9.17.2010

Exhibit 27.6

Elif Batuman's "Get a Real Degree"

I didn't want to read another handwringing essay about MFA programs, but Batuman's sucked me in with a strange combination of insightful critiques and obtuse generalities. It's really a fascinating read as it gets so much right but even more so very wrong about creative writing programs. It's hard to know how much of this is Batuman and how much of this is Mark McGurl, the author of the book she's reviewing, but it's easy to get the sense reading "Get a Real Degree" that no one involved in the process has ever actually been in a graduate-level writing program.

O, and admittedly they haven't. Which is fine, preferable to the alternative, probably, but it disconnects the book and its review so thoroughly from the MFA that after a time Batuman might as well be writing about high school graduates or people who've eaten at McDonald's. The MFA is--correctly--identified as a near universal credential for the past two or three generations of writers yet its the presumed universality of the MFA which leads Batuman far from her target. By trying to write about every program, she (or McGurl, again it's hard to pinpoint where this is coming from) ends up writing about no programs. In the end it makes her conclusions no different from those old studies defining racial characteristics, a collection of conjecture and stereotypes seemingly done because it was easier than actually tackling the complicated truth.

O, and that's an appropriate analogy because Batuman (for some reason) continues to reference Stuff White People Like.

Look, no one likes creative writing programs. I mean, we "like" them in the sense we attend them and teach at them and people, people I imagine I don't like, waste considerable time ranking them, but very few MFA graduates could or would stand up for them as being essential to the production of literature. The historical truth of this is obvious, yet that does not mean the MFA--a degree I don't have! (though it's really a matter of semantics)--is worthless.

Sticking with McGurl and Batuman's use of baseball as a metaphor, the MFA is the minor leagues, a place where one rarely learns anything more valuable than the time given to learn it. Baseball isn't a different game at AA than it is in the majors yet most 20-year-olds can't make the leap. Instead they play the game again and again until they either hone their talent enough to hang with the big kids or they get discouraged and quit. The 3-6 years players spend in the minors purport to teach players a lot of things but anyone who follows baseball knows they rarely do. The minors' true value is in giving those players time to develop enough personally (maturity/community/etc.) and professionally (working hard despite the daily grind) and physically (steroids).

I guess that's where the metaphor falls apart, but otherwise I think we might as well be talking about MFA programs. Sure, some pitchers actually do learn a changeup in the minors and some MFA students probably do learn "how to write," but in my experience the vast majority of creative writing students going through MFAs simply grow into the writer that, in a more perfect world, they would have been anyway. They meet older students who influence them, they discover new books, they maybe become aware of why their writing is failing--all things they could theoretically do without the MFA yet likely never would. Not because most MFA programs know what they're doing--they don't, I don't think--but because one's physical presence at a program for those two years allows it to happen. Time to read, time to write, time to--shudder--grow. Yes, I know that makes MFA programs sound little better than 2-year-long summer camps. I don't care. They are. This is a good thing.

Of course, now I'm falling into what is, I think, my biggest objection to Batuman's review which is that neither she nor the author of the book she's reviewing took the time to ask whether or not "The MFA Program" is even a thing. I mean, there are MFA programs, but are they really so universal that one can honestly write this sentence and have it apply to all of them:

Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique taken as telos.

I find this to be a shockingly naive observation from a very, very smart writer. Which program does this? We're supposed to believe all of them do? Batuman (or perhaps McGurl) must be under the false impression that since the MFA is a degree then something must be taught. And since you can't teach expression or imagination or experience, the programs must naturally spend all their time "fetishizing technique." We then get this bizarre statement:

In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

This confuses me for two reasons, the first being that choosing a book written in French completely baffles me by what she now means by "technical/technique" and the second being the impossibility of there being such a thing as well written bad book. If the book is bad, the writing is bad. I can't speak for McGurl and Batuman's unknowable capital P "Programme," but my experience in writing workshops has rarely led me to see the quality of the writing detached from the quality of the book/story/whatever. If anything, I've often found that we don't care enough about the quality of the writing, instead favoring to talk speculatively about a piece's intentions.

Which I think takes us to the most interesting passages from Batuman:

But how does one calculate the literary value of sociopolitical grievances?...Literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest. The danger of Cisneros’s dig at her Iowa classmates, ‘cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids’, is the implication that the children of privilege don’t have stories to tell; that, because they aren’t from the barrio, they all have families like the one on Father Knows Best...

The danger of ethnicising novelistic alienation is that it removes this dialectical and historical element from the novel. Instead of striving to capture real life by describing the disjuncture between pre-existing literature and the historical present, ‘high cultural pluralism’ simply strives to describe the greatest possible disjuncture from some static, imagined cultural dominant.

This is interesting and, while I still don't know if it's entirely representative of what I see being valued in the MFA, it's certainly something worth thinking about. Still, it's interesting McGurl and Batuman assign the commoditization of "persecution/difference" as something coming from MFAs rather than from larger cultural currents. It seems pretty clear to me that one could write about this phenomenon in any medium and any time post-WWII. Why is this "high cultural pluralism" suddenly an MFA issue? Perhaps Batuman gets closest to the heart of the problem when tying it to shame:

Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better

There is, I think, some value in pointing out the shame of literary production though I hardly think it's the force in MFA programs Batuman thinks it is. Nor do I understand why it would be an emotion unique to MFA programs at all. That said, I found some truth in her saying programs treat fiction as a form of "empathy training" though I'm not sure this is quite the dagger she thinks it is, especially while holding up Dave Egger's work as more forcefully pursuing social change. Other than that he doesn't have an MFA, I don't really understand the difference between him and the "cult of persecution" and I think someone could make a compelling case that he's that cult's spiritual leader, at least among Batuman's "White People."

Toward the end, Batuman asks, "Why can’t [programs] teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?" This is a great question though I don't think it's the biggest one facing creative writing programs. Creative writing programs should teach as much literature as possible and, in my experiences, they do, often to the chagrin of their students (I'm currently reading The Faerie Queene in a classroom full of MFA students, for instance). Some programs don't, of course, but many take their responsibility to literature both contemporary and classic seriously. Again, it's a question that makes sense to me but I don't think it's the question anyone who has been through an MFA would ask.

I suppose I'm simply confused because I have all these terrible things to say about MFAs and Batuman wrote 9k words about programs without saying any of them. In the end, it's a smart essay but it's not about MFAs or the problems facing them. The shame Batuman writes about cuts a different way, not shame over one's ineffectual career but over one's ineffectual era. Only later will history choose our Stendhals and until then readers are going to have struggle with the rest of us. And we're all failing and we've all got MFAs so obviously the latter causes the former. Of course, we've all gone to high school and all eaten at McDonald's...

12 comments:

Dave Madden said...

"I can't speak for McGurl and Batuman's unknowable capital P 'Programme,' but my experience in writing workshops has rarely led me to see the quality of the writing detached from the quality of the book/story/whatever. If anything, I've often found that we don't care enough about the quality of the writing, instead favoring to talk speculatively about a piece's intentions."

This is funny. You and I went to the same Programme and we've both been to the same short-term summer Programme, and this reads as completely contradictory to my experience in both, to the point that I'm right now analyzing all my memories to see if I have it wrong.

Isn't technique like the only thing we ever always talked about?

Maybe the problem is that neither with Batuman nor in my comment here nor in your post (though this isn't your fault) is "technique" defined well. At first I thought it was the sentence-level stuff of like describing trees or evoking experience through metaphor. This as opposed to, say, building character and developing plots and resolving conflicts in meaningful ways.

Then I realized that one can't build characters without sentences, so your concerns about how well written bad books could possibly exist are sound.

Batuman is such a smart and good writer (who reportedly attacks the Programme in her book on Russian writers) that I have to write off this essay's myopia on McGurl's book. There's something else I wnted to refer to, but I need to go find it and do so in another comment.

Dave Madden said...

Oh, right:

"MFA programs should teach as much literature as possible and, in my experiences, they do, often to the chagrin of their students (I'm reading The Faerie Queene right now, for instance)."

In a PhD program, mind. Whether there's a difference is a whole other essay altogether, one I'll invite Batuman to write some time.

The PhD with a creative dissertation: is it a real degree?

A. Peterson said...

"The PhD with a creative dissertation: is it a real degree?"

No.

A. Peterson said...

I think we're just using different definitions of technique. And I have no idea what she means by it either. I was thinking specifically of sentence-level stuff in the comment you quote, but then there's that weird Stendhal mention...

But, yeah, using a broader definition of technique then you're probably right about our "programme" though I still don't think we ever detached these things from, I don't know, "the story" or whatever we might call it. Certainly I've never been in a workshop where technical things get treated as the goal and not a tool to reach a goal which is what I really objected to in the sentence I quoted.

Mostly I don't even know what that means. I'm not sure Batuman does either.

Like, remember Cropsaur--a story about a centerpivot that comes to life at night and selflessly waters a farmer's corn for those of you who aren't one of 20 people who read it in Dave and I's first workshop--was our conversation about that story concerned with the technical? Would we have been satisfied to suggest making the character of the centerpivot well-rounded?

Batuman wants to find a reason why there is all this "good" writing out there (by which I guess she means stylized or well-formed or something) yet she doesn't like it. My guess is that reason is in Batuman and not MFA programs.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that lit buffs use sentences like, "The danger of ethnicising novelistic alienation is that it removes this dialectical and historical element from the novel." Is it any wonder that people shun this type of writing for the distained “fiction”? I prefer well written non-fiction any day.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should read Mark McGurl's book before you write so terribly about a review about it.

Dave Madden said...

Burn, Anonymous!

A. Peterson said...

O, Anonymous, why must you always break my heart.

I don't think I'm really dealing with McGurl's book which--if you're familiar with the review about which my review was about about about about--apparently reaches the opposite conclusion of Batuman (i.e. programs are good).

But, if I might make another terrible, ill-informed point about it: I don't care.

For what it's worth, Batuman genuinely seems to think McGurl wrote a fine book. I'm sure he did.

carlinthemarlin said...

Hey, I'm in an MFA program! I have insights!

And they are...

1) None of the MFA descriptions in that entire review sound anything like the MFA program I'm in. (In other words, I agree with you, Adam).

2) And also, I would point out that one big advantage of a graduate level workshop beyond the giving of time (to write, read, &c), is that you get to see how people who are also good writers read your work, which gives you whole levels of insight that maybe you wouldn't otherwise get, regardless of what those writers are actually passing on by way of advice.

3) Whether any of this constitutes a real, worthwhile degree seems like a question that the review never really talks about since Batuman is so focused instead on what she mistakenly thinks MFA's are rather than what distinguishes a "real" degree from a (presumably) "not real" degree, which seems to be what she actually wants to talk about, since her anti-MFA arguments seem to be focused around some Plato's-cave-ideal of "the degree" rather than an actual specific degree.

4) Or something.

5) But that being said the standard sort of running joke thing for an MFA at UMass to ask an MA/PhD at UMass is: "How's real grad school going?"

A. Peterson said...

Yeah, Carlin, yeah.

I think so much of this comes down to the fact that in trying to intellectualize the impact of MFAs, they (Batuman, McGurl, someone) give MFAs way too much credit.

For instance, it's bizarre to me you could talk about the impact of MFAs in fiction without having to somehow separate the short story from the novel.

Of course, conflating these two forms--and pretending MFAs deal with them equally--might be a misconception that comes from the programs themselves.

Len said...

It seems to me that the main problem with the MFA concept is that it takes a calling and reduces it to the level of a mere profession, and one takes the same approach to artistry that one would take to accounting or plumbing. Certification can be attained by mere persistence and willingness to meet the expectations of teachers rather than through talent. As these people with certification fan out through the literary world as editors and teachers (rarely, it seems, as self-sustaining writers), they demand the same talisman, the MFA, from others. And while those from outside the MFA world may not be completely disregarded, they will be looked at as being suspect in the eyes of the initiated. (And, yes, I am one of those outsiders, although I am one who works in an English Department that has a Creative Writing program.

Creative writing programs (and since they are all built on the model of The Iowa School for Famous Writers, we can assume some level of uniformity, at least in terms of underlying assumptions) place a greater emphasis on groupthink through the social pressures of roundtable critiques than they do on attainment of a personal artistic vision won through experience and suffering. Being located exclusively in academic settings, students work in a special and specialized environment, one that, for all of its rewards and pressures, is very different from that of the rough-and-tumble world outside it. Writing then becomes increasingly abstract and less connected to life as it is lived by the vast majority of people in the society. As a result, short stories, which was once the single most popular literary form, become denizens only of specialist publications. (Publications in trade journals also being a signifier of writings new-found status as profession rather than art form.)

It seems to me that writers are more valuable to a society as artists than they are as academic professionals. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps it is easier to become a true visionary artist in an ivory tower than it is to be one of the penny groundlings below. But if you were asking me--which you weren't--about what the problem with MFA programs is, I'd say that the ground is the place to be.

Len said...

One other thing. I wish I had rewritten that comment six or seven times before submitting it. But that's how I always feel after submitting something.