Can writing really be taught?


CREATIVE WRITING: EILIS NI DHUIBHNEreviews The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative WritingBy Mark McGurl Harvard University Press, 455pp. $35

CREATIVE WRITING has been taught as a subject in universities in the United States for almost 100 years. The most famous programme, the MFA (Master’s in Fine Arts) at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, started in 1936. It was in the period immediately after the second World War, however, that the subject began to take off. By 1975, 52 universities offered postgraduate degrees in Creative Writing. In 2004, there were more than 300 such courses on offer in the United States, and over 700 universities teaching creative writing at undergraduate level. And still people ask “Can it be taught?”

Mark McGurl surveys the development of Creative Writing as a university subject and its place in the history of fiction in the United States. His account of the great writing teachers – Paul Engles, Wallace Stegner, John Gardner – and of the evolving pedagogy of the subject is immensely useful. Fond of classification, he sees the teaching of fiction as falling into three principal eras: “Show Don’t Tell” (1890-1960), “Find Your Voice” (1960-1975), and “Creative Writing at Large” (1975-now). He analyses the typical styles of these periods, and Irish writers or historians of fiction will find much food for thought in what he has to say about literary trends. Most interesting, though, is his sensitive exploration of the interplay between individual writers and the Creative Writing programmes.

For instance, he demonstrates the influence of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on the style of Flannery O’Connor. The Iowa method in the 1940s, when she took her MFA there, was to focus intensely on the word and the sentence, to edit and revise obsessively, and to strive to eliminate the personal from the text – she is a “show don’t tell” writer par excellence. “We can learn how not to write,” she said, in her typically tart way (in lectures and interviews she was far from impersonal). Ken Kesey, on the other hand, was a product of the “Find Your Voice” school of the 1960s, where instead of allowing the story to unfold itself as if independent of its writer, the storyteller became almost more significant than the text itself, as the individual asserted him/herself within the institution. However, McGurl points out that Kesey wrote what is perhaps the most anti-institutional of all novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from within the institution of the MFA programme at Stanford.

McGurl is far too clever to make sweeping claims for university writing programmes. He discusses the teaching of fiction within its complex historical and ideological contexts. Thus the expressionism of the 1960s pedagogy clearly arose from the rebellious spirit of the age. The universities react to the zeitgeist as well as prescribing it – more so in the United States than here. Indeed, McGurl’s main conclusion is that the biggest influence on American post-war fiction was the democratisation of university education in general, rather than the effect of the Creative Writing programmes per se. Thus, he points out that writers such as Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, or Jayne Anne Philips – all of whom in fact took MFAs in Creative Writing – might not have emerged at all had it not been for the opening of the universities to the lower middle classes (a term he uses loosely).

McGurl makes the point that the expansion of Creative Writing as a subject was one reflection of the democratisation of education – as well as opening its doors to the masses, the academy welcomed “creativity” into its erstwhile authoritarian and elitist scholarly fortress.

While this theory sounds convincing, it is interesting that there was no such rush to welcome creativity in the form of creative writing courses into European universities – although they have been much more democratic in admission policy than their American counterparts in the post-war period. Indeed, it is only very recently that Creative Writing has been offered as a subject in any Irish university, although the role of “Free Education” in the story of Irish writing has long been acknowledged, usually by the writers themselves – vide Seamus Heaney’s comments in his recent memoir, or Theo Dorgan’s lecture on O’Malley’s Children.

Opinionated and lively, McGurl’s book is definitely in the “Find Your Own Voice” mode – scholarship too has its fashions. Not everyone will agree with all his conclusions. But he delivers a cornucopia of exciting new ideas and insights in a work which will be indispensable reading for teachers and students of creative writing, and for anyone interested in modern fiction. Perhaps McGurl’s most important contribution to literary scholarship will be to stimulate further investigation into the contexts of literary production. Writing is not carried out in a vacuum. The romantic notion of the solitary genius working in his attic or a room of her own is demolished. It would be interesting to see some studies of the relationship of university syllabuses (eg in traditional English or Irish degree courses) to modern Irish literature, or the links between, say, the publishing industry and what is written.

McGurl concludes that creative writing programmes play an essentially beneficial role, artistically. The “Can it be Taught?” objection is thoroughly redundant. The graduates of Creative Writing MAs in the US constitute a roll call of the greatest fiction writers of the 20th century. (And I can think, sacrilegiously, of some good Irish writers of the past whose work might have been even better had they had the benefit of a Creative Writing course.)

What we need to ask is not can it be taught, but how it can be taught, and can it be taught better? In other words, the questions we should be constantly asking, about the teaching of literature, or medicine, or law, or anything.

And these issues too are discussed in this complex, energetic and fascinating book.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a fiction writer. She is currently teaching on the MA in Creative Writing in UCD. Her most recent short stories appear in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: Perspectives, edited by Rebecca Pelan, published by Arlen House earlier this year