Workshop Prose

My in-flight companion during the past long weekend was a galley of a forthcoming biography of Raymond Carver. I’ll scribble more about that when the time comes, I’m sure (it’s out in November), but for now I’ll say that one of the many striking things about Carver’s life was how much traveling he did as he was launching his career—from college to college, program to program, anything that was going to allow him to stabilize his always-wrecked finances and give him a quiet space to write. The shame of his lost years is how much of his time was squandered on drinking instead of working; in Iowa City he and John Cheever timed their mornings to show up at the liquor store just as it opened in the morning.

Still, those programs were critical to him as a writer. Well before Gordon Lish allegedly “made” him, Carver worked hard under the tutelage of Grendel author John Gardner at Chico State University, where he learned the importance of revising, revising, and revising some more. Years later he’d put some of that advice into a letter to his daughter: “When something feels complex or complicated to you, write it out carefully and thoughtfully, several different times if necessary, until it flows smoothly and expresses exactly what you want it to communicate and nothing else.” Sounds like a no-brainer—you read it and wonder why we need writing classes at all, practically everything you need to know is in that one sentence. But for Carver that simple guidance was hard-earned. And of course, it’s advice that’s damn hard to execute.

Carver is of course now synonymous with “workshop prose”—once his reputation was made in the 80s, so many aspiring writers were seduced by the simplicity of his writing that they thought it was simply achieved, and they signed up with MFA programs en masse to achieve it. I suspect that much of this is covered in a recent book I haven’t read, Mark McGurl‘s The Program Era, but as a shorter defense of the workshop, I liked the comments by Telex From Cuba author Rachel Kushner. She’s teaching fiction for the first time, and talked to the National Post about it:

There’s this argument — I mean, you see it percolating up in the Amazon review comments — that, ‘Oh, this reads like workshop prose.’ But the idea of the workshop is not totally new. Flannery O’Connor took a workshop. Nabokov was Thomas Pynchon’s teacher. So at least in the United States there’s a real tradition of this. And most of what I’ve learned as a writer I learned after the workshop. But the workshop allowed me to place myself in a context of peers and try to assess with a colder eye wether or not I should keep going.

If “workshop prose” is showing up in Amazon review comments, it’s probably time to officially designate the term a tired cliche and move on.

4 responses to “Workshop Prose

  1. I suspect that much of this is covered in a recent book I haven’t read, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era

    It is, but McGurl—as he proclaims in the introduction—is less interested in passing judgment on workshops than on trying to examine their effect. He divides up the “program era” into three primary genres: high-class pluralism (Morrison, N. Scott Momaday), Technomodernism (John Barth, Pynchon, others who might be lumped as “hysterical realists”) and finally lower-middle class modernism (where he puts Oates and Carver). The categories bleed into one another, and genre fiction doesn’t get much love from workshops even as it dominates the marketplace.

    Anyway, I suspect McGurl would agree with this comment, at least in spirit: If “workshop prose” is showing up in Amazon review comments, it’s probably time to officially designate the term a tired cliche and move on.
    , in part because these days more and more writers have gone through writing workshops, and yet their writing styles are still vast and different.

    As for The Program Era, get a copy if you can; it’s one of these rare mind-blowing academic works, like Tony Tanner’s City of Words or Northrop Frye’s Fierce Symmetry.

    • Mark Athitakis

      Thanks, Jake. Michael Chabon makes some similar points about MFAs in a piece in his forthcoming collection, “Manhood for Amateurs.” His general argument (I don’t have the book handy) was that he never felt that he had a particular style impressed on him while he was in a writing program—what he mainly got out of it was the discipline required to write well.

  2. “Nabokov was Thomas Pynchon’s teacher”

    Although Pynchon was in a literature class Nabokov taught, not a writing workshop.

  3. Yes, all of this is correct, and there is also the fact that workshops and programs, I think, are really different from one another. I’ve only seen a few of them at close-enough distance to feel like I know anything about them, but they vary immensely, along a couple of these lines: how similar are students’ approaches to writing? how similar are teachers’ approaches to writing? how much feedback do teachers give students? how close-knit are students? what sort of institution hosts the program? what sort of city is the program in? etc.

    As a student at a program at a big public uni. in a sprawling city where I teach basic comp. to 50 students a semester, I’ll come out of my workshop with a different outlook on work and on the university and (maybe) on writing than I might have if I’d been a student, say, at the small private uni. in a compact historical city where I got my BA, where folks in the MFA Program teach one creative writing course to 12 students/semester.

    Of course, neither of these experiences is better than the other: they are simply different. Likewise, I’m not arguing that folks who attend one sort of program or another will necessarily see their approach to writing change in uniform or even in measurable ways. I just think it’s foolish for anyone to say: “This is the workshop. Faculty members gather their disciples and hide them from the world and indoctrinate them” because while MAYBE that has happened somewhere at some point in time, it simply can’t have happened everywhere.

    So: “workshop prose” to me is like saying “American university student.” Yes: there are certainly commonalities of experience, but a person coming from Vassar or whatever will probably have a different experience of education/knowledge and than someone coming from Sacramento State.

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