So there’s been lots written about Mark McGurl’s new book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Most of the coverage is, I think deservingly, very positive. A couple reviews are not so favorable, about which more later. Personally, I’ve been waiting for this book for a while. One thing that most reviewers mention is that its “brilliant,” “fascinating,” often pleasurable, and so on, but, especially given the sorts of places its being reviewed (academic publications on literature rarely find their way into the New Yorker‘s pages), not a lot of people have spent much time thinking about what makes it such a compelling critical work.
On the one hand, McGurl himself notes that, “while this book not without its pretensions to novelty, in a way it is simply an assemblage of what used to be called ‘influence studies’” (321). Here McGurl is aligning himself with what we probably now think of as a fairly old-school critical mode. But with the modes of the old-school come their not-inconsiderable pleasures, which include his willingness to make large statements about literary periods that are buttressed not just by lithe and subtle readings of individual texts, but with an eye toward, if not an aesthetic unity, then a kind of formal and thematic sympathy that links seemingly disparate writers like Sandra Cisneros, John Barth, Toni Morrison, and Raymond Carver, to name a few. That this peculiarly paradoxical, hidden sympathy actually seems to explain something about how such radically different writers from such radically different background can exist within the same institutional framework, and does so plausibly and unfacetiously, makes it not just a useful book for those of us who think of critical works as “useful,” but also provides a more satisfying and less reductive account of these writers than a criticism focusing solely on the relation between class/race/gender position and the texts themselves ever could (though, of course, such considerations do weigh heavily on the analyses).
Which brings me to the other hand, the one that’s opposed to the old-school conventions of “influence studies.” Because the other major critical model that informs McGurl’s work is systems theory, a decidedly (when compared to “influence studies”) new-school approach, especially when we’re talking about something as classically individual as writing. McGurl’s reading of Thomas Wolfe is particularly great here. He uses Wolfe as an exemplar of the expressionist model of writing (that is, the writer is a sovereign genius whose excellence within institutional constraints is explained by said genius, but whose failures within those institutional constraints are also explained by his genius’s inability to conform to the strictures of instititutions) whose work has fallen decidedly out of critical favor. Wolfe (who was a student in one of the earlier creative writing classes at Harvard) becomes not just an object lesson in the changing tastes of readers and critics, but a kind of barometer, a limit point that helps us gauge the extent to which the increasing proliferation of writing programs has modeled the ways in which individual writer use the strictures of the institution not as shackles through which the creative mind must burst, but something more akin to Oulipean constraints, limitations and imperatives and densely experiential laboratory spaces that spur an ongoing autopoetic process forward, leading workshop students and teachers to reconfigure their experiences through the inherently reflexive pedagogical and writerly lenses that constitute the academic life of the creative writing student (and teacher).
Part of what makes the study so appealing is its ability to rework autopoetics as something that looks like “influence studies,” but that has the theoretical oomph of systems theory behind it. There are some locally charming moments, like McGurl’s occasionally self-conscious colloquializing (a key term in his analysis of what he aptly dubs “lower-middle class modernism” is the term “shit job,” which signifies within the discourse it analyzes, but sounds a little odd coming from the pen of a Harvard and Johns Hopkins degree-wielding, former New York Times and New York Review of Books editing, UCLA professor [which is not to say the guy's never had a shit job himself, but still]) and part of what makes the book work is, McGurl’s “assemblage of influence studies” comment notwithstanding, what at least feels like the tracing of a trajectory that both shows us something about the development of what, I think, is something like the “house style” writers that creative writing programs are accused of churning out and the expansion and relocation of the terms in which we might talk about something like a “house style.” In the introduction, he writes,
The proliferation of universities as settings for novels is, in other words, what we might call a thematic symptom of a larger shift in the institutional arrangements of postwar literary production as such. The question is whether and to what degree all novels aspiring to the honorific status of literature must be considered campus novels of a sort. Beyond the question of a novel’s setting, for instance, how might we see the metafictional reflexivity of so much postwar fiction as being related to its production in and around a programmatically analytical and pedagogical environment? That, certainly, was [Tom] Wolfe’s implication in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Pursuing this line of inquiry, but setting aside Wolfe’s negative evaluation of the phenomenon, we could read the reflexive prose experiments of academic creative writers such as Nabokov and Barth and Shelley Jackson not as radically “deconstructive,” as they sometimes are, but as radically conventional, as testaments to the continuing interest of literary forms as objects of a certain kind of professional research (34).
So an institutional criticism might be (and, as we learn throughout the course of the book, is) far more attentive to the ways in which institutionality and writing practice enact a push-pull not just on literary texts, but on the interpretative frames that allow us to call one text “experimental” (because it is self-reflexive, involuted, etc.) and another one a cookie-cutter product of the workshop aesthetic (realist, minimalist, isolated, a little too clean, etc.). In fact, and here I’m departing from the book’s argument, I think McGurl’s point about the “conventionality” of some kinds of “experimental” provides the grounds for a reevaluation of what it is that we mean when we use the term “realism.” If realism is, thinking back to William Dean Howells’s Criticism and Fiction (1892), “the truthful treatment of material,” especially when that material is the reportage of “the phrase and carriage of every-day life,” then the workshop’s reflexivity, the manner in which the writer is constantly called to reflect on, comment on the composition of, and rework their narratives, provides fertile ground for the mainlining of the tenets of what came to be called “metafiction” or “postmodern” fiction or just good old-fashioned authorial intrusion back into the mainstream of American literary fiction, or, perhaps more accurately, constitutes the grounds on which the “literary” came to be conceived in the decades following the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
For the (admittedly minimal amount of) shit The Program Era has taken from high places, Charles McGrath’s New York Times review contains the standard set of complaints. One of the more frustrating aspects of McGrath’s review is his complaint that the book is, “full of incomprehensible diagrams, theoretical analysis and sentences like ‘Technomodernism identifies with the “emptiness” of pure formality — that is, with the systematicity of the system itself, drawing the machine to itself in a form of ontological prosthesis’.” This is the sort of bad-faith cherry-picking you expect, but its always harrowing to see that, despite the several pellucid pages that McGurl spends justifying his coinage of “technomodernism,” and his extremely clear application of the term, the reviewer doesn’t really care to think any of it through, or maybe even return to the pages where the term originally appears. But really the thing that bothers me about McGrath’s review is its flippant tone, more appropriate to a Nick Denton “er” blog than an ostensibly serious literary organ. Never mind that McGrath, in claiming that McGurl, “pays little or no attention to any of the great mentors associated with the writing program movement” somehow ignores his detailed examination of Ken Kesey’s and Wallace Stegner’s rocky student/teacher relationship.
Suffices to say that I find The Program Era inspiring and not a little intimidating. As I’m thinking through the beginning stages of a prospectus, it’s both exactly the kind of book that I need right now, and exactly the sort of thing that I find (in my more anxiety-ridden moments) debilitating.