The world of letters: does such a thing still exist? Even within the seemingly homogeneous sphere of the university English department, a schism has opened up between literary scholarship and creative writing: disciplines which differ in their points of reference (Samuel Richardson v. Jhumpa Lahiri), the graduate degrees they award (Doctor of Philosophy v. Master of Fine Arts) and their perceived objects of study ('literature' v. 'fiction'). Mark McGurl's The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, a study of Planet MFA conducted from Planet PhD, might not strike the casual reader as an interdisciplinary bombshell, but the fact is that literary historians don't write about creative writing, and creative writers don't write literary histories, so any secondary discourse about creative writing has been confined, as McGurl observes, to 'the domain of literary journalism' and 'the question of whether the rise of the writing programme has been good or bad for American writers': that is, to the domain of a third and completely different group of professionals, with its own set of interests, largely in whether things are good or bad. McGurl's proposal to take the rise of the programme 'not as an occasion for praise or lamentation but as an established fact in need of historical interpretation' is thus both welcome and overdue.
LRB 23 September 2010 | PDF Download