Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Via Maud Newton, a hilarious and persuasive piece by Elif Batuman at the LRB on Mark McGurl's book about creative writing programs and American literature:
Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims. Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ‘disciplined’ by the programme – as McGurl documents with a 1941 promotional photo of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa workshop, seated at a desk with a typewriter and a large whip. (Engle’s only novel, McGurl observes, features a bedridden Iowan patriarch ‘surrounded by his collection of “whips of every kind”, including “racing whips”, “stiff buggy whips”, “cattle whips”, “riding crops” and one “endless bullwhip”’.) The workshop’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ ‘Show, don’t tell’ – also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimising 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 legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: ‘Writers’ Workshops’).


  1. This is so great. . . . I do see how writing is definitely less venerable now..

    Thought you might be interested in my blog. I run a collaborative blog - Literary works about growing up, family, and beginnings in general (expressed in a variety of mediums!) Submissions go to
    Let me know what you think!
    Thanks for your support...

  2. Haaaaaaa! I sent that very (brilliant) paragraph around to a bunch of people after seeing the link at the New Yorker.

    I have no idea what "show don't tell" means and I never ever want to learn.

    The entire review was absolutely superb and on the mark.