The University of 821 Sixth Avenue


The September 23 issue of the London Review of Books contains a remarkable critique of American MFA writing programs by the writer and scholar Elif Batuman, who won acclaim earlier this year for her book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Her essay is published under the provocative titles, “Down with Creative Writing” and “Get a Real Degree.”  It is ostensibly a review of a 2009 book The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl, but it goes well beyond.

I can’t do justice to her 8500-word essay here but I want to make a few comments.  Some of her themes overlap with our findings in the Jazz Loft Project, particularly the worlds of jazz and photography.  I’ll try to explain.

First, and simply enough, Batuman argues that MFA writing programs have resulted in fiction that is long on technique and short on content.  “All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books!” she exclaims at one point (the exclamation point is hers).  This is a familiar complaint.  In more than 400 Jazz Loft Project interviews over the past dozen years we’ve heard similar complaints from older musicians in regard to conservatory and MFA trained jazz musicians of today:  So much technique, so little personal expression.

Two weeks ago I saw Roy Haynes in Q&A at the Monterey Jazz Festival and the final question came from a 17 year-old drummer asking for advice.  Haynes sighed and after telling the kid to just play as much music as he could play, he mused about his youthful days on the 1940s jazz scene.  He said, “Back then not many of us – or not many of the others I should say – could play odd time signatures.  Back then even 5/4 time was unnatural for most drummers.  Today every young drummer plays 5/4 naturally and a lot of other time signatures that are more odd than that.  It’s something to see, I tell you.”  His tone of voice indicated both awe and ambivalence for the new technical wizardry.

In the era of 821 Sixth Avenue, very few musicians attended college, much less graduate school.  To a lesser extent the same was true of photographers.  Gene Smith was the first student to receive a photography scholarship to Notre Dame but he dropped out after one year.  Musicians we interviewed such as Phil Woods and Steve Swallow compared 821 Sixth Avenue to a school or workshop.  Swallow said loaning money to Sonny Clark was like paying tuition.  Several photographers said something similar about being around Smith.

In public JLP talks, or in the classroom with students, a question I like to raise is this:  We’ve documented more than 600 people in 821 Sixth Avenue in one capacity or another between 1954 and 1965, very few of whom went to college.  We’ve marked their birthplaces with pins on a map.  The question is, what buildings in our culture today would have this kind of daily traffic – from all walks of life, from all over the map – that is not an enterprise or institution?

The best answer I’ve heard so far came from a woman in a Greenville, N.C. book club who said, “If there was one, we wouldn’t know about it.”  Exactly.  A different answer is that all 600 of the loft participants would matriculate in a college or conservatory or art school if they were coming along today.  Batuman points that the GI Bill was the beginning of the change.  It made higher education mainstream, which changed everything.

The argument that college is a homogenizing force that polishes (at best) and stifles (at worst) passionate personal expressions isn’t unusual.  A startling, more complicated aspect of Batuman’s essay is how she evokes the issue of race.  I’ll try to explain in brief and indicate how similar dynamics may have helped W. Eugene Smith fall out of favor among trained photography professionals of the past thirty years.

Batuman uses the amusing website Stuff White People Like as a foil.  For example, she quotes in her essay these items from the site’s list: Stuff White People Like #20: Being an Expert on Your Culture.  Stuff White People Like #44: Pubic Radio.  Stuff White People Like #116: Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore.

Batuman’s not making fun of white people here, she’s doing the opposite.  She’s pointing out how this website inadvertently documents the difficulty a white writer has today finding acceptable content.  Standard white experience is the stuff of satire.  It doesn’t cut it in MFA programs full of mostly white writers.  Therefore, the only option available is to write about persecution, either their own or “by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures.”  This explains how author Tim O’Brien can build a successful career based on nine months in Vietnam.  Batuman writes, “As a White person he (O’Brien) couldn’t write about most of his life experience…Instead…he had to write about the period of his life when he – like the conscripted Native Americans, like the napalmed Vietnamese – was the victim of the murderous policy of the White man.”

Borrowing from McGurl’s book, Batuman goes on to describe how the MFA writing workshops cope with being inexorably elite, as well as mostly white.  Shame and discipline are the motivating forces.  There is need to prove that writing is “real work.”  She points out that most of the writing workshop mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ and ‘Show don’t tell’ – “betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions.”

Batumon goes on: “Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimizing technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do.  Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimize literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: Writing Workshops).”

If Batuman is right, then it makes sense that this kind of shame and discipline would be factors in other MFA programs, not just writing.  If so, it may be what led Smith to fall out of favor among taste-makers in photography in the last thirty years.  Smith was once in the same sentence as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Not anymore.  Smith was excessive.  He was undisciplined.   He was self-indulgent.  He wore his passion on his sleeve (and his compassion, too).  He exposed 10,000 negatives for essays of a dozen pictures.  It’s who he was.  He was unashamed of it.  But it became unpopular.

As Smith’s ambitions grew he went further out of bounds.  He was unable to finish anything, and he became more self-destructive.  In letters from his 1950s Pittsburgh period Smith compared himself to the writer Thomas Wolfe, who was notorious for submitting bloated manuscripts that required extensive editing.  Wolfe was once in the same sentence with Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.  Not anymore.  In the era of workshops and MFA programs, Smith’s and Wolfe’s kind of lyrical eruptions would be disciplined out.

When Smith quit LIFE and gave up a huge salary and expense account, left his home and his dependents, moved into the loft and began wiring the building and making voluminous tapes, he went somewhere no college or photography program would ever teach.  He turned incomprehensible, the enemy of discipline and technique (even though, we learned much later, he was applying his old feverish dedication to his tape work).  When we began the Jazz Loft Project in 1998 we had to overcome the poor reputation of Smith’s tapes that persisted in certain circles thirty-five, forty years after the fact.  We heard snickers:  “What’s it like hearing all those cats meowing?”

One field of art where self-expressive eruptions are okay is jazz.  I’d put John Coltrane in the sentence with Smith, Wolfe, and James Agee in terms of magnificent, excessive, perhaps self-indulgent explorations by twentieth century male artists.  In a much-told story that may be apocryphal, Coltrane once declared he didn’t know how to end his solos.  Miles Davis, his boss at the time, replied, “Just take the saxophone out of your mouth.”

The example of Coltrane plays perfectly into Batuman’s argument:  Coltrane was black and from Jim Crow North Carolina and his ancestors were slaves, so his extraordinary fifteen-minute solos are considered to be efforts to exorcise demons of personal and historical persecution.  For white outsiders on campus and elsewhere, Batuman’s thinking goes, this kind of expression is okay, an example of “high culture pluralism.”  Today there are hundreds, maybe thousands of conservatory and workshop trained saxophonists under age fifty who can play Coltrane’s recorded solos note for note.  But what do they know about Jim Crow, Batuman might ask.  The great 83 year-old alto saxophonist from Badin, NC, Lou Donaldson, might ask the same thing.  Technique without content is hollow.

In the eight months since The Possessed was published the 33 year-old Batuman, who was born to Turkish parents in New York, has been widely praised and published in many of the top literary publications.  With this new essay you have to admire her courage.  It would be easy for her to play it safe, to ride out her new success and fame, rather than publish this critique of the literary infrastructure that has just been including her. 

Almost as surprising to me as Batuman’s essay is the relative lack of response to it.  The September 23 issue of the LRB came out a week earlier than that, so it’s been three weeks.  I haven’t seen any major responses.  Several high profile literary blogs have linked to her essay and mentioned it briefly – a writer on Paris Review’s blog called it “astounding” and linked it, on The Millions it was called a “gut-punch to MFA programs” and linked, and Bookslut mentioned and linked it – but few have engaged Batuman’s arguments, that I’ve seen so far.  She must have hit a nerve, a complicated, hidden one.  I hope the public conversation over it ratchets up.

Most of my favorite contemporary writers have MFAs.  I don’t.  After Batuman I’m waiting for my phone to ring with new assignments.  It hasn’t.  I carry a natural skepticism for most institutions of higher education.  It’s a big business.  I heard recently that college tuitions, on average, have risen twice faster than health care costs in the last twenty-five years.  I don’t hear anybody complaining about that.  My skepticism was perhaps inevitable coming out of the Jazz Loft Project, with its old school stories, its ambiguities and paradoxes.  Smith’s story alone begs all kinds of unanswerable questions about what’s important and what’s not.  Batuman’s is a vital and healthy discussion, but I don’t see how MFA programs can stop literary greatness from happening.  My guess is that a similar percentage of works today will stand the test of time as a hundred years ago – scant few in each case.

I can’t complain about Smith’s fall from critical grace, either.  These things are cyclical, MFA or no, and it’ll turn back around one day.  Plus, if he’d been more popular somebody might have tackled his Pittsburgh and Jazz Loft materials and I wouldn’t have had a job for the past fourteen years.  In that case I might have tried to get an MFA.  Maybe I’d be a better writer today.

-Sam Stephenson

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