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For two generations, American literature has borne the impress of creative writing workshops, where writers study at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and for two generations, authors have subsidized their vocation by teaching in them. In 1996, D. G. Myers traced the history of these developments with great insight and mastery in The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, a book he has updated since. Yet despite Myers's invaluable account, and despite the size of the changes to the landscape, no scholar, until McGurl, seriously followed Myers's lead to do the work of telling us what it means—of getting polemical and critical. If English professors had something to say about MFA programs, they probably were muttering it under their breath after faculty meetings. So The Program Era feels like something of a therapeutic breakthrough.
There are surely sound reasons, beyond humanities-building territoriality, for such a text to appear only now. One is the difficulty of the topic, which returns us to old problems of positivism and literary history. How do you derive the properties of specific works from widespread, manifold, and diffuse cultural forces? Novels and stories are dense, personal, colorful, singular, and tightly bordered by first and last sentences. MFA programs, on the other hand, have porous boundaries and the same sprawling, facelessness as any other modern institution.
An obvious way in is the question of form. Do workshops promote one aesthetic over another? Do in-house styles prevail? But wishing to avoid the tired discussion of whether MFA programs pasteurize student writing, McGurl sneaks in the back way, psychoanalyzing the clichés themselves. "Show Don't Tell," according to him, sends students the message that they should acknowledge literary tradition and be disciplined. The phrase "Find Your Voice" in fact enjoins students to be creative and escape the narrow limitations of a conventionally conceived self. And "Write What You Know" basically asks students to use memory and observation to attain a convincing degree of authenticity, even if they're writing about something outside of their experience. McGurl's rambunctious prose style keeps the reader from mistaking his translations of these clichés for reductive categories. Venn diagrams also help. The Program Era provides the reader an original field of theory that illuminates classroom norms.
Another way of puzzling out how cultural forces intersect discrete works of art is through questions of content. Do writers employed by colleges and universities write about colleges and universities? Yes, [End Page 378] McGurl says, sure thing—but, in his view, the influence of institutionalization on their work often takes a subtler and more stimulating form. "Beyond the question of a novel's setting," he asks, "how might we see the metafictional reflexivity of so much postwar fiction as being related to its production in and around a programmatically analytical and pedagogical environment?" (47). And here McGurl really frees his critical hounds from their leashes. Schoolteacher, from Toni Morrison's Beloved, he claims, symbolizes not only the terrors of working on a plantation as a slave in 1855 but also anxieties about being in school in 1987. Flannery O'Connor's sadomasochistic exactitude of style reflects the strictures of the Iowa Writers' Workshop as much as the demands of the Catholic Church. The psychiatric ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest tells us about Wallace Stegner's professorial dominion over Ken Kesey at Stanford. And Raymond Carver's minimalist stories venture so little because they have been written in shame—by a working-class guy in rarified literary circles wishing to avoid saying something stupid. McGurl's close readings are always fun and usually convincing.
His sociological insights are probably best of all. He brilliantly ties the ethnic branding of writers since 1945 to the logic of higher education. In the Program Era, minority authors have transformed culturally marginal experiences into works of high cultural pluralism. This could have happened without MFA programs, but, in the workshops, such differences in background create a boundless frontier for expansion—which is what...