"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Flannery O'Connor on MFA programs

"In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel's worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class."

This is from her book of essays, Mystery and Manners. The essay is the The Nature and Aim of Fiction. The copyright dates are from 1957 onward, she died in 1964 -- so she is talking about fifty to sixty years ago. Imagine what she'd have to say now.

Another excerpt: "Now in every writing class you find people who care nothing about writing, because they think they are already writers by virtue of some experience they've had. It is a fact that if, either by nature or training, these people can learn to write badly enough, they can make a great deal of money, and in a way it seems a shame to deny them this opportunity; but then, unless the college is a trade school, it still has its responsibility to truth, and I believe myself that these people should be stifled with all deliberate speed."

This has always been a controversial stance -- I wonder if she was being tongue-in-cheek. It thrills me to hear her talk about a responsibility to truth. The good old, pre-ironic, still optimistic days. Who would she be directing this toward today? If she were still with us, would we see her as a persecutor of King and Crichton? Or perhaps there is enough artistry there, along with tradesman like qualities, to spare them her wrath. If wrath it was.


Carol said...

It is thrilling to think of vision and artistry as the foundation of short story writing but I'd hate to deny a "license to write" to the merely competent. Flannery O'Connor was exceptional and was justified to make these statements, whether tongue in cheek or not, because she was tremendously gifted and able to contribute to the world of story writing at the highest level.
I may strive for vision and artistry but on a good day, I may achieve competence. But I do agree that competence should not be the ultimate goal in any art form.

Zen of Writing said...

Funny, isn't it, that everyone is a writer nowadays who can finish a sentence? In the old days -- I'm thinking of my parents -- a great many people wrote letters, diaries, etc., and wrote competently, but didn't attempt to write fiction.