On the total world-domination of workshopped fiction

That’s the subtitle of this post, which I found more interesting than the title itself. Here’s the title: How the MFA swallowed literature

This is a post by Eric Hoel, whom I’ve started looking in on now and then because Scott Alexander pointed out his blog fairly recently.

I am not, as you probably know, particularly interested in literary fiction. Nevertheless, this title and subtitle caught my eye. I’m not a hundred percent sure what “workshopped fiction” is. Let me google that … nothing. Okay, then, I assume this is a term used for fiction that is written by MFA students (or graduates?); fiction that has to make it through a serious critique group … maybe I should say, a critique group of serious writers … in order to move on toward traditional publication. Or something like that. If anyone is familiar with this term, please chime in.

Hoel writes:

One might think the overwhelming popularity of writers getting MFAs in creative writing would lead to an explosion of writer’s writers, for now almost all writers enter “The Program” at some point in their lives, either as students, teachers, or moonlighters. Instead, a new breed has arisen: the “workshop writer,” whose prose is oriented toward the academy. Is it too obvious to say this has fundamentally changed contemporary novels, and, in its totality, this change has not been for the better? …

He is definitely talking only about the genre of literary fiction. That becomes explicit in the post. Hoel is writing, with concern, of the lack of modern literary writers who are truly household names. Well, I don’t care. It is, however, interesting to me that someone who does care is making this observation. I mean, here is a fascinating observation Hoel makes:

Nowadays most literary success is within the context of the academy. And this has consequences. For if avoiding criticism in a writers’ workshop is your priority, then you’ll need to minimize your novel’s attack surface! … Workshop-trained writers are often, not always, but often, intrinsically defensive. This single fact explains almost all defining features of contemporary literature. What you’re looking at on the shelf are not so much books as battlements.

Now THAT is interesting! I will note here that Hoel is the one who some time ago wrote a post about predictions for what US society might look like in 2050 and specifically predicted — boring! Bland! To minimize the risk of being attacked by The Mob of the Offended. Look around, Hoel said, this is not just happening, it has already happened! I wonder if this perception of what’s going on in literary fiction drove that prediction.

I have no opinion regarding Hoel’s correctness or wrongheadedness. I’m just interested in his perception of a possible phenomenon. I am, however, also glad that as an author of SFF, it never mattered a whit whether I had an MFA or any other degree.

To the extent Hoel is correct, I wonder whether this phenomenon is pushing writers who have no interest in writing defensively away from literary and into other genres. Here I’m thinking of literary/SFF novels, such as Station Eleven — which I really enjoyed, by the way; here’s a review (not mine) — and In the Country of Ice Cream Star — which I admired very much but did not exactly enjoy. That one is my review.

Station Eleven came out in 2014. Ice Cream Star came out in 2015. That is after the period that Hoel considers problematic. He’s talking about literary authors prior to about 2007 and those after, so these would belong to the second group. They are anything but “defensive.” If the authors moved into SFF-adjacent worldbuilding, that certainly worked for them.

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1 thought on “On the total world-domination of workshopped fiction”

  1. I tend to dismiss things like this – sometimes trends aren’t matched with your tastes, and that can be a bummer, but it’s not a moral failing or something.

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