A week ago, the LA Review of Books published “The MFA Octopus: Four Questions About Creative Writing,” a piece written by Mark McGurl, the author of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. The article’s subtitle, however, is somewhat disingenous: three of the four softball-sized questions McGurl wrote and answered were clearly (but without direct comment) about “Get a Real Degree,” a critique of The Program Era written by Elif Batuman and published in the London Review of Books nearly a year ago. The interview is less about MFA programs than about prodding McGurl to respond directly to the Batuman piece. Which is also strange, given that the piece was published eight months ago — approximately 17.6 years ago, in internet time.
Batuman’s essay is an 8,000 word polemic — a brilliant, though occasionally infuriating critique of the characterization of MFA programs in McGurl’s book (which is also, of course, a critique of the MFA program in general). In “Get A Real Degree,” Batuman concedes that “the creative writing programme has exercised the single most determining influence on postwar American literary production,” but argues that this is, contra McGurl, not a good thing.
Yes, she argues that writing is “inherently elitist,” that MFA programs engender shame in their students, and that contemporary fiction is mediocre, but (with the exception of the first claim), she makes nuanced arguments in defense of these and many other claims. I’m nowhere near as enthusiastic about Batuman’s work as Amanda Shubert or Helen Stuhr-Rommereim. But while I don’t agree with many of Batuman’s conclusions, I do find them to be provocative in the best sense: they’re consistently intellectually invigorating. Divorcing them from context, as McGurl does in his answers, is unfair to Batuman’s argument. (It’s also important to add that “Get a Real Degree” is not Batuman’s title — it was added by the London Review of Books.)
McGurl responds to the piece not by answering any of Batuman’s points, but by treating the whole thing as a kind of one-dimensional attack that doesn’t deserve a nuanced response, and bringing in a bunch of us v. them political metaphors for Batuman’s argument that don’t stick. Even when McGurl seems to be engaging with Batuman, he’s really just removing her arguments from context:
“Who is right? Well, neither, though I confess that, if I had to choose, I would side with our dour Maoist. Still, I’m impressed with Batuman’s willingness to speak so clearly as a cultural conservative, reanimating a whole herd of dead horses from the 1980s Culture Wars, when the right began a long, twilight struggle against the “tenured radicals” of the university. To reduce whole swaths of American literature to an expression of “sociopolitical grievance”; to condescend so witheringly, as Batuman does in her review, to the literature of “developing nations”—these sorts of rhetorical moves are strangely anachronistic, not to mention ill-informed, and would embarrass even the less than politically correct among us a little bit, were we called upon to justify them. It’s not that we believe that the airing of socio-political grievances is, in itself, likely to produce a good novel. It’s that, when you actually take the time to read a work like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, you find something a lot more complicated and compelling than Batuman’s snarky slurs would imply. One can be all for the deflation of liberal pieties without being a gleeful ignoramus about it, as though literary journalism needs its own Ann Coulter. …. For all of these people, and for the millions more who simply like to spend some time alone with a book in the old-fashioned way, the novel is alive and well, and the desperate opportunism of those who insist otherwise holds no interest.”
The “desperate opportunism” insult has no place in this argument. And if anything, unfairly suggesting that Batuman is acting as an “Ann Coulter” figure, as McGurl does, seems far more opportunistic than anything in Batuman’s article. Batuman is controversial, but in the service of a larger point — McGurl’s response is just a wounded dismissal of anything she has to say. Batuman is often something of a reductionist, but responding to that by dramatically simplifying her arguments is petty and wrongheaded. (I also don’t believe that Beloved is what Batuman is referring to in her essay.) And there’s nothing in Batuman’s article, even if you (and I do) disagree with much of her argument, that leads me to believe that she’s being a “gleeful ignoramus.” Also, “dour old Maoist?” What?
That’s not to say that McGurl doesn’t make some compelling points. For instance:
“But more broadly, I think what is going on in these indictments of the mediocrity of contemporary fiction is a kind of unacknowledged mourning. What is mourned is not good new novels, of which there are still plenty—of which there may be more than ever—but the passing of a culture in which the novel was more central than it is now, when it has to compete for our attention with so many other forms of storytelling, with movies and television, and now also with that great engulfing time-suck, the internet. It may be that these new media, in sync with the advance of technology on all fronts, are better equipped (literally) to bear witness to the essential qualities of our point in history. The mistake—but mourning is so often irrational—is in blaming novelists for this state of affairs, as though there was something they could or should have done to stop The Wire from being so unbelievably good.”
This passage in particular strikes me as the kind of critique of Batuman that’s justified. She’s less a cultural conservative than a kind of utopian: she mourns the loss of a period of great literature that I’m not sure ever existed in the way she argues that it did. And McGurl’s list of contemporary writers who demonstrate the strength, vitality, and diversity of today’s fiction is right up Full Stop’s alley — but while I really respect (and agree with) McGurl’s faith in contemporary literature, criticisms like this: “‘What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?’ she once asked, as if suggesting shoddiness, instead, might do the trick” are far-fetched and wrong. Batuman’s article is worthy of serious discussion; this isn’t it. Rather, McGurl has wasted an essay trying to out-snark Batuman — and I think it’s safe to say that she’s a better and far more entertaining crank than anyone.