Do writing schools work?

Over at The Millions there’s a thoughtful post by staff writer Bill Morris asking the old chesnut, can writing be taught?

Morris comes at the topic through writing schools, including the grandaddy of them all, the University of Iowa’s course in creative writing that began in 1936. He cites the statistic that there are more than 200 Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing programs worldwide with “at least 4,000 aspiring writers apply to these programs each year in the US alone”. But do all these degree work?

Recent visitor to the Melbourne Writers' Festival Elif Batuman weighed into the debate with her cheeky piece called “Get a Real Degree” over at London Review of Books. She believes creative writing programmes create “a successful, self-sufficient economy, making teachers, students and university administrators happy. As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is… as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one.”

Both articles are responses to Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, which itself points out that a college degree has become the preferred career path for fiction writers. Before the University of Iowa began the MFA tradition, McGurl posits that the many fiction writers followed the “example of the high school graduate Hemingway… [with] the key supplementary institution for the novel until mid-century, was journalism”.