This issue features a “micro-interview” with Mark McGurl, conducted by Lee Konstantinou. Mark McGurl is a professor at UCLA, where he teaches classes on American literature and culture. His new book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, locates an unlikely cast of writers—Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Carver, and Philip Roth, among others—squarely in the context of the growth of creative-writing programs in the U.S. after World War II.
THE BELIEVER: Let me ask a few traitorous questions: Aren’t we supposed to decry the state of literary art? Aren’t readers, according to our big public critics, dumber than ever? Aren’t our writers perpetual nonreaders, illiterate licentious slobs corrupted by movies, television, the Internet, and other fashionable nonsense?
MARK McGURL: If you want to get a sense of how much interesting fiction has been created in the postwar period, try to write a book with pretensions of saying something about postwar fiction as a whole! You will immediately be brought up against the sheer magnitude and variety of the field, and you will constantly be discovering not great individual works, but entire careers that one must take very seriously. I know that the usual argument is that the passage of time will separate the literary wheat from the chaff, and that someday we will all agree who the few important writers of this time really were and be allowed to forget the rest. But part of me rebels against this notion. Partly owing to the expansion of higher education and the rise of creative-writing instruction, the talent pool from which contemporary fiction draws is substantially larger than it ever was before, and the result has been an explosion of strong writing.
THE BELIEVER: What’s your take on the difference between creative-writing programs and academic literature departments?
MARK McGURL: You probably have as a good a sense of this as I do. It is sometimes quipped that the United States and England are two countries divided by one language; something similar could be said of academic literary studies and creative writing, which are divided by their shared object of interest, literature. Creative writers rightly describe academic literary study as a parasitic, secondary enterprise populated by horrible writers, while literary scholars rightly describe academic creative writing as a bloated exercise in narcissistic anti-intellectualism. There is room in hell for all of us, and only the scholar-novelists like yourself shall be saved.
THE BELIEVER: I got very excited when I first heard about your work. There weren’t any other academics, as far as I knew, writing about how the university influenced the production of postwar fiction. How did you get on that beat?
MARK McGURL: It always struck me as funny how much early-twentieth-century American writers loathed the university. For them it was the enemy of modernist innovation, a symbol of all that is lame. When I was finishing my first book I kept noticing all the writers around me on campus and I thought, Wow, I guess thing have changed, and looked for something on the topic. When I didn’t find the kind of book I was looking for I decided to write it myself. My first discovery was that lots of writers still sort of loathe the university, even the ones who are professors. Not that many of them aren’t great teachers, and not that they don’t appreciate the steady paycheck, but it is still a symbol of all that is lame. Faculty meetings. Student conferences. Grading. How does that stack up to Paris or Pamplona or the South Seas? Not very well. This queasiness fascinated me.
THE BELIEVER: What about the fact that novelists (say, Richard Price on The Wire) are being given opportunities to write for television? Could we say that the storytelling sensibility of the novel is being imported into television?
MARK McGURL: Is that a common phenomenon—the novelist as TV writer? If it were then creative-writing programs would be less pervasive than they are, since they exist in part to provide a steady paycheck to writers. I like the idea of a bunch of novelists cruising around L.A. in fancy sports cars doing deals on their cell phones, but I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of contemporary American novelists live either in college towns or in Brooklyn. No doubt it is true, as some have said, that long-format television is satisfying some of the urges that once could only be satisfied by books, but I wouldn’t necessarily credit novelists with this feat. I think, rather, that TV producers slowly realized that there is a market for quality storytelling on the tube, just as there is a market for Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
THE BELIEVER: Let’s look at things from the perspective of the prospective creative writer. If I’m a young literary writer, and I’m thinking about getting an MFA, what should I know about creative writing programs and their history?
MARK McGURL: The most important thing to know about the MFA is that it does not even remotely guarantee that you will succeed as a professional writer. It is profoundly different in this respect from, say, a law degree, and best thought of as a kind of extension of one’s liberal education, a chance to organize your identity around writing for a few years before doing something else. The biggest risk it poses is not to your originality as a writer—that criticism of writing programs is completely overblown—but to your bank account. But assuming you have adequate funding for the adventure, a writing program can provide wonderful shelter from the charge that you are wasting your life—you are in school! It is also a way to “outsource” some of the self-discipline needed to produce anything worthwhile, helpfully attaching the difficult task of writing to deadlines and grades and whatnot. When they are not irritating you with their stupid comments on your brilliant story, your fellow students will be good company on an otherwise lonely journey, and competing with them will further motivate you. And you might even get lucky and find a mentor who propels you to a creative breakthrough.
That said, it’s worth noticing how utterly strange the creative-writing program is in historical and global terms. Before World War II no one felt that they needed to get a degree in fiction writing, and everywhere but the United States they still don’t. It’s worth remembering that there is nothing stopping you from sitting down right now and writing a book without the aid of a creative writing program. Writing fiction is not like practicing medicine—no one will arrest you for writing without a license.