Creative Writing in the Academy

by David Radavich

            Creative writing stands once again at a crossroads.  As quickly as college-based writing programs blossomed and flourished in the 1970s and ‘80s - under generous patronage by a variety of sources - they have come increasingly in the ‘90s to be vilified and rendered in some respects obsolete.  Dana Gioia, in a provocative essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?,” which originally appeared in Atlantic Monthly and has since been published in a collection of essays under the same name, details the solipsistic over-intellectualization of recent American poetry situated for the most part in universities.  According to Gioia, contemporary writers largely speak to and for each other in a highly specialized environment removed from a public who have long since turned elsewhere for entertainment and meaning (1-2).  John W. Aldridge’s book, Talents and Technicians: The New Assembly-Line Fiction, raises parallel concerns.  The creative writing “corporate enterprise” (Aldridge) seems to be oversold in the 1990s, too out of touch with the larger issues of contemporary life, estranged from both the academy, which no longer wishes to support it at previous levels, and from society at large.  If academic creative writing programs are to prove meaningful and effective in the new century, now is the time to re-examine and re-negotiate their context and purpose.

          Compared to other academic areas, creative writing is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Probably the first institutionalization of the teaching of literary writing occurred when George Baker founded his famous playwriting workshop at Yale, which exerted such a powerful influence on a young Eugene O’Neill in 1914.  Not until the 1950s, however, did major programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop establish themselves on both the academic and literary landscapes, such that major figures like Flannery O’Connor and Wallace Stegner claimed lineage from the Workshop.  By the ‘70s and ‘80s, creative writing programs had sprouted at virtually every college and university in the country, and few are the writers today who have not taken at least a smattering of academic creative writing courses en route to “turning professional.”  These programs have become such an essential and widely accepted (or tolerated) segment of every English department that it seems difficult to imagine the contemporary university without “creative writing.”

          Yet the relations between writing programs and the academy have not always  been smooth.  Like many established programs, The Iowa Writers’ Workshop retains its own identity and administrative bureaucracy as an “offshoot” of the University of Iowa Department of English (Iowa).  Especially in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, in the wake of the Beat Generation and various Civil Rights Movements, writers often disdained working too closely with traditional scholars and academicians.  Many creative writing instructors in this period lacked terminal degrees and taught outside the tenure system, working essentially as adjuncts and part-timers.  At some institutions, this practice continues, particularly through the hiring of visiting writers on week- or semester-long appointments.  But in recent years, many universities have shifted to tenure-line positions in creative writing (at the University of North Carolina, a creative writing chair is being endowed to honor Doris Betts, current Alumni Distinguished Professor of English).  As a group, writers in the academy have often been seen as colorful, less-than-reliable, sometimes troublesome if necessary colleagues.

          But the truth is, creative writing programs have generated enormous student interest, with healthy enrollments and financial imperatives to match: “Where only several handfuls [of under-graduate creative writing programs] existed a few decades ago, currently there are over three hundred formal writing programs nationwide” (Neubauer 43).  So it’s not surprising that after the initial counter-culture wave of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, accommodations began to be made on both sides.  On the one hand, virtually every English department in the land began offering a multi-level array of creative writing courses, both as electives and as requisites for a newly established minor or major.  Thus the writing of poetry, fiction, and drama became “curricularized,” and degrees began to be offered to those who would go on to teach in this suddenly blossoming area.  On the other hand, creative writers themselves became more academic, earning creative writing credentials, situating themselves at educational institutions, and producing literary works primarily for a university-based subculture, which published (via university-sponsored literary magazines and presses) and promulgated (via classroom texts and college readings) their work.

          This is not news to anyone familiar with contemporary American universities.  However, the tectonic shifts in value and emphasis are often subtle and far-reaching.  What can be called the “First Wave” of creative writers - for instance, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Marge Piercy, and Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) - was heavily tied to political movements seeking equal rights for blacks, women, and gays and lesbians and an end to the Vietnam War.  Such writers frequently and vociferously attacked established hierarchies, of which the university was yet another.  Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer (who never received the canonical Nobel Prize, reportedly for his political views), remarked to an astonished University of Minnesota audience in 1984 that “every year you stay in school, you drive the knife in deeper.”  Ginsberg founded his own neo-Buddhist Neropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Marge Piercy and Gary Snyder continue to maintain their writing self-sufficiency on Martha’s Vineyard and in California, respectively, making periodic forays to conduct workshops and give readings that pay handsomely and support their literary work.

          Sometime in the 1970s, however, a “Second Wave” of creative writers such as Howard Nemerov, William Stafford, and Louise Glück began situating themselves in English departments across the country, not only teaching courses, which by then were in high demand, but also constructing whole degree programs and expanding their collective influence.  This period witnessed a substantial growth in M.F.A. programs, even at small institutions like Emerson College and St. Mary’s College of California.  Modeled on similar programs in performance disciplines like art, music, and theatre, creative writing M.F.A. curricula were developed in order to capitalize on growing student interest and establish a niche for this fledgling academic “industry.”

          Such dramatic growth over a relatively short period came not without consequences.  At my institution, Eastern Illinois University, with a student body of around 10,000, the English Department in the ‘80s offered some 13 sections of creative writing per semester, second only to the number of offerings in freshman composition.  This materialized in response to the popularity of creative writing courses with students and in turn forced the hiring of a cadre of appropriately qualified faculty (in this case, academic Ph.D.s with creative publications) to teach them.  Today, creative writing represents one of the three major “power blocs” in our department, along with literature and composition, competing for courses, positions, and funding support.

          Clearly, creative writing in the ‘80s was to a significant degree driving the “market” in English departments (along with professional and technical writing) and, in terms of the “bottom line,” bringing in student enrollments, majors, and dollars.  Creative writers and their courses began to take on a distinctly corporate, if rarefied air of confidence and mission.  In a piece in the January 1993 issue of College English, Ron McFarland prided himself on preparing his writing students just as a baseball coach readies his team for the “major leagues.”  McFarland demonstrated, in a series of examples, the transformation of his students’ idiosyncratic writing (“sandlot baseball”) into something more mainstream and marketable for publication (“The Field of Dreams”) (29, 33).

          This approach to literary writing represented an abrupt turn-around from the in-your-face ranting of “Howl” or the free-flowing ruminations of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind.”  But the market for creative writing was good, especially during a period when universities were being routinely attacked for their apparent disconnection from everyday concerns.  Summer workshops and visiting writerships sprung up like mushrooms after a warm rain, taught by the new class of credentialized creative writers ready to seize a good opportunity when they see one.   Such workshops, which continue unabated to this day, offer good pay for established authors and require only short-term work at often spectacular locales with exotic landscapes and customs (Prague, Key West, Sitka, Alaska) likely to spur further writing.

          The problem with this burgeoning creative writing “enterprise” surfaced as writing programs developed out of synch with both academic needs and structures and the broader literary marketplace.  M.F.A. writing programs offer some wonderful opportunities for individual writers to develop and hone their skills in expressive writing.  However, unlike the M.F.A. in acting or musical performance, the creative writing equivalent does not prepare graduates for a likely position following graduation.  Institutions with high-profile writing programs do not hire young, inexperienced M.F.A.s but instead prefer established writers with prize-winning or best-selling publications to their credit who can lend prestige and credibility to the program.  Like many recent Ph.D.s, M.F.A. graduates with sometimes glittering credentials have too often found themselves in part-time or dead-end jobs, feeling frustrated and disgruntled.  I never recommend M.F.A. writing programs to students as a career option; only as a means for personal growth and exploration.

          Partly in response to this increasingly untenable situation, some institutions like the University of Denver began offering Ph.D.s in creative writing.  This might seem an ideal, or at least workable, solution for the distressing problem of job placement.  However, a Ph.D. in creative writing still does not open doors to tenure-track hiring in established writing programs, and such a degree cannot compete with a Ph.D. in either composition or literature for positions teaching in those areas.  From the career perspective, advanced degrees in creative writing cannot generate the job prospects even available to graduates of more traditional doctoral programs.

          Thus the “business climate” for creative writing, which thrived in the ‘80s fueled by newly credentialized instructors, generous subsidies by universities and arts agencies, and steadily rising enrollments, has shifted abruptly in the 1990s.   A major backlash has set in, with a growing chorus of writers denouncing “creative writingese” and the “K-martization of contemporary writing,” where the “workshop poem” or story has become faceless, nameless, ubiquitous, and - until now - highly marketable (Radavich 219-20).  Reliable statistics are difficult to locate, but student enrollments in creative writing courses appear to be coming down.  Many universities are cutting back or pulling the plug altogether on their literary magazines and presses (see Monardo on the struggles of University of Arkansas Press), reducing the number of outlets available to young writers.  M.F.A. and Ph.D. programs specializing in creative writing no longer offer the job advancement possibilities they did in the 1980s, as the field has become terrifically overcrowded.  An announcement in last year’s MLA Job List requested a fiction writer who has published two best-selling novels to teach four sections on a one-semester appointment at a remotely located small college.  Certainly not a plum position (and the pay was nothing to write home about.)  

          The literary marketplace as creative writers have known it has collapsed on itself in recent years with a vengeance.  Most independent bookstores have long since closed their doors.  Cities as large and multifarious as St. Louis or Chicago struggle to keep even a single independent in business.  (The charmingly intimate Left Bank Books bills itself as “Saint Louis’ last remaining, full-service, independent bookstore.”)  What remains are three or four giant book chains with a dubious commitment to literary excellence or support of lesser-known writers.  At a Barnes and Noble store in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a few weeks ago, I searched extensively in what appeared to be a substantial poetry section but could only find a single living poet of literary renown - Czeslaw Milosz.  The absence of all other contemporary poets in an otherwise large and voluminous bookstore must cause anyone who cares about the future of literature grave concern.

          So, given recent changes in technology and the literary marketplace, where can creative writing go from here?  Several places.  Instructional programs that aim to teach the writing of drama, poetry, and fiction can continue to flourish if they are integrated with other academic areas rather than tied to diminishing prospects of publishing glory.  Rare indeed is the program that requires creative writers to take courses in history or philosophy, let alone science or math.  I am fortunate to teach at an institution that has never had a creative writing program divorced from the English department.  All tenure-line English faculty at EIU have Ph.D.s, and the active creative writers teach composition and literature courses like everyone else.  A creative writing minor is offered, as well as a creative M.A. thesis option, but otherwise, all students must complete standard composition and literature classes and satisfy university requirements in a variety of academic fields.

          This pedagogical structure, peculiar perhaps to the midwestern provinces, has successfully avoided both the boom of independent writing programs and the subsequent collapse of support and funding.  Moreover, the problems students encounter in creative writing courses turn out to be virtually the same as those involved with all academic writing: insufficient meaningful detail, unclear purpose or central idea, undeveloped parts or incoherent whole, and lots of problems with punctuation.  Any creative writing course worth its enrollment needs to teach reading, critical thinking, and awareness of historical context, as well as the particulars of form and evocative expression.

          Since sometime in the 1980s, leading creative writing programs have emphasized the literary marketplace as a primary objective and arbiter of value.  This lends a “real-world” credibility to an otherwise cloudy endeavor and aids in advertising programs that will likely draw students to a given institution (“At Antioch, you don’t just take a writing class . . . you build a career”).  However, the literary marketplace is changing rapidly; even the vaunted Barnes and Noble empire is experiencing difficulties keeping pace with on-line purveyors like Amazon.com and increasing sales of electronic books (see Arnold).  The conventional promises of the 1980s, that Institution X’s graduates go on to write best-selling novels, win Pulitzer Prizes, and garner tenure-track positions at prestigious universities are sounding more hollow by the day to students who find a decreasing range of outlets for their work.  Academic programs that tie their success to the perceived riches or rewards of the literary marketplace are doomed to suffer if courses are not rooted in pedagogical practices with broader and longer-term objectives in mind.

          Creative writing programs have also erred in their over-emphasis on self-expression.  In a kind of updated version of the 1960s’ “Me Generation,” students often enter writing programs seeking to “find themselves,” to come to terms with their own needs, drives, and identities and to develop a workable means of personal expression.  (One college claims to offer “a personalized program focusing on the individual writer.”)  This is understandable and desirable so far as it goes, but writing instructors must take the next step and encourage students to communicate with a broader, not necessarily university-trained audience.  The legacy of the confessional writers of the ‘60s and ‘70s - Plath, Sexton, Lowell - appears to have run its course (although Gregory Orr has pointed out the continued dominance of the “postconfessional lyric”) (qtd. Conte 27).  In response to recent developments, academic writing programs need to direct students outward toward other subject areas - sociology, politics, comparative religion - and toward a broad range of people in a rapidly changing world.

          English departments as a whole have changed radically over the past three decades (that’s another story for a winter’s night), but we stand again at a crossroads for creative writing programs.  There is no profession for which an M.F.A. or Ph.D. in creative writing provides direct training; to pretend otherwise is to delude ourselves and mislead our students.  If universities are the place to train young writers for the coming decades - an assumption at least some would now question - then the purpose and goals of writing programs need to be updated and justified for a new generation of students, faculty, administrators, and the broader public.  Courses that teach poetry, fiction, and drama writing can offer students valuable insights and experience on today’s college campuses.  But only if creative writing classes are brought into deeper and wider relationship with other courses in the curriculum; only if such programs maintain a pedagogy not geared toward packaging for the marketplace but instead emphasizing reading skills, critical thinking, language awareness, and historical consciousness, qualities and abilities that will prove useful in many walks of life; and only if such programs can be made to foster more understanding of public concerns and social responsibility.  In short, if creative writing is to have meaning in the academy of the future, it needs to partake of those very qualities and purposes best representative of true scholarship: namely, broad, informed, intensive reading, thinking, and writing, and a commitment to social betterment of a troubled world.         

 

David Radavich is Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.  His latest collection is By the Way: Poems over the Years (Buttonwood, 1998).

 

 

Works Cited

Aldridge, John W.  Talents and Technicians: The New Assembly-Line Fiction.  New York: Scribner, 1992.

Arnold, Martin.  “From Gutenberg To Cyberstories.” The New York Times 7 Jan. 1999: B3.

Conte, Joseph.  “Coming to Terms with Trauma.”  American Book Review 20:2 (Jan./Feb. 1999):27.

Gioia, Dana.  Can Poetry Matter?: Contemporary Essays on Poetry and American Culture.  Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1992.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  Telephone Interview.  14 January 1999.

McFarland, Ron.  “An Apologia for Creative Writing.”  College English 56:1 (Jan. 1994): 28-45.

Monardo, Anna.  “Profit or Perish.”  Poets & Writers 26:6 (Nov./Dec. 1998): 45-49.

Neubauer, Alexander.  “The Writing Class Revisited; Or Can Fiction Writing Still be Taught?: A ‘90s View.”  Poets & Writers 24:2 (Mar./Apr. 1996): 42-53.

Radavich, David.  “Comment.”  College English 56:2 (Feb. 1994): 219-220.

 

 

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