The American creative writing programme. Hardly are those words out when a vast image troubles our sight. Gone is the Shelley Circle and the Bloomsbury Group; gone the Jamesian high tea and Hemingway's low, moveable feast. In The Program Era, Mark McGurl catalogues how the American zeal for experimentation and new community, the widening creative gyre depicted in Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era, has come home to roost and brood. The salon is now the seminar room, where the toothy American writer reads literature as homework and dreams of someday becoming homework, and where e-books may prompt a new Keats to twitter to the skies. Spawned during Cold War America, creative writing programmes mushroomed like missiles, from 13 in 1965 to 720 in 2004.
Indeed, as the director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs judiciously noted, US universities offer the "largest system of literary patronage for living writers that the world has ever seen". Already the dark satanic mills of American productivity cast their shadows abroad. Even as writing programmes sprout in the UK, US campuses pull great writers from their homelands: the early trickle of emigres - Vladimir Nabokov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Jerzy Kosinski - has risen to flood levels: Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky and Adam Zagajewski; Bharati Mukherjee, Salman Rushdie and Peter Carey.
Why do students rack up debts in the "supremely impractical" pursuit of becoming authors? Should the US resort to psychometric tests - the UK's brave new method? McGurl traces the rapid expansion of the university system, and the education theory that proposed that "creativity" in scientific research be matched in the arts; he offers a vivid tour of the broad democratic slopes of America's Parnassus, from Syracuse University's minimalist Raymond Carver, to Kenyon College's conservative New Critics, to the Field of Dreams itself - the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop (Flannery O'Connor, Robert Penn Warren, Wallace Stegner, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, W.P. Kinsella).
These flexible and open programmes do not "teach originality" nor stifle the wild talent, but challenge young writers to forge an identity amid the chorus of famous voices. Yes, a writing teacher really is pictured in The Program Era with a whip coiled next to his typewriter. But the programmes also change with the times - the walls that once echoed the "show, don't tell" aesthetics of New Criticism later housed the great, pluralistic "find your voice" experiments of the 1960s. At Stanford, Stegner read stories by returning Second World War veterans (who attended university under the G.I. Bill), then faced Ken Kesey's prankster antics and drafts of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, while also working with N. Scott Momaday on his Native American novels.
McGurl recognises the problematic "house style" of Raymond Carver, that Mick Jagger of literary copulations, whose spare stories of lower-middle-class angst are tailormade for the apprentice writer, and the 15-week writing course. As McGurl argues for "systematic excellence", we are offered diagrams and some tours through the selva oscura of system sprechen: "forms of small group association" achieve "a level of analogical inter-substitutability". The Program Era does not consider genre fiction; nor the dozens of "low-residency" creative writing programmes now on offer, where students gather for a two-week summer literary conference - Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School was popularly known as "Bed Loaf" - and then return to their homes and jobs, emailing drafts back and forth with teachers during school terms.
With the White House no longer producing contemporary fiction, we can look more broadly at the field. If you find postwar American fiction interesting, you may wish to explore the academic system that begat it: a story well told by The Program Era.
The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing.
By Mark McGurl. Harvard University Press. 480pp, £25.95. ISBN 9780674033191. Published 30 April 2009