Sam Sacks of the New York Press takes a stab at that educational institution we all love to hate: the graduate-level writing workshop. The importance of workshops in contemporary American literature can be seen both in their ubiquity (with almost every American state possessing at least one school that can grant an MFA in writing) and in the increasing “common-sense” notion, held by swelling factions that include publishers, that writing schools are to a life of writing what universities are to careers: a necessary first step.
But assessing the yields of the “best” of America’s writing programs, as collected in an anthology, Best New American Voices 2006, Sacks finds the stories dull and formulaic and suggests that the creative writing education system is at fault. According to Sacks, the notion of creative tutelage has strayed far from the mentor-protégé relationships enjoyed by Stein and Hemingway, Tolstoy and Chekhov, and Flaubert and de Maupassant, to “large, impersonal, ever-shuffling workshops … led by authors of, on average, mediocre ability who throw only a part of their energy into helping their students. The result of all this is as predictable as it was inevitable: writing is taught by rote.” Another related result is a rule-oriented, lowest-common-denominator approach to teaching, whereby all students, even ones with potential, are treated as mediocre for the simple fact that most students are mediocre. The result, argues Sacks, is that programs cater to mediocrity and discourage daring as both irregular and impractical.
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