Most of the time contemporary English language ‘Literary Fiction’ is unappealing to me. Whenever I pick it up in the bookshop it all sounds the same. It feels more like reading a genre of fiction, than like reading the next stage of the weird, eclectic evolution of the novel.
It seems there may be some truth to my prejudice, at least when measured by nominees and recipients of National Book Awards.
By any other measure, the authors honored by the National Book Foundation over the past decade are a surprisingly homogenous group. Almost all of them are products of what has come to be known, among supporters and critics alike, as America’s “MFA Industrial Complex.” They all tend to matriculate at the same elite colleges, acquire advanced degrees in English or Creative Writing, and then go on to teach in the same circle of elite schools.
In 2010, the National Book Award for Fiction went to Jaimy Gordon, who has a doctorate in Creative Writing from Brown University and has taught in the MFA program at Western Michigan University. She beat Lionel Shriver, who has an MFA from Columbia, Nicole Krauss, who has degrees from Stanford and Oxford, Karen Tei Yamashita, a professor of Literature at U.C. Santa Cruz, and Peter Carey, a member of the MFA faculty at Hunter College in New York.
I’m not sure elite education generally is the problem. The list of examples is compelling, and let’s not forget Dickens and Stoppard, but plenty of great English writers went to Oxbridge in the past. The real enemy of creativity is groupthink. It used to be that a writer was a reader who eventually produced their own book. These days, they are more likely to go on a course first. We won’t know for a long time how this works out, but so far Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan are the success stories. I suspect we are levelling up the level of mediocre and making it increasingly difficult for the publishing world to find the next genius. If she came along today, without any sort of Creative Writing MA, would Zadie Smith make it through the screening process?