The archetypal anti-workshop argument was made by David Foster Wallace in “The Fictional Future,” a section of a 1988 essay that is reprinted in “MFA vs NYC.” In his telling, creative-writing programs are filled with teachers who would rather be writing than teaching, and who resent their students for the lost time.
Two years spent in an MFA program, in other words, constitute a tiny and often ineffectual part of the American writer’s lifelong engagement with the university. And yet critics continue to bemoan the mechanizing effects of the programs, and to draw links between a writer’s degree-holding status and her degree of aesthetic freedom. Get out of the schools and live! they urge, forgetting on the one hand how much of contemporary life is lived in the shadow of the university, even if beyond its walls; and on the other hand how much free living an adult can do while attending two classes per week.
I’m a genre writer. Gary Shteyngart hasn’t blurbed any of my novels, and Marion Ettlinger has never photographed me for a book jacket. I’m more at ease with the sequins and shirtless men at the Romantic Times conference than I am with the serious eyewear at poetry readings.
When Robert Lowell used his ex-wife’s letters for his poetry, Elizabeth Bishop told him, “Art just isn’t worth that much.” This week, Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison discuss what they make of mining actual relationships for literary material.