The Iowa Writer’s Workshop itself admits the writers that emerge from their program and achieve some kind of success did it because of the talent or experience they brought into their MFA program, rather than what the program taught them. Therein lies the problem I see with a degree in Creative Writing, especially a Master’s; a young writer can enter the program and study with other unpublished students and be taught by professors who may also be unpublished, or at the very least published in a very small market. Upon graduation, there is no greater guarantee of success (by whatever metric, whether that’s a best seller or just a book published by a major New York house) than if the same student spent those two years reading and practicing on their own while simultaneously having another career or at the very least doing something else.
It appears the emergence of Creative Writing programs has created a ‘closed’ system, where young writers go into the programs and then emerge to go into teaching creative writing. It’s a very easy way of doing things, where the Creative Writing professors are wholly subsidized by the system.
One of the claims for these MFA programs, of which there are over 800 in the United States, is that they allow writers to coalesce and share ideas like Paris of 1920s. The comparison appears fair, but there is a great difference between Jazz Age Paris and the Creative Writing program of a university. The expatriate scene of the interwar period was composed of artists and writers that had some level of success or were working towards success. They were putting their work out to paying magazines or publishing books and befriending other writers who were doing the same.
Contrast this with workshops, where unpublished students sit and have their work critiqued by other unpublished students and professors whose work is likely in publications with a very small readership. The novels and stories that came out of 1920s were the result of specific historical conditions and a literary community that emerged organically. Maybe something similar could emerge out of a Creative Writing program, but I do not see it. While MFA students probably get something out of their experience personally, I do not see the institutionalization of writing prose fiction as something that makes it better, as Mark McGurl claimed in his book The Program Era.
The program has a narrow view of what is ‘literary.’ Eric Bennett’s article on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop’s connection to CIA cultural influence operations during the Cold War explains what is considered ‘good’ fiction at the IWW. There are three categories: hard realism a la Hemingway or Raymond Carver; F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque lyrical, “chatty” prose; and magical realism. As expected, ‘genre’ fiction is cast aside as something that’s supposed to be beneath a literary workshop writer.
For a brief period I thought I wanted to write these ‘serious’ ‘literary’ stories, so I bought a copy of The Paris Review and started to read more classic books. What I found in the magazine was much different than what I found in say, The Sound and the Fury or The Great Gatsby. For more modern examples, I still found the experience of reading Oryx and Crake or Bonfire of the Vanities much different than a story in The Paris Review. The first time I read the magazine most of the stories were competently written and kept my attention, but they were so empty. I still read it from time to time, but I have the same experience reading it every time. The stories all read the same. I suppose there’s a market for the work in the magazine if it continues to be published. If people like it, that’s fine, but I guess I’m not smart enough to get these stories.
The vast majority of readers, I think, ignore this sphere of books. Most people like to read ‘genre’ fiction, or what I would call enjoyable books to read. More and more readers are buying self-published e-books and giving writers that would have been left out of the ‘MFA versus NYC’ world. Readers do not care whether an author as a Creative Writing degree or not, they want a good book. I am more than willing to bet T.C. Boyle would still be successful even without his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
Every writer achieves success differently (whatever success means to that writer). The emergence of the MFA in Creative Writing has created an institutionalized track for writers, which is good for individuals. But in the broader picture, readers do not care about an author’s credentials. I certainly don’t. Readers want ultimately just want a good story.
Article on CIA and IWW connection:
Reviews of The Program Era: