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Friday, April 13, 2007

M F'in A in Creative Writing

Nathan Bransford is a literary agent who has a blog, and last week he wrote a post that asked his readers for their thoughts on the usefulness of academic programs in creative writing. As part of his post, he said,

[C]reative writing programs tend to stress short fiction writing even as magazines such as The Atlantic are dropping short stories, and short fiction collections have a reputation as being difficult to sell.

I thought this was a very interesting insight and made a connection that I had not made before: Academic writing programs killed the short story.

There was a time when the short story was America's favorite fictive form. All the major magazines, as well as the minor ones and many newspapers, published short stories. Major authors, well-known as novelists, practiced the art, and some were known for almost nothing else. Having read stories by Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others, I can understand why. These stories cut through me and expose me to life as it is lived.

I don't think I've made my way all the way through a story that's been written in the last 20 years. At a minimum.

Short stories no longer speak to us or speak to our lives. They tend to be self-consciously solemn or ironic and generally just plain boring. They read like term papers written to impress the professor by the clever students, the ones who linger at the podium after the lecture to stroke the professor's pretensions and avoid his wrath.

This is the problem that comes when we stop looking at writing as a calling and turn it instead into a profession.

There are always going to be people who write because they have a knack for it, and it beats working for a living. It used to be that these people became journalists and the authors of various types of hackwork. But they never became leading novelists or poets or playwrights.

This is not to say that all the leading novelists in days gone by were geniuses; the great majority were nothing of the sort. They were, however, generally people who had been called to do their pitiful best in the telling of tales. In fact, the strengths that they did display--sentimentality, a gift for improbable action--were not the strengths of the technicians. The poor saps had no idea how terrible they were and went to their graves thinking of themselves as great artists. And if you don't believe me, I've got two words and a hyphen for you: Bulwer-Lytton.

The thing about the technicians is that they are capable with words. They can arrange them and stack them and even pull off the occasional piece of prestidigitation. They just have no talent for telling us about life as it is lived. They have ideas instead of empathy and theories in place of feelings. They are not artists, but workers, drones who collect enough nectar for a dew drop of honey, but no more.

Turning the vocation of writer into the profession of author makes it easy for the second-raters to rise to the top. The secrets of rising in any profession are always the same. It means playing the game, shaking the right hands, and riding the prevailing wind in whatever direction it takes you.

People who have been called are good at none of these things typically. They are always pursuing their own vision and speaking in their own voices, and nothing scares a technician quicker than an original voice. The profession takes on the trappings of the fraternal organization and the acquisition of an MFA can be understood as the equivalent of an initiation and a secret handshake.

The problem becomes that even the making of prose becomes part of the code. When this happens, the art of literature is doomed.