Mark McGurl

 

On his book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing

Cover Interview of September 07, 2009

In a nutshell

As recently as the 1930s there were no creative writing programs, and now there are hundreds.  My book The Program Era is a literary history of postwar America that puts this remarkable fact at its center, asking what it means that most serious writers in the U.S. now teach creative writing, and are themselves graduates of writing programs.

This would be an important story if only for the magnitude of the transformation of literary institutions it suggests.  But what gives it an extra edge is our widespread discomfort with the very idea of institutionalizing art.  Shouldn’t writers be out having adventures at sea, or living in a garret in Paris?  Won’t the teaching of creative writing in a workshop setting make everyone sound alike?

No one has worried more about these questions than creative writers, who have had to balance their sense of themselves as artist-outsiders with their desire for a more steady paycheck than writing alone can now provide.  No wonder, then, that the stressful relation between creativity and the institution came to define so many postwar literary careers, and bubbles beneath so many postwar literary works.

My goal in telling this history is neither simply to condemn nor to celebrate the rise of creative writing, but to use it as a way to dig deeper into our understanding of art and institutions alike.