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With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part I: A Cautionary Tale for Writers

Not merely in terms of what is published and circulated, but even with respect to the work that fledgling authors aspire to produce.

· 14 min read
With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part I: A Cautionary Tale for Writers

This is the first part of a 4-Part series of essays by the author, entitled “With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent?”

Contemporary American literature has been transformed into a university-based activity which is increasingly alien to the needs, desires, or tastes of readers and audiences not directly involved in academic culture. The practices of institutionalised Creative Writing workshops decisively influence the style, form, and format of literary works; intellectual trends in universities determine the worldviews of writers long after they have finished formal studies. Most major professional writers now teach ‘Creative Writing’ in colleges and universities, and this has serious repercussions for literature. Not merely in terms of what is published and circulated, but even with respect to the work that fledgling authors aspire to produce.

Literary writing has always been a precarious means of earning a living. The slow collapse of the newspaper and magazine industries since the 1990s has reduced journalism’s potential as a reliable source of regular income for writers. Creative Writing might seem at first glance like an ideal solution for a writer seeking to maintain a conventional bourgeois lifestyle whilst fulfilling a literary vocation. The point of earning an academic qualification in Creative Writing seems to be to hold a job teaching Creative Writing to future Creative Writing instructors, who themselves have decided to study Creative Writing in the hope of securing a Creative Writing sinecure just like their instructors’ – one that will enable them to carry on writing and publishing fiction, drama, verse or essays indefinitely, whether or not they sell any copies of their work. This does not quite amount to a Ponzi scheme; even so, it does not seem to be a healthy system.

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part II: English as a Dead Language
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Creative Writing was a product of the ‘progressive’ educational movement in the late 1920s, which emphasised self-expression rather than tradition, formal discipline, or the mastery of a fixed body of knowledge or skills. The first Program in Creative Writing was founded in 1936 at the University of Iowa. Under its long-serving director Paul Engel (1908-1991) the Iowa Writers’ Workshop developed the practices of Creative Writing instruction as it is now known in universities throughout the English-speaking world. After the Second World War, and the expansion of higher education in the United States, university writing programs modelled on Iowa’s began to proliferate.

Institutional writing programs spread slowly at first. In 1975, there were 52 Creative Writing programs in American universities. But by 1984 there were 150 postgraduate degree programs (MA, MFA, or PhD) in the United States; by 2004, 350 (with a further 370 offering only undergraduate degrees in Creative Writing). As of 2010, there were as many as 1,269 degree-granting programs in America alone. This explosive growth has not necessarily encouraged a diverse literary output, as is obvious to anyone who attempts to read one of the annual Creative Writing anthologies (The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Poetry, The Best American Essays, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, etc.) which collect typical, apparently exemplary, samples of what these programs produce. The fundamentally uniform quality of contemporary American literature as represented in these anthologies is startling.

Institutionalised Creative Writing focusses on making use of each individual writer’s ‘experience,’ developing his ‘craft’ and nurturing his ‘creativity’; the writer is instructed to “write what you know,” “show don’t tell,” and “find your voice.” The system was originally designed to help encourage would-be writers who lacked a traditional literary education. Innovative ‘canonical’ writers including Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain also lacked a traditional literary education, of course; though part of the point of institutionalised Creative Writing was to try to ignore tradition entirely and somehow make literature out of the world immediately surrounding the author. Whatever the intentions of this setup, the result has not been to encourage unique, individual, or recognisably distinctive authors. Creative Writing literature anthologies can be depressingly repetitive; all the authors seem to be mimicking one another, or copying the same bland and unoriginal models.

Mainstream American fiction writers currently tend to resist overt exploration of philosophical issues; this may be because institutionalised Creative Writing encourages a consensus in political and philosophical points of view as in everything else. All the same, Perry Anderson, Fredric Jameson, and the writers of the New Left Review seem especially influential in shaping the general philosophies of writers under fifty, whether directly or not; though when writers acknowledge their intellectual influences they will most frequently mention ruminative philosophical essayists such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and (above all) Walter Benjamin, who are not necessarily rigorous thinkers, but who write stimulating, readable prose that is easily imitated. More recent traditions of Post-Structuralist writing, and what is often dismissed as ‘French Theory,’ have increasingly shaped the attitudes and critical approaches of American writers since at least the late 1990s, as can be seen in the range of short stories published in the New Yorker since Deborah Treisman became Fiction Editor in 2002.

A competing (or complementary) influence is popular culture. Contemporary American literature recognises no established ‘canon’: the reader’s knowledge of Shakespeare and the Bible (for example) will not be taken for granted. On the other hand, readers are assumed to be intimately familiar with the same films, television programs, and pop songs as the writer. American writers will still express ambivalence at best (if not outright scepticism) about elements in the culture perceived as threats to reading as a pastime. Even so, these writers have come to expect a diminished (indeed secondary) role in their culture – so much so that they seem explicitly to conceive of their audience mainly as a collection of Creative Writing instructors and their students.

In contemporary American literature, self-expression takes precedence over invention. A writer’s thoughts, memories, and experience will form the main bank of material for poets, essayists, and fiction writers alike. Invented narratives and characters are associated with scripts for television and film; whereas short stories and novels must have a firm basis in historical research or recent journalism, or else must be rooted in personal experience. Meanwhile, traditional forms and formal structures are little in evidence. Dramatic conflict is left to dramatic forms; ancient principles of ‘dispositio’ are seen to conflict with tendencies towards ‘realism.’ The purpose of literature, according to influential figures in American Creative Writing, seems to be replicate the thoughts and memories of the writer in the consciousness of the reader.

The most penetrating critic of Creative Writing ‘program fiction’ is Elif Batuman, who earned a BA at Harvard, completed a doctorate in comparative literature at Stanford, and is the wittiest, most original, and prodigiously gifted of all the writers associated with n+1 magazine; much of her freelance work was collected in The Possessed, which was published in 2010. In the same year she attracted considerable attention with a comic essay entitled “Buying Books Is Fun, with a Glass in Your Hand.” She remains most famous for “Get A Real Degree”, a masterly 8400-word review published in the London Review of Books of Mark McGurl’s 2009 history of Creative Writing The Program Era.

Elif Batuman performs a reading at Baruch College, March 24 2105 (Still: YouTube)

Elif Batuman’s lack of enthusiasm for The Program Era stems less from any overt ideological objection to Creative Writing (or ‘program fiction’) than from an apparently simple difference in taste:

I should state up front that I am not a fan of program fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world. At least that way I’d learn something about some less privileged culture – about a less privileged culture that some people were actually born into, as opposed to one that they opted into by enrolling in an MFA programme.

Yet differences in taste come from more than mere whim. In Batuman’s case, personal experience had something to do with her open revulsion towards McGurl’s chosen subject:

Like many aspiring writers in America, I enrolled in graduate school after college, but I went for a PhD rather than an MFA. I had high hopes that McGurl, who made the same choice, might explain to me the value of contemporary American fiction in a way I could understand, but was disappointed to find in The Program Era traces of the quality I find most exasperating about program writing itself: oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition.

In rejecting the anti-traditionalist tendencies of ‘program fiction,’ Batuman seems to make a counter-claim of anti-intellectualism:

Contemporary fiction seldom refers to any of the literary developments of the past 20, 50 or a hundred years. It rarely refers to other books at all. Literary scholarship may not be an undiluted joy to its readers, but at least it’s usually founded on an ideal of the collaborative accretion of human knowledge.

This rejection of McGurl’s entire vision of literature turns out to be fundamentally (if indistinctly) political and ideological after all:

McGurl’s construct of the ‘World Pluribus of Letters’ … [replaces] a primary standard of ‘universal literary value’ with a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemised as ‘difference’. … I’m going to go ahead and say how damaging I think this all is. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the non-persecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.

In exposing the peculiar brand of identity politics that currently underlies ‘program fiction,’ Batuman makes clear why she objects to the Creative Writing system itself as well as McGurl’s celebration of it. She identifies an element of petty-bourgeois status consciousness in both system and celebrator:

The workshop’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ ‘Show, don’t tell’ – … betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy…. As long as it views writing as shameful, the programme will not generate good books, except by accident. Pretending that literary production is a non-elite activity is both pointless and disingenuous.

Amidst many provocative claims, Batuman’s most outrageous may be her denigration of ‘creativity’ as enforced by Creative Writing institutions:

Might the ideal of ‘creativity’, taken as a supremely valuable, supremely human faculty, be harmful to a writer’s formation? It seems ominous that the role of creativity in American education originates, as McGurl observes, in Cold War rhetoric: through creativity, America was going to prevail over its ‘relentlessly drab ideological competitor’ and ‘outdo the group-thinking Communist enemy’. The value placed on creativity and originality causes writers to hide their influences, to hide the fact that they have ever read any other books at all and, in many cases, to stop reading books altogether. One telling result of this value is a gap in quality between American literary fiction and non-fiction today.

The implications of this are not fully spelled out; though the conclusion is damning:

Many of the best journalistic and memoiristic essays in the world today are being written in America. I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of [The National Public Radio program] This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction. The juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature – the real work of the novel – is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays.

This section of the review perhaps has dated slightly: the general standard in American memoirs, essays, and exercises in literary journalism has visibly declined since 2010: compare 2018 issues of the New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, The Paris Review, n+1, and The Point to numbers from a decade ago. At least Batuman agrees with McGurl that Creative Writing programs can develop and refine a writer’s literary technique; though not even this suffices to justify the system:

The continual production of ‘more excellent fiction … than anyone has time to read’ is the essence of the problem. That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?

In 2010, Elif Batuman joined the New Yorker as a staff writer. She also spent three years (from 2010 to 2013) as a Writer in Residence at Koç University in Istanbul. Compare one of her contributions to the New Yorker as a freelance writer (“Cool Heart,” 16 January, 2006; “The Ice Renaissance,” 29 May, 2006; “The Bells,” 27 April, 2009) with “The View From the Stands” (7 March, 2011) or any of her other work since joining the staff. The distinctive voice and antic sense of humour have faded away; in rhythm and style Batuman sounds increasingly like a conventional writer of ‘Creative Nonfiction.’ The more she talks about herself, in these blends of memoir, travel-writing, and conventional news reporting (e.g. “A Medical Mystery in the Balkans,” 12 and 19 August, 2013; “Ottomania,” 17 and 14 February, 2014; “The Big Dig,” 31 August, 2015), the less her personality is in evidence. The persona of her Twitter feed (@BananaKarenina) seems increasingly at odds with her New Yorker output, both on the blog and in the magazine.

Part of the problem might be the hidden constraints of Batuman’s post as a staff writer. The New Yorker has always been tight-lipped about conditions for its writers; one of the few publicly available sources of information is a Twitter essay from 2009 by a writer who quit a staff position at the magazine after only three years on the job. For all its prestige, the New Yorker is not necessarily the most generous employer; its current editor, David Remnick, has increasingly sacrificed diverse viewpoints and literary approaches in favour of enforcing ‘diversity’ ideology, particularly in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election.

Current staff writers including James Wood (the lead fiction reviewer), Anthony Lane (once noted as a film reviewer), and Patricia Marx (whose flippantly funny essays used to be a highlight of the magazine) have gradually been brought to heel by Remnick’s editorial restrictions, and his enforcement of a lock-step orthodoxy in opinions as well as prose style. Many of these writers now supplement their New Yorker incomes with teaching posts at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and other universities, generally in Creative Writing (Wood’s title at Harvard is “Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism”). Others (including Batuman) have taken up writing residencies elsewhere. Though these are not always necessary: as Dan Baum reminisces in one of his 2009 tweets: “If I had a productive month, I’d get a check. If I had an unproductive month, I’d get a check. It was dreamy.” This security might be part of the problem.

If literature is understood as a form of communication, then it demands an audience of some sort. The canon of ‘great’ literature, if such a thing indeed exists, may be understood as a body of work that has managed effectively to communicate with the largest, most diverse range of audiences possible in different societies and cultures over a long period of time. But ephemeral literature also needs to say something to someone. The New Yorker maintains arbitrary standards that do not invariably reflect what most readers want to read. More seriously, a staff position on the magazine seems to protect writers from audience reactions (other than Twitter outrage) so that they gradually lose touch with readers, and end up serving themselves and their editors rather than their audiences. Elif Batuman is only the saddest example of this tendency.

In 2017, Elif Batuman’s first novel The Idiot was published, on her fortieth birthday. The book makes for melancholy reading. The narrative, such as it is, revolves around Selin, a Turkish-American in her first year of studies at Harvard in 1995. There is a sort of love story involving an unappealing Hungarian mathematician, and a promise of moral, emotional, and intellectual growth. Though Batuman hasn’t clarified for herself what precisely any of this involves. The Idiot is a jumble of autobiographical segments and random memories of undergraduate studies that the writer has failed to organise into anything like a coherent narrative; the reader quickly tires of having to sort through the writer’s stray thoughts to try to discover the point of any of this. Ironically, Batuman turns out to have turned out an essayistic stroll through memory lane that is indistinguishable from a work of ‘program fiction’ in its combination of shapelessness and sentence-by-sentence clarity. Even more ironically, she would have manifestly benefitted from a few Creative Writing classes, to teach her the basics of character, setting, and plot.

The Idiot offers revealing glimpses of what humanities training was like in an élite American university in the 1990s. In this sense it represents an advance on the autobiographical bildungsromans of other Harvard-educated n+1 writers (Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, 2005; Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, 2008; Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors, 2013). Selin lives in a remarkably thin cultural atmosphere of pop music, art-house films, and well-known 19th-century novels (Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky) that do not require an expensive Harvard education for consumption. In the picture Batuman gives of her education, there is no sense of needing to learn any languages, skills, or disciplines in order to advance towards an academic degree. By dint of getting into Harvard she is already ‘cultured,’ it seems. This is not likely an intended effect of the novel; though it shows that the difference between Batuman’s own level of learning and that of a Creative Writing MFA is less distinct than her London Review of Books essay would lead one to believe.

For all her very real critical intelligence and academic brilliance, and the close attention she has paid to the techniques and narratives of the great Russian novelists in particular, Batuman appears to have learnt nothing about how to put together a compelling and gripping work of fiction. Or perhaps she has forgotten the most important lessons of her studies in the struggle for an impressive CV as a professional writer.

The Idiot has not sold well; yet it received unusually encouraging reviews, and was selected as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017. It likely will not hurt her career to have published this novel. On the contrary, with her New Yorker post and all the apparent acclaim that The Idiot has won, Elif Batuman is no doubt on her way to further Creative Writing sinecures, perhaps at Ivy League institutions this time, rather than foreign universities.

Aspiring writers should study Batuman’s example carefully. Her success, such as it is, is undeniable; her financial future is likely secure. What was the cost?

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