Louis Menand's long essay in the New Yorker on Mark McGurl's new book The Program Era is, typically, superb. McGurl's book deals largely with the relationship between creative writing programs and recent American fiction. Here's an excerpt from Menand's review:
A second thing that “The Program Era” does well, and sometimes entertainingly, is to treat the world of creative writing as an ant farm, in which the writer-ants go about busily executing the tasks they have been programmed for. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and the creative-writing program is a means of tooling. But McGurl treats creative writing as an ant farm where the ants are extremely interesting. He never reduces writers to unthinking products of a system. They are thinking products of a system. After all, few activities make people more self-conscious than participating in a writing workshop. Reflecting on yourself—your experience, your “voice,” your background, your talent or lack of it—is what writing workshops make people do.McGurl thinks that this habit of self-observation is not restricted to writing programs. He thinks that we’re all highly self-conscious ants, because that’s what it means to be a modern person. Constant self-assessment and self-reflection are part of our program. . . . So the fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs may appeal to readers because it rehearses topics—“Who am I?” issues—that are already part of their inner lives.
McGurl's book has gotteb mixed reviews — it appears to be heavily jargonized — so Menand's lucid review may be a good way to get a grip on McGurl's argument.
I have more than once come to heated words with Ta-Nehisi Coats, mostly around poetry, over what happens to art when it retreats (or is driven out) of the world of entertainment and commerce. Not everything need be commercial (we've just launched an explicity non-commercial product), and I think I got a wonderful education in a University art program.
But as much as I value the education I received, I put no small amount of effort into resisting a certain self-referential, self-satisfied perspective about creativity that seem endemic in academic creativity.
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