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


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 the ubiquitous and valued MFA, and often the Ph.D. in creative writing. The original impetus coincided with early-twentieth-century so-called Progressive Education movements, which encouraged “creativity” in reaction to old-fashioned educational methods of learning by rote:

Creative writing as we know it is the product of a historical moment when traditional conceptions of formal education as an occasion either for externally imposed mental discipline or the conveyance to the student of standardized subject matter came under sustained attack.

During this period, Thomas Wolfe epitomized the ideal of the untrammeled creative artist. A second proliferation of MFAs after World War II grew out of a big national investment in higher education, with the GI Bill and other efforts drawing vast numbers of people to college who before then wouldn’t have been able to go. Today, when about half of Americans go to college, it can seem that half of those want to be writers.

Part of McGurl’s contention is that now—because except in a few cases, study at a university is a requirement for a job teaching writing—American writers have been co-opted into a system of professional formation that, far from encouraging creativity, could perpetuate the opposite, a paradox they live with. He goes on to point out that most modern American authors, even ones you think of as free-spirited, daring loners, say Ken Kesey or Thomas Pynchon, have been attached to writing programs as students and/or have taught in them, from Flannery O’Connor to Allen Ginsberg to John Barth to Kurt Vonnegut to the many that work within institutions today. Because most writers and teachers of American literature have been exposed to the same foundation concepts of creative writing and teaching, and writer-professors can by constructing the canon create a market for their own wares, American writing has developed certain defining characteristics.


McGurl goes on to hold that our writing has come to have certain qualities in common because writers and readers and teachers will all have probably been promulgating three dicta familiar to us all, which he takes to be fundamental to creative writing programs, if not to literature itself:

1. Find your voice.

2. Write what you know.

3. Show don’t tell.

Are these dicta derived from what we can see to be common properties of literature we admire, innate properties of all good writing? Are they sound? These three laws or precepts, right or wrong and however unconsciously promulgated and practiced, probably do guide much American writing.

Therefore, McGurl contends—and most would agree with his examples—the qualities that owe something to the dominant pedagogy, in particular to reliance on the first two dicta—write what you know and find your voice—together have produced a literature of solipsism, an inward turn toward first-person narratives and parochial, self-involved subjects, American narcissism. By comparison, we can see that French and English fiction and Middle European literatures are not shy of telling instead of showing, and employ the first person less often, Proust excepted. These dicta also reduce and simplify the variety and complexity of available writerly stances, so that writing that should give us the celebrated frisson that Nabokov described as a sensation between the shoulder blades increasingly often doesn’t.

Take the business of dialogue instead of exposition: “Show don’t tell” is so ingrained in the American writing seminar orthodoxy that it almost seems futile to question it, especially as it seems to be the instinctive practice of great natural writers, say Chekhov or Graham Greene, who did not, however, elevate it into a law laid down by some Gordon Lish of their day—Lish the legendary editor who performed extensive pruning operations on Raymond Carver’s prose, to remove any evidence of “telling.” Today there are some signs that his dictate may be losing its power—a recent New Yorker had a story by Ben Marcus that is entirely “told,” not shown, narrated from the point of view of Julian, the protagonist:

Julian could only walk faster, wincing, until the shopkeepers released him from eye contact. Had anyone, he wondered, ever studied the biology of being seen? The ravaging, the way it literally burned when you fetched up in people’s sight lines and they took aim at you with their minds? He wanted to summon a look of kindness and curiosity in return, a look that might make them forgive his miserly ways, his trespass on their ancient, superior city. But his face lacked the power to convey. He’d stopped trying to use it for silent communication—the gestures you tendered overseas, absent a shared language, to suggest that you were not a murderer. Such facial language was for apes, or some mime troupe in Vermont. Mummenschanz people who emoted for a living. He ate with his face and spoke with it. Sometimes he hid it in his hands. That should have been enough.

And so on through several pages, with very little dialogue. You can imagine the screams from a contemporary writing class.

As to writing what you know, what we know best is ourselves, so writing in our own voices about our own experiences is easiest, and this, McGurl says, has led us to the use and maybe overuse of the first-person voice. If American literature relies on the first person much more than other literatures do, still its use has always been perfectly traditional in novels, used to establish veracity, as in Wuthering Heights or Moby-Dick, when a speaker testifies to having seen or heard of the events that are described. The first person is engaging, intimate, allows the writer to skip around in a story with the logic or illogic of psychology, is not bound like the orderly third-person narrator to plod from event to event in roughly chronological order. The first-person narrator is free to reveal more of the real self or the fictional self, and if self-revelation is our aim, the best way to do it is to tell our own story in our own words.

The first person is also good when you have an exciting story to tell, of something that happened to you, but of course, in our privileged comfort, we mostly don’t, hence the rise of the abuse narrative and the prevalence, practically amounting to a convention, of molester fathers and violent drunken moms. It’s easy to see why Henry James disapproved of the first person, but also fun to imagine him in the modern confessional mode, because he really had plenty of material—fraternal rivalry, the slightly mad and bitter sister, the pain of his sexual ambiguity, and above all the mysterious Wound. What an affecting memoir he could have written, if only he had been interested in the drama of his own life. Instead, he was too busy writing and dining and sightseeing and visiting and leading the calm life of a sociable gentleman in easy and civilized circumstances.


Perhaps luckily, he was interested in others, in their moral dilemmas, and in how their lives revealed the times, and the moral and political climate of certain societies—for which he recommended the more authoritative third-person voice. James was a social novelist of a sort that we aren’t used to now. It’s true that the effect of the first person, with its confidential, natural tone and indifference to plot, can seem very American, in the sense that Europeans say American friendliness is a disguise, our candor a mask behind which, because we omit familiar social rites, we are unknowable.

Finding your voice and writing what you know have led us into fascination with autobiography; and our preoccupation with fame and celebrity is in a kind of permanent tension with high-modernist craft, for which McGurl has produced three further interesting descriptive categories, with diagrams: (1) technomodernism, which “emphasizes the all-important engagement of postmodern literature with information technology” (sometimes called postmodernism, an example being Don DeLillo). (2) High cultural pluralism, which “will describe a body of fiction that joins the high literary values of modernism with a fascination with the experience of cultural difference and the authenticity of the ethnic voice,” including regionalism, and other forms of cultural pluralism central to the development of the writing program. This overlaps with “multiculturalism,” with everyone looking for their hyphen: African-American, Jewish-American, Asian-American, Lesbian-American, Veteran-American, Convict-American. (3) “Lower-middle-class modernism,” sometimes known as K-Mart realism, along with ethnic stories the preferred and privileged category of “serious” writing at present, reflecting the fact that when we look toward others, we have been taught to admire and somehow elevate stories that are about poor, working, and rural people, preferably ethnically distinctive.

The third category “most often takes the form of the minimalist short story, and is preoccupied…with economic and other forms of insecurity and cultural anomie.”

Lower-middle-class modernism defines itself largely against the cultural forms actually consumed by the lower middle class from whom it struggles to separate itself—sentimental literature, genre fiction, and television—even as it positions itself against the flagrantly intellectualist experimentalism of technomodernism.

Writing about poor people is less common in other literatures (pace Émile Zola). McGurl is witty about our most distinctive genres, like the campus novel, the workshop story collection, the ethnic family saga (you can be American-born and Harvard-trained as long as you have an exotic name and some stories from your grandmother), meta-genre fiction, and various forms of prison narrative he calls the “meta-slave narrative,” for instance One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He finds that prison narratives also function as metaphors for the creative writing class itself. At bottom, McGurl believes, our creative writing expresses American anti-intellectualism; elsewhere, intellectuals are admired. And of course, our anxiety about race.

He leaves out some things—he could have added that though American literature has Poe and vampires, what it doesn’t have much of, except for The Wizard of Oz, is a stock of stories involving magic and fairy tales. It has no tradition of enchantment like the one J.K. Rowling so successfully and lucratively drew on for her hugely successful books—as did Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit and others. One reason could be because writing programs are apt not to have encouraged reading other literatures as much as they ought; for instance many students are unfamiliar with either the rich tradition of British fantasy, except maybe The Hobbit, or the menacing witches in the folktales of Central Europe and Asia.

Nor do we produce many moral philosophers like, say, Thomas Mann or W.G. Sebald. And McGurl fails to mention the western, or the popular classics of chick-lit; and beside the rich–poor and minimalist–maximalist dialectics that preoccupy him, he underplays a few others: male–female, north–south, though it’s fair to say that these were barely thought of during the period after World War II that interests him most, the period of Ken Kesey and Donald Barthelme, and other writers he discusses in some detail, like Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Carver.

His lively book has engendered energetic critiques, especially two in the London Review of Books, by Elif Batuman and Fredric Jameson.* Batuman agrees with McGurl’s central premise about the influence of the writing program on postwar American fiction, and especially praises his “inspired” reading of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the plantation in Beloved, and a bus in one of Robert Olen Butler’s novels, Mr. Spaceman, as metaphorical representations of the writing workshop. But “it’s frustrating that McGurl, a literary historian, occasionally seems to ignore the whole history of literature before Henry James, ascribing to the American postwar era various creative ‘innovations’ that actually date back hundreds of years,” like using an unconventional first-person narrator, for instance a condemned salve.

She mistrusts his tolerance for what she finds to be the whininess fostered in writing programs: “Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the non-persecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.” To her mind, “the real cause of shame here is the profession of writing” itself, “and it affects McGurl just as much as it does Carver and Oates.” We have to stop being ashamed that “literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims,” except in the case of Dave Eggers. But we can still proudly practice it.

Fredric Jameson also sees McGurl’s “complex and dialectical” arguments through the prism of class consciousness and feelings of shame about the privileged position of the writer and professor, and of the poet, who ranks above the “proletarianised vocation” of novel-writing. He has a larger political and sociological set of observations about the role of the university in the structure of our society, but is mostly interested in McGurl’s theoretical constructs, especially questioning “lower-middle-class modernism,” “for it is the fate of any third term to linger precariously on the margins, disabused of any ambition to become the synthesis between the two already in place, and thus condemned to struggle to displace one or other of its opposite numbers,” and in danger of sinking into genre and mass culture. Luckily, in his view, both multiculturalism and K-mart realism “continue to exude the American misery, and more authentically than any of the competition convey the shame and pride of the human condition as lived by white America.” But his is finally a positive take. The dictum “find your voice”

slowly develops into militant ideologies of difference…. So it is that what initially looked like a “culture of narcissism” now unexpectedly begins to generate new social formations and a new kind of non-introspective literature to express them.

Alas, he doesn’t give any examples of this.


The history of American creative writing programs is fascinating, but it is the workshops themselves that are of immediate interest. Most writers have accepted, not without questions, but with few alternatives, the basic format of the fiction workshop, and the collective standards that are apt to prevail there, emphasizing, in the case of fiction, the short story, seen, notwithstanding its history, as a manageable, teachable form.

The writing seminar itself has developed a specific, venerated, and almost inviolable format. McGurl’s term for it is “collective specular sodomy.” A work will be read by the class, and perhaps a few passages read aloud by its writer, who then is forced to be quiet while others talk about it. Experienced participants will begin by saying something nice about the writing, something they liked, something that works. This is positive and also has the virtue of softening the next phase, the criticism. Fellow seminarians will try to confine their remarks to technique and not judgment of the writer’s character or ability—nothing to suggest “you must be a horrible person to have written such a disgusting piece….” If you have to criticize, instead say, “the clumsiness of that passage may distract from your interesting theme of universal brotherly love,” or something else genial.

McGurl says the workshop dynamic is a manipulation of pride and shame, but this perhaps overstates its emotional intensity for sophisticated, experienced repeaters, who usually seem to deal with their peers with great aplomb. Being able to distinguish technical questions from moral judgments is a learned process that, little by little, people who have taken or taught writing seminars become good at—good at being seminar members and helpful critics, whatever their own writing is like. Elif Batuman agrees with McGurl’s take on shame:

The workshop’s most famous mantras—“Murder your darlings,” “Omit needless words,” “Show, don’t tell”—also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of “craft”: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy.

Alas, a seminar is far from a real-world situation, where editors juggle financial considerations and target demographics. Does the usual writing seminar constrain literature, or is it the triumphantly refined product of nearly a century of pedagogical experience? Does it help people get published, which most teachers in creative writing programs will have begun to suspect is the paramount concern of many, if not most, of the attendees, judging from the questions at question time?

Aside from his interest in the content of writing programs, McGurl draws our attention to the marketplace realities, of which he takes a dim, Marxish view: literary production serves the capitalist project; systematizing creativity in writing programs “lays bare the recruitment of that creativity to the inhuman ends of the economic order we serve.”

The force of the confluence of interests that come together in creative writing instruction—the student’s desire to be a writer, the writer’s desire for a steady paycheck, the institution’s desire to be responsive to the desires of its inmates—is so strong that it marches on and expands even despite an occasional bad-mouthing from its bystanders, victims, and beneficiaries.

McGurl and the other critics I’ve mentioned raise a lot of questions to be weighed against the positive feeling that most people in and from writing programs seem to have for them. If today one charge against them is that they tend to produce voices that can’t be distinguished from one another, a nationwide little-magazine chorus of uniform voices, then after all, uniformity was one of the aims of education in the past. Do the captivity of the artist and proliferation of student writing programs perpetuate certain kinds of writing, so that many American writers are conforming to a new orthodoxy?

Through the often expensive fees, these programs in effect subsidize the fellowships and salaries of thousands of creative writers and teachers of writing, and justify them intellectually. Do such programs produce more writers than the publishing world can contend with or readers absorb? At least, say the pessimists, they create generations of book-buyers and readers, and coherent writers whose skills will be valued by the offices and ad agencies where they end up.

And the programs could have some therapeutic value. Anyone who’s taught or attended a writing class will have noticed how it can function like the venerable encounter group. Iowa alumni refer to Gordon Lish as they might refer to their shrink, if not their priest. Questions of canon and category apart, is it not more interesting to ask why so many people want to become writers at all? That is, want to express themselves and perhaps qualify themselves for a career teaching writing? Maybe it’s a new aspect of the service economy, if you can’t be a waiter or a chef. Perhaps the writing programs are one way of making up for the size of our country, which as we know lacks a geographical center like Paris or London that we can all get to; we need the program in a place nearer home, in which to talk the talk.