Get With the Program: Creative Writing in the Twentieth Century


In 1964, two years after the publication of his debut novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey left California on a cross-country road trip. He took recording equipment, hallucinogenic drugs, and a dozen friends. Kesey drove east in part to escape the loneliness of novel writing, but he was also putting both physical and symbolic space between himself and the creative writing program at Stanford, from which he had graduated in 1962. He took his education with him, though: the Merry Pranksters drove a school bus.

There is a provocative irony in the fact that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—one of the twentieth century’s loudest anti-institutional novels—was written for class credit. That irony, Mark McGurl writes in his book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, lies at the heart of the last half-century of American fiction.

McGurl’s argument that the advent of creative writing “stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history” is an important one, and it is going to be controversial. The first graduate-level creative writing program began in 1936, and there are now more than three-hundred of them scattered throughout the country, with four hundred additional degrees offered to undergraduates. Admissions are competitive; as McGurl writes, students love creative writing “suspiciously much.” The estimated success rate for creative writing graduates—that is, how many actually go on to write for a living—is roughly one percent. (It is ninety percent for medical school graduates.) Each year, thousands of students voluntarily put themselves in debt for what amounts to a slightly modified extension of their college education. It is hard to imagine what the country’s literature would look like without it.


Anyone can write alone for free on weeknights; what creative writing students go broke for is the workshop. We think of writing as a private struggle, but that is now out of date. Creative writing is both social and theatrical. Seated at a large seminar table with a dozen peers, students receive advice, respond, debate the wording of a particular line, all under the parental gaze of the creative writing instructor. McGurl writes that the workshop’s sociability is alternately “supportive and savage.” Like colleges, creative writing programs always present themselves as nurturing communities, but students know that every word and attitude is subject to brutal scrutiny. Their teachers have been happy to dish it out. Flannery O’Connor believed that teaching was a negative exercise: “We can learn how not to write.”

O’Connor graduated from the country’s most prestigious writing program, which was also the first. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop began in 1936, and it was a long time in the making. The clearest point of origin for creative writing as an academic discipline is Wendell Barrett’s course in Advanced English Composition, which he began giving at Harvard in 1884. Students who had previously been asked to compose themes on given topics—“Can the immortality of the soul be proved,” say—were now asked to write daily assignments on whatever they wanted, the only criteria being “that the subject shall be a matter of observation during the day when it is written . . . and that the style shall be fluent and agreeable.” With his Vandyke beard, walking stick, and spats, Barrett was not only a teacher of creative expression but also a charismatic model of creative being. By its second year, his course was attracting one hundred and fifty students.

Barrett described his class as an “educational experiment,” and within thirty years his formulation could be found at the heart of the progressive movement in American education. In 1894, a thirty-five year old philosophy professor named John Dewey arrived at the University of Chicago. The Pullman Strike, which was taking place at the time, brought him into contact with the social scientist Jane Addams. One of the goals of Addams’ social settlement Hull-House, founded in 1889, was to help prepare the poorest members of Chicago’s rapidly expanding immigrant communities for life as Americans. Addams frequently found that the ideas they generated for guest lecturers and other educational programs were more useful than her own. Hull-House became a model for collaboration and pluralism that would resonate throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

By 1894, Hull-House was resonating with Dewey as well. “There is an image of a school growing up in my mind all the time,” he wrote. “A school where some actual & literal constructive activity shall be the centre & source of the whole thing.” Two years later, Dewey founded his own educational experiment, the University Elementary School of the University of Chicago, which would eventually become the still-famous Laboratory School. The children there did not learn anything that they did not also do. They cooked lunch, for example, which provided an occasion for teaching arithmetic by requiring students to weigh and measure ingredients, and they also built little smelters and worked with iron. One of the consequences of Dewey’s experiments was the conceptual marriage of learning and doing, and his ideas on education, in slightly modified versions, are how creative writing programs explain and justify themselves. They are literature laboratories, and stories are experiments in creativity.

It wasn’t until the decades following World War II, when the student populations of American universities began to resemble the ethnically diverse residents of Hull-House, that creative writing really found its place. In 1946, the President’s Commission on Higher Education advocated a radically expanded public role for the university in American life. The GI Bill sent millions to college, presenting universities with what Paul Buck would describe in General Education in a Free Society as an “unimaginably varied” set of tasks: “How can general education be so adapted to different ages and, above all, differing abilities and outlooks, that it can appeal deeply to each?” Creative writing, with its emphasis on ways of knowing instead of bodies of knowledge, was part of the answer, and it was folded into the expanding multi-versity.

Across the American cultural landscape, the value of creativity was appreciating. Throughout the 1950s, a C.I.A.-funded organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom organized exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist art throughout the Western bloc of Europe, where they were intended to dazzle the nearby Soviets. The painter-cowboy Jackson Pollock, a drunken monument to the very idea of the lone hero-artist, led the charge. We think of the 50s as the great era of American conformity, but no other decade did more to make individual artistic expression a specifically American value. By 1961, creativity had secured its place as a public good; Raymond Williams wrote that “No word in English carries a more consistently positive reference than ‘creative.’” He was right (and still might be). In the 1960s, the number of graduate writing programs multiplied by ten.


Paul Engle was a poet, editor, and translator, but he is mostly remembered for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he ran for twenty-four years. He believed that “good poets, like good hybrid corn, are both born and made.” Others have had doubts about “made.” Flannery O’Connor wrote that “the ability to create life with words is essentially a gift.” That’s not very encouraging, and it gets worse. Philip Roth, who taught at Iowa in the 60s, believed that one of the creative writing instructor’s responsibilities is to “discourage those without talent.” In the most radical critiques, the creative writing program actually smothers talent rather than encouraging it. What the Iowa Workshop lacks in creativity, the leftist novelist and one-time lover of Simone de Beauvoir Nelson Algren wrote, it makes up in “quietivity.” Like many people who worry that creative writing programs are useless or even harmful, Algren taught at a creative writing program. (He is also rumored to have lost some $35,000 playing poker in his spare time on the Iowa plains.)

Throughout the last half-century, two American writers have embodied Engle’s equation for good fiction: Ernest Hemingway (made) and William Faulkner (born). The Des Moines Register once published a photograph of Engle typing away with a whip curled within easy reach, and one imagines that when he used the whip it was to make students write more like Hemingway. One creative writing commonplace is “Show, don’t tell,” and Hemingway, whose characters seem to live by the even simpler motto, “Don’t tell—drink,” is the patron saint of well-disciplined fiction. No genre fits creative writing as well as the minimalist short story—in large part because it is possible to cover the whole thing in a two hour seminar—and Hemingway lore has it that he once wrote a complete short story with only six words: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never used.” While Hemingway never enrolled in college, he believed that the best way to improve was to put in the hours, to simply go away and write. He sent himself away to a kind of MFA in miniature in 1921, taking private tutorials in Paris from Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein. (Frank Conroy once called his own MFA experience “sort of a Fascist version” of the Lost Generation’s European heyday.)

Even as the Program era was turning out accomplished minimalists like Raymond Carver, however, it was also preserving the Faulknerian impetus to let loose. With less than one full year of post-secondary education, Faulkner was the ideal model of self-realized individual talent, and his legacy is at the heart of another Program era cliché: “Find your voice.” As identity politics began to take shape in the 60s and 70s, a flood of previously underrepresented ethnic, racial, and social voices began to make themselves heard. Philip Roth was one of them; his Portnoy’s Complaint, an electrified current of neurotic sexual hysteria, ends by wordlessly asserting its protagonist’s voice:



Roth was yelling on behalf of Jewish maleness, but other groups took inspiration from his example. In 1975, Anchor Books published AIIIEEEE!–An Anthology of Asian-American Writers. 

A writer can find too much of his voice. Thomas Wolfe, who studied playwriting at Harvard before beginning to produce enormous autobiographical novels in 1929, described himself in the University of North Carolina yearbook as a “young Shakespeare,” and also a “genius.” The Hemingway-Faulkner dialectic usually finds a more comfortable middle ground, resulting in what McGurl calls “fine writing,” the lively but not overbearing prose of John Updike, among others. It is precisely the tasteful brilliance of Updike’s style that made him a kind of father figure to an entire generation of Program writers. Fine writing is the quintessential Program style, and Updike is the quintessential fine writer. It’s funny that he never attended a program himself.

Another quintessential Program writer who never actually enrolled in one is Joyce Carol Oates, who now teaches creative writing at Princeton. Updike is frequently called “prolific.” He has no idea. Oates has published thirty-six novels, with three more on the way in the next year or so. There are also thirty-three collections of short stories, as well as eight more novels written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith, three written as Lauren Kelly, and eight novellas. Twelve volumes of essays and criticism, eight plays, and ten books of poetry. When she was first discovering her own poetic voice, she once produced twenty-eight poems—“some of them rather long,” according to her biographer—in one day. In 1982, Oates published her fifteenth novel, which James Wolcott reviewed with an article titled “Stop Me Before I Write Again: Six Hundred More Pages by Joyce Carol Oates.” She seems to write like other people blog.

Writing is easy for Oates—some think too easy. “The novels of most so-called serious writers are usually exercises of craft and care,” writes Wolcott, before going on to describe A Bloodsmoor Romance as “word-goop.” The term “genre-fiction,” always a pejorative in a serious literary setting, sometimes hovers around Oates’ name. Isn’t it supposed to be difficult, even for geniuses?

The idea that creativity stops being creative if it happens too regularly: now there’s something to make people uncomfortable with creative writing programs. Oates, who has turned out not just a large body of work but an extraordinarily varied body of work, is like her own private Iowa, and she helps to dismantle the myth that the production of art is anything other than a completely predictable human activity. It’s what keeps critics in business: there will always be something to write about. This is not to say that the name on the spine doesn’t matter—as McGurl writes, Oates’ output is “inimitable”—but just that individual and institution are not mutually exclusive terms. Kesey would have told you otherwise, but think how many teachers have used Cuckoo’s Nest to lure adolescent rebels back into the educational fold. After his merry trip east and a stint in jail, Kesey returned to the family farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. In 1987, he went back to his alma mater to teach creative writing.

Applicants to creative writing programs offer to institutionalize themselves in exchange for the chance to flower out as individuals. All institutions of higher education now make this promise, to a greater or lesser extent: You can be whatever you want. Nothing is closed to you. Growing up, I was told so often that I was unique, that I could choose any career path, that the opportunity began to look more like an assignment. Colleges do not just open the door to self-realization. They make you walk through it. As an undergraduate, I have been told more times than I can count that my college learning experience is not limited to the books I read and the essays I write, but sometimes that has sounded like a pretty attractive college learning experience. Engle once dreamed that he was an inmate, and that Iowa was a concentration camp.

That may be a little melodramatic, but McGurl’s insight is to see what Engle’s anxiety has done to American fiction in the last half-century. Again and again, postwar novelists have written institutional allegories, thinly veiled retellings of their own MFA days. “No sooner did American institutions (in many cases begrudgingly) open their doors to outsiders of various kinds,” McGurl writes, “than these newly minted insiders often wanted to get back out, if only in a spiritual sense.” It’s why we have the campus novel, the usually satiric portrait of university life; writers like to remind themselves of the possibility of outside, that they can transcend the university that hands them a paycheck. And yet the reality of institutionalized creative writing—with its deadlines, workshops, and departmental meetings—does not melt away and disappear in the face of publication, and vague dreams of freedom haunt postwar fiction. “Hardly Big Nurse,” Kesey wrote of his Stanford creative writing seminar. “But hardly City Lights Bookstore up the freeway,” either.

Some are worried by the fact that creative writing happens at a university, but they are missing the point. The issue is what doesn’t happen at a university, and the answer is, “increasingly little.” In 1959, George Stoddard, then the dean of the New York University School of education, observed that “slowly we are becoming a nation of college alumni, as we are already one of high school graduates.” That process continues today. Some of those college alumni will produce the next half-century of great fiction, but it’s impossible to predict which ones. Likewise, an MFA only promises that you’ll write well, not that you’ll make it onto future syllabi. “Not even in America,” wrote John Barth, “can one major in Towering Literary Artistry.”