THE MFA DEBATE
By Curt Eriksen
The Montréal Review, May 2011
The Student by Richard Piloco, 18"x24" oil on canvas
Eleanor Ettinger Gallery
24 WEST 57TH STREET
NEW YORK, NY 10019
I wonder whether or not I should venture into the fray. As a continuously aspiring writer it's tempting, but at the same time it's frightening, since there is some risk involved when taking a stance. But avoiding risk for the sake of avoiding risk is a rather cowardly attitude towards life which is-both inherently and of necessity-risky. 1
So I think I'll go ahead and chance whatever it is that's at stake by contributing my own humble opinion to the debate over the MFA programs in Creative Writing that have become so popular, especially in the United States, during the past fifty years.
The question is not, perhaps, so much, "Can writing be taught?" or "Can artists be fabricated?" as it is: "What do we mean by 'art?'" And what does 'art' mean to each of us, both personally and socially? And how much do we value the existence in our lives and societies of such obviously nonfunctional products as the 'work of art?'
But these questions are never raised nor even alluded to in the debate inspired by Elif Batuman's critique in the
London Review of Books of Mark McGurl's 2009 study of the influence of creative writing programs on contemporary American fiction, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, and his response to her criticism in the Los Angeles Review of Book.
It occurs to me that the disparity between these two Doctors of Literature (both Batuman and McGurl are graduates of one school or another at Harvard, and each holds a PhD in Comparative Literature) is adequately represented by the pair of publications in which they have voiced their academic opinions: Los Angeles is not only half way around the world from London, but culturally it couldn't be much further removed from the center and command post of a long deceased empire upon which the sun didn't set for a couple of hundred years.
Reading the debate was like watching a fencing match when you don't know all the rules (i.e., all of Batuman's allusions to the 18 th century forerunners of the technical experiments that McGurl regards as not only contemporary, but attributable to the synergy produced by the MFA programs that he has sought to defend from what he considers the "pervasive contempt" for these programs, particularly among literary snobs). As a spectator ignorant of these rules you can understand that something intricate and supposedly serious is happening here, though you can't quite figure it out: there is every variety of thrust, parry and counterthrust, but none of the jabs seem to strike home.
Personally I don't think it takes either a PhD or the time and energy that McGurl must have put into researching his book to recognize the fact that contemporary American fiction is, generally speaking, very highly technically proficient, yet often lacking in what I would call vision, and perhaps even soul. Obviously technique can be taught and learned, even mastered. But what an MFA program will rarely, if ever, teach a writer to do is to look and truly see.
Hemingway encouraged the aspiring writer to think hard about what he or she really felt in response to what they saw, and to distinguish that individual and perhaps even unique feeling from what he or she was supposed to feel. This requires considerable effort and a great deal of solitude and lonely reflection, not to mention fearless honesty and sometimes brutal introspection. In an age in which not only the expression of our feeling, but the thinking behind that expression are subject to hypercritical scrutiny by the PC censors, this challenge is obviously heightened.
Likewise Rodin told Rilke to go and stare at bricks long enough to begin to see something in the brick other than, or beyond, the hard and sooty fired clay.
And Constantine Cavafy noted that "The visible is seen with a little observation. Art," he said, "is what the artist invents."
That invention requires the capacity for creativity, a characteristic of human nature which we all possess to some extent. It is the development of this capacity that can be favored by any environment which simultaneously stimulates creativity by assigning it and the methods by which it is achieved some meaningful and perhaps even (though not necessarily) transcendent value, while also suggesting a hammer and nails approach to the creative responses-via whichever medium the particular artist happens to be involved with-to real human difficulties, the nuts and bolts of our experience.
While art schools and creative writing programs adequately supply budding painters and sculptors and writers with a network of sympathy and support for their aesthetic endeavors, and in this way provide these artists with a sense of doing something that matters after all, they too often generate a self-affirming and secluded ambience or bubble within which the would-be artist is cut off from one of the essential elements that artists need most: the multifaceted risks of living in the 'real world.'
This interpretation might account for the technical achievements associated with MFA programs and the lack of stirring content that some of these writers go on to produce-the "mediocrity" that Batuman complains about.
Camus said, in the introduction to his collected essays, that some of them were written when he was very young, as if to excuse himself for his innocence. This 'innocence,' the heart in Camus' early writing in particular, is one of its greatest charms. And being a particularly gifted writer (his nemesis Sartre complained about how well Camus wrote) Camus' early writings are also imbued with poetic insight and even love.
But most of us cringe when we reread what we wrote when we were twenty, or even thirty. And this is where the MFA programs get it wrong. How can they-or anybody, for that matter-expect such unseasoned though enthusiastic young people who have barely begun to live to make much of anything out of their limited experiences?
I'm not suggesting a legal age for the writing of fiction, but I am suggesting a possible, if only partial, explanation for the two main qualities most often associated with MFA writing-the technical expertise accompanied by the apparently weightless content. Most young people are eager and natural students, provided they are interested in what they are learning. Like sponges, small children effortlessly soak up all sorts of bits and pieces of information as they mimic their mentors. But it takes time to transform this information into knowledge and understanding.
The Chinese say that "Some people are born with knowledge; some are given the gift of knowledge from heaven; some gain knowledge through consistent hard work and study." 2 This is a means of accounting for natural talent, such as Camus had, or the lack of it, which is far more common. Fortunately for those not blessed by heaven's grace there are various and non-exclusive ways of going about acquiring the coveted knowledge and mastery all artists seek. And in the end what matters most is the fact that knowledge once acquired, no matter how it was acquired, is the exactly same thing.
I think it is the acquiring of that knowledge that counts most towards the making of good writers and good writing, the usually long and arduous process of fusing technical know-how with the substantive material of having been involved for a while in living both fully and intensely. Rilke talked about what he called "blood writing," and like so many other masters he suggested that one has to suffer in order to acquire the necessary knowledge required to make lasting art. Perhaps the MFA programs should include a mandatory three or even six credit course in staring at bricks: or better yet, tossing and laying those bricks, one by one.
1 Think of Darwin, and his theory of the mutations that enabled one species to advance, survive and perhaps even flourish, whereas others-or certain of their characteristics-were left behind.
2 Taken from Bruce Frantzis' The Power of Internal Martial Arts, Combat Secrets of BaGua, Tai Chi, and Hsin-I.
Curt Eriksen is writing a novel set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in the U.S., U.K., India and Spain, in Orbis, Blackbird, Rosebud, New Madrid, 34th Parallel, Contrary, 42opus and Alba among many other print and online journals. You can read Eriksen's essays, poetry and short stories at: http://clerik.weebly.com/