Claws-bared swipes at MFA writing programs are hardly scarce commodities, but this one by Sam Sacks in the New York Press (thanks to Elegant Mark for the link) has a few original insights about the dispensation of rotten chestnuts that passes for writing instruction in too many such programs. To wit:
If the term Show Don’t Tell were one tool out of many that a perspicuous teacher used to aid a specific student in a particular situation, then it would be all to the good. But recall that except in exceptional cases professors need a common denominator with which to teach a group of students of all degrees of talent and taste. Consequently, Show Don’t Tell becomes one of the rules in a standardized how-to checklist.
Rules of this sort, I think, come to resemble the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which is used to boil down matters of deep complexity for easy consumption by the masses of the laity. A few objections to the rules may have already crossed the reader’s mind: books such as War and Peace, Moby Dick and Ulysses shatter all notion of common law rules of fiction; what is great about the stories of Chekhov, Isaac Babel, and Eudora Welty can’t remotely be explained in the way they embody a structural law. Every story in Best New American Voices 2006 is infallibly faithful to workshop formula, and none are noticeably good. All of these objections should be immediately fatal to the premise of teaching Craft, yet they are all routinely shrugged off as caveats (Moby-Dick as a caveat!), explained away by the one all-obliterating fallback rule that I’ve heard in every workshop I’ve ever attended: You Can Do It If You Can Get Away With It. Tolstoy, Melville and Joyce “Got Away With It,” but you probably can’t, and shouldn’t try.
These are some of the rules for graduate students. The rules for undergraduates are even more invasive. Here the discrepancy between class size and professorial involvement is stretched even further–workshops are taught by graduate students, and the only whiff a young aspiring writer will get of a writing instructor is in a packed lecture hall. The class I taught was assigned a course packet and there, on the first page, were more rules: Never begin a story with a character waking up in bed. Never write a scene where a character looks at himself in a mirror. Never use the word “stuff.”
These rules aren’t exactly arbitrary. Having a character gaze into a mirror is evidently an involuntary reflex for amateurs and writers without talent. But the rule makes no allowances for the possibilities of a mirror scene in the hands of a writer with talent. (See Katherine Manfield’s “Prelude.”) This gets to the crux of the danger of the workshop: Doctrine is imposed with the working assumption that everyone is a mediocrity. If obeyed, it grades down the spiky brilliance of the talented and leads to the limited elevation and refinement of apprentice hacks.
I’ve always had it in for writing workshops, personally. I was in a really great one once, and I’ve always thought the one where Olivia d’Abo and Josh Hamilton meet cute in Kicking and Screaming must have been redeemed to a great degree by d’Abo’s character’s presence. But the three of four others I’ve known were pretty much soul-killing. I think Sacks’s insight that the stuff being taught is tailored for the talentless is dead-on, and rather shattering.
I also think it’s a mistake for MFA programs and their hopeful applicants to put quite so much emphasis on big-name writers. This is a trap that Sacks himself falls into in the course of his piece. No doubt name recognition is an alluring thing for everyone concerned here: editors and publishers, students, other faculty. administrators, even potential donors to the institution. It is–obviously, right?–no guarantee of good teaching. To be only this cynical is to sound naive; of the many reasons brand-name writers are in demand for these faculty positions, teaching writing has to be pretty far down the list, well below the promise of professional connections for graduated students and the luster their names confer on not only the department but the institution writ large. There is no particular reason to believe that great writing and great, or even good, teaching will come bundled together in one lovely package, and so I’m unmoved when Sacks says of faculty members in the University of Houston and Johns Hopkins MFA programs, “These men and women may in fact be exceptionally devoted teachers and fine writers to boot. But as a sample cross-section, they are certainly not names that cry out ‘literary mastery.'” The assumption that “literary mastery” translates into good pedagogy goes surprisingly unexamined in an otherwise sharp piece.