Thursday, June 14, 2007


The question is so old one can even be called stupid to have asked it in the first place. And arguments range from approval to disapproval on both sides of the aisle.

A favourite quote here, for example, by James M. Cain, former editor of New Yorker and writer of classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity (let's not get into the genre vs literary fiction debate): This bunkum and stinkum of college creative-writing courses! The creative writing teachers should know that the only thing that you can do to help someone write is to buy him a typewriter.

Well, make it a laptop for this day and age.

But why am I asking this question today?

Because it looks like the MFA brigade (I mean candidates from creative writing classes) is doing very well in the literary market (in this age of globalization, everything has become a market). But again, you can say as a counter argument that we hear only about success stories. What about the rest of the class?

Never mind that. That happens all the time.

Any way, it all started when I read this brilliant story (Sweetheart Sorrow) in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue by David Hoon Kim. Turns out the guy is from Iowa Writers’ Program. Not a crime. It’s impressive that the first story he ever published has come out in the New Yorker magazine.

And David is in great company. Look at some of the recent literary successes: Chimamda Ngozi (Orange Prize winner), Kiran Desai (Booker Prize winner), Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize winner), Mohsin Hamid (Betty Trask Award), Akhil Sharma (Wallace Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford, author of An Obedient Father), Tash Aw (Booker nominee), Rattawat Lapcharoensap (Asian American Literary Award and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award), just to name a few familiar names. They have all come from some creative writing courses, either in US or UK.

Not just them. Such writers as Philip Roth, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore, Jane Smiley, Michael Chabon, Rick Russo, Mona Simpson and, more recently, Alice Sebold and Aimee Bender all did time in writing programs and credit their teachers for much of their success.

Related to creative writing courses is also this amazing essay by Peter Carey here (thanks Prof Amitava Kumar) where he questions the whole publishing set up of today:

And here is what seems most insane—young and not-so-young writers take out student loans to get M.F.A.’s in creative writing. This does not add up. I once taught in the M.F.A. program at Columbia, and so I know the extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer. But the Marshian in me says it’s impossible to start a life committed to literary fiction when you are $60,000 in debt. The very size of the loan assumes there is a market, a business to go into, a living to make. But the hard truth is that only a sucker writes literature with the intention of making money. This was so obvious in Australia in 1961, you never needed to say it. Today, when people seem to be breaking through all around you, it might be good to bear in mind that the only reward you can rely on is in the work itself. And, of course, they do know that. A while ago, I went down to Strand with my then 13-year-old son and we were, of course, selling books and we watched the buyer separating the sheep from the goats, without understanding which was which. When the judgment was made, he pushed back at us a pile of really good novels. These, it turned out, were the goats. I said, “But surely you can sell Rohinton Mistry.” And he said, “We don’t need fiction.” And I thought, Where am I?

Does it make a difference? What do you think?


Obiter Dictum said...

Guess the MFA gives you the other skills required in this field. The confidence boost. A finishing school for those that are destined, any way, to get published.

Zafar Anjum said...

And the success stories keep the courses in demand...