The September/October Poets and Writers, the sixth annual MFA issue, lay open on my desk to page 115, and I’ve put off reading the article for weeks now because of the anticipation of being irritated. Since I want to stay relatively current and finally write something new for this blog, I decided to sit down with it this afternoon. Buried on page 115 is an article from the self-proclaimed “Godfather” of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind. I knew this article was going to grate the first five layers of skin off my bones as soon as I read the by-line. Lee Gutkind has been bullshitting his way around the country with his self-congratulatory, vulturine claims for the last twenty years. He’s raised the flag of nonfiction writing high above his head and brought it down into a vast plot of land enriched with the blood and bone of Herodotus, Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Samuel Johnson, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Agnes Repplier, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Anais Nin, John Hersey, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Studs Terkel, and David Foster Wallace…the same territory waiting for Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Philip Lopate.
It’s not waiting for Lee Gutkind.
The article, “The MFA in Creative Nonfiction: What to Consider Before Applying,” is the obligatory nonfiction section of P&W‘s annual MFA Issue, and it’s saturated with ridiculous advice from the docent no one asked for.
The first thing Lee Gutkind ever does in an article or lecture seems to be an attempt to convince his audience of his credibility,
“I helped start the first MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh, and the idea has caught on at colleges and universities everywhere since then.”
While the first part is a simple, unimpressive fact, Gutkind suggests that he’s responsible for the “(catching) on,” the boon (such as it is) of nonfiction writing programs around the country. The idea of a “Program” is a money-making venture for colleges, so the more sub-categories of these “programs” the better. I never heard anyone ever acknowledge Lee Gutkind for being their “Godfather,” for serving as the inspiration for any of their programs.
Nonfiction narrative has existed as long as the written word has, but I’ve spoken about this before. Lee Gutkind’s claim to the genre is strictly semantic. There isn’t anything else original or “creative” about what he says. On December 6, 1953, in the Chicago Daily Tribune, Alfred C. Ames wraps up the year’s best literary works in the article “154 Outstanding Books of ’53.” He calls the genre “factual narrative…in which the principal character and the author are the same.” Lee Gutkind was eight years old.
He doesn’t call the genre “Creative Nonfiction,” which, unfortunately, gave Gutkind a window to stake a false claim to it. You’ve seen these people before though, haven’t you? Ones who’ve taken phrases and concepts already embedded in the American frame of reference and filled out some paperwork so they can say it’s theirs. You’ve heard of these people, right? They’re frauds aren’t they?
Colleges and universities have been discussing nonfiction writing long before Gutkind and the University of Pittsburgh. The New Jersey College for Women (now incorporated into Rutgers University) hosted “The Intercollegiate Writers Conference” in 1936. The conference included “roundtables” in fiction, playwriting, and nonfiction. Lee Gutkind was born nine years after this conference.
Their mistake, apparently, is that they didn’t call it “Creative Nonfiction.”
These all might be tedious arguments, though. I’m certain many people have dismissed Gutkind as kind of a literary confidence man. On the Wikipedia page he drafted and revised often, he even calls himself a “literary whipping boy.” He knows.
I mean, where are his disciples? Is there anyone out there following him around, asking him for advice, claiming to be a literary descendant of his? If so, I want to hear from them.
The rest of the Poets and Writers article is a lazy list of questions a prospective MFA student should ask herself before applying. His first question:
“How much have you suffered – or experienced?”
I’ll let that sink in for a bit.
Lee Gutkind wants you to suffer before applying, because “…the standing joke among faculty in creative nonfiction programs is how many ‘dead grandmother’ stories they’ve received in any given semester.” The standing joke among students might be that old people write about how their bodies are shutting down all the time, how their marriages aren’t working, or how they contemplate death. That’s a standing joke.
I have an idea: Tell your students not to write about dead grandmothers. How about that? Also: tell them to stop whining about coming out of the closet.
Lee Gutkind’s solution?
“…it’s often better to join the Peace Corps, (or) take a job driving a taxi…living the creative nonfiction life.”
So we’re not joining the Peace Corps to help people anymore, but to suffer – to get enough material to apply to an MFA Program in Creative Nonfiction. It kind of feels like participation in a “reality” show. You’re supposed to join the Peace Corps and bring your Moleskine…and a couple of cameras ala “Survivorman,” and document your suffering.
“Wait…I’ll dig that life-sustaining well for your sun-ravaged community in a second. First, I have to write a bunch of shit down in my Field Notes pad about how much I’m suffering right now. The blisters, the heat, the flies, my homesickness…”
“I know you’re the one who’s really suffering, but you’re not suffering in the sense that you’re going to document it…in the sense that you’re going to leave here, return to a warm home and a first-world country, then apply for a goddamn MFA Program.”
His next question:
“What do you know?” because “the mission of creative nonfiction is to communicate information – to teach readers about various subjects.”
I don’t ever write anything to teach anyone a thing, unless it’s a series of researched notes before one of my English classes, or if it’s marginalia on a student’s paper. Otherwise, I write for me.
Later in this section, Gutkind attempts to back up his flimsy ethos with shoddy logos. He cites “108 titles,” ten of which received “six-figure advances.” So we write nonfiction to “instruct” and to make money? I want to talk to these “108” writers and ask them if they engaged in the artifice of writing toward a genre rather than creating clean, rich text on a subject they were compelled to write about. How many of the 108 had genre in mind?
This is where I may falter and where I may have been confused during my studies at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The difference between fiction and nonfiction might be narrative reliability. If this is the case, genre would have to be a consideration when writing something. I’m not completely convinced, though. For the last two years, I’ve moderated panel discussions for the Printer’s Row Literary Festival in Chicago. In 2011, I moderated a panel on writers of historical fiction. My first question was “Do any of you know you write historical fiction?” Each person said no. They had no idea.
His next question for prospective applicants:
“What do you want to accomplish by earning an MFA in creative nonfiction?”
On the surface, it’s a fair question, until you read his first line after the question:
“If you want to teach writing in a university, then an MFA degree would be helpful. Since most writing programs offer an MFA degree, most prefer their faculty members have an MFA.”
No. Most schools want you to have books, Lee Gutkind. And real books, not just ones you’ve edited or published yourself or had published as a favor from one of your friends at a university, promised over drinks during some strange agreement to bastardize the industry with a reciprocation of dreadfully mediocre prose. Real books.
OK, so you’ve gotten past all of the insecurity and lack of suffering, and you’re ready to apply to a program:
“Apply to programs with high-standards and well-known faculty…”
The best writing teachers I’ve ever had are wallowing in obscurity.
“…find out who your professors will be during the two to three years you’ll be in the program. Familiarize yourself with their work. Do you like how they write?”
The best writing teachers I’ve ever had didn’t appeal to me at all as writers. The writers I liked the most were lousy teachers.
He’s right when he tells his reader to “be discerning” and find “the program you feel is best suited for you…” and Gutkind is also right on the mark when he talks about the competitive nature of some programs and the soft admission standards of others:
“All MFA creative nonfiction programs are not the same. Some are easier to be admitted to than others. There’s not much quality control.”
You said it, Lee Gutkind. No kidding.