How the MFA swallowed literature

On the total world-domination of workshopped fiction

There’s a dreaded term: the “writer’s writer.” Someone often beloved by authors but seldom read by the public. A common example is William Gaddis, who himself knew he was a writer’s writer. The last line of his 1955 novel The Recognitions is a sly self-analogy of a piano composer who dies when his playing makes the roof fall in:

He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.

The title of my own novel, The Revelations, is partially a nod to that scene. One might think the overwhelming popularity of writers getting MFAs in creative writing would lead to an explosion of writer’s writers, for now almost all writers enter “The Program” at some point in their lives, either as students, teachers, or moonlighters. Instead, a new breed has arisen: the “workshop writer,” whose prose is oriented toward the academy. Is it too obvious to say this has fundamentally changed contemporary novels, and, in its totality, this change has not been for the better?

Of course, it may be the case that nothing has changed, nor ever does. As author Brandon Taylor wrote on his Substack:

. . . we’re all doing everything all the time and the only thing that changes is what five or ten culture writers in New York choose to call the moment.

I’m sympathetic to this view, but it’s worth pointing out that things do seem to have changed in literary fiction, and you don’t have to go back far to see it. The year? 2006. The people? Those the novelist Garth Risk Hallberg called the “Conversazioni group” for their joint attendance of a 2006 literary festival in Italy (called Le Conversazioni), interesting fragments of which have ended up on YouTube.

The members of the group were Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Jeffrey Eugenides. All were in their thirties or forties: Smith (31), Franzen (47), Wallace (43), Eugenides (46). All were public-facing artists, and their debates were on the form and function of writing itself: who could forget the term “hysterical realism” or “contract vs. status” novels? Others of the Conversazioni generation—those who did not attend the workshop but certainly could have— might include people like Donna Tartt (at the time 43), Dave Eggers (36), or Michael Chabon (43), among others.

Let’s stop here and note something. There are a a good number of pretty recognizable names I just listed. While critics often point back to the 1950s-70s as the last time writers like Philip Roth bestrode the earth (for good or ill), actually one only needs to go back a paltry 15 years, just to 2006, to see a core of popular literary writers with widespread name recognition at the height of their powers and careers.

This is what’s changed. For who would be in the current version of a Conversazioni group? The searching pause to that question, or shrugged shoulders, or the declaration of “Well, it could be anyone! There’s so many!” or instead excuses about the balkanization of the internet, are all indicative. In comparison to 2006, it’s much tougher to name a cohesive core of height-of-powers household names who are doing work at the far end of the “literary” spectrum of books.

Of course, this becomes a bit of a definition game, for don’t get me wrong—there are big-named talented writers who have been recognizable and working for a long time, too many to name, but to throw some out: Anthony Doerr, Hilary Mantel, Colson Whitehead, Richard Powers, Elena Ferrante/Domenico Starnone, etc. But many of these are now older, they are not the tip of the spear, and they are nothing like a cohesive generation.

Lauren Groff is a possible candidate for a household-name post-Conversazioni writer.1 Another might be Hanya Yanagihara. Sally Rooney, who just published a new book, is the most classically millennial writer, and probably the best known current young writer. Beyond Sally Rooney? I mean, maybe Ben Lerner? Kind of? Recently, The Guardian, discussing the rise of women in literary in fiction, gave a list of currently popular authors as:

…almost certainly mention one of Rachel Cusk [54], Ottessa Moshfegh [40], Rachel Kushner [52], Gwendoline Riley [42], Monique Roffey [56] or Maria Stepanova [49]. 

Others would undoubtably would have their own list, but I don’t think it would contradict the obvious point: all these, and those mentioned above them, are fine writers in their own right, but are any of them really household names? Rooney, perhaps getting close, but do Yanagihara, Lerner, Cusk, or even Groff have that title? Compared to Smith, Franzen, Wallace?

Now, I understand these sort of subjective comparisons are rightly unconvincing—none of this is scientific. But collective worries start to indicate

Something may be wrong with literary fiction itself.

What follows is a sample of opinions about the contemporary state of the novel, collected conveniently in this recent Bookforum contributors wishlist for the types of fiction big book reviewers would like to see. In this mini “State of the Union” of literature, across all contributors we see commonalities (most of those quoted are well-respected novelists in their own right):

When did American literary fiction lose the plot? It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that nothing ever happens in contemporary novels, but a certain scale of entanglement has gone missing. If destinies once collided like particles in a chain reaction, they now more often pass like horses on a merry-go-round. . . The biggest reason may be a narrowing sense of writerly vocation. Novelists used to moonlight as psychologists, sociologists, and all-purpose explainers, wielding an authority that the specialization of knowledge has largely discredited. 

I wish that future novelists would reject the pressure to write for the betterment of society. Art is not media. A novel is not an “afternoon special” or fodder for the Twittersphere or material for journalists to make neat generalizations about culture. A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. Let’s get clear about that. A novel is a literary work of art meant to expand consciousness. We need novels that live in an amoral universe, past the political agenda described on social media. We have imaginations for a reason. 

. . . I’m waiting, as always, for the next contribution to the never-ending, ever-shifting debate about representation (in the old-fashioned sense), how to steer the familiar course between the pat or over-patterned and the meaningless or merely “reflective,” waiting, in other words, for a new or newish writer who finds a way, for their own unique time, to render the problems of existence, or some of them, as questions about form (or is it vice versa?), an addition to a list that for me includes, inevitably, James, Conrad, and Woolf, but also, at different points, Gordimer, Spark, Coetzee, Tyler, Pynchon, Adler, Murdoch, DeLillo, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joyce Carol Oates.

I don’t read as much contemporary fiction as I’d like, in part because the curse cuts all ways. What a relief it would be to pick up a novel without the sense of participating in an attenuated dance with the author, the object of which is to keep the form we both know and love alive. 

The best political fiction suggests that the political is diffuse. . . I am calling for moral complexity. Characters that crack open prefab wax-museum molds and repel and charm us in equal measure, characters that hew more closely to our experience of the world. The Trump years have wrought too many terrible things to list here, but let us at least reclaim the fullness of our imaginations.

If I have shared Rachel Cusk’s aversion to the “fake and embarrassing” contrivances of fiction—plot, character, world-building—my aversion to that aversion is gaining ground. 

There are cryptic calls for change as well, like the one-line response of:

Novels should say how people really feel.

which implies no writers are saying how people really feel. There are even some subtle rejections of contemporary literature in its entirety. Consider the response by writer Rachel Kushner herself that starts:

In truth I mostly revisit works of fiction I already love. I’m not the only one…

and then she goes on to namecheck mostly dead novelists like Duras, Proust, Amis, Bellow. The implication being she doesn’t read contemporary literature, and doesn’t see why anyone would, given the wealth of past voices and the paucity of present ones.

And again, such criticisms may exist in all eras, but perhaps each time the criticism is also true in a way. Regardless—unease with the current writer crop is a matter of continuous mention by those at the highest echelons of the writing world.

Everyone has a different diagnosis for this problem. Conservative commentators like Ross Douthat would analyze this as a sign of cultural decline, just like the lack of big-name intellectuals of this generation. Liberal commentators might, in turn, point out that the new wave of writers are being significantly undervalued because they’re so heavily majority women. And here’s a pretty savage Joyce Carol Oates2:

However, there is one thing that’s indisputably different about contemporary writers compared to 2006: pretty much everyone now has an MFA. If you look back at the Conversazioni group, it was still a mixed bag. Eugenides and Wallace yes, Smith and Franzen no. The broader generation was the same: Tartt no, Chabon yes, Eggers no. Writing was, at the time, not yet fully academized. Nowadays most literary success is within the context of the academy. And this has consequences. For if avoiding criticism in a writers’ workshop is your priority, then you’ll need to

Minimize your novel’s attack surface!

Workshop-trained writers are often, not always, but often, intrinsically defensive. This single fact explains almost all defining features of contemporary literature. What you’re looking at on the shelf are not so much books as battlements.

Consider the minimalism of many current novels, their brevity—all to shrink the attack surface. Oh, the prose is always well-polished, with the occasional pleasing turn of phrase, but never distinctive, never flowery nor reaching. This defensiveness extends even to the ontology of their fictional worlds. A lot of today’s literary fiction could be set on some twin earth where everything about history, science, philosophy, the universe, even what humans evolved to look like, could all be totally different. Yet the novel is so situated in the writer’s low-attack-surface manifest image of the world that the reader would never know. Unnamed narrators and characters are given only descriptors like “my divorced friend” or “L came over,” making everything surface.

What is auto-fiction but a form of defense? For if it really happened, who can criticize? Similarly, a dominant theme of a lot of contemporary fiction is social justice—for again, who can criticize? Even the use of first-person, so ubiquitous now, is defensive, for it protects you from getting the inner life of someone unlike yourself wrong. And none of this is helped by social media, which has increased the attack surface of pretty much everything and everyone, meaning that all art is now far more defensive and wary.

Another consequence of the widespread academization of writing is that it changed who gets to be a writer. In the Bookforum wishlist, author Emily Gould says that she prefers instances when writers do

. . .the opposite of trying to get an A+ in novel writing.

But a majority of people under the age of 50 successful in publishing today literally got A+s. They all raised their hands at the right time, did everything they needed to get into Harvard or Amherst or Williams or wherever, then jumped through all the necessary hoops to make it to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or Columbia University, etc.

Can you imagine a single one of the writers Oates listed doing any of that? Faulkner didn’t finish high school, recent research shows Woolf took some classes in the classics and literature but was mostly homeschooled, Dostoevsky had a degree in engineering. Joyce did major in literature, but even he entered medical school (before leaving), and also failed multiple classes in his undergraduate days. Not one of these great writers would now be accepted to any MFA in the country. The result of the academic pipeline is that contemporary writers, despite a surface-level diversity of race and gender that is welcomingly different than previous ages, are incredibly similar in their beliefs and styles, moreso than writers in the past.

Finally, the last consequence wrought by the MFA is a change to the audience itself. The term “public-facing” is key here, and seems to me to reflect the most significant change between the older and newer generations. The sales success of contemporary literary fiction (and it is indeed still economically successful) is predicated on the fact that the academy itself is so big, its ethos and tendrils so expansive within the culture, there is effectively a built-in sizable audience for “academic-facing” prose.

To be clear: I’m not saying MFAs made all novels terrible or that all contemporary writing sucks. A writer isn’t deterministically destined to produce defensive prose if they go through the MFA process. Not all writers who’ve sat in a workshop are “workshop writers.” And some academic experiences are amazing, vital and electric, lighting up students’ minds inside like a moveable feast. But those are instances within a collective system. A system that has, in its totality, changed both how prose is written, who gets published, and who the audience for fiction is. And this comes at a dangerous time—literature needs all its strength to fend of its growing technological competitors like New Golden Age TV shows and video games.

There’s an easy way to see how much literature has been taken over by the MFA: the lack of public criticism by MFA-holders themselves. In almost every other field people who stay in academia long enough become disillusioned to some degree or another. I’ve known PhDs and MDs so critical of their disciplines it would make your stomach turn to ever read a scientific paper or go under a surgical knife. There are calls to reform how science is funded, taught, and done, all the time, so it is frankly stunning how few complaints one hears about the big picture of the literary industry. Where is the great MFA-takedown novel? Again, not to say it’s always bad, but certainly the data shows that, on average, these MFA programs are sending a generation of aspiring artists into debt for often zero financial return. Before MFAs, starving artists simply didn’t have any money. Now, starving artists have massive debt.

So where are the constant criticisms about artistic merit, negative effects, or even just cost? There was a brief splash of “MFA vs. NYC” articles, like Elif Batuman’s “Get a Real Degree” in 2010. But that mostly all happened a decade ago. Now there is a resounding silence, like what follows the quick kill of an alligator.

All to say, the inevitable eye-rolling to any criticism of the MFA is because literature and the MFA program have become effectively identical. One ate, digested, and absorbed the other. All contemporary writers know this. Ask them to point to true north and watch as, from the battlements of their books, they point toward The Program.

1

Lauren Groff’s work is classically public-facing—she likes narratives that resemble in their Austenesque contrivances those of Jeffery Eugenides’s. Really very 2010s, not 2020s at all. Her latest book is about nuns, and sounds awesome.

2

Joyce Carol Oates (I can say from meeting her in person) scores crazy high on the intelligence vs. age axis—she just radiates razor-sharpness even in her eighties.