An ever-so-slightly authoritative critique of the whole system of creative writing courses and grants for writers has been handed down by Horace Engdahl, a Member of the Swedish Academy tasked with awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature. And he is, to put it mildly, not happy with the state of literature in general, and the warping effect that lavish financial support is having on it.
In an interview with French publication La Croix, Engdahl condemns “a form of sclerosis in literary creation,” which he attributes directly to “the perverse effects of the professionalization of the writer’s vocation, linked to a system of grants and financial support.” This, he declares, too often cuts the author’s link to civil society, and instead fosters an unhealthy linkage with certain institutions. And while he remarks that the authors currently receiving Nobel Prizes are in their sixties, and matured before the advent of this system, Engdahl adds that he is concerned for the future of literature conditioned by this omnipresence of the market.
There is no shortage of ferocious, vitriolic attacks on the dominance of the MFA creative writing program and its ilk elsewhere. Not least biting is Steve Almond’s brilliant dissection of the whole problem of entitlement and the customer culture in U.S. MFA courses, “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect.” Almond skewers a whole generation of creative writing students who “display a curious arrogance toward published authors, as well as an inflated sense of their own talents and importance.” He blames: “first, the growing competitive pressures on aspiring writers; second, the pace and ease of judgment fostered by digital technology; and finally, the insidious cultural tendency of students to think of themselves as customers.” With all their money and time invested into creative writing programs, these students take a customer-is-always-right attitude to developing their craft, and feel cheated of their rightful entitlement if they’re not given what they paid for: literary success.
However, some at least of these complaints could be dismissed as sour grapes by disgruntled American writers with a personal grudge against the system. Engdahl brings a whole different and broader perspective – although it’s worth pointing out in passing that creative writing institutions in Germany and Sweden as well show symptoms of the same hothouse malaise. Engdahl instances Samuel Beckett, and the past generations of writers and future Nobel Laureates who worked as taxi drivers and in other lowly occupations while cultivating their vocation in private. Asian and African writers, he concedes, may actually benefit from less opulent support; while Western authors who stay within the same university and grant-supported establishment and approved genres are unlikely to transgress their narrow bounds or achieve anything significant.
In contrast, Engdahl cites the Chinese author Mo Yan, Nobel Laureate in 2012, and Canada’s Alice Munro for being able to reach beyond their cultural and local circumstances and achieve universality. “If [these] books are readable the world over, it’s because structures exist that are applicable to all cultures, which exist even before writing itself.” A few lucky, impervious talents will be able to protect and nurture that universality in taxi cabs or in MFA creative writing courses. But MFA programs won’t deliver great writers any more than taxi cabs will.