Batuman’s Take Down of MFA Literary Fiction

I’m still on an Elif Batuman kick. I’ve been tracking down her essays online and I’m looking forward to reading The Possessed, which arrived in the mail yesterday. Batuman wrote a funny, blistering and brilliantly-argued essay in the London Review of Books in 2010 titled “Get a Real Degree” where she reviewed Mark McGurl’s history of MFA creative writing programs.

It isn’t entirely surprising that Batuman, who has a PhD from Stanford and is a Russian literature professor, is no cheerleader for programme fiction. What’s surprising is that Batuman writes with a sense of wit and style that must be the envy of many fiction writers.

University of Washington:  Suzzallo Library Reading Room
Creative Commons License photo credit: JoeInSouthernCA

The following provides a sense of her flare as a reviewer as well as her skepticism about programme fiction:

“In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.”

It is undeniable that contemporary “literary fiction” is now dominated by graduates of MFA programs; Batuman finds these books largely deficient:

“I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skillful storytelling, humor, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction. The juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature – the real work of the novel – is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays.”

Her long essay makes a number of interesting points; in no particular order, they are:

  • Programme fiction has little “historical consciousness”
  • Programme writers are obsessed with writing about persecution & the persecuted (sounds similar to Harold Bloom’s complaint about what he termed the “literature of grievance”)
  • She challenges McGurl’s contention that until the advent of the GI Bill in the U.S., writers had generally forgone a university education
  • The whole project of literature as a “means to social change” (à la Dave Eggers) is something she remains suspicious of

Criticism As Literature Itself

“One doesn’t have any business writing about literature unless one’s business is literature,” writes William Giraldi in his fascinating treatment of critic Adam Kirsch’s new book on Lionel Trilling, Why Trilling MattersGiraldi notes that Kirsch himself is a throwback to critic-as-intellectual and calls him:

“An Ideal critic of the Coleridgean mold, he possesses a swift command of how history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology inform works of imaginative literature.”

Giraldi references a 1963 essay by critic Stanley Edgar Hyman who believed that a critic must maintain an active engagement with the predecessors of today’s writers. In other words, literature is not simply a product of social inequities or power relationships in the culture, but that writers engage with the great works that came before them; an argument that critic Harold Bloom has been making for years in books like The Western Cannon.

There has been talk for years that Trilling was a frustrated writer. As a professor at Columbia University, Trilling had the young poet Allen Ginsberg in class and was apparently envious of his “Byronic energies” (Giraldi, who is no fan of Ginsberg, asserts he “was start to finish a second-rate poet, his celebrated Howl the sophomoric and technically inept rant of a solipsist.” I’m not sure if it has ever been said better). Kirsch puts an end to speculation that Trilling wanted to be a writer; he accepted in his heart that his métier was commentary, not literary creation.

Allen Ginsberg in 1985.
Giradli writes that for Trilling, reading was everything, and “the literary life was not only an occupation but a way of being in the world, a personal and social commitment to understanding who we are and how we fit.” Indeed a heady and elevated view of literature that should be resuscitated for our own fractured time.