Do you think that reading is not being stressed enough in MFA programs, or is it something that’s happening before that?
I think it’s happening before that. In most MFA programs, or certainly the ones I’ve taught at, there’s usually a literature seminar that goes along with the writing workshop. One of the sad things that I think partly accounts for the decline of the audience for reading and books is that people aren’t being encouraged to read for pleasure. As I say somewhere in the book, book clubs have had both a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, they do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people. The whole notion of being swept away by a book pretty much goes out the window.
I’ve noticed that high school students can have a certain resistance to reading if it’s something that’s imposed on them, whereas if they can discover a book on their own, they’re more apt to be passionate about reading and to love the book.
I think it’s partly that teachers are teaching books that they themselves find boring to students who are bored by them. And they’re teaching them in a way that bores the students. It’s just this cycle of boredom that goes on and on and round and round. Whereas reading is the least boring thing you can do. It’s so engaging and it’s so endlessly satisfying, really. The idea of it becoming associated in people’s minds with tedium is kind of tragic.
This raises the question about “how” to read. There have been any number of people who have weighed in on this. Joyce Carol Oates, in her essay “To a Young Writer,” advises aspiring writers to read without design. Elizabeth Bishop, in one of her letters to a young writer, advised reading everything by a certain poet and then moving on – starting with the past and progressing to one’s contemporaries. What’s your advice on the “how”?
I think the most important thing—and it’s what I say in the book over and over—is to focus on what’s directly in front of you on the page; to read especially for the language. Too often students are being taught to read as if literature were some kind of ethics class or civics class—or worse, some kind of self-help manual. In fact, the important thing is the way the writer uses the language. I think there are writers who would be read more—and, conversely, writers who would never be read at all—if people actually looked at how well or how badly they wrote. In most cases, I would rather read something that’s written beautifully and doesn’t grapple with grand themes than something apparently slighter that actually has a kind of marvelous and fresh and invigorating approach to the language.
You begin Reading Like a Writer with the age-old, often very divisive question: Can creative writing be taught? I wonder if you might expound on what you get into in the book and why, in your view, this is a particularly difficult question to answer.
Well, I think certain things can be taught. I think editing can be taught. Once you’ve written something, it’s very hard to assess what you’ve done. But the first time or the second time or the fourth time that someone says to you, “Look, you don’t need these ten words; one word will do perfectly well,” or, “This whole sentence or this whole paragraph can be cut,” that’s a learning experience, and it’s certainly the most important thing that can be taught in a writing class. I also think you can teach writing through literature. You can say, “Look, James Joyce has written the greatest party scene that has ever been written,” or “Tolstoy has written the most marvelous horse racing scene. And if it happens to be that you want to write a party scene or a horse racing scene, you might want to go look and see how geniuses have done it and take a lesson.” But can talent be taught? I don’t think so.
I cringed when I read this passage in your book: “Imagine…Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.” As someone who’s been through an MFA program, I can just hear that happening. It’s frightening! People often make the claim that one of the dangers of the workshop setting is that it produces cookie-cutter stories, and styles that are too similar, or too similar to the tastes of the instructor. Have you seen this happen? How, as a teacher of writing, do you avoid it?
For one thing, I think that the idea of writing by committee, or learning to write by committee is insanity. It’s just simply insanity. I mean, writing is a very solitary process. It’s all about being different from everything else—not the same. So when you’re writing to satisfy the tastes of a group, and presumably you know those tastes after a while, that’s actually quite dangerous. One of the things I do when I’m teaching a literature class to MFA students—and I much prefer teaching a literature class to a writing workshop—is make up a reading list based on masterpieces that would just wither and die in a workshop setting. Things like Beckett’s First Love or Metamorphosis. The list is endless. You can just hear the workshop saying something like, “I think we should know what his mother looked like.” When I’m teaching one of these classes I actually can’t stop myself from saying the things that I imagine would be said about the books in a workshop, and this kind of whining, querulous tone creeps into my voice.
Would you advise a young writer to go to an MFA program or would you say that thoughtful reading is a better way to go?
I’ll tell you quite frankly what I would advise: if you’re getting money or some kind of scholarship, I would go without a question, because it gives you two years to write. That’s two years where you don’t have to wait tables; two years to take your work seriously. And if you’re really gifted, it’s pretty hard to lose that in the course of a workshop. On the other hand—and perhaps I shouldn’t say this because so many of my friends, and I myself at many points, have been so dependent on workshops for making a living—if you’re going to spend two years and come out the other end $80,000 in the hole, I’d think a million times before doing it. But an MFA program does do many things for you. You do form a community. I have friends now who are even older than I am who went to the Iowa writers workshop before I even knew there was such a thing as a workshop and who studied with John Berryman and Donald Justice and other great writers and who made friends who they’re still friends with forty years later. That seems to me invaluable. You make lifelong friendships, and you find people who will be your readers long after you’re out of the workshop—people whose voices and opinions you depend on. But that’s quite different from taking everything that every idiot in your class says seriously.
Why do you prefer teaching literature to the fiction workshop?
Well, in literature workshops the writer isn’t in the room. In many cases, the writer isn’t in the world at all anymore, so Tolstoy isn’t going to get his feelings hurt by what gets said about his work in my class. Beyond that, I only pick things that I think are masterpieces and have been around for hundreds of years for a reason. Theycan be learned from and can fill you with a desire to write and to be part of whatever universe those works exist in. Also, I would like to flatter myself that if for whatever reason, God forbid, a student comes out of an MFA program and doesn’t become a writer, he or she will still know better how to read as a result of having been in my class. So I don’t feel those twinges of conscience that I sometimes feel in a fiction workshop, teaching young writers who may not end up becoming writers.