Elif Batuman in the LRB

by Daniel Hartley

Elif Batuman

Elif Batuman has a wonderful essay in the new LRB. Superficially, it’s a review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, but in reality it’s a great sprawling mess of an analysis of the concept and practice of ‘Creative Writing’. Batuman employs a cacophony of registers, constantly charging on into the knotted byways of her thesis, but getting lost at every turn in digressions which are drawn from a dizzying array of sources. There’s a lot to think about here! Here’s an extract:

In the final pages of his book, drawing up the merits of programme writing, McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.