In the late 1970s when I was teaching at York University in Toronto the dean of Arts asked me to attempt to create an undergraduate creative writing ‘program’ from the nine writing courses offered by four departments, two in Arts and two in Fine Arts. Logically enough, he proposed that the program would be administered by a “Coordinator” who would oversee the necessary cooperation among the departments and faculties. By fall 1978 I had cobbled together an introductory course and two poetry workshops offered by the English department, two fiction courses offered by the Humanities Division, two playwriting courses offered by the Theatre Department, and two filmscript courses offered by the Film Department, together with a list of twentieth-century literature courses from which a student majoring in Creative Writing would have to take at least one, and had persuaded both faculties to accept the other faculty’s courses as in-faculty credits, and both to offer the new CW degree. Later the Humanities Division volunteered to contribute a new course in literary non-fiction.
My thoughts at this time about the university teaching of Creative Writing were that students who were going to be independently writing poems, plays and stories while at university ought to be able to get course credit for their work, be shown ways of writing they might not have become aware of, and also receive some feed-back, much like publishing writers get feed-back from editors and book-reviewers. The new Program I also saw as one for students who were going be active writers regardless of whether their university was offering CW courses or a Program. So for me, unlike for the US programs examined here by McGurl, the issue of whether or not creative writing could be “taught” never seemed relevant. The students were already writers and needed only to be shown how large the possibilities for writing were. In the years that I was Coordinator, the assortment of celebrated instructors – Irving Layton, Eli Mandel, bpNichol, Miriam Waddington, Clark Blaise, Dave Godfrey, Don Coles, Mavor Moore – rarely consulted one another and probably wouldn’t have agreed on many aesthetic or ideological questions if they had. We had one meeting a year in which we mainly addressed administrative matters.
In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl’s understanding of “program” is a lot narrower. Here a writing program is assumed to be pedagogically coherent, to have aesthetic principles and goals. It is most often the creation of a single powerful administrator, such as Iowa’s Wilbur Schramm and Paul Engle or Stanford’s Wallace Stegner. It exists separate from the university’s literary and language departments, often as part of a Fine Arts department, and often in an antagonistic relationship to them. Although most of the programs are postgraduate, the student is not already a writer but instead someone who goes day after day to the writing workshop anxiously wondering “Am I a writer yet?” (398).
Lengthy parts of the book offer readings of stories and novels by selected program graduates – Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver, Ken Kesey, Bharati Mukherjee, Joyce Carol Oates, Sandra Cisneros. These readings do indirectly suggest the effects that the teaching of creative writing can have, but leave unaddressed what readings of work by different graduates might have implied. McGurl offers little explanation for having selected one graduate rather than another and acknowledges that he is leaving numerous interesting writers undiscussed. “[T]he task of tracing the ‘lessons’ of creative writing from the classroom into the literary texts of the Program Era will be a somewhat indeterminate enterprise” he correctly predicts in his introduction (36). The Program Era is thus much less systematic than he implies the creative writing program methodology to have been. Overall, the book seems more successful as an irreverent study of US postwar culture than it is as one of either creative writing programs or postwar fiction.
The first two-thirds of The Program Era is organized around three creative writing clichés – “write what you know,” “show don’t tell” (to which McGurl assigns the period 1890-1960) and “find your voice (1960-1975). McGurl’s use of these cliches, despite knowing the extent to which most contemporary creative writing teachers try to avoid them, is a sign of his somewhat agonized bemusement toward his subject. The clichés, he finds, persist in new guises, as in the 1980s when programs encourages the children of ethic families to “find” an ethnic voice. “[T]he appeal of speaking for oneself or of having one’s voice heard, is obvious when it is considered as an act primarily of political self-representation” (260). McGurl can admire program-era results while mocking the methods that led to them. “[T]he extent to that creative writing represents a further incursion of consumerism into the academy, a ballooning enterprise of mass vanity and anti-intellectualism, it needs to be described as such” (74). “[A] discipline concocted as a progressive antidote to conformism [can be] instead charged with being an agent of that conformism on the aesthetic plane” (71). “[T]he postwar creative writing program was founded on the assumption that artists are forged in the imposition of ... institutional restraints upon unfettered creativity” (131). Of Alice Walker’s Jubilee he writes “[I]t performs the transformation of the peculiar institution of slavery into the enabling institution of creative writing” (165). And of the Iowa Workshop he writes,
Squatting on the prairie, the Iowa Workshop remained connected to a larger world of normalized death and
destruction, enlisting the literary imagination in the larger cause of the Free World. To this degree it was function-
ing literally as an Ideological State Apparatus in Althusser’s sense. (175)
The latter third of The Program Era (1975-2008) addresses both the increase in lower middle class students in the universities and the awkward situation of a historically parochial United States within encroaching "transplanetary" cultures – diasporic, cosmopolitan, migratory, ethnic, racial, and other-national – and the emergence of what McGurl calls “high cultural pluralism” as an ideology within which “categories that ... split the national culture into smaller units” have become “an easier sell for high cultural prestige leading to inclusion in the syllabus of post-war literature” (59). “[T]he literary cultural nationalisms of the sixties sought to liberate U.S. minority writers from the assimilative coercions of the American mainstream by symbolically affiliating them with decolonized peoples engaged in more literal acts of nation building. Of course, to describe these subnational-to-internationl links as ‘symbolic’ is to admit that in many if not most cases they have been ... fictional” (330-31). The is one of several observations in the book that could also apply to Canada – although perhaps not the cultural psychologizing that McGurl appends. In this period of class, ethnicity and racial self-consciousness, McGurl writes, “American literature is driven by a dialectic of shame and pride, self-hatred and self-esteem – a dialectic that is also, and not at all coincidentally, at the heart of American educational theory and practice” (284). It is a dialectic that in US fiction has led to minimalism, he argues, “an aesthetic of risk management, a way of being beautifully careful” (294), as well as to “maximalism” – a way of shielding oneself with words” (301).
As an “embarassingly” programmatic product of the program, and unable, for all of its skills at understatement,
to hide that fact from anyone very well, minimalism has the ironic advantage of revealing the systematicity of
creativity in the Program Era in its starkest form. In doing so, it lays bare the recruitment of that creativity to the
inhuman ends of the economic order we serve. (320)
Throughout McGurl wonders intermittently how uniquely “American” the creative writing program may be (and how insular his book) – toward the end exclaiming that the program is “as American as baseball, apple pie, and homicide” (364) and writing that its invention “in the United States is not narcissism alone” but an “embrace of both sides of the faintly paradoxical task of instituting individuality” (366) ( a task which could also strike an observer as rather “American”). As well as offering cultural explanations that he takes back to de Tocqueville, he points to material ones such as the decentralization of U.S. higher education (contrast the provincial regulation and funding of colleges and universities in Canada) and the tendency to fund students rather than institutions, which “ensures that most schools will have to compete for customers” (363).
In Canada there were single creative writing courses at some universities in the 1940s and 1950s. There were four in the English department calendar at UBC when I arrived in 1957, most likely because of the efforts of Earle Birney. Those moved from English to become part of a department – a US-style undergraduate program – within the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1964, effectively divorcing writing and literary studies; the program now offers an MFA. A similar Fine Arts department was established in the late 1970s at the University of Victoria. The less centralized interfaculty program which I designed at York University is still offered. Concordia University has been offering creative writing courses as part of its English degrees since the 1960s. The University of Calgary offers a somewhat more defined program within its Department of English, including MA and PhD. degrees with “concentration in Creative Writing” and a “creative thesis option.” The University of Guelph offers an MFA program in creative writing at its Guelph-Humber campus in Toronto. The University of British Columbia Okanagan offers an undergraduate creative writing degree within its Department of Creative and Critical Studies. Only the UBC (Vancouver) and UVic programs, and possibly that of Guelph, appear to have followed the US model.