Reporting on Planet MFA from Planet PhD

By Harriet Staff

Elif Batuman, whose dorkily delicious autobiography-cum-literary history The Possessed came out last winter, has written the longest piece of literary criticism we've ever seen. But it's worth the hour and a half of reading time. Batuman, who holds a PhD in Russian literature, subjects Mark McGurl's book about MFA programs—The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing—to scrutiny so expert and exhaustive that Louis Menand's review of the book seems like child's play by comparison.

She agrees with McGurl's basic claim, that "the creative writing programme has exercised the single most determining influence on postwar American literary production, and any convincing interpretation of the literary works themselves has to take its role into account." But she has a major bone to pick: "It’s frustrating that McGurl, a literary historian, occasionally seems to ignore the whole history of literature before Henry James, ascribing to the American postwar era various creative ‘innovations’ that actually date back hundreds of years."

This frustration permits Batuman some literary critical tours de force:

McGurl appears to believe that ‘point of view’ was somehow invented by Henry James. ‘Jamesian’ point of view, he implies, was later refined by the creative writing programme into new techniques such as ‘the “surprising point of view” trick’ in The Sound and the Fury: ‘Enabled by the general post-Jamesian fascination with the technicalities of point of view, it turns the perspectival restriction of narrative focalisation … into a demonstration of the author’s unlimited virtuosity, her ability to range across human and sometimes nonhuman experience.’ In fact, the ‘“surprising point of view” trick’ also has a long pre-Jamesian history. To quote Joseph Addison’s ‘Adventures of a Shilling’ (1710), ‘I was born on the side of a mountain, near a little village of Peru, and made a voyage to England in an ingot, under the convoy of Sir Francis Drake’; the shilling’s later adventures include being exchanged for a shoulder of mutton, and getting clipped by a counterfeiter.

Batuman also contemplates the testy marriage between fiction and identity politics ("my hardworking immigrant parents didn’t give me a funny name and send me to Harvard for nothing"). And she expresses, rather winningly, her own hopes for MFA programs:

In the greater scheme, of course, the creative writing programme is not one of the evils of the world. It’s a successful, self-sufficient economy, making teachers, students and university administrators happy. As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one. That said, the fact that the programme isn’t a slaughterhouse doesn’t mean we should celebrate, or condone, its worst features. Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try? The programme stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch. Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it—but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. One isn’t stating conclusively that Father Knows Best, but who knows whether Father might not have learned a few useful things on the road of life, if only by accident?

Originally Published: September 15th, 2010