One of my writers group peeps forwarded a link to this article: “The Fiction Machine: The Workshop and the hacks.” In it, Sam Sacks purports that writing workshops and creative writing programs, due to fundamental flaws in how they’re structured and effected, are cranking out formulaic and lackluster writers:
“Large, impersonal, ever-shuffling workshops are led by writers of, on average, mediocre ability who throw only 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. Limited in time and care and needing to satisfy at once a wide range of very different would-be writers, professors must rely on the crutches of formula.”
Sacks is particularly dismissive of the Best New American Voices 2006 anthology as illustrative of this phenomenon, which I haven’t read. So I can’t comment as to whether I agree with his taste in short fiction or his evaluation of what constitutes literary merit. But he does make a compelling argument that a proliferation of these writing programs is, in effect, perpetuating a recipe for formulaic writing as well as a proclivity for formulaic and conservative perceptions on what constitutes “good” writing.
Obviously, when talking about any group of things, there’s generalization happening; it’s incontrovertible that some writing programs are better than others. And I’m inclined to believe that the basic craft of writing is something that can be taught and learned. But when the fundamental mechanics–grammar, punctuation, spelling–are disparaged as suitable subject matter and aren’t included in the curriculum, I kinda have to raise an eyebrow.
As a caveat, I haven’t attended a creative writing program or workshop so have no firsthand experience with them. And also, this article seems primarily focused on non-genre writing and doesn’t seem to take into account such workshops as Clarion and Odyssey, which are taught by luminaries in the field.
But I’ve often lamented that I never had more formal training in creative writing, wondering if perhaps the experience might have sparked something deeper, finer, or more insightful in my writing. Or even if it might have gotten me past some of the early foibles and flaws in my writing faster and with greater ease than my own blundering trial-and-error. I’ve even speculated in the past about going back and getting an MFA. But maybe it’s just as well. I also didn’t have to overcome academic indoctrination against risk taking and experimentation.