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Mark McGurl on Fiction-Writing Programs

Mark McGurl is a professor in the Department of English at Stanford, where he teaches postwar and contemporary American literature. He has taught at Stanford since 2011, having previously taught at UCLA. He received his BA from Harvard and his PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1998. He has held fellowships from the Office of the […]

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[ Music ]
This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
And we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
[ Music ]
Again, the program is called entitled opinions.
And those of you familiar with our broadcast know
that your host has no problems dispensing his opinions liberally.
As long as he feels he has a titular right to them.
Today is not one of those days though, just so you know.
We're going to be discussing the role that creative writing programs play
in post-war American fiction.
And the effects that these programs have and have had
on the quality of American literature.
This is a topic I would or should have strong views about one way or another.
You would think.
But I don't.
And this neutrality surely has something to do with how should I put this?
My narcoleptic response to post-war American fiction in general.
Whether it's authors participate in MFA programs or not.
It's an intriguing topic however.
And the guests who joins me in the studio today is eminently entitled
to opinionate about creative writing programs in American academic institutions.
He is a professor of English literature here at Stanford.
And the author of a widely discussed and widely reviewed book called The Program Era, published by Harvard University Press in 2009.
Stay tuned everyone.
Professor Mark McGurrow coming up on entitled opinions.
[ Music ]
Looks so good.
It looks so cool.
Your pleasure lives into the program.
Let me invoke our comrade, Frank Zappa, who once said I quote,
"I think it is good that books still exist, but they make me sleepy."
Well, I think it's good that so many people are still writing fiction in the United States.
But it's not easy. I mean writing fiction is easy enough. A lot of people seem to do it without giving it a second thought.
Or even a first thought.
But what's not easy is to write a novel or a short story that keeps the reader's eyes open focused on the page.
Every book that tells a story engages in a fierce struggle against sleep.
And in most cases, it's the reader's narcolepsy that wins out.
All the odds are against the novelist, especially when it comes to what's known as literary fiction.
Commercial fiction aims to keep the reader wide awake and turning the pages.
In that struggle, you at least have a fighting chance.
Literary fiction has a far more difficult task because it seeks to induce, in its reader, a wakeful dream state.
A state of trance or hypnosis very close to some semblance, in which the story can perform its spiritual alchemy and reach the deeper layers of the psyche.
In other words, you have to access and activate the forces of dream and reverie and then find a way to ward off their natural drift into dormancy.
This is a tremendously difficult art and the question we'll be talking about with my guest, Mark McGurroll, is whether the burgeoning industry of creating writing programs in the United States helps or hinders writers in their efforts to get their readers to dream,
while staying awake. Mark, welcome to the program.
Go ahead to be here.
Let me begin by quoting from a very enthusiastic review your book received in book form by the critic Mark Grief, if I'm pronouncing his name correctly.
That's right.
And he writes the following, I quote, "And there's perhaps the most complex question of all.
What has the movement of post-war writing into the university done to our literature?"
Few professional writers in the second half of the 20th century escaped attending college.
Many wound up in MFA programs, still more acquired university patronage as teachers or paid visitors,
and the most esteemed, high literary books have sustained their sales and prestige in large part through assignments to undergraduates.
Continuing the quote, "The obvious nature of this last question only places the decades-long lack of a proper answer in higher relief.
It is proportionately exhilarating to find, in Mark McGurroll's book, The Program Era, a brilliant and comprehensive mind developing one at last.
McGurroll trains his gaze on the university writing programs, and some of the masterful novelists they have incubated.
But he makes his most compelling arguments at the level of the writer's practical place in the academy, examining the distorting and enabling effects of university discipline on individual artists.
And considering the wider role of creative writing within a chain of notions of creativity,
lasting from high school to the service economy workplace that inculcates skills for late capitalist life."
That's a long quote, but I didn't know where I could cut it down because it was all implicated all those sentence, one and two, the other.
So as Mark Grief says, it is a very complex question,
But could you tell us what we need to keep in mind in order to answer that question, what has the movement of post-war writing into the university done to our literature?
Sure. I would say the first thing one should keep in mind.
Well, that location, what has it done to American literature?
That might encourage one to think that some crime has been committed, but I think that that's not the way to start thinking about the problem.
But that is the way that most people have begun, have thought about the problem when they've thought about creative writing programs in large terms.
They produce a certain sameness in the product, a certain timidity, sitting there in the workshop, you're afraid of criticism.
And so you just only do safe things.
It's encouraged mediocrity just by virtue of allowing so many people to give a shot at this and publishing so many books.
It's produced a kind of insularity in fiction and that after if you're sitting in a classroom or sitting on a college campus, all you can, your imagination has been captured.
And all you can really think about are the people that you know in your immediate institutional environment.
Let's see, that's the wrap that one so often hears against creative writing programs and against post-war American fiction.
And my book and my point of view in general has been to resist that to me way too easy account of what's going on and what creative writing programs have done to post-war American literature.
I think that all of those claims are, they become so habitual that they just seem right by virtue of repetition.
And I think that once one examines them, they begin to fall apart.
But then to go at the question in a more positive sense, in the most basic way, what is the rise of the creative writing program done?
Well, it's expanded and sustained the field of literary fiction in the United States.
So if you remove the several hundred million dollars a year in aggregate that is invested in the production of literary fiction by virtue of institutional support from universities, salaries paid to writing teachers, fellowship money to young writers, etc.
What do you have? You have a considerably smaller literary field.
So it's expanded the field and sustained it.
And then much more, which seem to me, more or less unambiguous goods, unless you have some problem, lesser bothered by the profusion of creativity and that discuss to you in some way.
And there are people out there who just want most people to shut up. And that's fine.
The much more, in a more complicated sense, and here I would begin to grant that there are complex cities here.
What it has done is it has installed a very widespread attention to craft, in fiction, a self-conscious attention to craft.
Because there's no way to go through a writing program and not be called to a form of self-consciousness about how you're putting your fiction together and what it's doing and the effects you're achieving and how you're doing so, etc.
Right. I have an analogy in mind. It came to me while I was listening to you say that some of the rap that has gotten is that the creative writing program leads to uniformity of style through the emphasis on craft and therefore,
the pro- I was seeing of tennis academies. And tennis academies are interesting because they actually turn people with great potential for tennis excellence into very good tennis players, excellent tennis players.
And they do for them what they probably could never have done for themselves. But the net result from my point of view, now I'm talking about tennis, is that when I look at the
tennis world, I look at tennis matches, there seems to be a style that is hard to distinguish between one player or another. It's a baseline game, very effective, all very excellent shots, everything's worked on, but it's very hard to get enthusiastic about some of the matches because it's hard to distinguish one player from another. I'm not saying that's what is happening in post-war American fiction in the creative writing programs.
Is there a way that one can imagine that a hyper cultivation of craft can only be just a very small part of the story of what's necessary to write these kind of novels that do the kind of magical work that novels have done for us in the past?
No doubt, no doubt. I mean, the important distinction though, or a way that the analogy doesn't quite follow through, is that in tennis, what is happening is players are trying to win by some objective standards. They're trying to beat the other opponent and through the science of tennis, and the increasing size of rackets, et cetera, et cetera, there's been an arms race and an arrival
at the ideal way of playing tennis to beat your opponent. What's fundamentally different about fiction and what people forget is that distinctions, distinction from your rivals, is essential to the act.
My thought is that creative writing programs, of course, like any institutional environment, they produce a certain kind of imitation and sameness, but as a function of how all institutions work, at least in that sense, is any writer knows that he or she has to distinguish him or herself in some way.
So a tennis player doesn't, a tennis player has to win. For a writer to win, they know they have to do something unusual.
So there are very few writers out there who are merely trying to imitate. Of course, there are many who don't have the talent to do anything but imitate.
But the ones who are going to make it are the ones who know that they have to differentiate what they do.
I think that's a natural process and I think that being an institutional environment makes that a more efficient process. You see what's happening around you and you know you need to do something like that, kind of like that.
But you also know that you need to do something different or nobody will notice your work.
So you're an expert on post-war American fiction. Would you be able to tell without knowing the biography of the authors in question whether a particular author has gone through an MFA program or not?
That's a good question. I'd like to say yes because I'm so masterful in my absorption of the field, but no, I think I would miss in a lot of cases.
No, because the truth is there's an offer diversity in the product. If you're looking at something at a field that ranges from George Saunders on one end, these sort of quirky semi surreal short stories on the one end which have been a big hit lately, to Donna Tard on the other, sort of a reinvention of the Victorian novel, Dickens novel.
You know, that's just a vast territory of style, form of everything. And so it's pretty unrealistic to think that one could, that one would be able to say, "Aha, I detect without any help from outside information that Aha, I detect the creative running program here." I don't think I could do that.
Frederick Jameson wrote a very positive review of your book and he of course responded to above all your analysis of the institutional factors of creative writing program and issues that do raise questions of class as well as gender and the means of production if you want to use that term.
What are the institutional factors of creative writing programs that interest you the most and that we should be paying a lot more attention to when it comes to their economic as well as social function?
Good question. I mean, and that's a complex one because it come at it from two sides. On the one hand it has always seemed to me that the most legitimate criticism of creative writing programs of a lot of them is that their form of economic exploitation of people's naive desire to be a writer and they go into debt in their effort to become one and only the tiniest fraction can actually succeed.
To that extent that seems kind of questionable, legitimately questionable. That said, a lot of the top programs fully fund their students so they're not subject to that criticism.
However, the system as a whole is, I think. The reason one of the reasons there are so many creative writing programs is that so many people want to study creative writing, but on the other hand the other side of that is it's a pretty easy sell to the dean when you can demonstrate that the program
will run into black because people are willing to pay and go into debt for it. So that's on one end. That's one side and that's that seems to me a very legitimate criticism. On the other side though is a long, complex and interesting story about post-war American higher education which really changed its face in its form beginning with the GI Bill and began to expand massively.
From speaking in very broad numbers here, say 10% people attending college before World War II to now something like 40 approaching 40 depends how you count of course. But nonetheless, massive expansion of higher education and in that context is when creative writing programs come into being and start to flourish and multiply.
And is that because a lot of veterans wanted to study creative writing and then I was reading that in your book that the government said that if you're going to benefit from the GI Bill it has to be a degree granting program that you major in and therefore creative writing programs are becoming degree granting programs much more massively than before.
Yeah, that was part, yes, that was part of the motivation and as for the veteran writer, I mean there was this massive major example of Ernest Hemingway as the, as the, and who would indeed become the model writer for many creative writing programs, many veteran writers even though Hemingway himself didn't have anything to do. I'm not sure he ever was on a college campus. I've never seen the, I'm sure he must have been, but I've never seen any evidence of him ever setting foot on a college campus.
And he certainly didn't study creative writing or teach creative writing. Nonetheless, a, a, the model of somebody who has unusual and extreme experiences and then feels like the proper thing to do is to create fiction from them.
And there were a lot of writers who, who, who fit that mold in the immediate post where period and yes, and there were the, there was the institutional, institutional circumstances were there to give them what they wanted, including here at Stanford.
Is this a crucial place for there. I mean there was a guy here called Eugene Burdick, who wrote the ugly American, can you say something about that Stanford program?
Sure. It was started by Wallace Degner himself a very fine American writer. And there's a, a lot of lore attached to, to have that came about. He had been hired. He had been brought here.
He, he himself had been one of the original creative writing graduate program products. He went to Iowa.
I think he would have been, I think he was teaching at Harvard at the time and he was lured out here to teach at Stanford and then heard about this.
And then one of his colleagues had a brother who was, he was immensely wealthy, oil man Jones and had lunch with him and convinced him to fund, big time, fund to creative writing program and used precisely that argument that, hey, we've got all these soldiers coming back.
We need to do something for them. We need to do something interesting for them. They have all these stories to tell. We need to produce an institutional environment which will be receptive.
And it went on to become one of the major, or silliest one of the major creative writing programs in the, in the country, I suppose.
Yeah, although in an interesting turn, it's no longer a creative writing program per se. I mean, it's a extremely vibrant program for undergraduates. In fact, I don't know, we, we'd be lost in the English department if we didn't have undergraduates who wanted to study creative writing.
It's a, it's a God send us. It brings us a lot of majors, but there's no degree granting program anymore at Stanford. There's the, there's the Stagnare fellowships, which is a wonderful program.
It brings in all these great interesting writers, insets, every, to spend a couple of years here and then move on.
Are the most famous alumni of this, of the Stagnare school, Ken Keezy and Robert Stone and that generation of students?
That, I mean, that, yeah, well, that was an incredible generation. I mean, when you just picture who was in the room in the, I guess it would have been the late 50s, late 50s or early 60s, you know, it's kind of extraordinary. Yes, Ken Keezy, Robert Stone, Edward Abbey, on and on and on, just an extraordinary group of people.
I don't, I'm not aware of any, any group that has achieved that kind of critical mass since such that you would say, ah, but as I said, it's a different, it's a different animal now. It's not really a graduate creative writing program.
And I heard that Stagnare himself was quite annoyed that everyone was all asking about Ken Keezy.
Well, he hated Ken Keezy. Yes. For him, Ken Keezy was a dirty, obnoxious, loud who just irritated him to know what happened.
I'm amazed living in this area, how few people even at Stanford, no perilene or even know that Ken Keezy and his group, they were living in this little lane in Menlo Park and that's where they're doing their, their, that's it.
And it's right there and his house is still around. Yeah. And, well, because it seems so anomalous if he start with, if he start with one flew over the Kookus nest, a novel that hates institutions.
And so it seems fundamentally wrong. Then in fact, he submitted it chapter by chapter to a creative writing class and had it worked out. I mean, this, this is just, this is mind blowing.
And, and what it points to, what it points to is a possible sort of bad faith in our relation to institutions. We just can't believe that we owe so much to them.
Unless you think that all of his interlocutors were on acid, it would be a very different kind of response he was getting.
Yeah. So, here's a question that I'm curious about where, how you see this. So, Aleef Batuman, who also reviewed your book, has this somewhat dichotomous,
dissinciency draws between the PhD and literature, where students actually learn the history of literature and get this broad foundation of air,
addition in literature as opposed to creative writing programs, where you don't learn the history of literature. And therefore, you think you're inventing the wheel when you, when it's been done many times before by other writers.
But there's a strong case to be made that creative writing programs actually educate its students in the art of reading, and of reading closely, and of exposure to different styles and different modes of writing. So, how, where do you come down on this, this distinction between the PhD and the MFA?
Yeah, it's complicated. I mean, I take, I think it's true that there is a strain within within the culture of creative writing, which is anti-intellectual. And I think that's what she was responding to, where, you know, don't pollute my mind with your fancy ideas, because I need to remain a natural state to write my, to write my short stories. And there's no denying that that's there.
But so is an alternative tradition that runs from John Barth, who knows too much about literary history for his own good home, in my opinion, through to writers like Michael Cunningham, you know, the hours, specimens days, these are good novels that are, you know what, I put some money right now on the fact that he went to Iowa.
But anyway, so, but the point is that, you know, it's a big thing at this point, creative writing. Yes, it has the anti-intellectual wing, but it also has the hyperintellectual wing. And if you look at poetry, I don't say much about poetry, but if you look poetry, that's all the more obvious. You have lots of university based poets who are intellectuals, as much as they are poets. So, it's definitely a true, it's a struggle, the sort of knowledge of literary history versus ignorance thereof.
I think that's a debate that's going on within creative writing, and that's, in its a way that creative writing has differentiated itself. Some programs are more literary, historical than others. But to go to your other point, I think that it's, in this, this is abundantly true if you're thinking about undergraduates.
Trying to write something yourself, it seems to me intuitively, a pretty great way of understanding what a, quote, real writer has done or tried to do.
You know what I mean? So, as part of pedagogy, creative writing, as literary pedagogy, seems to me a great idea, and if I'm not mistaken, it's been going on for centuries, imitation, as a way, into understanding literature.
Mark, I apologize for invoking so many reviews of your book. You know, once you get started, you find it. They go on and on. Yeah.
In the New York, that I was looking out by Louis Menont, where he says that your book is not a history of creative writing programs. It's a history of 20th century fiction, in which the work of American writers is read as reflections of and reflections on the educational system through which so many writers now pass.
Is that an accurate characterization? Yeah, that sounds right. Certainly, if I were, if we're going to be a straight history of creative writing programs, I would have done it somewhat differently.
And then he goes on to say that given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is process through the higher education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way that system affects the outcome.
But you want to remain neutral in your evaluation of what the outcome is, right? You don't want to say that it has done wonders for creativity, nor do you want to trash it like the naysayers.
And you quote the, you know, " Sermon on the Mount." You shall know them by their fruits. What do the fruits of these programs tell us about the seed?
Well, you know, to step way back from the question of evaluating, you know, and looking for how high the peaks of achievement of post-war fiction are.
To me, my sensibilities go to what do they show us? They show us the desperate desire for education to respond to our deepest desires, to be creative beings.
To have something to say in an artful way. So to me, that is in some ways the deepest thing that it shows us.
And then it shows us by contrast how the whole education system based upon teaching to the test, etc., etc.
This sort of counter-progressive educational movement that's been underway for a few decades now is kind of sad because there really is a desperate desire for meaningful education.
And creative writing is the essential form of a meaningful education. You're literally producing literary meaning as a form of education.
And I find that very compelling, actually.
And that, as admittedly, that goes to the question of the social, it's a very odd way of looking at creative writing admittedly.
Because people tend to want to go straight to how great are the greatest works that it has produced.
And it's not that that's not a fair question. It's just that to me that has never been the most interesting one.
So, yes, so what the book tries to do is to bracket that question, although it doesn't think it fully succeeds because I end up saying,
Well, okay, if you're going to force me to have an opinion, I'm going to declare that logically post-war American fiction has to be the greatest fiction in human history.
And it has to be, why, how do we know this? Because the talent pool feeding into the literary field is larger than it has ever been.
More human and financial resources are being poured into the study and production of fiction than ever before.
And so therefore, ergo. Ergo. American fiction in this period is uniquely great.
Now, I say that with tongue, half, and cheek, but if that's not true, we have a huge mystery. We need a zoll.
Which is, how is there this one activity that making huge investments in it?
Trying really, really hard to do it well. In this one instance of human activity, trying hard produces lesser work.
There's no other, there's no other domain of human activity where we try, trying hard is the problem.
Well, I vowed to myself I'm going to refrain from opinionating and I'm not going to opinionate on the quality of post-war American fiction.
However, every century produces sometimes a few great artists and a few great novelists, and then you have centuries of wasteland.
As Nietzsche said, any given century only produces very few good books. And the argument that you investing all this money into the production of fiction that it therefore has to be the greatest period of American literary history resides on the assumption that it's a question of the more resources you invest, the better is the outcome of the results.
But perhaps one could think that novel writing serves, not only serves a cultural purpose, but it has a whole set of cultural conditions that serve as a matrix for some of its most vital sort of fiction.
Okay, no, that seems to me, that's the best. You've taken the best line it seems to me, the most viable one.
Which is to say that post-war fiction is not so great because the world is just the structure of the world we live in now is not one that is good for the great novel.
Or maybe it doesn't need the novel anymore.
Or yeah, maybe it has alternative.
Maybe we have discovered, I think Jean-Boudreard, the French philosopher, I think it was him.
I read a long time ago that the novel is really thrives at moments when cultures are beginning to discover themselves.
Or even actually even transitioning from illiteracy to literacy in a big way.
And once you're as old and weathered as we are as a western society, maybe the novel is not the place where this kind of self interrogation at the cultural level takes maybe it's most vital.
Maybe it's most vital. I don't know.
Maybe, maybe, but if so, if so, it's so hard to answer that question to sort of to measure the quality of the literature of a given moment given how many thousands of works are produced.
But if that's so, then a lot of the criticisms of creative writing program are completely moot to me.
Because often it speaks as though some crime, there's some damage being done in the classroom to literature.
And it's like, no, no, if there's a problem, it's much bigger than that.
I agree with you, everybody.
It's the state of the world at large that won't allow the novel to be important anymore.
The other question that came to my mind when I heard you describing how beneficial are these programs for those who participate in this great desire that you have in a number of people to create something meaningful in the literary medium.
And that it's a form of self fulfillment as I took you to be suggesting.
Then one could ask, if I'm going to play the devil's advocate on this issue, one could say that, well, literature, the greatest literature doesn't arise from the desire for self fulfillment arise from other sources.
And you could say that all these people who are going into the MFA programs in order to find the way to say that what they feel that they need to say is forgetting the whole history of modernism.
And especially John Cage, who says I have nothing to say, I am saying it, and that is poetry.
And perhaps we don't have the courage sometimes to admit that we have nothing to say.
Or that turning the state of having nothing to say into a creative way of saying that is much more arduous and difficult than this sort of self satisfaction that comes from the exercise of saying something meaningful in the fictional medium.
No doubt, no doubt. Yes. So the defense of creative writing as an educational practice cannot rely on its producing great literary works it seems to me.
So it may be that creating great literature doesn't isn't traceable back to the therapy of having, of wanting to have your say, maybe that's true, but it may be the case that great education does.
And so those two things for me are distinct and creative writing is an educational phenomenon as much as it's a literary historical one.
And you have to work back and forth between the two.
And certainly makes you a better reader.
I would think so. It has to. I would imagine that it has to do that.
Yeah. No, in fact, I often thought that nobody talks about this because it would be the logistically very, very difficult, but it would be it really would be interesting of creative writing were integrated much, much more fully into literary education than it is.
Without the expectation that we're producing all great writers, no, the whole rationale would be educational, pedagogical.
I think that would be a neat idea.
Mark, I'm just curious what your literary tastes are.
And this is not to do with any kind of objective standards. I just always on the lookout for novels that I haven't read that I should read and may read.
I try out a lot of them. But if we're looking at the panorama of post-war American fiction, is there a group of names that you would propose that are undeniable giants in their fiction?
Undeniable giants, wow.
Well, I think I would backpedal defensively first and say that and fess up to the fact that my taste.
It's something I have a dialogue with myself about. And to be honest, I've almost gotten out of the business of recommending books to people because I just no longer have any faith that I have, that that's, you know, my reaction to books, including works of contemporary,
fiction is so polluted by my professional interest in my intellectual historical interest. So that something can be bad, but if it's bad and interesting way, I find it totally wonderful to read.
But, you know, most readers don't think that way. I'm loath to be a recommender of books. And I don't necessarily just trust my taste to correspond to anyone else.
I find it chaotic, unsystematic.
So we did a show here last year on David Foster Wallace because I had been lobbied by so many of our listeners who were extremely devoted.
And as you know, he has a very substantial cult following in America. And it was interesting.
I read David Foster Wallace and studied him in preparation for the show and so forth.
And didn't do it.
Well, it's not that very smart. His interviews and some of his essays and what he has to say about tennis and the analysis of tennis with Roger Federer, all that very, very smart guy.
And it's certainly my limitations, but I was not bold over by Infinite Just. And I think if I were an editor, I probably would have cut it down at least.
Even further to a third of its size, but who knows.
Because it only was cut down.
It was like a third. Yeah.
But there's an argument to be made without that length and distinction. It could not at all work.
Yeah. No, I mean, for me, you know, Wallace is David Foster Wallace is a, you know, he's right in my wheelhouse.
He's a really fascinating contemporary literary cultural phenomenon. And to be honest, that's I've read, I think virtually everything is written.
I've read virtually everything written about him. So I find him very, very interesting.
In my heart of hearts as a reader, I slightly bracket the question of my reaction to it. And my love that I get irritated.
Often enough with with rampant nonstop cleverness, infinite just, you know, parts of it are just a chore.
You know, so in on a purely personal level, but but I do respect that and take quite seriously that for, you know, 100,000 or so people, he is just he's what it means for a writer to matter in our world now.
And and and the difficulty of getting through infinite justice clearly part part of that because you have to make a huge commitment.
And it really is that that psychological dynamic of commitment that's so crucial to the enterprise of going inside and inhabiting his mind and his world for a long time.
So I find him fascinating. I think that, you know, if there's an obvious candidate for canonization, he would be he would be one because there's no critic is going to come along and say, you know, I'm smarter than that guy. That's not going to happen.
No, no, he he he he was smarter than at least as smart as all of his critics and known smartness is not the bottom line of literary value and that that could be held against him also.
That said, the guy could, you know, he got off some incredible sentences and had a deeply serious account of what fiction should should do now.
And and they're not a few people who have responded to it. Many others who don't. But but that said, it's a pretty large phenomenon. I think cult is a little bit too small.
It's a little bit it's a little bit off. I think it's a little bit larger than a cult that his voice sort of rang the bell for a lot of people in terms of producing fiction that matters now.
One thing that we haven't talked about is whether creative writing programs have taken the place of jobs that used to be done very effectively by editors in the past where you and I can't cite the names of all these editors.
And I think that's the fact that you're the classic great editors. Yeah, where they would nurture writers and educate them and edit their work and actually lead them to to become who they who they were through this patient commitment that publishing houses would have to their authors which is no longer the case. I take it to the same extent as it was in the pre war period and that MFA programs have stepped into that into that void a little bit.
Yeah, I think that's probably true. I have to become their own author today has to become his own or her own editor now. I think as far as I gather that's that's certainly true or that it used to be. Yes.
And in fact, in the early days of creative writing, there were those who who were founding programs and saying, you know what we really can't in a positive sense teach people to write. But what we can do what we can do is be like Max Perkins was for Thomas Wolf who brought that fluvia into some semblance of something that kind of looked like a button.
Unlike, let's say the narco lepsy that I mentioned when it comes to post war American fiction that where I have to make an effort to stay away. That's not at all the case when it comes to some of the best television series.
On cable television in the last, let's say 20 years when cable television allowed for a true explosion of talent in the medium because it changed the rules of the game and they could actually do things like the sopranos and the wire and deadwood and so forth.
And almost all the really great series that have had also a wide popular appeal through breaking bad and whatever.
The one thing that they all have in common is great writing and there's nothing more difficult according to David Chase, the producer of the sopranos and nothing more painful than for him to sit down in a room alone and sit down and write the dialogue and the script.
And he hated it, but he had to do it in order for that show to have the kind of immediate impact and intense, let's say, call it realism if you like, or compelling this.
And I'm wondering how much literary talent is hiding or has migrated into this different medium and where the writers are not getting any of the kind of glory or attention as individuals and yet are doing a service in terms of providing pleasure and entertainment and topics of conversation.
When you go to dinner party no matter whether you're an academic or a non-academic or you can be one class and another class invariably people will end up talking more about television series as things everyone's watching in common than any kind of novels except by certain exceptions.
So these writers who are largely responsible for the success, the artistic aesthetic success of these shows are they have to do we know anything about them? Have they gone through MFA programs or is it a, it's Hollywood have its own kind of institutions that form them to be script writers or very curious.
It's a great question and there's a lot of, you know, it's an empirical question to some degree so we could actually go find out what the answer is and I don't fully know the answer that is.
I think that's quite true. I think the basic point you're making is undeniable that there's a certain kind of show which as many people have pointed out, it seems to be, you know, edging out the novel.
In the time and in the late night life of people who are looking for some narrative to consume and I would agree with you that that one often encounters just stunning writing on those shows.
It's a really interesting question. I really think that to me, listening to you, it makes me want to go investigate. That would be my impulse. What is the situation? Because there are a lot of sort of competing things because on the one hand you have the sort of rise of the individual showrunner, showwriter, individual creator. So that person, if they have enough stature.
It really has achieved a new kind of mastery over the system. They write the whole show, they get to make it the way they want to.
But then on the other side, of course, TV writing is much more complex than that. It's not individual authors. The norm is group writing, which is interesting.
And the sort of, submerge of the individual writer into sort of a group product. So that would be a fascinating for me. That would be a fascinating zone for research.
So could I ask you this institutional question, speculative, but never let us going back to the role that creative writing programs play in the university and what the role that you were talking about playing in our education, would it be something that one should promote to incorporate within that a television writing component?
Or would the self, the deep desires of the people who pay money or get the fellowships, would they feel that there's not enough pay off to their own, can I call it narcissistic investment in their activity to be an anonymous writer of really excellent television show?
Or could this be a new frontier that could do a great deal of good for both those who write and those who consume?
Well, first we'd have to ask about how, I mean, you asked earlier, how important are screen writing programs to TV today? And especially to this kind of show, this sort of highbrow show.
How many of the writing, how many members of the writing teams have some sort of instruction in screen writing? I don't know. I actually don't know the answer to that.
And then in terms of encouraging that as the sort of goal, my impression is, yes, it's true that for a lot of writers in Hollywood, you never become known as an individual per se.
You're always a member of a team. And from a certain perspective, that seems like a shame. And certainly there's a long history of novelist going to Hollywood and then being deeply insulted and frustrated by the whole process.
As they watch a process that was all about them creating an entire world, suddenly be watching that being corrupted, shared with other people, etc., etc.
That said, as somebody who lived in Los Angeles for quite a while, I used to teach at UCLA and so I knew a lot of writers in the industry.
If you're coming out of college and you can get a job of writing for an HBO series, you're ecstatic and you're very well paid and you're proud to tell people what you do.
And so, in a very basic sense, it's an avenue toward a really interesting form of success and career at this point. It's a writer.
That's why I'm wondering why there's not more of a rush to go into that in that direction.
In so far, there are many more people writing novels than get published. And even those who get published, the readership seems to be either too diffuse because too much is being published or it's dwindling in general.
And if it were a question of finding an avenue for your creativity, that would be something that I, if I were to go into creative writing, I would be drawn towards that.
That makes sense. That makes sense to me that the sort of hypothetical, very talented young writer. What does he or she imagine doing with that talent? I can only imagine that given the example of great writing on cable television, that that would be luring a bunch of them. That would become their desire.
And then the super form of success would be where they get to be the creator of the show and have real creative control. I mean, there are many people out there writing their novel. There are also many people out there writing their screenplay.
And who knows, maybe they're out there writing their pilot of their own, their HBO drama for all we know.
Well, it would be interesting if it turns out in an empirical investigation that many of these great writers, unacknowledged, have had no formal instruction whatsoever.
And you could say, well, maybe we should create a special program, a degree of granting program and ruin it.
What's ruined these HBO shows as fast as we can.
That's great. Well, Mark, I hope you'll agree to come back on entitled opinions in the near future to talk about maybe some of the authors in the post-war period.
More in depth, I know that you're a big fan of, for example, Philip Roth and that you like pension and there's a whole cast of characters.
Yeah. Yeah. We can talk and then we can fight about some of them indeed. Sure.
Like to remind our listeners, we've been speaking with Professor Mark McGurll from the Department of English here at Stanford. I'm Robert Harrison for entitled opinions. Thanks for listening.
- Good luck.