Mark McGurl


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

Cover Interview of September 06, 2009

The wide angle

I came to this book when I was finishing my first book, The Novel Art, which was about how early twentieth century American writers negotiated their relation to mass culture and the market.  Comparing their situation to the present day, it was obvious that one option Hemingway and Faulkner and the others didn’t have was teaching creative writing.  That got me wondering how this new thing, the creative writing program, came into being.  Seven years later, I had written a book about what it has meant to “program” American literature.

Throughout this process I have tried to avoid the easy assumption that this programming has been an inherently bad thing.  If nothing else, this would leave us with no explanation for why so many people have wanted to be involved in it!

I decided early on that the range of intellectual reference in the book would have to be quite large.  I wanted neither to write a book of pure theory, nor a straight history, but to combine elements of both.  I became interested in theories and histories of systems and institutions, and in particular the school.  What exactly is a school, and what were the ideas of schooling that made creative writing instruction suddenly seem like a good idea?

Also, because I didn’t want to lose sight of the interesting individuals at the center of all this systematizing, I set out to learn as much as I could about individual writing programs and the writers who were either students or teachers in them.

Finally there was the literature itself.  I read tons of novels, some very well known, others quite obscure, in a furious attempt to qualify myself to make generalizations about what is, after all, a huge field.

Put all this together and you have a book that is quite unusual in careening from big individual personalities like Flannery O’Connor, Ken Kesey, and Raymond Carver to the institutional structures they inhabited, to broad generalizations about the various modes of postwar American fiction.  Although there have been many fine books on postwar American literature, this one is able to show it to us in a new light.