- An Interview with Mark McGurl
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Perhaps the most significant development in contemporary American literature has been the rise of creative writing programs. The first program was founded at the University of Iowa in 1936, and they have multiplied since the 1960s, as U.S. universities expanded, numbering more than three hundred by 2000. Before World War II, most writers worked in journalism or other jobs, whereas by the latter part of the century, most had significant connections with creative writing programs. This change has prompted complaints that contemporary writing has become too routinized and that writers have only a small world to portray, as they spend much of their time in academe. In his book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard, 2009), Mark McGurl debunks that commonplace, arguing that the expansion of the American university system has fostered generally good conditions for writers and precipitated a remarkable flourishing of fiction. The book has quickly become a standard in the field, and it received the 2011 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism.
Born in 1966, McGurl attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, after which he worked for The New York Times and The New York Review of Books and did freelance writing, for instance publishing an essay on the ecologically oriented criticism of Andrew Ross in Lingua Franca (1994). However, as he recounts here, McGurl realized that he preferred to work as a literary scholar, so he entered the graduate program in comparative literature at Johns Hopkins University, from which he received his Ph.D. in 1998. He has taught [End Page 165] at UCLA and, since 2011, Stanford University, where he directs the Center for the Study of the Novel.
McGurl is part of a generation of scholars rewriting American literary history and forging a new sociology of literature. His first book, The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James (Princeton, 2001), uses Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital to explain the embrace of elitist techniques in fiction during the first half of the twentieth century, making the novel “high art.” To explain the situation after World War II, he finds systems theory more relevant to how writing programs function. More recently, he has published essays such as “Ordinary Doom: Literary Studies in the Waste Land of the Present” (New Literary History 41.2 ); “The Posthuman Comedy” (Critical Inquiry 38.3 ); and “Everything and Less: Fiction in the Age of Amazon” (MLQ 77.3 ).
The Program Era has drawn a great deal of response, including a rebuttal in n + 1 10 (2010), “MFA vs. NYC,” which held that there are two leagues of fiction writers, those who have M.F.A.s, earn their livelihood teaching, and favor complex short stories directed toward an academic audience, and those who largely live in New York City, earn their livelihood writing, and lean to novels, readability, and a wider public. That essay forms a cornerstone for the collection MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach (Faber, 2014), which also includes an attack on The Program Era by Elif Batuman, from The London Review of Books (2010), and a more favorable assessment by Fredric Jameson, also from LRB (2012).
This interview took place on January 10, 2016, in Austin, Texas, during the MLA convention. We thank Adam Ahlgrim, an M.A. student in literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University, for transcribing it, although it has been trimmed substantially.
Q. The Program Era offers an overarching history of contemporary fiction, and it has already been widely cited and noted. In a nutshell, how would you characterize the book?
A. Most simply it’s a book that tries to reframe post–World War II American fiction in relation to the most novel literary institutional phenomenon of the period. Not that there aren’t all sorts of other important influences on the form of fiction in that time, but the [End Page 166] writing program is the one that bears the least resemblance to anything that had...