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.


Cam said…
Interesting comments, Jim. I picked up Prose's book about a week ago, but it's towards the middle of the TBR pile. After reading your comments and the NYT article (thanks to your link -- my copy made it in to the house this morning, but not yet out of the delivery bag), I'm not so sure that it will surface to the top anytime soon.

Makes me curious though, if MFA programs are relatively new to the literary world, how successful have they been in producing successful writers? Although I'm not sure how I would define successful in this case -- published? best-selling? award-winning? My curiousity, I suppose, is what does an MFA provide that is helpful to an aspiring writer? If not the conducive environment as you write, what does Prose think they should be providing?
jim said…

Looking at my own comments again, I realize I'm being a bit harsh on Prose (basing some of my comments on some of her earlier criticisms of MFA programs).

Flannery O'Connor came out of Iowa. Yusef Komunyakaa came out of Colorado State (if memory serves). Just to name two very different examples of success, but I would also argue both very well may have done just as well without the MFA experience.

I don't think an MFA "produces" a writer, actually, but only may be a very important formative factor in a poet's life. Whether it is good or not, really depends on the individual, what he or she needs in connecting with that larger community.

Knowing Prose, her argument would be the successful writers with MFA's would've been successful regardless. She buys into the argument that MFA are cloisters of conformity, mediocrity, and tepidity. She'd be for their dismantling, encouraging students to get on with "life" and "work" (as if school was separate from those things).

I'm probably every bit of a snob as Prose, and I actually agree with the ways she talks about reading, but we disagree about what actually takes place in most MFA programs. It's not that I think they are all wonderful, or that they have improved the American literary scene in terms of quality, or that they serve any writer (they certainly don't).

For me the very best thing about an MFA really is about joining a community of writers, but you can also have that community in other places. The other thing is that it gives you time to write, a formal schedule where it simply is the most important thing you do and you have to produce. But this discipline can also come from within.
chiefbiscuit said…
This is a lucid account of why writers must read and why MFA programmes are a good thing to do. Thanks - I found it encouraging and inspiring.
Now I'm off to patiently read(somenting I have been training myself back into after spending the last two years or so writing, writing, writing.)
I need to read, read, read.
Thanks for your wise and helpful words.
Nic Sebastian said…
Yes, reading is fuel, isn't it? One's writing begins to draw on a negative balance if one doesn't keep up the reading fuel gauge. It's not that hard to spot, when it happens to people. Nice post.
FatCharlatan said…
I came here by way of Poetry Thursday. Thanks for this interesting read--I'm currently in a low-residency MFA program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. I went back and forth for YEARS before deciding to pursue this path. As to whether MFA programs produce writers, well...consider this: I finished my first novel in March. I STARTED the MFA program in June. Writers don't need MFA programs to write. But all writers (as you said) must be good readers (at Lesley, the folks talk about being "deeper" readers as opposed to "wide" readers...the idea being that many people think they need to devour three books a week, when it's much better to read one book and really think about how the author accomplishes [or not] what he or she sets out to do).

I'm lucky enough to already be an adjunct professor at two Boston area colleges. My main reason for pursuing my MFA was the ol' "it's the terminal degree argument." Of course, I KNOW that it doesn't guarantee me a faculty position. But I do enjoy teaching enough (most days) that I could see a faculty position being a nice complement to my writing life. Thus, the need for the MFA. But I also knew that the program would expose me to a new world of books (with an incentive to read them--hey, we all need that sometimes).

Low-residency programs aren't like the full-time, on-campus programs. I tend to be a solitary soul anyway, so meeting up twice a year for nine-day residencies and then working independently for six months suits me better (and mimics a writer's life, when you think about it).

Have you seen this MFA Blog by writer Tom Kealey?
FatCharlatan said…
Oops. Just noticed in your links that you had the MFA Weblog. Sorry! :)
swissmiss said…
Hi. I found you through Poetry Thursday (by virtue of you having found me first, actually; thanks for reading) and as I just put the Prose book on my long list of books to pick up next time I'm in the States I appreciated this post and your comments about MFA programs. I'm one of those people who has small regrets about not having tried for a spot in one (who's to say I would have gotten in?) and the longer I think about why, the more I think about the contacts and mentoring I feel like I could have had by being in that "artificial environment" - though it could just as easily have been cut-throat competition (I was once in a journalism program that was all about the cut-throat). But perhaps for a certain type of person the best thing that could be gained out of an MFA program or Writers' Workshop with capital Ws would be a sense of identity and apprenticeship. That's the sort of thing I wish for.

And as for writers reading - what do you think about Dorothea Brande's suggestions that yes we should read but we should read those authors who do well the things we do weakly ourselves?