Elifs

Exhibit 27.6

Elif Batuman’s “Get a Real Degree

I didn’t want to read another handwringing essay about MFA programs, but Batuman’s sucked me in with a strange combination of insightful critiques and obtuse generalities. It’s really a fascinating read as it gets so much right but even more so very wrong about creative writing programs. It’s hard to know how much of this is Batuman and how much of this is Mark McGurl, the author of the book she’s reviewing, but it’s easy to get the sense reading “Get a Real Degree” that no one involved in the process has ever actually been in a graduate-level writing program.

O, and admittedly they haven’t. Which is fine, preferable to the alternative, probably, but it disconnects the book and its review so thoroughly from the MFA that after a time Batuman might as well be writing about high school graduates or people who’ve eaten at McDonald’s. The MFA is–correctly–identified as a near universal credential for the past two or three generations of writers yet its the presumed universality of the MFA which leads Batuman far from her target. By trying to write about every program, she (or McGurl, again it’s hard to pinpoint where this is coming from) ends up writing about no programs. In the end it makes her conclusions no different from those old studies defining racial characteristics, a collection of conjecture and stereotypes seemingly done because it was easier than actually tackling the complicated truth.

O, and that’s an appropriate analogy because Batuman (for some reason) continues to reference Stuff White People Like.

Look, no one likes creative writing programs. I mean, we “like” them in the sense we attend them and teach at them and people, people I imagine I don’t like, waste considerable time ranking them, but very few MFA graduates could or would stand up for them as being essential to the production of literature. The historical truth of this is obvious, yet that does not mean the MFA–a degree I don’t have! (though it’s really a matter of semantics)–is worthless.

Sticking with McGurl and Batuman’s use of baseball as a metaphor, the MFA is the minor leagues, a place where one rarely learns anything more valuable than the time given to learn it. Baseball isn’t a different game at AA than it is in the majors yet most 20-year-olds can’t make the leap. Instead they play the game again and again until they either hone their talent enough to hang with the big kids or they get discouraged and quit. The 3-6 years players spend in the minors purport to teach players a lot of things but anyone who follows baseball knows they rarely do. The minors’ true value is in giving those players time to develop enough personally (maturity/community/etc.) and professionally (working hard despite the daily grind) and physically (steroids).

I guess that’s where the metaphor falls apart, but otherwise I think we might as well be talking about MFA programs. Sure, some pitchers actually do learn a changeup in the minors and some MFA students probably do learn “how to write,” but in my experience the vast majority of creative writing students going through MFAs simply grow into the writer that, in a more perfect world, they would have been anyway. They meet older students who influence them, they discover new books, they maybe become aware of why their writing is failing–all things they could theoretically do without the MFA yet likely never would. Not because most MFA programs know what they’re doing–they don’t, I don’t think–but because one’s physical presence at a program for those two years allows it to happen. Time to read, time to write, time to–shudder–grow. Yes, I know that makes MFA programs sound little better than 2-year-long summer camps. I don’t care. They are. This is a good thing.

Of course, now I’m falling into what is, I think, my biggest objection to Batuman’s review which is that neither she nor the author of the book she’s reviewing took the time to ask whether or not “The MFA Program” is even a thing. I mean, there are MFA programs, but are they really so universal that one can honestly write this sentence and have it apply to all of them:

Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique taken as telos.

I find this to be a shockingly naive observation from a very, very smart writer. Which program does this? We’re supposed to believe all of them do? Batuman (or perhaps McGurl) must be under the false impression that since the MFA is a degree then something must be taught. And since you can’t teach expression or imagination or experience, the programs must naturally spend all their time “fetishizing technique.” We then get this bizarre statement:

In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

This confuses me for two reasons, the first being that choosing a book written in French completely baffles me by what she now means by “technical/technique” and the second being the impossibility of there being such a thing as well written bad book. If the book is bad, the writing is bad. I can’t speak for McGurl and Batuman’s unknowable capital P “Programme,” but my experience in writing workshops has rarely led me to see the quality of the writing detached from the quality of the book/story/whatever. If anything, I’ve often found that we don’t care enough about the quality of the writing, instead favoring to talk speculatively about a piece’s intentions.

Which I think takes us to the most interesting passages from Batuman:

But how does one calculate the literary value of sociopolitical grievances?…Literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest. The danger of Cisneros’s dig at her Iowa classmates, ‘cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids’, is the implication that the children of privilege don’t have stories to tell; that, because they aren’t from the barrio, they all have families like the one on Father Knows Best

The danger of ethnicising novelistic alienation is that it removes this dialectical and historical element from the novel. Instead of striving to capture real life by describing the disjuncture between pre-existing literature and the historical present, ‘high cultural pluralism’ simply strives to describe the greatest possible disjuncture from some static, imagined cultural dominant.

This is interesting and, while I still don’t know if it’s entirely representative of what I see being valued in the MFA, it’s certainly something worth thinking about. Still, it’s interesting McGurl and Batuman assign the commoditization of “persecution/difference” as something coming from MFAs rather than from larger cultural currents. It seems pretty clear to me that one could write about this phenomenon in any medium and any time post-WWII. Why is this “high cultural pluralism” suddenly an MFA issue? Perhaps Batuman gets closest to the heart of the problem when tying it to shame:

Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better

There is, I think, some value in pointing out the shame of literary production though I hardly think it’s the force in MFA programs Batuman thinks it is. Nor do I understand why it would be an emotion unique to MFA programs at all. That said, I found some truth in her saying programs treat fiction as a form of “empathy training” though I’m not sure this is quite the dagger she thinks it is, especially while holding up Dave Egger’s work as more forcefully pursuing social change. Other than that he doesn’t have an MFA, I don’t really understand the difference between him and the “cult of persecution” and I think someone could make a compelling case that he’s that cult’s spiritual leader, at least among Batuman’s “White People.”

Toward the end, Batuman asks, “Why can’t [programs] teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?” This is a great question though I don’t think it’s the biggest one facing creative writing programs. Creative writing programs should teach as much literature as possible and, in my experiences, they do, often to the chagrin of their students (I’m currently reading The Faerie Queene in a classroom full of MFA students, for instance). Some programs don’t, of course, but many take their responsibility to literature both contemporary and classic seriously. Again, it’s a question that makes sense to me but I don’t think it’s the question anyone who has been through an MFA would ask.

I suppose I’m simply confused because I have all these terrible things to say about MFAs and Batuman wrote 9k words about programs without saying any of them. In the end, it’s a smart essay but it’s not about MFAs or the problems facing them. The shame Batuman writes about cuts a different way, not shame over one’s ineffectual career but over one’s ineffectual era. Only later will history choose our Stendhals and until then readers are going to have struggle with the rest of us. And we’re all failing and we’ve all got MFAs so obviously the latter causes the former. Of course, we’ve all gone to high school and all eaten at McDonald’s…

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