The Stepford Writers

<i> Altacruise is the pseudonym of a veteran of almost five years of workshops at several prestigious MFA programs. A version of this article, a version of which appeared in Lingua Franca, The Review of Academic Life. </i>

“Y ou almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.” --Flannery O'Connor

Last year, when Tom Wolfe kicked up a storm with his self-serving essay about the malaise in American fiction, he failed to find any smoking gun that would explain the death of the social novel. But there is one: a vast industry devoted to imaginative writing whose participants are holding one another hostage to mediocrity.

For years while I was outside academia, fingers and nose against the glass, I used to wonder what went on inside creative-writing workshops: What magic did they practice that could propel an obscure grad-school apprentice into the glamorous world of big-time book publishing, movie options and even personal notoriety? Today, having witnessed and weathered two famous writing programs, I can tell you, firsthand, that the malaise in American fiction comes factory-direct from those very MFA writing mills.


The first creative-writing program was started by the University of Iowa in the mid-'30s, and it is still considered the best and most prestigious one going. Since then, the number of such programs has mushroomed: According to Associated Writing Programs, there are presently 328 in the United States and Canada, together with about 129 conferences, writing colonies and centers. The number of people in all these programs is problematic, but figure a conservative 20 heads per program and you have some idea of just how much creative scribbling is going on inside the academy.

Many writers of remarkable caliber have attended writing programs; they include Flannery O'Connor, John Barth, Frederick Barthelme, Richard Ford and Louise Erdrich, to name just a heterogeneous few. More to the point is the ever-growing herd of indistinguishable young writers who seem to have been produced by these same word factories. Almost invariably they display the hallmarks of committee effort: emotional restraint and a lack of linguistic idiosyncrasy; no vision, just voice; no fictional world of substance and variety, just a smooth surface of diaristic, autobiographical and confessional speech.

“I’ve seen them come along,” says one competitive National Book Award winner and creative-writing teacher, “and their little books get into print, but they aren’t writers, not really.” In conversations I’ve had with writers from other programs--Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Columbia, Iowa, Cornell, City College of New York, Hollins, and the University of Virginia--there is a constant refrain.

The first thing a creative-writing workshop produces, they all say, is an atmosphere of groupthink, an unspoken consensus on politics and aesthetics that completely controls student work--from the story genre, down deep into the psychic creation of character, and out into the writer’s very ability to imagine and create a world.

The best place to see how MFA fiction works is at a public reading, and in the last five years I’ve attended more than 100 of them. Before the reading there is invariably a pleasant, expectant feeling in the air--an eagerness for the shared aesthetic experience just ahead. Ten minutes into the reading, something changes--concentration flags. There aren’t any characters in the text being mumbled at the podium--it’s all brand names and minute detail, as though someone were reciting from a catalogue. You look around the room. Everyone else is looking around the room. And when everyone stands up an hour later, the sense of relief is palpable.

With a few exceptions, that’s the kind of work being produced in MFA programs, by men and women who tend to be young--25-ish--and still in search of themselves as writers--an unnerving little adventure. One problem may be that these people are not having an adventure. They are dismayingly careerist, and they want more than anything, sometimes even as the only thing, to have their politically correct work published in The New Yorker.

The irony here is that creative-writing programs were intended to replicate the sort of experience the young Hemingway had when he earned his MFA from Gertrude Stein in Paris. Workshops even try to mix faculty and student personalities to generate the sort of socially vibrant atmosphere thought to encourage creativity.

And yet the MFA life can be very lonely. I’m not talking about the solitude most writers need in order to work. Rather, it’s that MFA students tend to be competitive and guarded, angling for the right publishing connections. The cliquishness is so bad that you might think you’re back in high school. And the careerism is so bad that you might think you’re in B-school. It’s like living in 17th-Century New England, wondering if you’re among the Puritan elect. It can get so bad, you can’t even write a postcard any more.

In fact, MFA writing workshops exist to spare would-be writers this harrowing of the self--traditionally a rite of passage for the genuine writer. That may be one reason some people get hooked on being writing students rather than writers. “When you can’t write a story without taking it to workshop, when you start to rely on it that much,” said one prolific writer, “that’s when you should quit.” But it’s hard to quit when the workshops seem to hold the secret to becoming what you’ve always wanted to be. They whisper, “There is a way to write fiction, and it goes like this. . . .”

The result is a late-20th-Century school of fiction, a school in which flat passes for oblique, vacuity for resonance, and in which the trivial is defended by the socialist-realist rationalization that it’s supposed to be that way because that’s the way we really are!

Anxiety at workshops can get so intense that you sometimes wonder if you haven’t wandered by accident into a group-therapy session. The ferocity grinds down all fictional edges and corners, until what reaches print seems timid in execution and exhausted in spirit. Flannery O'Connor, who did a stint at Iowa in the late ‘40s, said that most of the criticism she heard in workshop was “ignorance, flattery, and spite.” Things haven’t changed; only now students attack each other on moral, not aesthetic grounds.

In workshops today, characters are placed on trial, language is placed on trial, motivations are placed on trial, kinds of fiction are placed on trial. Everyone is so sensitive, they’re deeply offended by events in fiction that pale beside those in the local newspaper. And when all the above elements are found to be incorrect, the writer himself is put on trial. “I was deeply offended by the language. It smacks of white male elitist oppression.” “If you want to amuse the Harvard crowd, that’s OK, but I couldn’t finish it.” Everyone has a few good stories about a workshop group trying to beat a renegade into conformity. Like the night a story about Washington, D.C., was being discussed in the professor’s living room. The writer placed a scene at a Metro stop and described a newspaper boy, hawking papers, as “black.” For 45 minutes the group tore into the writer as a racist, a closet Klansman, based on that one word. The professor wound up lecturing the other writers on their responsibility to write about America’s class society as it is rather than present a delusional utopia. Afterward, the group reconvened in the darkness outside and agreed that the big man himself was another racist.

One writer made the mistake of sending a female character into an abortion clinic. She registered, sat down, read a magazine, then went through with it. The attack that scene prompted went on for more than an hour and was so savage and personal that the visiting writer, J. M. Coetzee, whose liberal credentials couldn’t be questioned, had to ask: “What has he done? I have never seen anything like this. As far as I can tell the scene does nothing and should be cut. But what is this all about?”

The feminists tried to explain to him and to the other women that their attack stemmed from the fact that the writer was male and that he had co-opted their subject matter. Coetzee suggested that perhaps a writer’s imagination and sensibility ought not to be regulated by gender, but he got nowhere. The writer didn’t come back for a month.

The doctrinaire fiction of MFA writers is, if not interesting as art, at least intriguing as sociology and psychology. I think it is born of a feeling that what’s out there is just overwhelming, that writing can’t cope with the sprawl of modern reality. And the workshops’ all too comforting response to this collective sense of creative inadequacy is: Write only what you know--as a man/woman/white/ black/middle-class suburban kid--until, finally, you will stand on ground so small that no one can attack you there, where you can say at last that you possess the authority of your own experience.

So the MFA voice tends to speak only for itself. But when the public world vanishes, the larger moral dimension of great writing tends to go with it. “I loved the sense of closure,” they say in the workshops, when what they mean is that it was all tidy and correct. This amounts to a new tradition of insularity. No workshop students ever mention the public voice, the notion that a writer may have a real audience, or the sense that they are working out of a tradition that predates Salinger. No one ever mentions vision, either, apportioning detail and drama from foreground to background to create a fictional world capable of bending the light of existence by the force of its internal laws.

No wonder that, in an age when writers from Buenos Aires to Prague to Tel Aviv are feverishly whipping up wild fictional concoctions, we Americans approach the smorgasbord of literature bearing only the conformist dogma of the workshop: We are Stepford Writers--join us and be happy.