They’ll Make You a Writer!

This past summer, as every summer, well-known writers were teaching in creative writing seminars, workshops, conferences, and residential programs, and hundreds of people attended, at Bread Loaf and Sewanee, Sun Valley and Squaw Valley, and dozens of other places. This fall, thousands more students will be enrolled in long-term writing programs leading to master’s degrees and doctorates in fine arts. Given the number of people who want to write, these programs are lucrative for the universities that sponsor them; but one wonders why, apart from the profitability, our institutions continue to foster what Mark McGurl explains as

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Iowa Digital Library
A writers’ workshop on the lawn in front of the Old Capitol building at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1940s
for the most part a rather low-tech and quaintly humanistic, if increasingly sprawling, affair whose role is rather to give something back to the student which the perpetual displacements of modern life…might seem to take away. It is easier, in other words, to see creative writing as one of the forms of obsolescence conserved by the university than as part of its R&D wing.

McGurl’s book on the rise of creative writing programs at American universities calls attention to this peculiar and suggestive phenomenon, though it’s not clear what all that writing means: he points out that the teaching of creative writing, and indeed even the whole concept of “creative writing,” are relatively new, and originally American. Why do these programs thrive? Is the wish to become a writer peculiarly American? Do people of other nations throng as eagerly to situations that require them to do what most of them hated doing in high school?

Nowadays the writing program also seems to be catching on in some other countries, though study abroad may still be predominantly for American students who happen to have the money and time to travel to some pleasant city in Italy or France or the Czech Republic, with the wish to become a writer, and at a minimum the hope of finding a satisfying means of self-expression. A typical blandishment:

Come write, study, and explore the literary life in Paris this summer with the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. During this intensive month-long program, creative writing students will focus on the mutual influences among French and English-speaking writers from Modernism to the present moment while writing their own fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, inspired by this storied cultural capital and one of the most important literary traditions in history.

The cost for Columbia’s month is about $9,000.

Writing programs, around since the 1930s, were founded first at the University of Iowa and then Stanford, in other words far from the New York fount, a circumstance that McGurl (who teaches at Stanford) doesn’t make as much of as it probably means; and according to McGurl, there are now more than 350 such full-time, accredited writing programs in American institutions. Most of them offer …

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