In his 2009 book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl describes how American fiction has become inseparable from its institutional context — the university — as particularly embodied in the writing workshop. The book is remarkable in many respects, not least for McGurl’s suggestive readings of a host of major American writers, not just Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, the compact form and ashamed contents of whose work have made them program icons, but also verbally expansive writer-professors like Nabokov and Joyce Carol Oates. In terms of the intellectual history of the writing workshop, The Program Era marks a turning point, after which the MFA program comes to seem somehow different than it had previously seemed. It feels, reading McGurl, as if the MFA beast has at last been offered a look in the mirror, and may finally come to know itself as it is.
This may seem paradoxical, or backward: the writing program, after all, has long existed as an object of self-study for the people who actually attend such things, or teach in them, usually in the form of satire — David Foster Wallace’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, that movie with the Belle & Sebastian soundtrack, and on and on. But (to borrow one of McGurl’s many ideas) the program writer, even if he’s been both student and professor, always wants to assume, and is to some extent granted, outsider status by the university; he’s always lobbing his flaming bags of prose over the ivied gate late at night. Then in the morning he puts on a tie and walks through the gate and goes to his office. In the university, the fiction writer nevertheless managed not to think of himself as of the university.
McGurl interrupts this unself-consciousness by filing a full and official report from across the hallway: from the English Department proper, forcing the aspiring novelist to look across that hallway and notice a bunch of graduate students and professors sitting there, in identical offices, wielding identical red pens. You’re like me now! is one of the cheerful subtexts of The Program Era — a literary critic’s pointing-out that the creative writer is just as institutionally entangled as the critic has long been acknowledged to be. Or, more charitably put (for McGurl is perpetually charitable), that the fiction writer, at last, can cease fretting about how free and wild he is and get to work.