Talent is like obscenity: you know it when you see it. It’s something that can’t be defined, only recognized—an irreducible and unteachable entity, like charisma or humor, and its confirmation all the more coveted for being so. In his fundamental study, “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing,” Mark McGurl detailed how, in postwar America, anointing and cultivating literary talent became the purview of creative-writing programs and how, in turn, certain modes of writing came to be privileged above others. With this professionalization—indeed, institutionalization—of a nation’s art form, three injunctions popularized by the M.F.A. became holy writ. Write what you know; show, don’t tell; find your voice. Of this trinity, only the second speaks explicitly to craft and seems readily practicable. It’s the first and last dicta, however, that have proved the most influential, not through their utility but through their confounding simplicity. The question isn’t whether you should cultivate knowledge or voice. The question instead is a screamed “Yes, but how?”
When we identify talent, we say that we’ve found “the real deal,” a flimsy idiom for a solid belief—that, although talent as an entity may be undefinable, it’s still provable. It’s on this putative objectivity, in all its insidious allure, that M.F.A. programs are predicated, offering themselves as arbiters of talent who are able to alchemize literary promise into achievement. Many have found these claims at once irresistible and dubious. One year after graduating from the University of Arizona’s creative-writing program, David Foster Wallace wrote, “The only thing a Master of Fine Arts degree actually qualifies one to do, is teach . . . Fine Arts.” Wallace’s essay, “The Fictional Future” was one of several collected, in 2014, in “MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction,” a book that reanimated and enshrined questions both existential (Can writing be taught?) and practical (How does a writer pay rent?). The bathos of the latter tends to casts an absurd light on the former.
So it is that two new satirical novels set in creative-writing programs, Lucy Ives’s
“Loudermilk: Or, the Real Poet; or, the Origin of the World” and Mona Awad’s “Bunny,” engage with the chimera of “the real deal.” They are set, respectively, in a version of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a version of Brown University and are authored by graduates of those institutions. These books constitute a kind of institutional critique, to borrow a term from the art world, or an institutional autofiction, to adapt an existing literary term. On the one hand, the satirical tone of these novels tips us off that the institutions being portrayed are fundamentally defective. And yet the pages in our hands are tangible counterfactuals! Because isn’t the published novel—the material proof every candidate longs for—evidence of these institutions’ success? Here is the M.F.A. program becoming self-conscious, displaying both impatience with and anxiety over the criterion of authenticity.
The centerpiece of the program is the workshop, or rather, excuse me, the Workshop; in David O. Dowling’s recently published history of America’s most famous creative-writing program, “A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” the word is reverentially capitalized. For anyone unfamiliar with insular world of the M.F.A., the term might conjure scenes of elvin ingenuity—merry workers laboring at their craft. Instead, this mainstay of the creative-writing program has more often been understood as a process of destruction, of tough love that tears you down to build you up. Dowling writes admiringly about the “volatile cocktail of ego and competition”—the “blood sport” of peers ripping each other’s work to shreds—that pervaded the Iowa workshop in the decades after its founding, in 1936.
His book opens with the boozing, brawling John Berryman—he of the “blow-torch approach” to teaching—receiving a punch from a student. Lucy Ives’s
' funny, cerebral “Loudermilk,” which takes its epigraph (“Rilke was a jerk”) from Berryman himself, lampoons this kind of masculine swagger. Its prime object of satire, however, is the very bedrock of the workshop’s pedagogy, the identification of artistic achievement. The novel’s titular handsome idiot, Troy Augustus Loudermilk, is a fraud in the most incontrovertible sense; it’s only by passing off the poems of his nebbishy friend Harry Rego as his own that he’s gained entry to the prestigious Seminars for Writing. These plagiarized poems go down well, but what Loudermilk is truly rewarded for is not his artistic achievement on the page but his charismatic performance in the workshop, including cracking jokes and insulting his professor’s sexual prowess. When you’re a fraud and don’t care, you have nothing to lose.
It’s not just the students who don’t care: Loudermilk’s professors include the dyspeptic (and, in his belligerence and drunkenness, rather Berryman-esque) Don Hillary, who welcomes his young poets with a showily profane speech, assuring them that he does not give “one donkey fuck what you do while you’re here.” One student, Clare, overhearing this speech as she walks by his classroom, wonders, “Could one imagine that his pronouncements herald a really excellent form of meritocracy, somehow? That his is, paradoxically, the most sublime of metrics—since incomprehensible, profane, and therefore absolute?” In a field where the “metrics” are so hard to define, much less achieve, you can stop caring at all—like Loudermilk and Hillary—or, like Harry, you can care too much.
As Harry, whom we understand to be a “real” talent, becomes more invested in his poems, he writes himself a long list of questions that include “Am I the one who is writing these words?” and “Who is the one who is writing?” Eventually, he concludes that “the only way to get to the poem is to drop into a perfectly Harry-shaped shadow.” In other words, he must vacate himself to find himself, must fake himself into authenticity. We sense that his private litany of questions, though painful, are far more conducive to his literary growth than the public jousting of the workshop.
Ives’s hyperbolic satire—her outsized, loquacious characters, her stylistic brio—lays bare the central fallacy of “write what you know.” In one sense, we believe Ives is drawing from her own, all-too-real experience. And yet, with its ludic meta-fictionality and the self-conscious construction of characters, the novel cleverly dodges knowable reality, circumventing the question of authenticity altogether.
In “Bunny,” a work of toothsome and fanged intelligence, the agons of ego and machismo are replaced by the sly and saccharine maneuvers of a femme-y clique who call themselves “Bunnies.” Our narrator, the studiedly uneffusive Samantha, joins these women in the first all-female fiction cohort at the prestigious Warren College. “Workshop is an integral part of the Process,” pontificates Ursula, a professor whose self-regard is sustained by the idolatry of her students. (Here, the capitalization of the word “workshop” is scathing.) “Workshop never ‘confuses us,’ rather it opens us up, helps us grow, leads us in new and difficult and exciting directions. My Workshop in particular, I think you’ll find.”
My Workshop: the proprietorial claim is key. The tenor of the workshop proceeds from the leader, which is to say, the particularities and prejudices of one person—one ego. At some point taste, like talent, becomes an irreducible entity. The Bunnies engage in frothy pieties and hyperbolic niceties, telling each other things like, “Can I just say I loved living in your lines and that’s where I want to live now forever?” Within a rhetoric of universal approbation, every writer turns craven; all talent withers.
Though Awad plays knowingly with the tropes of eighties movies (the book’s hot-pink jacket copy mentions the cult classic “Heathers”; like Winona Ryder in that movie, Samantha has an air of quiet mutiny), we recognize these Bunnies as the apotheosis of that most contemporary archetype, the basic bitch. They love froyo from Pinkberry. They binge-watch “The Bachelorette.” Their Instagram captions are littered with the self-evidently false hashtag #amwriting. “Basic” in this sense is a synonym of sorts for “inauthentic”; we recognize the type, or at least we think we do. These Bunnies, so very bloodless seeming, are in fact quite bloodthirsty. Because, in addition to writing fiction, they’re engaged in an extracurricular workshop of their own devising, where, unlike in the simpering diplomacy of the classroom, their creativity is literally visceral. They conjure dream boys, real flesh-and-blood creations that they call “drafts,” “hybrids,” “darlings,” from rabbits. Unfortunately, these characters can get unruly, and the girls keep an axe close at hand. “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings, you know?” coos one Bunny. Just as Ives has constructed a postmodern playhouse to deflate the notion of authenticity, Awad has winkingly deployed the great ruse of the supernatural.
Are these Bunnies for real? The answer to this question is a twofold no. They are false in their friendships, and, worse, they have no true talent. Even in their own workshop, they never quite manage to pull things off. Their “darlings” always fall just a bit short of the intended reality, lacking fully operational hands or penises. In other words, the Bunnies fail both literally, within their necromancy, and metaphorically, within their writing, to bring their characters to life.
Like rabbits, bad writers are everywhere, bred by M.F.A. programs across the country, turning out banal, interchangeable stories. When Samantha finally conjures her own piece of literature, it’s from a lone and noble creature—a stag. Her creation, Max, is the workshop’s first fully functioning boy. In the wickedly hilarious climax of the novel, the Bunnies show up to their last class bruised, bleeding, and ready, finally, to get real. With sweet feminist irony, it’s this dream boy made flesh who finally liberates them from that feminine yoke, extreme faux niceness. One classmate passes a simple and supremely unsayable verdict of another’s work: “I hated it.”
Max, Samantha’s triumph of extracurricular creativity, is also the agent of institutional destruction. In true Frankensteinien fashion, the proof of the author’s brilliance is her character’s apparent autonomy. No one proves this more starkly than Ava—Samantha’s lodestar and world center, her beloved best friend, whose contempt for the Bunnies (“that little-girl cult”) and Warren is spectacular. She is the one character who seems to radiate pure, unassailable selfhood—tango-dancing, white-haired Ava, to whom Max says, rapturously, “being with you is like being in literature.” It turns out that Ava really is too good to be true; she, like Max and the other bloody boys, is a fictional invention come to life. How is it, then, that she feels more real than anyone else, both to the reader and to Samantha, her unwitting “author”? The question is unanswerable, or, rather, the answer is that unanswerable thing, talent realized. For Samantha, it’s the possibility of companionship with her characters (no less real for being, technically, fictional), not the praise or censure of peers or professors, that galvanizes her to write more, and to write better.
In the final chapters of “Loudermilk,” a “poetry showdown” finally reveals Loudermilk as a fraud and his proxy as the real poet. But, as with an unshameable wind sock of a politician whose lies and blunders do nothing to unseat them, this is by no means Loudermilk’s undoing. Workshop, which we understand to be a sort of microcosm for what Ives later denounces as the “banal hypocrisy” of institutional American life at large, has worked well for Loudermilk. He skips town for New York and gets an agent. Of course he does. “I feel like I couldn’t even have planned this, like how amazing things worked out,” he writes in an e-mail to Harry. “But, hey when you’ve got extreme talent haha ;).” He does not, however, have the last word. At the end of the novel, his author seeks to make explicit her intent in a startling afterword:
This confounding, fourth-wall breaking address is a spectacularly brazen announcement of inauthenticity. Ives seems to be reminding us that she has fabricated Loudermilk, just as he has fabricated himself. Our “hollow hero” is a fiction who knows himself to be a fiction. Might authenticity itself be an equally fragile myth?
Master’s degrees, agents, and advances can make a difference: talent thrives on recognition, and bills need to be paid. There is, however, no great and infallible arbiter of literary merit. The longing to be anointed, once and for all, as “the real deal” is a fundamentally hopeless desire. Moreover, such longing for external approbation might be the very thing stymieing a young writer from becoming what they need to be, since, as Harry and Samantha realize, both “knowledge” and “voice” can only be discovered for oneself, not bestowed from beyond. What is required is a sort of faith in uncertainty—an acceptance that one’s capacity to conjure authentic new realities will have to be tested again and again, that the writer must be in a constant state of becoming. (In this sense, Harry’s self-interrogation, born of self-doubt, is essential, if exhausting.) And, since thinking must precede (good) writing, it follows that a question might be a more generative tool for a writer than an injunction. Kant famously posed a heuristic in three questions. The first serves as a useful counterpart to the M.F.A.’s first dictum. Not “Write what you know” but, with its honest combination of curiosity and humility, “What can I know?”