Laura Demanski (OGIC) quotes an e-mail from a reader taking exception to criticism of writing workshops:
As a veteran of a famed MFA program in theatre directing and several playwriting workshops, I must take issue with your complaint against MFA programs. Granted, some of the craft “rules” taught there are arbitrary, based on the instructor’s whim (for example, one of my favorite playwriting teachers hated all plays set at Thanksgiving). But such “rules” are made to be broken when the artist does so for an effective artistic reason. The point is, master the form first, then learn how to bend it to your own ends.
The problem with this, at least as applied to, say, the short story, is that there is no "form" to be mastered in the first place. The short story (the novel as well) is not an identifiable entity, a vessel into which a succession of slightly modified concoctions are to be poured. It is a name for all of the various kinds of shorter fictions writers have produced, a convenience for readers that indicates the larger group of related works in the context of which the "story" at hand would like to be considered. If there are "rules," they are only those that ought not to be violated if the writer wants his work to be included in this category. (And the number of such rules continually diminishes. One could say that a short story should not look like a newspaper column, or a set of instructions for operating a DVD recorder, but it is of course entirely possible that an enterprising writer might indeed be able to make interesting stories out of such non-storylike forms. In other words: fiction is not itself a "form." It feeds on forms.)
Laura agrees that "if the 'rules' are taught with some nuance and flexibility, and as a foundation rather than an ultimatum, they should do more good than harm." Laura is right to stres "nuance and flexibiltiy," but I really can't finally accept that "rules" have anything to do with learning to write worthwhile fiction. It's not even that what workshops most often produce is "a lot of pallid if technically unimpeachable writing," as Laura further puts it. "Technically unimpeachable" in relation to what? Other workshop-derived stories obeying arbitrary rules? The point of Sam Sacks's essay, it seems to me, was precisely to protest the creation of these rules in the first place, to point out the insipidity of such formulas as "A Story, as it progresses, is counterbalanced by a Backstory, which informs the reader what of importance happened beforehand. Both Story and Backstory must have a pronounceable Why Now. . . ." Etc. This isn't just rigid, it's silly.
How might such "rules" be applied to the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne? de Maupassant? Kafka? Faulkner? Beckett? Donald Barthelme? What set of rules could be devised that would cover all of the demonstrably great fiction writers who have otherwise not just resisted the kinds of prescriptions the workshop system likes to issue but would have laughed at the idea that what they were up to had anything to do with "mastering the form" as academic Creative Writing understands it? The best thing a workshop instructor could do (and I agree with Laura that "MFA programs neither can nor should be abolished"--too many truly good writers have emerged from them to conclude that they really manage to inflict permanent harm, and the chance to read and to practice one's craft is an unqualified good) would be to familiarize students with as many of the current and past practices of fiction-writing as possible and encourage them to find their own way.