Manual The Program Era

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Permissions : This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact mpub-help umich. For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy. By Mark McGurl. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Aldridge in his Talents and Technicians [2] —have tended to do so in the mode of censure, declaring creative writing the source of a baleful standardization of contemporary fiction. So where does shame come in?

Like Grimes, the protagonist Jack Sheahan enters the workshop as a golden boy, personally selected by director Gordon Grimes a thinly veiled version of Conroy with an apparently deliberate reference to his favored student for a fellowship. Then, when he gets a short story published in The New Yorker , it appears that he is destined for fame. But, as he laments in the opening pages, "my celebrity — small and dismal as it was — was short lived.

Five short years after I had graduated, no one knew who I was. It is Sheahan's fate throughout the novel to suffer a series of humiliating encounters with writers more celebrated and successful than he is, which enables McNally to elaborate a sort of semi-satirical typology of Program-Era celebrity.

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Thus, Tate Rinehart, one of Sheahan's more obnoxious charges, is described as a representative type: "guys from New York in their early thirties, black plastic-framed glasses, black T-shirts, torn jeans. They were often finalists for, or winners of, National Book or National Book Circle Awards, frequent contributors to The New Yorker and Harper's, their bored expressions gracing the covers of Poets and Writers, their own writing often experimental and gratuitously gloomy but penetrable" One of the key plot twists comes toward the middle of the novel, when Sheahan steals Rinehart's messenger bag, in which he finds concealed a coded set of notes wherein the successful writer contemplates writing a novel about the failed one.

As Sheahan tells us, "The gist of it was that he saw ample fodder for fiction in my circumstances — namely, someone who'd had great early success, but then spiraled into oblivion, working a shit job and living a shit life" Tate's easily decipherable code is to write backwards, and his final sentence reads: "Himself killing from him keeps what?

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The simple code satirically indicates how easy it is to invert the question and leverage failure into success, which is how the novel concludes. Sheahan confesses his crime and his discovery to another representative character, S. Pitzer, an older author who "taught in the University of California system for twenty years before his novel Winter's Ghosts hit the Times bestseller list, and then, like that, he simply disappeared" He mysteriously reappears in Iowa City, and when Sheahan tells him of Rinehart's plan, Pitzer immediately suggests the obvious, that Sheahan himself should write it as a memoir.

Sheahan is dubious until Pitzer mentions the idea to a visiting publicist, who gushes: "He tells me you're working on a memoir About living on the margins. About writer's block. About the artist's life in the twenty-first century You could sell that book for six figures. Easily" The novel then returns to where it began, with Sheahan typing what will be his opening sentence: "I was a media escort" The last section sports an epigraph from Winston Churchill: "Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts" : surely a fitting motto for a novelist hoping to leverage the latter into the former.

Program-Era celebrity, then, modulates Hemingway's paradox — where early success causes late-career failure — into Beckett's law — which renders failure into a sort of renewable resource for continued success — and then institutionalizes it as both a career track and a narrative mode. Indeed, as these narratives attest, it is less the individual authors than the institution that has become famous. And this fact is interestingly engaged toward the end of both books.

Mentor concludes with Frank Conroy traveling to Washington DC to accept a National Humanities Medal, not for himself but for the Writers' Workshop, the first university-based organization and only the second institution to be so awarded. After the Workshop also concludes with an event that comments on institutional celebrity, in a way that serviceably contrasts with the respectful treatment the Workshop receives from Grimes.

McNally's novel winds up with a competitive poetry slam at The Mill one of the traditional gathering places for Workshop students and faculty at the time , at which "someone from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics would read first, followed by someone from the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop, if there were any volunteers.

The word famous , I realized, was going to be the night's recurring insult" Indeed, when it comes to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, fame is at least as frequently an insult as an accolade.

Iowa's creative writing program has been maligned since its inception, and the more famous it gets, the more people, including many of those who went to it, seem to resent it. So if the workshop can make you fail better, it can also make you fail worse. Or, rather, it can fail you.

Or, maybe, it can fail your pain? In any case, it's based in what I'm calling a structure of failing, and I mean this both in terms of the affective ambivalence that increasingly constitutes how its students and faculty feel about it and as a more properly socio-economic description of how it actually operates.

Mark McGurl

The success of any creative writing program is in fact dependent on the failure of most of its graduates, and it is this unusual, even contradictory, structure that understandably generates the ambivalence many feel about it. Olsen and Schaeffer suggest in their opening pages that this structure is Darwinian, not only in the sense that only the fittest can survive the highly competitive environment, but also in more explicitly sexual terms, insofar as "an ostentatious display of writing skills worked amazingly well as a mating ritual for an awful lot of visiting writers at Iowa.

Thus Joy Harjo claims, "I was told that some of the female students were picked on the basis of their photographs. Given the predatory atmosphere in the workshop between many of the professors and the female students, that didn't surprise me" He told me I just had to study with Donald Justice at Iowa. I thought this guy, my teacher, was interested in me because he thought I was a good writer, but this guy sort of helped himself, too. We had an affair" Like Harjo, Cisneros felt alienated and isolated in the Workshop, and it is not surprising when she concludes, "Iowa was an experience where I found out what I wasn't, where I discovered my otherness, and pulled myself away from who I was studying with and the kind of poetry I was reading to declare myself and what I was" It is to this dialectical reversal, this achievement of success despite of, but still ultimately due to, the Workshop that I would like to turn.


It is a turn that takes us straight to Lena Dunham, who, not surprisingly, was a creative writing major at Oberlin, and whose first film, conveniently titled Creative Nonfiction , was made during her senior year there. In this film we can see how writers who feel alienated or stifled or harassed in creative writing programs can nevertheless leverage their trauma and resentment in a narrative mode — creative nonfiction — that reflects and refracts the pedagogical practices and philosophies, as well as the informing contradictions, of the Program Era. Creative Nonfiction follows the efforts of a college senior named Ella played by and based on Dunham to write a screenplay about a high-school student who is pursued by her English teacher after she escapes from a cabin in which he has been holding her captive.

Nevertheless, the two narratives converge structurally as the screenplay moves towards its protagonist killing her pursuer while the film itself moves toward Ella awkwardly losing her virginity.

The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl

In this short film Dunham deliberately appropriates the predatory practices and seduction fantasies associated with workshop culture and repurposes them in a narrative that confirms her own authorial agency. Thus it should not surprise us that, in her recent nonfiction bestseller Not That Kind of a Girl , she is dismissive of creative writing programs. In high school, she tells us, "I wrote poems, sprawling epics with curse words and casual mentions of suicide that didn't get me sent to the school psychologist.

But first I wanted everyone to realize what they were doing to us, these teachers.

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Draining us of our perspective, teaching us to write like the poets they admired — or, even worse, like them. So where does she go? The complications of this system are so intense it makes airline seat pricing look transparent. The college where we work has an average discount rate of over 50 percent for undergraduates and regularly has as few as one or two students paying the price listed on the website.

The discount rate for the graduate program is often over 35 percent, but as high as 50 percent in many programs, and only a handful of students, so far as we know, have ever paid the listed price. To identify this second group for our data, we relied on information gleaned over the years from colleagues, friends, and former students who have also worked in or studied at the following schools including the one where we work.

Information on student debt by specific programs and even by institution is particularly hard to obtain.

Again, at the school where we work, some faculty — concerned about the possible amount of debt that students take on to attend — have repeatedly requested information about the average amount that graduate students borrow to get an MFA. They have not been able to obtain it from their own admissions office. It is collected by the Department of Education along with other data from reporting institutions, but only accessible to those with an administrator password someone who works at an institution in an administrative or staff role, most likely within offices of financial aid or admissions.

As we looked at these two groups of schools, we noticed some things. One thing we noticed is that the large numbers of students who graduate from debt generator schools tend to be more female and less white than graduates of fully funded programs. In , 28 percent of students at the debt generating schools identified as other than white, and 68 percent identified as female.

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At the fully funded programs, only 19 percent of students identified as other than white and 58 percent as female. In they represented 30 percent of all graduates from fully funded programs but only 22 percent at the debt generators. Only one number remains consistent for all the schools we looked at: those who identify as male and other than white hover around 6 percent on average.

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So when programs do enroll more students who identify as other than white, they almost always also identify as women. In , 21 percent of graduates from debt generator schools identified as women and other than white. At the fully funded programs, that number was only 10 percent. The debt generator schools also produce far more graduates, over in versus around from fully funded programs. Which means the two groups of schools each represent a little less than seven percent of all MFA programs nationally, yet the debt generators produced 17 percent of all graduates, while the fully funded programs generated a moderate and equivalent seven percent of total degrees.

It is an open question to us what the consequences of this will be. There is a chance that these schools might diversify the MFA in creative writing, finally, as the debt generators are graduating not only way more students, but also way more students who identify as other than white. This visualization illustrates the number of graduates who identify as other than white between and As that chart shows, fully funded programs are more or less not admitting that many more students who identify as other than white over time from 14 to 19 percent , whereas the debt generator programs are somewhat diversifying from 17 to 28 percent as they are growing.

But still, this is one area that could use even more spreadsheets. This data just talks about differences between 28 schools divided into two categories based around funding. And yet, the degree does not do much for those who pay for it. Many take on significant debt to get their MFA, and as our endless spreadsheets seem to indicate, those who do not identify as white do so more often because they tend to graduate from schools without funding. This is also debt that, because of gender and race wage gaps, they often have more trouble paying back.

Not only are female MFA students at high risk of sexual harassment, they remain dramatically underrepresented in many of the aspects of literary culture that they might enter after graduation, that they might need to get tenure.


They get less prize money. They show up less often in anthologies. Their books are reviewed less often and they are reviewers less often. While total MFA and undergraduate creative writing degree recipients identify as women close to 70 percent of the time, neither the writers for mainstream media nor the authors published by small presses nor the winners of major prizes are 70 percent women.

Instead, they are around 70 percent men.