who express interest in participating in the research wil l be contacted via e mail or phone to arrange interviews. Due to the distances between some of their places of employment and the University of Florida, if face to face interviews are imprudent, I will conduct the interview via phone. All interviews will b e recorded via an audio device and all participants will be informed that their comments will be recorded and utilized in the research project. I will additionally inform them that they are under no obligation to participate in the interview and may leave at any time. If they have indicated that such is their desire, then participants names will be anonymized after the interviews take place and the list of participants and their aliases will be placed solely in the possession of the researcher (Eric M c Ches ney) where it will be kept in a digital password protected and/or encrypted file. I will meet participants in a location of their choosing and will inform them that locations in which they can feel comfortable and engage in earnest, personal discussion wou ld be best. Though I will have a list of questions available to me, I will nonetheless ask follow up questions of various kinds when I feel they would be useful to gain a deeper understanding of the participants experience, would provide illuminating exam ples, would clarify the participants meaning, or would generally enhance the sincerity and specificity of the participants responses. As soon as possible after the interview I will take down notes on the context in which the interview was held, as well a s essential concerns, views, or experiences the interviewee brought up, and methods for improving future interviews. What methods of composing are most commonly used and promoted in Creative Writing (CW)?
106 In your experience, what have been the most effec tive methods for helping students to create quality writing? What pedagogical methods have been the least effective? What role does emulation have in the study of writing, if any? How do you personally define quality writing? What kind of literature do y ou most often read? What kinds of genres are often taught in CW courses? Every genre has certain defining characteristics. What are some defining characteristics (settings, character types, styles, plots) of the genres most often taught in CW courses? If some genres are often taught in CW courses, are some excluded as well? Why? How would you react if a student submitted a work in a genre that isn t included in the class (for example, a fantasy story involving dragon riding knights in a realism focused c lass)? Do you see creative writing as more of a discipline for personal development or for causing social change? Both? Neither? Why do you feel that way? Some people believe that the contemporary creative writing field has increased the prominence of the short story. Has that been true in your experience? How has the length affected or not affected the style, character, and structure of modern writing? What career options are open to students graduating from CW programs? What directions would you like to see the CW community/profession move in?
107 APPENDIX C COLLECTED ARTIFACTS : SELECT SYLLABI AND C OMPILATION OF SYLLAB I TEXTS David James Poissant Syllabi David James Poissant, Ph.D. E mail: David.Poissant@ucf.edu Office: Colbourn Hall: Roo m 407C Office Hours: M: 12:30 1:20, 3:30 4:20; W: 3:30 4:30, and by appointment Course Goals and Description CRW 3120 is an intermediate level fiction writing workshop for English majors. Our focus will be on the close reading of contemporary literary (n on genre) fiction. We will explore fiction theory and study the short story for its elements: character, plot, setting, dialogue, point of view, and more. We will also learn to read, analyze, and criticize our own work and the work of our peers. Finally, t aking into consideration writing as a craft, we will study the art of revision. Grading Criteria Percent of Final Grade I. Participation 40% II. Story #1 10% III. Story #2 10% IV. Final Portfolio 40% *Students must complete all major assignments t o qualify for a passing grade in the course. Grade Scale A = 93 100; A = 90 92; B+ = 87 89; B = 83 86; B = 80 82; C+ = 77 79; C = 73 76; C = 70 72 D+ = 67 69; D = 63 66; D = 60 62; F = 0 59 FICTION WRITING WORKSHOP: CRW 3120 FALL 2011 Section 1: MWF: 1:30 2:20 Section 2: MWF: 2:30 3:20 Location: HPA: Room 363
108 Required Texts: The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to W riting Fiction, by John Dufresne The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction (2 nd Edition), edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone Course Requirements I. Participation: You will be graded on your participation in the course, which includes y our attendance and performance in class, as well as satisfactory completion of the following: 1. Comments : You must write one double spaced, typed page (minimum) in response to each classmate s story that you read for workshop. You will give one copy to th e writer and one copy to me for grading. Your comments should answer the following questions, among others: What aspects of the story work well? Which aspects might function better? Was anything unclear? Which lines do you wish you d written? What could be cut? (We ll discuss workshop and comment policies in class.) 2. Writing Exercises : You will be required to complete a number of short in class and out of class (typed) writing exercises, most of which will correlate to specific elements of the short stor y discussed that week. You will be expected to read some of these aloud in class. 3. Reading Quizzes : We will read a number of stories from the anthology and from handouts that I will provide. We will also read selections from The Lie That Tells a Truth I will begin class often with short quizzes to ensure reading. These quizzes may not be made up by those late to class. 4. Presentation : You will present a book of your choosing to the class in a five minute oral report. II. & III. Stories: You will wri te two stories. Unlike writing exercises, these must be complete, fully realized narratives with significant character development and a defined plotline (beginning, middle, and end). The first story should be 6 10 double spaced pages in length. The second story should be 10 20 double spaced pages. The minimum lengths are non negotiable. These stories should be polished pieces that have been extensively proofread, not rough or first drafts. Both stories will be read and commented on by the entire class. You will choose one story to revise for your Portfolio. IV. Final Portfolio: This stands in place of a final exam and should include: 1. Revision: You will be required to choose one of your stories to fully revise, taking into account the feedback that you received from your classmates and from me.
109 The revision should be a large scale re envisioning of the story, not just an edit at the sentence level. 2. Book Review: You will write a 3 4 double spaced page review of a contemporary single author short story collection written after 1975. (This will be the same book on which you present.) 3. Reflection: You will write a 2 3 double spaced page reflection on your perception of your growth as a writer over the course of these fifteen weeks. Course Policies At tendance: Attendance is mandatory. Students who miss more than four classes will lose five points from their final grade for each absence beginning with the fifth. If you must miss more than four classes because of extraordinary circumstances or emergencie s, please speak with me. Class conduct: You are all responsible adults. I will treat you as such, and I expect all of you to treat each other in the same manner. Mutual respect is critical to a successful workshop. Late Work Policy: Since we rely on the timely distribution of your stories in order to run a successful workshop, handing in work late presents a real inconvenience to everyone in the class. All late work will be penalized a full letter grade (10%) per calendar day. If you hand in a story for w orkshop after it is due, you risk forfeiting your workshop time. All late work should be turned in at my office: Colbourn 407C. Tardiness: Please do your best to be on time for class If you are late, you will miss valuable information and reading quizzes Quizzes cannot be made up. Tardiness exceeding ten minutes will count as an absence. Manuscript format: All assignments (stories, comments, exercises, reviews, etc.) should be completed in 12 point, Times New Roman font. Your margins should be one inch and your pages should be double spaced. All page requirements detailed in the syllabus or provided in class refer to double spaced pages. Please number your pages and staple multi page assignments. Required materials: You should have your books in class e ach day. You will also be required to print and/or copy materials for this class. Depending on the length of your stories, you may have to print as many as 700 pages for this class. You ll likely need weekly access to a computer with a printer, and perhaps a copier as well. I understand that printing can be expensive, especially in such quantities, but these copies are a required class material. Please plan accordingly.
110 Communication: You may discuss matters with me in person before or after class, or duri ng office hours, or you may e mail me. However, please do not e mail me to discuss grades. Grades will only be discussed in person. Also, sorry, but I cannot accept any coursework via e mail. Please turn in hard copies to my office box or in class. Confer ences: I encourage you to schedule one or two conferences with me during the quarter so that we can speak one on one about your work and your interests in creative writing. Plagiarism: Plagiarism or cheating on a story, quiz, portfolio, or assignment of a ny kind will result in a 0% (F) for that assignment and may result in an F for the entire course. The student will also be referred to the Office of Student Conduct for further action. See the UCF Golden Rule for further information. I will assume for this course that you will adhere to the academic creed of this University and will maintain the highest standards of academic integrity. Disabilities Accommodations : The University of Central Florida is committed to providing reasonable accommodations for all persons with disabilities. This syllabus is available in alternate formats upon request. Students with disabilities who need accommodations in this course must contact the professor at the beginning of the semester to discuss needed accommodations. No acc ommodations will be provided until the student has met with the professor to request accommodations. Students who need accommodations must be registered with Student Disability Services (Student Resource Center Room 132; Phone: 407 823 2371) before request ing accommodations from a professor. Classroom Policies Please be on time, stay for the entire class, and be prepared to participate daily. If you miss class, it is your responsibility to get the stories to be read for class before the following class mee ting. Your classmates are not competitors. We are all working together for the benefit of all. Meaning: Please speak your mind in class, but please be respectful. Critique the work, not the writer. Story Policies Your best work is expected. Please, don t write a story the night before. All stories must be new (written this semester) and not doubling as an assignment for another course. The turning in of any writing exercise, story, or portfolio that has served as an assignment (in full or in part) for ano ther course, past or present, will be considered cheating, and that assignment will receive a grade of 0% (F). For all assignments, please follow the manuscript guidelines outlined on page three.
111 Regarding subject matter: This is a class in literary fictio n writing. For our purposes in this class, you are expected to write about the world in which we live. This means that no genre fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or erotica will be accepted for workshop. These are legitimate forms of fiction, but they are not appropriate for the purposes of this class. If you would like to explore such territory in a way that transcends genre conventions, I will consider your request to do so. We ll talk more about what I mean by this later in the semester. While I will ne ver assume that your work is autobiographical, stories involving gratuitous suicide scenes may be interpreted by your professor as a cry for help and may result in a referral to the Counseling Center. Basic Story Don ts Do not write a story that begins with a character waking up. Do not write a story that ends with a character waking up. Do not end a story with: It was all a dream. No dragons, elves, or magical swords, please. When writing dialogue, please don t tell me that a character pontificated or articulated or ejaculated Please just stick with said Do not write a story in which everybody dies. Do not write a story in which every character is either drunk or stoned the whole time. Do not begin with a moral. If you start with the idea Drugs are bad, you re not writing a story; you re writing a sermon. As Jerome Stern writes in Making Shapely Fiction In a good story & the experience is primary, not a message. No, seriously. If there s an elf in your story, I won t read it. Avoid adverbs where th e right verb will get the job done. If you write a story in which the narrator s parents are pure evil, I will almost certainly ask you to rewrite the story from the points of view of the parents who, though imperfect, at least mean well. In short: Avoid f lat characters. Do not write a surprise ending or a surprise middle or a surprise anything for the sake of surprise itself. A story s conclusion, as Flannery O Connor suggests, should be both surprising and inevitable. I m totally not kidding about the elv es. & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & & CALENDAR *This schedule and all assignments are subject to change. *Readings assigned to a particular day are to be read in advance for that day. Dufresne = selections from The Lie That Tells a Truth Scrib ner = selections from The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction
112 WEEK #1: GETTING STARTED M, 8/22: Introductions, syllabus, schedule, Q&A W, 8/24: Dufresne : pgs 11 17; 21 25; 31 42; 47 52; 57 66; in class writing activity F, 8/26: Mary Robison, Yours Weekend Assignment : For Monday, complete the Rick Hillis exercise. Exercises should be 2 3 typed pages. Also, read Ron Carlson s The H Street Sledding Record. WEEK #2: PLOT M, 8/29: Share exercises. The anatomy of the short story: Ron Carlson, The H Street Sledding Record W, 8/31: Mary Hood, How Far She Went in Scribner ; Dufresne : pgs 119 126; 133 152; 159 165 F, 9/2: ZZ Packer, Brownies (and) Julie Orringer, Pilgrims in Scribner Weekend Assignment : For Wednesday, complete writing exe rcise TBA. Also, complete the readings. WEEK #3: POINT OF VIEW M, 9/5: NO CLASS: LABOR DAY W, 9/7: Junot Diaz, Nilda (and) Susan Minot, Lust in Scribner ; Dufresne : 221 239 F, 9/9: Bret Anthony Johnston, Anything That Floats Weekend Assignment : For Monday, complete the Point of View exercise (1 2 typed pages). Also, complete the readings. WEEK #4: CHARACTER M, 9/12: Share exercises. Dufresne : 169 179; 183 191; Leslie Marmon Silko, Tony s Story in Scribner W, 9/14: Adam Haslett, City Visit F, 9/16: Edward P. Jones, Marie in Scribner Weekend Assignment : For Monday, complete writing exercise TBA. WEEK #5: SETTING/PLACE/DESCRIPTION M, 9/19: Rick Bass, The Hermit s Story in Scribner ; Dufresne : pgs 243 251 W, 9/21: A.M. Homes, A Real Doll in Scribner ; Dufresne : pgs 95 102 F, 9/23: Melanie Rae Thon, Xmas, Jamaica Plain in Scribner WEEK #6: BREAKING THE RULES M, 9/26: Jamaica Kincaid, Girl (and) Rick Moody, Boys (and) Daniel Orozco, Orientation
113 in Scribner W, 9/28: Kevin Brockmeier, The Ceiling (and) Robert Olen Butler, Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot in Scribner F, 9/30: Kelly Link, Stone Animals in Scribner Weekend Assignment : For Monday, please complete your first short story. WEEK #7: WORKSHOP M, 10/3: Workshop p rotocol, tips, advice. First stories due (6 10 pages). Please bring 21 copies to class. [For Wednesday, please read the first two stories up for workshop. Your assignment is to then write a critique of each story. Your comments should fill one double spac ed page per story. Please print two copies of each response. One copy will go to the writer. One copy will go to me. Regarding comments, please let 1/3 of your comments be praise. What is the writer doing well? What should stay the same, no matter what? Wh at s working, what do you like, and why? The other 2/3 of your comments should be suggestions for revision. What works less well? What is confusing? What questions do you still have after reading the story? What might be cut? What might be added? Also, don t be afraid to mark on the story. You ll give the story back to the writer along with your typed comments. Feel free to scribble in the margins, make notes on each page, or point out typos. When the writer revises, he or she may take all of these notes in to account.] W, 10/5: Workshop stories 1, 2 F, 10/7: Workshop stories 3, 4 WEEK #8: WORKSHOP M, 10/10: Workshop stories 5, 6 W, 10/12: Workshop stories 7, 8 F, 10/14: Workshop stories 9, 10 WEEK #9: WORKSHOP M, 10/17: Workshop stories 11, 12 W, 10/19: W orkshop stories 13, 14 F, 10/21: Workshop stories 15, 16 WEEK #10: WORKSHOP M, 10/24: Workshop stories 17, 18 W, 10/26: Workshop stories 19, 20 F, 10/28: Oral Reports WEEK #11: WORKSHOP, ETC. M, 10/31: Oral Reports
114 W, 11/2: Revision activity. Dufresne : p gs 81 90; 289 296. Second stories due (10 20 pages). Please bring 21 copies to class. F, 11/4: Workshop story 1 WEEK #12: WORKSHOP M, 11/7: Workshop stories 2, 3 W, 11/9: Workshop stories 4, 5 F, 11/11: NO CLASS: VETERANS DAY WEEK #13: WORKSHOP M, 11/14: Workshop stories 6, 7 W, 11/16: Workshop stories 8, 9 F, 11/18: Workshop stories 10, 11 WEEK #14: WORKSHOP M, 11/21: Workshop stories 12, 13 W, 11/23: Workshop stories 14, 15 F, 11/25: NO CLASS: THANKSGIVING BREAK WEEK #15: WORKSHOP M, 11/28: Workshop s tories 16, 17 W, 11/30: Workshop stories 18, 19 F, 12/2: Workshop story 20, course evaluations, portfolio discussion FINAL EXAM WEEK: 12/5 12/10 In lieu of a final exam, each student will turn in his or her Final Portfolio to me in person in my office (4 07C) during either one of two scheduled final exam periods: M, 12/5: 1:00 3:50 W, 12/7: 1:00 3:50 Grades finalized and posted to myUCF on 12/16/2011. GRADE SHEET STORY #1: ______ / 100 STORY #2: ______ / 100 FINAL PORTFOLIO: ______ / 400 PARTICIPATION:
115 I. Presentation: ______ / 50 II. Writing Exercises: 1. ______ / 10 2. ______ / 10 3. ______ / 10 4. ______ / 10 5. ______ / 10 ______ / 50 III. Quizzes: *(lowest quiz grade dropped) 1. ______ / 20 2. ______ / 20 3. ______ / 20 4. ______ / 20 5. ______ / 20 6. ______ / 20 ______ / 100 IV. Comments/Critiques: ______ / 200 ______ / 400 TOTAL: ______ / 1000 FINAL GRADE: ______ G rade Scale: A = 93 100; A = 90 92; B+ = 87 89; B = 83 86; B = 80 82; C+ = 77 79; C = 73 76; C = 70 72; D+ = 67 69; D = 63 66; D = 60 62; F = 0 59
116 Janet Burroway Syllabi ENGLISH/MCW 413 STUDIES IN FICTION WRITING Northwestern University Fall Quar ter 2010 Janet Burroway Mondays 7:00 9:30 Wiebolt Hall 505 MCW 413 0 51 Janet Burroway Northwestern University Fall Quarter 2010 Mondays 7:00 9:30 Wiebolt Hall 505
117 ENGLISH/MCW 413 STUDIES IN FICTION WRITING Course Description and Requirements This is a hands on course in the practicum and practice of fiction writing. 1. Students will be expected to hand in a w eekly annotation of one to two pages on a published story assigned for that week. Where two short short stories are assigned, the annotation may concern either or both. The stories will be distributed as a packet the first day of class. 2. Students will also write and present to the class original fiction in the form of two short stories. Each student should aim for a total of approximately twenty pages, and no more than thirty. However, the number of pages is less important than that each story should be the length it needs to be. Novel excerpts can be presented with permission of the instructor, and where accepted should include a brief written summary of the preceding action. Students will sign up for due dates on the first day of class. Stories are to be distributed to the class the week preceding their discussion. As time permits, some story revisions may also be discussed. After the first week, electronic submission will not be accepted. The author of each story will be expected to begin a disc ussion the following week. 3. Each student will read his/her peers work in advance of the class meeting, and be prepared to discuss and evaluate it, and will return to the author the copy of the story with full annotation, including a minimum one paragra ph critical summary. 4. A full revision of one story will be due no later than the last day of class. The revision (and the original draft) will be included in a portfolio presented to the instructor, together with copies of the published story annotati ons, and a brief, specific assessment of the criticism received from peers during the term. 5. Because this is a discussion based course, attendance and active participation are required. In the case of serious impediment, one class may be missed if the instructor is notified. All work for that class is nevertheless required. Except in this instance, late work will not be accepted. Texts: Required: The packet of stories to be distributed (at cost) the first day of class. Recommended: Writing Fiction b y Janet Burroway MRW 413 Janet Burroway Northwestern University Fall Quarter 2010 Mondays 7:00 9:30 Wiebolt 505
118 TENTA TIVE CLASS SCHEDULE Sept. 27 INTRODUCTION; SOME EXERCISES Oct. 4 JOHN BARTH, LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE Oct. 11 VLADIMIR NABOKOV, SIGNS AND SYMBOLS OCT. 18 NO CLASS MAKE UP CLASS TO BE ARRANGED Oct. 25 DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, INCARNATION S OF BURNED CHILDREN / NAGUIB MAHFOUZ, HALF A DAY Nov.1 NADINE GORDIMER, THE DIAMOND MINE Nov. 8 STUART DYBEK, WE DIDN T Nov. 15 GISH JEN, WHO S IRISH? Nov. 22 RENATA ADLER, BROWNSTONE ________________________________________ ___________________________ Nov. 29 AMY BLOOM, THE STORY TBA MAKE UP CLASS: SHERMAN ALEXIE, WHAT YOU PAWN I WILL REDEEM
119 Burroway A Word about the Workshop: Many of us think of the primary function of a writing workshop as being to critici ze, in order to improve, whatever piece of writing is before us. This is absolutely natural, not only because of the way the writing workshop has evolved over the years but because nothing is more natural than to judge art. We do it all the time and we do it out of a valid impulse. If you tell me you ve just seen a movie, I don t ask the plot, I ask: How was it ? Art sets out to affect us emotionally and intellectually, and whether it has achieved this is of the first interest. The poet and critic John Ciard i said of literature that it is never only about ideas, but about the experience of ideas, and the first thing we want to know is, naturally, how was the experience? But in a fiction workshop it is a given that the stories presented are first or early drafts otherwise there would be no reason to bring them to workshop -so it doesn t make a lot of sense to subject them to immediate assessment. Before you begin a critique of the piece, interrogate it, summarize the action as you understand it, decide what sort of story it is, what effect it seems to strive for; suggest its context, explore its nature and its possibilities. Try at least in the early comments to avoid simplistic I like, I don t like, This works, this doesn t work judgments. It may be ha rder to forgo praise than blame, but praise should be a controlled substance too. Instead, discipline yourself to explore whatever is in front of you. Not What I like, but What this piece is like. This kind of descriptive, inquisitive, and neutral discuss ion of writing is hard. It will pay off in the freedom that each writer feels to write and in the flexibility of critical response developing in the workshop. In the later part of the discussion there will be time for not only what this piece is trying to do but also where and whether it succeeds. At that point, critique will help. Meanwhile keep in mind these few basic protocols for the workshop: It is the obligation of each reader to prepare in advance, focusing on the nature of the story, what succeeds and why, then noting judiciously where improvement is needed, and why. The piece is under discussion. The author is not. Make sure your comments relate to the nature of the writing and not (even by implication) to the character of the writer. Separate th e writer from the voice or character. Continue to interrogate the piece: What kind is it? What does it suggest? What is its apparent aim? The goal of the workshop is to make this piece the best that it can be. There s no place for dismissal or disregard. O n the contrary, one obligation of the workshop is to identify and foster the promise in every story. As the writer, your obligation is to listen attentively, take everything in, and keep your natural defensiveness in check. Your workshop may (or may not) o ffer you a chance to speak. But this is the least important part of the workshop process for you The most important part comes later, when you get back to work. Then (and only then) you will begin to sort out what s useful and what isn t.
120 Alphabetized Co mpilation of All Stories Taught According to All Gathered Syllabi Brownstone Renata Adler Dead Men s Path Chinua Achebe The Wind and the Sun Aesop This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona Sherman Alexie This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, A rizona Sherman Alexie What you Pawn I will Redeem Sherman Alexie What you Pawn I will Redeem Sherman Alexie The Shunammite Ines Arredondo Happy Endings Margaret Atwood Happy Endings Margaret Atwood River of Names Dorothy Allison Sonny s Blues James Baldwin The English Pupil Andrea Barrett Lost in the Funhouse John Barth The School Donald Barthelme The School Donald Barthelme All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona Richard Bausch The Fireman s Wife Richard Bausch Tandolfo the Great Ric hard Bausch Gryphon Charles Baxter Winter Journey Charles Baxter A Vintage Thunderbird Ann Beatttie Faces Aimee Bender The Tortoise and the Geese Bidpai An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Ambrose Bierce Silver Water Amy Bloom The Story Amy Bloom The Gospel According to Mark Jorge Luis Borges Hotel Touraine Robert Olen Butler Greasy Lake T. Coraghessan Boyle Tooth and Claw T. Coraghessan Boyle Written in Stone Catherine Brady Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta Kate Braverman Accompl ice Sarah Sun Lien Bynum The Trespassers Bonnie Jo Campbell The H Street Sledding Record Ron Carlson Keith Ron Carlson The Bath (excerpts) Raymond Carver Cathedral Raymond Carver Cathedral Raymond Carver A Serious Talk Raymond Carver A Smal l Good Thing (excerpts) Raymond Carver Paul s Case Willa Cather Big Me Dan Chaon Reunion John Cheever
121 The Swimmer John Cheever The Swimmer John Cheever Gusev Anton Chekhov The Lady with the Pet Dog Anton Chekhov The Story of an Hour Kate Chopin Independence Chuang Tzu The House on Mango Street Sandra Cisneros The Open Boat Stephen Crane Summer, With Twins Rebecca Curtis Screenwriter Charles D Ambrosio Edison, New Jersey Junot Diaz Nilda Junot Diaz Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni The Fat Girl Andre Dubus Chopin in Winter Stuart Dybek We Didn t Stuart Dybek Battle Royal Ralph Ellison Barn Burning William Faulkner A Rose for Emily William Faulkner Communist Richard Ford Rock Springs Richard Ford Rock Springs Richard Ford Grace Paula Fox The Tutor Nell Rrendenberger Turgor Mary Gaitskill The Yellow Wallpaper Charlotte Perkins Gilman The Diamond Mine Nadine Gordimer Godfather Death Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm Wickedness Ron Hansen Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down Ryan Harty City Visit Adam Haslett Young Goodman Brown Nathaniel Hawthorne A Clean, Well Lighted Place Earnest Hemingway In the Cemetery where Al Johnson is Buried Amy Hempel That s What Dogs Do Amy Hempel The Gift of the Magi O. Henry Sweat Zora Neale Hurston The Lottery Shirley Jackson Who s Irish Gish Jen Who s Irish Gish Jen Saboteur Ha Jin Emergency Denis Johnson Anything that Floats Bret Anthony Johnston The First Day Edward P. Jones The Pugilist at Rest Thom Jones Araby James Joyce
122 Before the Law Franz Kafka The Metamorphosis Franz Kafka Girl Jamaica Kincaid Girl Jamaica Kincaid Interpreter of Maladies Jhumpa Lahiri The Rocking Horse Winner D. H. Lawrence Terri tory David Leavitt The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas Ursula K. Le Guin Men Under Water Ralph Lombreglia To Build a Fire Jack London The Parable of the Prodigal Son Luke 15: 11 32 Half a Day Naguib Mahfouz The Lawsuit Naguib Mahfouz Miss Bril l Katherine Mansfield A Very Old Man With Very Enormous Wings Gabriel Garcia Marquez A Very Old Man With Very Enormous Wings Gabriel Garcia Marquez Shiloh Bobbie Ann Mason Red From Green Maile Meloy How to Become a Writer Lorrie Moore Shelter Nami Mun How I Met My Husband Alice Munro Signs & Symbols Nabokov The Things They Carried Tim O Brien The Things They Carried Tim O Brien The Things They Carried Tim O Brien Everything that Rises Must Converge Flannery O Connor A Good Man is H ard to Find Flannery O Connor Parker s Back Flannery O Connor Revelation Flannery O Connor The Lonely Voice Frank O Connor Where Are You Going, Where H ave Y ou Been? Joyce Carol Oates Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Joyce Carol Oates Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Joyce Carol Oates I Stand Here Ironing Tillie Olsen Orientation Daniel Orozco Pilgrims Julie Orringer Brownies Z.Z. Packer Every Tongue Shall Confess Z.Z. Packer Geese Z.Z. Packer A Man Told Me The S tory Of His Life Grace Paley My Life with the Wave Octavio Paz The Tell Tale Heart Edgar Allan Poe The Jilting of Granny Weatherall Katherine Anne Porter Yours Mary Robinson Winky George Saunders Love and Hydrogen Jim Shepard
123 Goin to Town, Wa llace Stegner The Crysanthemums John Steinbeck Helping Robert Stone No one s a Mystery Elizabeth Tallent A Pair of Tickets Amy Tan Rules of the Game Amy Tan The Death of Ivan Ilych Leo Tolstoy Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner Deb Olin Unferth Har rison Bergeron Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Everyday Use Alice Walker Incarnations of Burned Children David Foster Wallace A Visit of Charity Eudora We lty Why I live at the P. O. Eudora We lty The Use of Force William Carlos Williams Bullet in the Brain Tobias Wolff Bullet in the Brain Tobias Wolff The Rich Brother Tobias Wolff A Haunted House Virginia Woolf
124 APPENDIX D SELECTIONS FROM INTE RVIEWS Transcriber s Note The following transcripts have all been rendered into Sta ndard English for the mercenary purpose of ease of use to the reader. Both significant pauses and filler utterances (such as may be rendered by other transcribers as umm or err ) have been rendered in this transcript as ellipses. Any inclusions, includi ng ellipses used to signify material excluded from a quotation in the body of the thesis, have been placed in brackets. Also placed in brackets are instances of interruptions to the transcript. Titles of novels, films, etc. have been italicized. Also itali cized are instances of significant laughter by the interviewer and participant. All participants are identified by the first letter of their first and last name; therefore, I am represented as EM in all transcripts. David Leavitt Interview DL: Laughter So, you know, I go back to the paradox, to t his paradox of our job is to teac h that which cannot be taught & But I will say this, and I think this is true for us, for my colleagues here, is that we are & We are all in some fundamental sense, have always though t of ourselves as outsiders. And I think it s very important, in teaching writing and in being a writer to think of yourself as an outsider. One of the dangers of this sort of MFA [Master of Fine Arts] & phenomena is that it has created a sort of academic & tr ack for creative writing which is so & so contradicts, to me, the whole essence of being a writer, which is essentially about being an outsider, about being outside of systems. Once you have a system that is this rigid, and this is Shivani s point, people st art writing to please the system. And that's a very, very dangerous thing. One reason that I love teaching the undergrads is that they are so free in their work, their imaginations. They are not yet think about writing as a profession, they're not thinking about getting jobs, they're not thinking about getting published, they're just letting their imaginations go wild. And it's, it's so much fun, and it's so exciting to see what they're capable of. EM: That's what I m & You ve kind of hit on some of the crux es of what I'm investigating and what I m ver y interested in. I'm wondering & If there is, if we can say that literary fiction has some kind of form, has some kind of a corpus, some kind of a purpose to it
125 DL: Well, as long as we understand that literary f iction is not literature. These are two different categories of EM: Of course DL: There s literary fiction that, I think, as a category, exists in the Academy and that exist s within the American & You know & sort of & Look, it s all under the umbrella of AW P [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] I know you've heard of AWP. EM: Yes. DL: That whole AWP world. And that to me is a very different thing than actual, real literature. It c an be literature. But it's not & It needs to be kept very distinct fr om literature. Literature is that authentic thing that is unmistakable. Literary fiction is a kind of genre with its own rules. Now, most literature is literary fiction, but not all. And certainly most literary fiction is not literature. Most of it is as m ediocre as anything else. EM: That's & Quite a bold statement to make. DL: Was it? It doesn't seem that bold to me. EM: Well, that's exactly what I'm investigating. DL: But, yeah. No, no. I think it s true. EM: No, I mean, in terms of the fact that th e Academy has chosen literary fiction out of all the genres it could have chosen, literary fiction has attained that kind of position DL: But is it? It makes perfect sense, because the vast majority of MFA programs grew out of English Departments. Englis h Departments invented the idea of literary fiction. They & the values that the English Department has & traditionally & espoused are the same values that fed this idea of literary fiction. So, you know, I mean, until recently, very few English Departments were teaching, say, Science Fiction. They were & You know, that was kind of considered there was a certain snobbery and it was like Okay, we ll just dismiss that. So that makes sense to me, that s where it comes from & But I should add I m an old fashioned guy. I mean, I believe in literary values and I m pretty canonical in my tastes, and the stuff that I love is the stuff that is taught, usually, in English Departments. EM: Do you see any, any kind of pattern every genre has its own patterns. So, science fic tion has certain plots, certain styles, certain characters. Do you see any certain plot styles, characters, forms, that kind of thing, that tend to be native to the genre of literary fiction?
126 DL: Well, there s another you have to throw in another monkey wrench here. American. Which is very provincial and very hermetic. In American fiction? Sure. I see a kind of dreary realism, not much humor & very little happens. Laughter. There s a sort of fear of plot, I would say & That s one trend. Another trend is stuf f that is written entirely to shock. That is & essentially, that s all it s trying to do is to get attention through trying to shock. Which isn t really all that different from the other kind, because neither one is really very interesting ultimately. I mean the shock lasts for, you know, a few minutes, and then you get used to whatever it is that s supposedly shocked you. But & that s America. And I think there s a lot of stuff going on in other countries that s much more interesting. And, there s interesting stuff going on in America too, but I see, you know, reading for Subtropics, I see 90% of what I see fits into one of those two categories. Janet Burroway Interview EM: Yeah that's & that's fascinating & I was just wondering do you see creative writing as m ore of a discipline for, for personal development or for causing social change? Is it both, is that neither? Why do you feel that way? JB: Say again, for personal & EM: Well there is personal change, and then there is societal change or, well, personal de velopment. JB: Passionately both! Passionately both. [ Laughter ] In fact, I ve been lecturing about this in the last few years trying to get a piece to a place that I feel it s & worth publishing, but let me ask it this way. When the 2000 & When the 9/11 com mission produced its report, it gave four reasons that, that disaster had happened. The first one they said was a massive lack of imagination on the part of our leaders. And what they meant was not any different from what we mean by imagination when we tea ch creative writing. It was exactly the same thing. It meant that these, these guys i n Washington could not imagine & that a bunch of other guys who lived in caves and wore skirts and had no computers could pull off what they pulled off. And I feel that what we have done in our country, over the course of my adulthood, we have taken the arts out of education, in such a way that we are not training the imaginations of our children. And the wonder is that so many of them come to universities wanting to write, a nd passionately wanting to write, they haven't even read. You know? You know, they watch television all their lives. And somehow they know that they want to do somethin g with the language that their & Relationship to it in the culture has not been satisfying enough, and they want to do it. That thrills me. And I think that we have every obligation from & Kindergarten through graduate school to, to give our students an opportunity to train their imaginations.
127 EM: That is & So you see it almost as a discipline to create a kind of, no, almost a very humanistic discipline that this is something vital to being human. JB: Absolutely! Absolutely. There, there are a couple of things. Because people don't read very much anymore, creative writing is, is going t o have to be & A college course. You can't get it in the general culture the way you used to be able to. You know when people read to each other in the evenings, and reading was the only recreation that you, that you had in the evening. People were very much more invo lved daily with writing than they are now. So it is going to be necessary to teach creative writing as a discipl ine in in college. But also we & What we need in the world most, is the capacity to imagine other people. It's the only way to know that aliens. [ Laughter ] & meaning foreigners, are people and, and when we go to war the first thing that & The generals try to do is to dehumanize the enemy, so that it will be easy to kill. Creative writing is the opposite of that, it is trying to humanize those who are se en as foreign to you, and the writer & Has a capacity to do that in such a way as to help the reader do it. That's what we need most in the world today. Is the imagination to know that all of us are people. EM: I've always thought that the increase of sympa thy and of empathy that you can get from writing and reading good literature is probably the best, most valuable thing you can get out of it, so that's a very reassuring thing to hear. JB: I've always believed that. Fiction is the most spe cifically aimed at & That's at, that ability to get inside the mind of someone else, but all art does that. All art says Look at it this way. It allows you a moment of getting outside of your own & Your own brain box. And looking at it differently. I think it's, you know i f I was & if I were going to & Go back to your quality wo rk. Something that allows you & something that says Look at it this way, and that convinces you to do so, has quality. Jessica Langford Interview B EM: What do you expect working through the MFA progra m will be like? JL: I don't kn ow but I'm so excited. Because & Well, first of all, I hope & I mean, for on ce in my life I will feel like & Not for once, because I felt this little bit my writing classes, and also as I was preparing to b e part of the program, bu t & I can say to myself like I set aside this block of my day for writing and you know, nobody can argue that other things are more important bec ause there's always that inner & You know your inner critic saying "Well you really should be grading those pape rs because the kids have gotten them back in God knows how long" or "You really should be calling this person take care of this stuff". I mean I can actually say that this is a priority in my life, and I'm really looking forward to doing that. And then I
128 a lso think it will be cha llenging, emotionally. Because & I'm it used to sharing my writing with other people and even though I want to do that, I know t hat will be hard for me and so & I do, I guess I'm just very, very excited about being around other creative people and seeing what they have to say and just being able to talk to people about writing, about books and things like that. EM: Okay. Do you have any idea or any hopes for what the mentoring program might be like there? J L: Yes & Both programs I've be en accepted into, they have you work one on one with one of the faculty members and & At Sarah Lawrence it changes every semester and at George Mason you choose one, so I'm currently making a reading list, so that I can make informed decisions about which fa culty member I might want to choose to do that. I'm also very, ve ry excited about that. Because & Working one on one with someone is great, and I know this is a teacher, when I sit down and I have writing conferences with my students and we talk together and I say "Well, this worked really well for you, but I'm not sure what you're trying to do here" and we try to talk about it, and I see what helps them, and I'm really looking forward to being on the other end of that. EM: Ok ay & Where do you see yourself aft er the MFA program is completed? JL: I've no idea.
129 L IST OF R EFERENCES A mazon ( 2006, March 23 ). Writing fiction: A guide to narrative craft [ Online book description] Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Writing Fiction Guide Narrative Craft/dp/0321277368/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1341359301&sr=8 3&keywords=burroway+writing+fiction+7th+ed Aristotle. (1981). Aristotle s poetics: A translation and commentary for students of literature. L. Golden (Trans.). Tallahassee, FL: University Presses of Florida. Association of Writers and Writing Programs. (2012). AWP Member Programs. Retrieved from http://www.awpwriter.org/membership/memberprograms.php Blackwell, E. (2011 a ). Blackwell on writing: A geography of Fiction. The Chronicle of Higher Education Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/arts/blackwell on writing a geography of fiction/28714 Blackwell, E (2011b). In defense of M.F.A. programs, part 2. The Chronicle of Higher E ducation Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/arts/blackwell on writing in defense of m f a programs part 2/28912 Bronte, C. (1999). Jane Eyre. In R. Nemesvari (Ed.), Jane Eyre (p. 59 557). Petersborough, ON, CA: Broadview Press. First published 1847. Brooks, G. & Pitlor, H. (Ed s .). (2011). The best American short stories New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. Burroway, J. (2012). Creative writing interview with Janet Burroway/Interviewer: Eric McChesney. Recording and transcript in possession of Eric McChesney. Burroway, J. & Stuckey French, E. (2007). Writing fict ion: A guide to narrative craft (7 th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Longman. Butler, R. (2005). From where you dream J. Burroway (Ed.). New York, NY: Grove Press. Caglioti, C. (2010). The master of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing in the United States: Teaching the unteachable (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database ( UMI No. 3395085) Ciment, J. (2012). Creative writing interview with Jill Ciment/Interviewer: Eric McChesney. Recording and transcript in possess ion of Eric McChesney. Claggett, F., Brown, J., Patterson N., & Reid, L. (2005). Teaching writing: Craft, art, genre Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
130 Dewey, J. (1935). Art as experience. New York, NY: Berkley Publishing Group. Elbow, P (1973). Writing without teachers New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Fiction. (March 2012). In Oxford English Dictionary Online. Retrieved from http://w ww.oed.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/view/Entry/69828?rskey=ZeW9UT&result=1#ei d Gardner, J. (1977). On moral fiction. New York, NY: Basic Books Inc, Publishers. Greenberg, A. (n.d.). A (slightly qualified) defense of MFA programs: Six benefits of graduate school. P oets.org. Retrieved from http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5894 Langford, J. (2012a). Creative writing interview 1 with Jessica Langford/Interviewer: Eric McChesney. Recording and trans cript in possession of Eric McChesney. Langford, J. (2012b). Creative writing interview 2 with Jessica Langford/Interviewer: Eric McChesney. Recording and transcript in possession of Eric McChesney. Langford, J. (2012c). Creative writing interview 3 with J essica Langford/Interviewer: Eric McChesney. Recording and transcript in possession of Eric McChesney. Leavitt, D. (2011). Creative writing i nterview with David Leavitt /Interviewer: Eric McChesney. Recording and transcript in possession of Eric McChesney. Lennon, J. (2011, January 18). Blame grad school [Web log post]. Ward Six Retrieved from http://wardsix.blogspot.com/2011/01/blame grad school.html?spref=tw Literary. (Mar ch 2012). In Oxford English Dictionary Online Retrieved from http://www.oed.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/view/Entry/109067?redirectedFrom=literary#eid McGurl, M. (2009). The program era: Postwar fiction and the rise of creative writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Meyers, B. (2002). A reader s manifesto: An attack on the growing pretentiousness in American literary prose. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House P ublishing. Milton, J. (2004). Paradise Lost. D. Hawkes (Ed.). New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books. First published 1674. Nietzsche, F. (2005). Thus spoke Zarathustra C. Martin (Trans.). New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books. First published 1885. Poets & Writers. (2011). 2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty. Poets & Writers 25 ( 5 ). Retrieved from http://www.pw.org/content/2012_mfa_rankings_the_top_fifty?cmnt_all=1
131 Salon. ( 2011 ). Why Critics of MFA Programs Have it Wrong. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2011/10/22/why_critics_of_mfa_programs_have_it_wrong/ Schumacher, J. (2012). I n defense of the MFA [Web log post]. Julie Schumacher Retrieved from http://www.julieschumacher.com/writing/essays/in defense of the mfa/ Selgin, P. (2006). Bio. Peter Se lgin: Writer, teacher, artist. Retrieved from http://www.peterselgin.com/Resources/bio.html Selgin, P. (2011). Creative writing interview with Peter Selgin/Interviewer: Eric McChesney. Recording and transcript in possession of Eric McChesney. Shivani, A. (2011). Against the workshop: Provocations, polemics, controversies. Huntsville, TX: Texas Review Press. Sommer, J. (2010, October 24). In defense of MFA programs (which are sometimes run by old white men) [Web log post]. Bark Retrieved from http://thebarking.com/2010/10/in defense of mfa programs which are sometimes run by old white men/ Stegner, W. (2002). On teaching and writing fiction. L. Stegner (Ed.). New York, NY: Penguin Group. University of Florida. (n.d. a). David Leavitt. Retrieved from http://www.engl ish.ufl.edu/faculty/dleavitt/index.html University of Florida. (n.d. b). Jill Ciment. Retrieved from http://www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/jciment/index.html University of Florida. (n.d. c ). Mary Robinson. Retrieved from http://www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/mrobison/index.html University of Florida. (n.d. d). MFA@FLA Requirements. Retrieved from http://www.english.ufl.edu/crw/forms/MFA@FLA%20Requirements.pdf University of Florida. (n.d. e ). Padgett Powell. Retrieved from http:/ /www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/ppowell/index.html Vygotsky, L. (1962).Thought and Word. In Thinking and Speaking (Chapter 7). E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar (Eds., Trans.). Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/vygotsky.htm First published 1934.
132 B IOGRAPHICAL S KETCH Eric McChesney performed his undergraduate work at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he earned a B achelor of Arts in English l it erature and a minor in p hilosophy. He now attends the College of Education at the University of Florida, where he intends to earn his Master of Arts in e ducation before departing to teach in high schools for several years. After this period, he may return to academia to earn his Doctor of Philosophy in a r omanticism program. A part time Byron scholar, Mr. McChesney is active in the Byron Society of America and the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism. In the e ducation field, he has recently w orked with Dr. Townsend and Mrs. Jen Chevallier to deliver a presentation on the pedagogy and theory of an o nline w riting p artnership between graduate students and high school students at the Florida Associate of Teacher Educators Conference. As a writer he has worked as a journalist, poetry editor, and article writer, and has published a handful of articles in newspapers and several poems in minor literary magazines.