When I saw Louis Menand's "Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing be Taught" in this week's New Yorker, I cringed, sighed, and devoured the article right at the kitchen table. As one of the many MFAs and teachers of Creative Writing, I am intimately and darkly interested in this topic. Turns out, Menand's piece is more of a review of Mark McGurl's new book called The Program Era, in which McGurl focuses on fiction writing programs in relation to the Marshall Plan and Post WWII Literature. The article wanders through some sound investigations and is full of surprising statistics.
Oddly enough, Menand has nothing to say about poetry programs except, "I don't think (undergraduate) workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that others make." He recalls his days at college where " all we were required to do was to talk about each other's poems," and that it "seemed like a great place to be."
My experience at NYU did indeed help inspire a type of care for "made" pieces, and graduate school was a great place to be. But studying in a Creative Writing Program did a lot more than simply inspire in me a compassion for other writers. To think that MFA programs are as Menand writes, "Designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a published poem," is convenient for his argument, but not entirely accurate. (But not one Creative Writing Program student was interviewed for the article -- also convenient.)
Many of my MFA colleagues came to the program having already published poems and essays in widely circulated journals and magazines. Many programs require their students to take at least two Theory or Critical courses for the degree. Some programs have a language requirement; some have a study abroad requirement. But all programs (that are worth their salt) will certainly compel a student to do more than only "require" students to talk about other students' poem. Many of my teachers: Anne Carson, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine would bring in poems as models for the class, and would conduct mini lectures on that poem's strengths, allusions, or patterns. We were apprentices more than we were a gaggle of "twelve-on-one group therapy" goers.
With the increase in MFA programs and graduates, as is the law of supply and demand, the cache of the degree has worn off. Yes, but questioning whether or not Creative Writing should be taught, or if it should exist in the realm of the Academy, seems like a hackneyed old pitch. (Didn't Dana Goia go there already?)
The volte for me though, is that Menard's article contains within its title the word "should." Would the New Yorker publish, "Sight and Vision: Should Painting be Taught?" or "Stories upon Stories: Should Architecture be Taught?" or even "Eat Your Cake too: Should the Culinary Arts be taught?" I don't think so. How and why is writing held to a different standard? Is it that ultimately we don't as a nation really consider writing to be an art form? That we can't understand that painting, buildings, and poems can all narrate humanity-just through different media?