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Manual The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing

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She came out of the undergraduate creative-writing program at Syracuse, where she studied with Donald Dike, and she has spent most of her career teaching at Princeton, where Morrison, until her recent retirement, was also on the faculty. Carver started as a correspondence student in an outfit known as the Palmer Institute of Authorship. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and the creative-writing program is a means of tooling.

But McGurl treats creative writing as an ant farm where the ants are extremely interesting. He never reduces writers to unthinking products of a system. They are thinking products of a system.

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After all, few activities make people more self-conscious than participating in a writing workshop. McGurl thinks that this habit of self-observation is not restricted to writing programs. Constant self-assessment and self-reflection are part of our program. There are also flow charts and the like, diagrams suited to systems analysis. And contemporary fiction does have many readers.

McGurl argues that, far from homogenizing literature or turning it into an academic exercise, creative-writing programs have been a success on purely literary grounds. The system must be doing something right. And, as McGurl suggests, presenting a story in a writing workshop is a little like making a business presentation in a corporate workplace.

The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing

The unexpected result of combining a history of creative fiction writing with a history of education and management theory is a kind of slide show of postwar American life. On the contrary, university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit—the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace.

Sticking writers in a garret would isolate them. Putting them in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life. Creative-writing courses did not suddenly spring into being in A course called Verse Making was available at Iowa in , and from to George Pierce Baker taught a drama workshop at Harvard, the first graduate writing course in the country; Thomas Wolfe took it.

In , Schramm was replaced by Paul Engle, a prodigious creative-writing proselytizer and cultural Cold Warrior, who made Iowa into a global power in the field. Engle eventually brought writers from seventy countries to study at Iowa. There was a surge in creative-writing degree programs after the Second World War. As is the case with most new developments in higher education, changes in funding were responsible.

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Bill—provided forty-eight months of tuition for veterans who enrolled in colleges and universities. More than two million veterans, a much bigger number than anticipated, took up the offer, and by the government had spent more money on tuition and other college costs than on the Marshall Plan. The key requirement of Title II was that the tuition assistance be used only for study in degree or certificate programs, which is why creative-writing courses grew into degree-granting creative-writing programs.

In the nineteen-sixties, the universe of higher education underwent a fantastic expansion. Between and , enrollments doubled and more professors were hired than had been hired in the entire previous three hundred and twenty-five years. Most of the growth was in the public sector.

At the height of the expansion, between and , new community-college campuses were opening in the United States at the rate of one every week. A way for institutions to raise their academic profiles was to add graduate programs. Once added, they became virtually impossible to subtract. This is one reason that there is an oversupply of Ph.


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By , there were fifteen creative-writing M. Today, there are a hundred and fifty-three. Creative-writing programs attract students good for public universities, where enrollment may determine budgets , but, contrary to what many people assume, they are not generally cash cows. Most of the top programs—until recently, Columbia was the major exception—provide fellowship support for all their students, and the classes are tiny. The identification of certain writers with university creative-writing programs is, therefore, a postwar phenomenon.

And many writers who are not normally imagined in an academic setting have circulated through the creative-writing system. Philip Roth has taught at several universities, including Iowa and Princeton. Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren both taught at Iowa. Algren claimed to find writing programs worthless. And it is remarkable how many fiction writers have come through university writing programs since the war—not just individual writers but entire cohorts. The absorption of fiction writing into the university has a lot to do with the emergence of robust traditions as opposed to scattered works of so-called multicultural literature.

As McGurl notes, virtually all the major figures in Latino literature have been American academics. The same is true of Asian-American novelists, many of whom have held university appointments, and of Native American writers. Authenticity is a snark—although someone will always go hunting for it.


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The rest of the natives are often not thrilled to find their practices paraded before the gaze of outsiders. All literature about an ethnic minority by members of that ethnic minority is, potentially, a shanda fur die goyim. More striking is that writing of this kind coming out of creative-writing programs today is the subject matter of literature and ethnic-studies departments tomorrow. Universities have become restaurants that bake their own bread.

The creative-writing program is an American invention, and it has recently become an American export. Bradbury and Angus Wilson set it up. Bradbury taught Ian McEwan.

The Lit Pub • The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing

The first undergraduate degree program was not instituted until But the vulgar hybrid has spread. Plenty of postwar writers, from J. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov to Thomas Pynchon, had little or nothing to do with writing programs.


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  • The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl.

Nabokov taught a course on the novel at Cornell, in which Pynchon was a student, but he never taught creative writing. Harvard once considered hiring Nabokov to teach literature; Roman Jakobson, then a professor of linguistics there, is supposed to have asked whether the university was also prepared to hire an elephant to teach zoology. Writers are products of educational systems, but stories are products of magazine editorial practices and novels are products of publishing houses.

As an editor at Esquire and Knopf, Lish who attended Andover put a highly identifiable impress on American fiction, some of it by writers of lower-middle-class origin and some not.

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But magazines can be regarded as systems for processing fiction. And writers who have moved in and out of the institutions of journalism during their careers—Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe—reflect the experience in their fiction. Their novels are often staged either as a privileged type of reporting, writing that is somehow both faithful to and superior to the canons of traditional journalism, or as dramatizations of the emptied-out subjectivity of the reporter persona—the fly on the wall, the view from nowhere.

Does this mean that creative writing can, in fact, be taught?

What counted as craft for James, though, was very different from what counted as craft for Hemingway. What counts as craft for Ann Beattie who teaches at the University of Virginia must be different from what counts as craft for Jonathan Safran Foer who teaches at N. Begin by freewriting and free-associating sentences until some patterns emerge that begin to intrigue you solely for the sound they make, their rustle of possibility.

No one seems to agree on what the goal of good writing is, anyway. Stegner was an Iowa product, possibly the first person ever to receive a degree in creative writing.