The most electrifying reading experience I’ve had this past year came 656 pages into Donna Tartt’s recent novel, The Goldfinch. A twenty-first-century young American’s adventure story, its action moves from wealthy Manhattan to Great Recession–era Las Vegas to decadent high-end European hotels, covering various points in between and beyond. The hero is an orphan who steals a priceless piece of art just as his mother dies in a terrorist attack at a New York museum. Following its 2013 publication, Tartt’s novel earned high acclaim, the Pulitzer Prize, and an extended stay on bestseller lists.
None of this is surprising. After all, at first glance, The Goldfinch is exactly what comes to mind when you think of the Great American Novel: sprawling, smart, of-the-moment in its plot, and above all else, unabashedly swaggering in its presumption that you’ll want to spend eight hundred pages following Theo, its hero, as he makes his way through loud and crazy America. Like Huck Finn, Ishmael, Thomas Sutpen, Jay Gatsby, the Invisible Man, and Augie March, Theo drives on and on. He’s knocked down and gets right back up, again and again. You cheer for him, you worry about him, you grow frustrated with him, you hope for the best for him.
But in spite of this great interest in the novel’s protagonist, something profound is missing from the novel, an element you can find in some form or another in all great American novels from years past, and even in many of the not-so-great second- and third-tier efforts, too, some of it genre fiction. When Montag in Fahrenheit 451 gapes at his wife absorbed in her three-walled TV screen, you share his dismay and also sense a threatening trend in the world. If Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe fails to solve a case, you feel like corruption has won, and so you are invested in him and his work, and mindful of his adversaries and their designs. Even in the emphatically weird pages of Jeff VanderMeer’s new and very popular “Southern Reach” trilogy, an apocalyptic science fiction saga set in Florida, you care about whether the lead characters are going to survive dark cataclysms, either by trying to save each other or by saving themselves from each other. But in the case of The Goldfinch, you never actually care about Theo. Despite the scale of the novel, its protagonist represents something too small or local or idiosyncratic for us to feel that anything is at stake. We don’t imagine ourselves implicated in his predicaments.
Except once: Late in the novel, hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel room, Theo struggles—actually and profoundly struggles—with the moral consequences of a decision he faces. At this point, he has to determine what to do with his stolen piece of artwork. This decision has cascading moral effects on the people around him, particularly his longtime ne’er-do-well friend, Boris, who has come to Theo’s hotel room with a plan that involves a gun. The plan will only work—and get both Theo and Boris out of trouble with some pretty bad people—if Theo plays along in spite of his own worries. What he does has potentially life-and-death effects. “‘Boris.’ I felt ashen and woozy. ‘I can’t do this.’ . . . ‘No, I mean it.’ The gun was lying on the bedspread; the eye was drawn to it; it seemed to crystallize and magnify all the bad energy humming in the air.” That bad energy is, in fact, a morally charged atmosphere. If Theo agrees to the plan, people may die, including Boris and himself. If he disagrees, Boris will probably die, and he’d survive, but at such a cost! For the first time in the story, I was anxious and struggling to imagine what I might do myself, were I in Theo’s position.
This was exhilarating because what happened at this moment in the novel really seemed to count. What is Theo going to do? What ought Theo do? The writing reached the intensity of previous crisis points in the tradition: Huck deciding not to betray Jim; Nick concluding that Gatsby was better than all of them; Densher and Kate facing Milly Theale’s gift to them, notwithstanding their duplicity, in Henry James’s Wings of the Dove. Only after Theo made his decision and the story roared on did I realize just how disappointing reading Tartt was. She has an impressive capacity to produce a great deal of rich literary entertainment. This at best takes the form of one young man’s life atomized into intense experiences across an array of exciting settings. But she delivers no moral gravity, except once, and even then my moral captivation didn’t last.
Thus the disappointment with The Goldfinch: Genuine moral difficulty was a singular event in the book, rather than its animating spirit and firmest ground. In his important new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933–1973, Mark Greif, discussing writers like Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow and related 1950s-era debates about what was expected, then, of fiction, points out that there was much talk at the time about the “death of the novel” as a major literary genre and cultural force. At the same time, though, and thanks to books like Invisible Man and The Adventures of Augie March, “esteem for the novel and the novelist, in the abstract, was at a peak,” because the thoughtful American public looked to novels as the best possible venues for a revitalization of the very concept and concerns of the human person for a new era. Reading them, our moral captivation lasts.
How many people have such great expectations of novels today, whether as readers or writers? At best, all that remains is the chance for a culturally sanctioned sort of glory: Yes, I’m going to write the Great American Novel! You could be easily fooled, too, into thinking that The Goldfinch achieves that goal. If you wanted to write the next Goldfinch, you’d think the best possible way, maybe the only plausible way, to pursue these literary ambitions is to enroll in a formal creative writing program.
But you’d be wrong to do so. The Goldfinch isn’t a Great American Novel. It represents something else, a mode of American fiction that is the product of a burgeoning academic institution and bears the unfortunate traces of it.
If you want to write, then write.” In one of our very few exchanges prior to his death, this was Richard John Neuhaus’s self-assured counsel to me when, as a young graduate student pursuing a doctorate in English, I told him I had notions of someday becoming a writer. As readers of this magazine well know, Neuhaus wanted to write, so he wrote. And because he fulfilled this vocation so straightforwardly, were he alive today, Neuhaus would doubtless be casting skeptical glances at the explosion of creative writing programs at American universities, programs designed to teach writers how to write—and what to write about.
This year, according to a recent New York Times report, some 20,000 young Americans with literary ambitions applied for admission to one of nearly four hundred creative writing programs in the country. Some three or four thousand certified creative writers will graduate, all of them hopeful of securing book deals and, in many cases, securing teaching positions in creative writing programs. In addition, hundreds of undergraduate programs have sprung up in colleges since the 1980s, and together they churn out a few thousand creative writing majors every year. With many students entering college aiming to be writers, the creative writing track is now a well-established pre-professional program parallel to pre-med and undergraduate business schools. Fiction is now a “field” and a “discipline”; novelists are professors and college administrators.
And what’s wrong with that? Many nineteen-year-olds want to become like Hemingway and Toni Morrison (and Donna Tartt), so why not meet the demand? So what if universities have identified a fat new revenue stream just as graduating English majors have found a cool and credentialed means of delaying their entry into humdrum day job lives, and along the way established writers have secured steady employment, benefits, prestige, and institutional means of perpetuating their styles and sensibilities? Isn’t the English department’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) really just an exciting training ground for the professional world of letters, much as the business school’s MBA complements the twenty-first-century financial world?
Such professional, even professorial, training didn’t figure like this in the careers of writers in the past, though. They learned their craft largely on their own or in a related profession such as journalism and publishing. William Carlos Williams was a physician, Wallace Stevens an insurance executive; Saul Bellow majored in anthropology, Ralph Ellison in music. This diversity of backgrounds helps explain the pluralist vitality and greater achievement of modern American literature itself.
Today’s American literature is by and large a by-product of an academic system, with a majority of authors under forty having undergone more or less the same formation. MFA programs have become so popular that associated MFA values and interests have come to dominate national literary culture, which means, in no small part, secular university values and interests have come to dominate national literary culture. Some, like Mark McGurl, with his recent book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, defend this development: He discerns in it a democratization of the otherwise elite culture of literary creation and argues this is of a piece with the rise of mass higher education in the postwar era. But none of that is going to encourage the kind of outsized daring and ambition needed to create serious art.
That’s because too many writers today come up through the academy and stay there. The operations of academia—applications and admissions, classes, grades, hiring and promotion, peer review—are woven into the writing, publication, and reviewing of literature. Success for a would-be writer is acceptance into a program and praise in a workshop; for a working writer, success is publishing a book that helps get you tenure. The norms, concerns, and behaviors of academia have their effect. Once a single type of institution begins to exert control over the formation and training of writers, a narrowing of style and substance is inevitable.
This is not good for the health and future of American literary culture. We know how contemporary secular academia often constrains the mind, turning deeper questions of life and belief into objects of expertise. There is no reason to think that literature can maintain a catholic and diverse approach to the Big Questions if its producers first pass through five or six years of formal instruction in an ideological setting that tends to constrain ambition and concern. If you’re a professor, you have colleagues to impress (they’re going to judge you for promotion). If you’re a student, you don’t want to be embarrassed (they’re going to judge you during workshop). In both cases, evermore you worry about writing something that violates one academic code or another, and that could lead to a “trigger warning” or “micro-aggression.”
In one of the essays collected in MFA vs. NYC, a recent book about the situation and prospects for contemporary American writing, the late novelist and contrarian David Foster Wallace rues the consequences of American literature’s ever-increasing turn toward institutionalization in university-based writing programs. One especially bad effect of the academic institutionalization of creative writing, he observed, is the reigning secular-progressive ethic that comes to rule over emergent literary imaginations. Focused on current concerns and topical matters, secular progressivism treats history and tradition less as rich storehouses for new writers to explore, learn from, and plunder, than as musty prisons from which to escape into the bright bare present: “Way too many students are being ‘certified’ to go out there and try to do meaningful work on the cutting edge of an artistic discipline of whose underpinnings, history, and greatest achievements they are largely ignorant,” Wallace laments. Would-be writers are taught to pass over “Homer and Milton, Cervantes and Shakespeare, Maupassant and Gogol, to say nothing of the Testaments.”
Elsewhere in this same collection, Eric Bennett describes going into the most historic and influential MFA program in the country, the Iowa Writers Workshop, ready to write big messy books about faith, sex, money, ideas. But instead of pursuing “novels and stories of full-throttle experience, erudition, and cognition,” his energies were refocused and tamed into more modest and orthodox matter. Wanting, as most do, to please the teacher and fit in with the rest of the class, he “revised sentences into pea gravel,” and wrote “charmingly chatty prose” of “enchanting weirdness.”
Many dispute the notion that their program graduates write the same kind of (easily parodied) stuff, but nevertheless, enough of it gets published to sustain the impression. Indeed, and never mind Donna Tartt’s manqué Great American Novel, the best new American writing, MFA-certified, tends to be solemn short fiction, polished but shallow, well-crafted but bereft of feeling, and often focused on domestic concerns made respectable by progressive signaling and faux depth, with spare and elliptical sentences devoted to the granular description of muted landscapes and feelings and food preparation . . .
Claire walks into the kitchen. The cat sleeps on the windowsill. Winter sun. She cuts thin slices of the fresh bread she brought home from a new bakery. The baker is an Afghan woman who smiles in spite of her scars. Michael walks into the kitchen. Claire looks at him and cuts her finger. She says nothing. But she wants Michael to know her pain. Taste it. Michael. The past. Fresh scars. Clouds in winter sunlight.
Clipped in style, reflexively mundane in vision, the System discourages authors whose tragedies are too grand and universal—that kind of ambition makes professors and students uncomfortable. Needless to say, sober or passionate religious devotions are just as unwelcome as contrary bold stylists who offend academic taste. How does a typical creative writing professor, irreligious and liberal, react to an un-ironical account of a born-again experience in an Evangelical church? When someone like George Saunders, a rightly acclaimed writer and legendary creative writing teacher, laments the limited and limiting ways that his students discuss religious concerns during his writing seminar, his very means of articulating the problem points to a greater problem. “We might, in talking about Flannery O’Connor, find ourselves wondering if the standard workshop mode of discussion is too rational to really explain the glories of her work,” Saunders observes in his contribution to MFA vs. NYC, before wondering, “Does the normal workshop approach really come to terms with the level of extra-rationality in her work and, if not, how might we change that, or at least stay alert to that possibility?” This could happen, perhaps, by recognizing that the glories of O’Connor’s work come from a source that’s far more than merely “extra-rational.”
In an incorrigibly religious and intensely political nation like the United States, there remains an audience for Big Questions, but if the academic-literary industry cannot satisfy it, who can? Adam Bellow has called for the creation of a self-consciously conservative counter-establishment to cultivate, produce, and promote thoroughgoing and self-consciously conservative literary works and mainstream entertainments, right down to right-wing MFA programs. He writes: “Conservative leaders need to be reminded of the role of fiction writers in helping to win the Cold War. Not for nothing did the CIA distribute copies of Doctor Zhivago—banned in Russia and circulated illegally in the crude typewritten form known as samizdat—at the 1958 Brussels world’s fair. Solzhenitsyn’s works, fiction and nonfiction alike, also circulated in samizdat, and vividly exposed the moral rot at the heart of the Communist system.”
That said, as Bellow knows, Pasternak certainly wasn’t thinking of the CIA’s culture war needs when he wrote Zhivago. There is a problem in identifying the narrowness and smallness of literary culture too closely with ideological biases. And until Bellow and others publish big brawling novels of ideas and events that expose the limits of late secular life and reveal fuller answers about human experience at once timely and timeless, the project looks too much like it’s driven by ideological alignment rather than what I suspect he’s really after, which is to bring out novels suffused with higher-order excellence in religious and artistic and intellectual and political terms.
We could envision this renaissance within consciously religious institutional culture, by creating Christian MFA programs to form and train Christian fiction writers to write Christian novels that Christian literary agents will sell to Christian publishing houses, so they can be reviewed in Christian magazines and bought at Christian bookstores that advertise Christian MFA programs. But I suspect that even if such a network could be created, it wouldn’t be long before readers began to tire of its products for the same reason that we tire of MFA creations. Better for Catholic and other Christian writers to engage the culture at large out of a contradictory vitality born of beliefs and practices nurtured in a religiously minded literary community but never meant to remain there. We need to do more than replicate an already too institutionalized literary culture.
So here’s a different suggestion: Stop worrying about the Writer, religious or otherwise, lamented or lionized. And don’t worry about the future prospects of the Great American Novel or about finding a welcome place for religiously serious fiction in mainstream American publishing, or about the suffocating tendencies of academic culture, which are lamented often enough, in these pages and elsewhere. Instead, those of us who want to see fresh efforts at compelling novels and a greater place for artful treatments of the life of faith in contemporary fiction should be blunt with the religiously serious, intellectually and aesthetically promising students when they inevitably darken our office doors to confess sheepish ambitions to become writers (“. . . you know, like Flannery O’Connor,” the sentence reliably ends). They will likely ask you not if an MFA degree is the right way to become a writer but, rather, which MFA program they should apply to. Advise them to steer clear of institutionally certified creativity. Tell them what Neuhaus told me: If you want to write, then write. If our students have a vocation to be writers, they will realize it through great effort, not in a workshop, but in their developing imaginations and experience. Who knows if any of them will ever write a Great American Novel? But we want them to dare for no less.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of American Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. His biography of Richard John Neuhaus is published by Image Books