Francine Prose's New Book
In the New York Times, I came across this review of Francine Prose's latest book about reading and writing. While she offers something of a throwback to the 1940s and 50s Adler's Great Books idea, I do agree with her that good writers are good readers, and that it takes some practice, patience, and pleasure to read with a "writer's eye."
Prose, however, launches into the tiresome and very dated attack against MFA programs, basically arguing that they abandon this discipline. Perhaps some individual programs do. And perhaps it makes for satiric material (Prose caught that wave, too, but that's a cliched topic, really, one that is a stale insider's joke that wasn't that funny to begin with). But few writing programs make the argument that they "teach" how to write. Their usual promise is that they offer an opportunity to be in an artificial and isolated writing community for two or three years. For many, that's a tremendous opportunity. But the idea that MFA programs are ruining literature, creating mediocrity, is giving them way too much credit and importance, is creating a bug-a-boo that has little boo and almost no bug.
Essentially Prose contends that great writing can be learned from reading great literature. This premise was supported, interestingly, by my own MFA and subsequent Ph.D. education in the mid-80s, that hey-day of post-structuralist literary theory. I took seminars on D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and W. B. Yeats. From feminist critic Susan Gubar (who later was my Ph.D. director), I took a class on WW II literature, reading (quite favorably) novels by Mailer and Heller. No, we didn't always read these materials from a writer's perspective, though I was encouraged to do so--Gubar, for one, took me on because I was a poet (like her collaborator Sandra Gilbert) and that I was not deeply beholden to theory.
And one of my creative writing workshops was a class on classical imitations, in which we spent the entire semester reading Ovid and writing our own Metamorphoses. I also had to read in Spanish and French. So I'm kind of wondering exactly what kind of program and reality Prose is writing against, and that's when I suspect it's a kind of convenient fiction she has created.
I allow that I truly grew as a writer after attaining my MFA degree, but it did give me a necessary exposure beyond my own little world in the hinterlands of Idaho. But the best experience for me in the MFA program at Indiana University was that I had to read a great deal, often in the slow ways Prose describes. In my own creative writing classes, I generally do not include writing texts (though I do often use John Dufresnes' The Lie That Tells a Truth, because I need all the help I can get in teaching narrative writing), but just books of poetry and short stories--not anthologies, by the way.
Finally, I recommend MFA programs only to students who seem genuinely interested first and foremost in being engaged in some kind of formal writing community. I never tell them that that's where they'll learn to be a writer. Like nearly every good writing teacher I know, the lesson I do impart is that in order to be a good writer that the very best thing one can do is to read, read, read. You can do that both within and without an MFA program, before or after, inside or outside.