It's curious. As every writer in America who's ever had to do other things to earn a living knows (that would be almost every writer in America), this lava flow of writing instruction has erupted inversely to the number of book, magazine, newspaper, and online publishers who will actually pay writers a decent wage for their words (Amanda Knox's millions notwithstanding). Why are there so many student writers at a time when the death of literature has become accepted wisdom? I'd argue it's a paradox that, like many others, can be explained by the Internet.
There have long been three kinds of writers: writers who write for readers (novelists, poets, memoirists, essayists, journalists, etc.); writers who write for other writers (students); and writers who write for themselves (diarists, shipwreck survivors). The digital age has screwed with the dynamics of that trilogy by turning writing from a solitary, exclusive, private act into a collaborative, inclusive, public one. Anyone with a WordPress account can write for readers, and the mushrooming of the number and type of writing programs has been a field crop for that revolution. If you're going to be a writer, you might as well know something about how to do it, right?
This all crystallized for me when I saw the reaction to an essay I wrote for TheAtlantic.com last month. In it, I used the case of a student writer placing an unexceptionally written but promising piece in The New Yorker online to exemplify the movement of publishers and readers privileging "story" over the craft of writing. That cultural shift has felt like a door blown open to people bursting with tales to tell, and a freshly dug grave for writers who tear at their flesh trying to sculpt perfect sentences (to invoke Truman Capote) while the digital world zips by.
Part of the essay focused on my dissenting view of the University of Michigan's MFA "Zellowships," annual $26k stipends that fund students for a year after graduation, endowed by a historic $50 million dollar gift from Helen Zell. I thought the students would be better served getting out of the academy and into the world, and that the money would be better spent supporting publications that paid writers for work that would be read by real readers. In response, Michael Byers, the director of the Michigan program, blasted me online and, impressively, recruited an army of Wolverines to bare their claws. Byers called me "witless" and my writing "horse puckey." One of his students, in an online magazine essay, referred to me and my ideas as "stupid." Other readers, however, replied more thoughtfully—agreeing, disagreeing, even apologizing for the Michigan robohate, and sharing their personal stories about why they study writing and what led them to it. Many of the writers were people years beyond the age of traditional writing students, with mortgages and dependents. Why were they moonlighting from or quitting their day jobs to pay someone else to teach them to write?