Reviews — From the March 2017 issue

No Fool

Elif Batuman takes on the M.F.A.

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Discussed in this essay:

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman. Penguin Press. 432 pages. $27.

Elif Batuman is not a fan of M.F.A. programs and the kind of writing they tend to produce. She laid out her objections to “program fiction” in a 2010 essay in the London Review of Books:

Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.

The occasion for this polemic was a review of The Program Era, Mark McGurl’s history of M.F.A. programs and their influence on American writing. Program fiction’s most troubling limitation, Batuman wrote, was its deliberate detachment from the canon. An English Ph.D. student studies literature, a project that entails both an engagement with the books of the past and a collaborative effort toward the accumulation of knowledge. A creative-writing M.F.A. student, by contrast, studies fiction. As McGurl writes, this requires “not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but . . . a commitment to innocence.” Innocent first-person narrators fumble through their fictional worlds; innocent writers, oblivious to the innovations of previous eras, continually reinvent the wheel of literary technique. The result, Batuman wrote, is “a pure vessel for inner content.” No canon, no context required.

“Untitled,” a photograph by Chema Madoz © The artist. Courtesy Robert Klein Gallery, Boston

“Untitled,” a photograph by Chema Madoz © The artist. Courtesy Robert Klein Gallery, Boston

She was already on record as an M.F.A. skeptic. In 2006, Batuman wrote an essay for n+1 in which she condemned what the ethos of the workshop — prioritize specific, “crisp” details, “murder your darlings” — had done to contemporary short fiction, the way it valorized prose that had been “pared down to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns.” Even novels now seemed either to mimic the short story’s well-pruned brevity or, at least, to harbor the same fundamental belief that writing was “a form of self-indulgence and vanity.” Hence the elaborately apologetic self-awareness of writers like David Foster Wallace, or the unimpeachably serious subjects of Dave Eggers (cancer) and Michael Chabon (the Holocaust). What lay behind all these changes? For Batuman, the answer was guilt.

Writers, feeling guilty for not doing any real work, that mysterious activity — where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloan Kettering, in Sudan? — turn in shame to the notion of writing as “craft.” (If art is aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent, then craft is useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic — a form of whittling.) Craft solicits from them constipated “vignettes” — as if to say: “Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.” As if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits. As if writers became writers by omitting needless words.

Such an approach, she argued, was a betrayal of literature, and especially of the novel, which consists — or ought to consist — “of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself.”

Batuman was, in effect, offering justification for her own choices, which she describes in The Possessed (2010), a collection of essays subtitled Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. After graduating from college, Batuman wanted to write a novel, a task for which she knew she’d need time and money. She saw two paths forward: literary scholarship and creative writing. She applied to Ph.D. programs and to an artists’ colony on Cape Cod, but her visit to the Cape left her dispirited. “Why,” she wondered, “was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short story writers who didn’t seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?” She got a Ph.D. in comparative literature instead — a “real degree,” as the title of her LRB review put it.

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