Writer’s Corner: The Unbearable Whiteness of Creative Writing Programs

There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about the worth of creative writing programs. They’ve been long derided as factories for bloodless mediocrity, churning out legions of well-schooled kids told to write what they know, when often they just don’t know that much of anything yet.

In Chad Harback’s 2010 essay, “MFA vs. NYC“, he points out that much of the hand-wringing about the churning out of “cringing, cautious, post-Carverite automatons” is besides the point:

…even if the writer has somehow never heard of an MFA program or set foot on a college campus, it doesn’t matter, because if she’s read any American fiction of the past 60 years, or met someone who did, she’s imbibed the general idea and aesthetic. We are all MFAs now.

But though Harbach’s ultimate point (which he expanded into a book earlier this year) is a sound one: writing programs are here to stay, and the real question is whether or not one should take use of them or just up and move to New York to get a toehold in the publishing industry.

diaz1One point about creative writing programs that hasn’t been much explored, though, was just raised by Junot Diaz in a piece he wrote for the New Yorker: “MFA vs. POC” (“POC” for “people of color”). As usual, Diaz doesn’t mince words when talking about his experience, and that of his other “Calibans,” as a POC in almost entirely-white writing programs:

In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male … Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.

Even more depressing:

I remember one young MFA’r describing how a fellow writer (white) went through his story and erased all the ‘big’ words because, said the peer, that’s not the way ‘Spanish’ people talk. This white peer, of course, had never lived in Latin America or Spain or in any US Latino community—he just knew. The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer either. Just let the idiocy ride.

It’s worth thinking about Diaz’s critique the next time you see the piles of new fiction filling the stores. Consider those slim volumes of short stories from the well-connected, fully MFA’d writers published in all the right magazines. A rainbow of diversity, it’s not. As Diaz says to the “students of color” who asks his advice about whether or not to stay in these programs:

…please hang in there. We need your work. Desperately.

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