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Saturday, January 07, 2012

The real problem with creative writing programs (According to Anis Shivani)

While I am not a fan of laughing at other writers, and hate the whole "let's put writers in a hierarchy" shtick anyway, I found this 2010 article by Anis Shivani in the Huffington post both entertaining and relieving. One of the hardest parts of my whole MFA/PhD experience was feeling like I had to uphold the status quo--that I couldn't push back when people said how great a writer was, and universally ooohed and ahhed at sentences, that, quite frankly, I didn't think even worked.

Everyone's tastes are different, and I do see a couple of my favorite writers among this very tongue and cheek list, but the list itself distracts from the more important points Shivani is making. What happens when we have an establishment that tells us what is good to read, but doesn't exercise any real discernment? And what happens when the aesthetics of that same establishment become so entrenched in a system that, while pretending to be democratic, is really anything but? The academy has become so cautious and aware of including women and minorities (a good thing!), but what about the other, less visible disparities in our midst? What about economic differences? Religious and philosophical differences? Critical stance? And why not a diversity of aesthetic? Wouldn't it be more intellectually responsible to include the works of popular authors who are connecting with audiences and examine what it is that makes them work?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't study the classics, or the late 20th century giants who make up most of creative writing programs' reading lists. What I'm arguing is that it would be more responsible of creative writing programs to also offer classes in other genres, besides literary (which, let's face it, is a genre) fiction, and to host question & answer sessions with writers from a variety of literary walks. And I'm not just talking about responsible from a "preparation for after the degree" point of view. I believe that it could actually be more intellectually stimulating for aspiring writers, even aspiring literary writers, to be confronted with viewpoints and aesthetics radically different from their own.

What do you all think? Could creative writing programs benefit from opening up their own unspoken canons? And do you think Shivani is wrong to ridicule some of America's most prominent writers?

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