In Praise of MFA Programs

Creative writing programs have left a dominant stamp on American literature in recent decades. The Harvard professor is glad they’re around.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Have you seen American literature develop a style influenced by MFA programs?

Louis Menand:  Yes, I was reviewing a book by a guy named Mark McGurl, who teaches at UCLA, and which I think is a terrific book, called, The Program Era, and the argument of the book is that American fiction, since 1945 or 1950 has been highly influenced by the fact that so many novelists and so many people who teach novelists, have gone through writing programs.  And it’s not a take-down in any way. His book, his book basically says that writing programs provide a certain environment where a particular kind of fiction gets produced and these kinds of fiction are very interesting, they’re often very experimental, they take fiction in directions that otherwise wouldn’t go. It doesn’t mean that everything is being dumbed-down or cookie-cuttered.  And I thought that was very provocative and he gave some pretty good readings of contemporary fiction to back up his claim about it. So I would tend to agree with him.  I mean, it is different.  It’s a fact of life since 1950 or so, that wasn’t true before that.  Writers had different ways of organizing themselves and different sort of social groupings in which to perform their work.  But the fact that many of them go through the university now does affect what they write, but doesn’t mean that they write it, what they’re writing isn’t interesting.

As I said in that piece, I, myself, was a creative writing major in college and I look back on those experiences with great fondness and I think they were very good for me, too.  So I think it’s a, it’s a totally appropriate thing to have inside the academy.

Question: Did studying creative writing shape your own style?

Louis Menand:  I wish I could say it made it better, but it certainly gave me lots of models to bounce off of and learn from.  And then part of it is just that I wrote poetry, and you know, not that many people are into contemporary poetry, but if you can hang out with the people who are in your college, it’s really a wonderful thing to share and I really value that a lot.  So I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it and I think it’s a good thing to, a good opportunity for students to have.