The recent very valuable interview with Stephen Dixon in the Baltimore City Paper contains this exchange:
CP: According to a recent National Endowment for the Arts study, "Reading in Risk," [today's students] are worse at reading. They're writing a lot more and reading a lot less.
SD: They're right. They're actually right. When I give stories to undergrads, I'll ask who's read Tolstoy. Nobody's read Tolstoy. Or I mention James Joyce, when we read a story from Dubliners, maybe one or two have read a story in high school. When I first started out, kids were much more serious as readers, and I could actually have literary discussions with them, which I cannot do now. Even the ones who are the most avid writers are not avid readers. They just want to write.
CP: Everyone has a novel inside them, but no one reads anybody else's, then. Is that a problem?
SD: It's a paradox. It hasn't really stopped undergrads from becoming better writers than the readers who were writing before. You would think just the opposite. But then there's a problem. We grew up on Dostoevsky, Conrad, if there was ever a serious name, we read that writer. It also told us what not to write, because if the thing has been taken up already, and you have a history of having read it, you want to go on to something new. So a lot of students are sort of writing what's already been written.
Dixon seems to be suggesting that writing programs are good for raising writing abilities up to a point--the point at which mere "craft" leaves off--but that great writers are produced only through the inspiration of other great writers, and this as much through learning "what not to write" as through imitation. As Dixon says, "if the thing has been taken up already, and you have a history of having read it, you want to go on to something new."
Too much current literary fiction--which certainly is produced in greater bulk than even twenty or thirty years ago, mostly due to the proliferation of writing programs--too obviously bears the influence of being "workshopped." It's competent, tidy, duly serious, but ultimately just another version of "what's already been written." Workshops instill conformity and a respect for the "mastery" of pre-established skills, but if a truly innovative writer emerges from one or another of the MFA programs, it's usually an accident, something that's happened despite the strictures of the workshop or because the writer was gifted to begin with. Conrad or Faulkner would have been laughed out of most "creative writing" programs.
Dixon's own work is a good example of the kind of fiction that would be smacked down in most writing workshops. All those absurd run-on declarative sentences, those characters who sound alike, those circular, stop-start plots! Yikes. Didn't anyone ever teach him what a well-made story is like? Doesn't he know that Hollywood producers would never even pause over such idiosyncratic stuff when scouting out their next "source material"? What's Barnes and Noble going to do with it?
A good argument could be made that if creative writing programs don't produce better readers , they're not worth much. Certainly conventional literary study is no longer focused on perpetuating a culture of reading, on inculcating the reading habit and cultivating a readerly sensibility. If the remaining area of academic study still ostensibly dedicated to literature as literature and to fostering literary talent is now a place where "literary discussions" can't take place because writing has been severed from its roots in reading, the future of "creative writing" is a bleak one indeed.