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In Praise of MFA Programs

Question: Have you seen\r\nAmerican literature develop a style influenced by MFA programs?


Louis Menand:  Yes,\r\n I was reviewing a book by a guy\r\nnamed Mark McGurl, who teaches at UCLA, and which I think is a terrific \r\nbook,\r\ncalled, The Program Era, and the argument of the book is that American \r\nfiction,\r\nsince 1945 or 1950 has been highly influenced by the fact that so many\r\nnovelists and so many people who teach novelists, have gone through \r\nwriting\r\nprograms.  And it’s not a take-down\r\nin any way. His book, his book basically says that writing programs \r\nprovide a\r\ncertain environment where a particular kind of fiction gets produced and\r\n these\r\nkinds of fiction are very interesting, they’re often very experimental, \r\nthey\r\ntake fiction in directions that otherwise wouldn’t go. It doesn’t mean \r\nthat\r\neverything is being dumbed-down or cookie-cuttered.  And\r\n I thought that was very provocative and he gave some\r\npretty good readings of contemporary fiction to back up his claim about \r\nit. So\r\nI would tend to agree with him.  I\r\nmean, it is different.  It’s a fact\r\nof life since 1950 or so, that wasn’t true before that.  Writers\r\n had different ways of\r\norganizing themselves and different sort of social groupings in which to\r\nperform their work.  But the fact\r\nthat many of them go through the university now does affect what they \r\nwrite,\r\nbut doesn’t mean that they write it, what they’re writing isn’t \r\ninteresting.


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


Question: Did studying\r\ncreative writing shape your own style?


Louis Menand:  I\r\n wish I could say it made it\r\nbetter, but it certainly gave me lots of models to bounce off of and \r\nlearn\r\nfrom.  And then part of it is just\r\nthat I wrote poetry, and you know, not that many people are into \r\ncontemporary\r\npoetry, but if you can hang out with the people who are in your college,\r\n it’s\r\nreally a wonderful thing to share and I really value that a lot.  So I’m glad I had the opportunity to do\r\nit and I think it’s a good thing to, a good opportunity for students to \r\nhave.

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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