Writing by numbers

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Critics in the US say that creative writing courses are churning out instantly recognisable 'workshop fiction'; others argue that the courses are merely polishing the rough diamonds. Stephen Phillips investigates the art of the MFAs</p><p>

Ernest Hemingway bypassed university altogether, volunteering as an ambulance driver in the killing fields of the First World War, before immersing himself in the human kaleidoscope of inter-war Paris to write mould-breaking fiction. James Joyce scraped an undistinguished degree in turn-of-the-century Dublin, where he devoted most of his time to debauched carousing. Spurning academia, he briefly decamped to Paris to live in a garret before continuing his penurious, hardscrabble existence in Dublin's mean streets. The modernist master finally exiled himself from his homeland forever, pulling a moonlight flit to Trieste with his lover to begin a lifetime's peregrinations around the Continent's most glittering cities.</p><p>
Majoring in the University of Life is the stuff of literary legend. But today's literary fiction writer is a different beast. With increasing incidence, chances are they will have served a formal literary apprenticeship in the distinctly more cosseted environs of the campus. High-powered postgraduate courses are emerging as a rite of passage for aspiring novelists--if numbers are any guide.</p><p>
Distinguished alumni of such courses include Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, John Irving and Ken Kessey; while Kurt Vonnegut, John Fowles, E Annie Proulx or Martin Amis might drop in for a spot of guest lecturing.</p><p>
Unsurprisingly, competition for places is fierce. The University of Iowa, which pioneered the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing in 1941, admits just 3% to 5% of applicants for its prestigious course. That's 1,200 to 1,400 applications for 20 to 25 places. You stand a better chance of getting into Harvard Medical School.</p><p>
Fees are steep. The two-year course at Columbia will set you back around $55,000 (&#163;36,000) in tuition alone, not to mention the cost of living in New York. But the price of admission may just be deemed worthwhile if fiction writing is your vocation and you are set on a literary career. One-quarter of last year's Iowa graduates already have publishing deals.</p><p>
There is, however, a nascent backlash within the book business against what many see as the corrosive influence of "workshop fiction", as it is sneeringly known. A growing chorus of critics, editors, agents and publishers complain that the proliferation of creative writing courses is producing a body of work that is overwrought and culturally rarified.</p><p>
"It's the single most destructive force in post-war American literature," fulminates Jonathan Yardley, book critic for the Washington Post. "It has removed serious writers of fiction from real life and isolated them on campuses. The only world they know is their own psyche. Their fiction is preoccupied, often technically proficient, but has very little to say."</p><p>
Yardley implicates the increasingly pervasive MFA courses in America in what he sees as the inferiority of US to UK literary fiction. For example, on the recent debate about US writers being eligible for the Booker Prize, Yardley comments: "The idea that important UK novelists might be apprehensive about such competition is a joke."</p><p>
The New York Times "Book Review" recently branded Marc Nesbitt's d&eacute;but short story anthology, Gigantic, a "collection of MFA thumb-suckers".</p><p>
A British book reviewer who asked not to be named, observes that such writing tends to be "overcrafted and laced with distracting stylistic acrobatics--not to mention the present tense narrative . . . it all shouts 'literature' at you". The reviewer adds: "Simplicity does not appear to be a module on the average master of fine arts programme."</p><p>
As editor of the Missouri Review, one of the leading outlets for d&eacute;but writers of serious fiction and poetry, Speer Morgan is on the receiving end of many first manuscripts from creative writing graduates. He is also an MFA insider, teaching part-time at the University of Missouri. He maintains that such courses have raised the overall standard of submissions. </p><p>
Tell-tale contrivances</p><p>
However, while acknowledging the technical assurance of most efforts, wearing his editor's hat, Morgan says he can often spot a "workshop story" a mile off for its contrivances. Tell-tale hallmarks include "either hyper-political correctness or obvious ploys for pathos". Morgan recalls one campus submission that read like its author had wracked their brain for the ingredients that would make a story compelling, and crammed them all in--AIDS, a dead parent, cancer and dying. </p><p>
Colleen Mohyde, literary agent with Boston's Doe Coover Agency, whose clients include the 1999 Orange Prize for Fiction winner, Suzanne Verne, and Robert Clark, that year's recipient of the Edgar Award for Best Novel, says the limited life experience of many MFA progeny makes for staple subject matter. "People are not getting out and living real lives, so you're getting a lot of academic and coming-of-age novels," she says.</p><p>
Mohyde also worries that workshops prematurely cramp authors' individual style, inculcating a "self-consciousness" by subjecting their work to remorseless classroom criticism. "Many people find it inhibiting--they tend to write to the most vocal person in the group." This, she thinks, results in "material that feels imitative, derivative --prose du jour, written to trends, whatever the hot book of the time is".</p><p>
Less brash, fledgling British writers may be more vulnerable than their thicker-skinned American peers, suggests San Francisco poet Rebecca Black, a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Recalling her time as a visiting student at the University of East Anglia, Black says that "British students seemed distinctly ill-at-ease with the entire workshop concept and practice. The Americans were generally sunny and casual about their writing--criticism sometimes seemed to have absolutely no effect on their drafts. Whereas some British students seemed completely defeated by a rough workshop."</p><p>
Yardley of the Washington Post derides this aspect of courses as "hand-holding", representing a distraction from the insoluble "lonely business" of writing. "Making writing into group therapy won't make it any better. It's hard and lonely."</p><p>
Ultimately, Yardley says, courses peddle the lie that "they can make anyone into a writer". "You can learn how to construct a story, but you can't be made into a writer," he holds, summoning the image of William Faulkner sitting behind the powerhouse at the University of Mississippi, writing As I Lay Dying on an upturned barrel. "He didn't need to go on an MFA programme," Yardley says pointedly.</p><p>
Inorganic fiction</p><p>
Another gripe is that writing courses instil a formulaic rote approach to structure that constricts narrative. A recent article in New York's weekly newspaper, the Village Voice, found much to praise in the latest stories by MFA graduates Meera Nair, Steve Almond and Raul Correa. But it also observed that many of the stories telegraphed their intentions in the opening paragraphs and ultimately had an inorganic feel.</p><p>
The biggest instructional shortcoming of creative writing courses for literary agent Mohyde, however, is their emphasis on the short story. "They are working on a genre that is not where [writers] want to stay and from which they are unable to earn a living." The bias towards the short story also leaves students struggling to go the distance of a full-blown novel, adds Mohyde, who says she receives many first novels written in the present tense with insufficient character development.</p><p>
Clearly there is a lot of bile being spilled about writing courses. But on the flip side of the coin, many of those tendering criticism also concede redeeming features. Morgan of the Missouri Review wonders whether some of the sniping is a little uncharitable. "We ought to have some mercy on these young writers learning their craft. After all, it's not as if they're training to sell you bad stock options. They're training for an art at which they probably won't make any money."</p><p>
Do not underestimate the importance of the time and space for artistic gestation and simple respite from worldly cares that courses afford their students, says poet Rebecca Black, who did her MFA at Indiana University. "Across the campus, MFA potters spent two years making misshapen pots until finally achieving symmetry in their final year--I spent two years making clunky poems until a few turned out well in my last year."</p><p>
For James McPherson, English professor and acting director of Iowa's MFA programme, the chance for writers to catch their breath and pause for reflection is a critical function of writing courses. "We live in such a restless society, so full of meaninglessness, that writers need time to synthesise then go out again."</p><p>
Time out for poets</p><p>
MFA graduate Black concurs: "During the programme, I had a lot of free time in which to wander around rural Indiana, and learn how to do donuts in the snow in the parking lot of the basketball stadium. Poets need time like that."</p><p>
Meanwhile, Speer Morgan does not take seriously the fear that students will be brainwashed into producing formulaic fiction or corrupted by the latest literary criticism fad. "I don't think courses are changing their personality or ruining their perspective."</p><p>
Moreover, the charge that MFA programmes are sequestering writers from real life is less credible on closer inspection. "The people in them have to work several jobs to support themselves. They are just as much in the world as any other young person," says Morgan. And, he quips, if they haven't got their fill of reality from doing menial jobs to make ends meet, students can look forward to landing in debt after they graduate for a further fix of universal human experience.</p><p>
Another red herring about writing courses is that they foster a system of patronage, with professors "jobbing up" their prot&eacute;g&eacute;s. Yardley of the Washington Post discerns an incestuous chumminess. "There's a daisy chain effect--writing teachers are the gurus, they pick their favourites and link them up with agents."</p><p>
But agent Colleen Mohyde disputes the notion that MFAs open doors for aspiring writers. "There's a lot of myths about what agents and editors look for. There seems to be the idea that writers without credentials will not be considered. An MFA might get writers read more quickly, but in most cases this just means they'll be rejected more quickly."</p><p>
Mohyde says she is not swayed when prospective clients cite illustrious writers they've studied under. "It just means you paid money. It doesn't tell me anything." The virtues of writing courses lie, she says, in administering confidence boosters to unsure young writers and "polishing diamonds in the rough".</p><p>
For publisher Jamie Raab of Warner Books, courses offer vital structure to aspiring writers. "They have someone to critique their work, they have to turn out material--it helps people that might have blocks." The very fact that students hand over cash is an overlooked aspect of the efficacy of these programmes, she adds. "When they are paying and have people to compete with, they have to produce."</p><p>
Ultimately, it is difficult to lay all the blame at the door of creative writing courses as they come in all shapes and forms, says Rebecca Black. "It's hard to make blanket statements about MFAs. Programmes vary from one to three years; some require PhD seminars and train you as a teacher; others offer only workshops; and some just run workshops via the mail."</p><p>
It is also hard to sustain the contention that there is a uniformity to the work these courses generate. "There are so many different MFA programmes and ways of teaching that I don't see homogeneity," Raab says.</p><p>
Prof McPherson adds that it is preposterous to suggest that a lock-step conformity can be imposed upon diverse student populations. Iowa's current programme has students from Vietnam, Turkey, Ireland and China, as well as the United States. </p><p>
Moreover, if it's formula you object to, there may be offenders other than the literary fiction of MFA graduates. The Village Voice recently pigeon-holed American authors that fall into such categories as "the ubiquitous urban single woman novel (Melissa Bank, Melissa Senate, Lisa Jewell etc)" or "well-researched historical fiction (Heather Parkinson, Charles Frazier)". Meanwhile, in the UK, chick and lad lit have been much picked over in the wider media debate about dumbing down.</p><p>
Ultimately, views on the professionalisation of literary tutelage may owe more to aesthetic tastes and an agenda wider than the intrinsic pros and cons of courses. For instance, Yardley opens out his objections to MFAs into a wider diatribe against the state of contemporary American literary fiction where he finds little to recommend.</p><p>
In the same vein is B R Myers' iconoclastic broadside against a clutch of critical darlings in a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Myers' blistering indictment of E Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and David Guterson for pretentiousness and obscurantism sounded a lot like many of the criticisms levelled against MFA graduate writings. His piece, "A Reader's Manifesto", struck a chord with some people but angered as many, judging from the subsequent letters to the editor. </p><p>
Where people stand on the impact of courses probably owes a lot to their position on the fundamental issue of fiction. That is probably the ultimate comment on the importance writing courses have assumed. n </p><p>
Stephen Phillips is a US-based British journalist. He can be contacted at journalist@stephenphillips.org</p>