It has been almost seven years since Junot Díaz criticized MFA programs for their mistreatment of writers of color in a viral piece in the New Yorker, “MFA vs. POC.” Since then, not much has changed. MFA programs across the country continue to consist of mostly white faculty teaching workshops that continue to operate on mostly the same model of silencing the writer in favor of hearing from the author’s peers.
The creative writing workshop has remained largely the same for eighty years or more, and it was never designed to encourage writing from Americans of color.
Although faculties need to become more diverse, the easiest and most immediate change, a change that is long overdue, is to workshop pedagogy itself. The creative writing workshop has remained largely the same for eighty years or more, and it was never designed to encourage writing from Americans of color. The workshop’s mistreatment of difference stems from the very foundation of what the workshop is and does.
The creative writing workshop, with its silenced-author model (sometimes known as the “gag rule”), was popularized by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which was the first MFA program in the United States and remains, arguably, the most influential. Much of that influence can and has been credited to the poet Paul Engle, who directed the Writers’ Workshop in its Cold War years from 1941 to 1965. Engle raised an impressive amount of money from some of the most powerful people and organizations in the country, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the State Department, and the CIA.
Scholar Eric Bennett chronicles Engle’s directorship in his 2015 book, Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015). Bennett links Engle’s fund-raising efforts to the standardization of “craft.” In order to satisfy both its Cold War funders and the academy, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop prioritized style and form over ideas and content and facilitated “the creation of an ideologically informed canon [of dead white men] on ostensibly apolitical grounds.” Engle, who himself was accused of Communist sympathies, promised that the workshop would spread American ideology.
In fact, the “gag rule” model of workshop bears an unmistakable resemblance to one of Joseph McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee hearings. A group of the writer’s peers, under the leadership of a published writer, reads the author’s manuscript and then takes turns listing merits and faults (while the author sits silently in defense), until the published writer offers his final judgment.
This workshop model persists because creative writing pedagogy is mostly a matter of what Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice, in 2007 called “lore,” not theory or data. Instructors of creative writing generally do not receive training; rather, they teach the workshop as they experienced it as students.
Like a hearing, the workshop operates by rooting out and criticizing deviance to a standardized norm (“craft”). The author then takes home the marked-up manuscript and makes changes to return the manuscript to the norm. Indeed the goal of most creative writers in MFA programs is to escape workshop unscathed—to be told unanimously that the manuscript has nothing wrong with it.
What this goal makes clear enough is that the workshop was not intended to encourage difference. What should also be clear is that the norm of craft is, in fact, the norm of whiteness, maleness, ableness, straightness, etc. Pulitzer Prize–winner Viet Thanh Nguyen puts it this way in the New York Times:
As an institution, the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that “Show, don’t tell” is universal when it is, in fact, the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male. The identity behind the workshop’s origins is invisible. Like all privileges, this identity is unmarked until it is thrown into relief against that which is marked, visible and outspoken, which is to say me and others like me.
Difference—diversity—should be the workshop’s greatest asset. A workshop in which everyone thinks the same and is trying to reach the same norm is, by its nature, unnecessary. The author would have no need of her peers if they were all of the same opinion. A conversation without difference is not a conversation, but a mob.
I happen to live in the same city where Paul Engle was born and teach at the same small liberal arts college where he did his undergraduate degree, Coe College. I have taught creative writing in Coe’s Paul Engle room—though in my workshop, the author speaks and questions rule over criticisms. Coe is currently committed to addressing long-standing systemic inequity. Partly as a result of the Black Lives Matter Movement, universities across the country have made similar commitments to diversity and inclusion.
Those commitments, if they are to be meaningful, must address an institution’s core values. The basic change needed is to stop seeing diversity as a threat to the norm and to start seeing the norm as a threat to diversity. The creative writing workshop is a microcosm of the institution—though it has typically silenced its least privileged voices, its true potential is in the very voices you can’t hear on the page. It is time for the workshop to let the actual, diverse voices in the room lead.
Matthew Salesses is the author of the best-sellers Craft in the Real World and The Hundred-Year Flood, and the PEN/Faulkner–longlisted novel Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, among others. He was adopted from Korea.Thumbnail: Grace Salesses