“It’s the best part. It’s crunchy, it’s explosive; it’s where the muffin breaks free of the pan and sort of … does its own thing.”
—Elaine, Seinfeld Ep. 155, “The Muffin Tops.”
Fiction writing MFA programs perennially piss people off. Several times a year, a major American magazine or website publishes a piece asking if MFAs are “ruining fiction” or “killing writing” or “flattening literature.” This debate has become so ubiquitous that Tony Tulathimutte, writing in Salon, points out that it’s “customary [for writers] to begin by venting their exasperation about the debate itself.” But the debate is also fascinating: a consistent thread of paranoia runs through the discourse used by the aspiring literary fiction writers who criticize MFA fiction programs. I refer to this group as “the Muffin Tops,” because each one thinks he or she deserves to rise above the rest of the stumps in the literary market.
The Muffin Tops believe the workshop model of creative writing institutions turns unique voices into Raymond Carver knock-offs, indistinguishable producers of realist fiction. The Muffin Tops want to spill out over the tray, bulging with passion and talent. They often blame the fact that success might not come easily to them, despite their self-professed uniqueness, on a conscious effort on the part of some group to stymie them, to crush them down into homogeneous shapes. The prototypical Muffin Top argument appears in Eric Bennett’s article “How Iowa Flattened Literature” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (the reading of which infected me with this muffin madness in the first place). Bennett describes the fiction-writing workshop as “a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into.”
The Muffin Top narrative goes like this: You arrive at the writing workshop with raw material in your head, which you believe is individual and full of potential—so much so that you not only have a chance at literary success, but you feel you actually deserve it. This raw material, your thoughts and feelings that you know could contribute to a future masterpiece, is your dream batter. But the workshop forces your raw material into a predefined shape. If your creative potential is the batter, the workshop is a muffin tin: a set of artificial limits designed to produce a consistent product. And furthermore, the workshop process waters down or removes key ingredients from the truly original writer’s dream batter through editing. Or so says the Muffin Top.
This is an argument of style, but its more vital aim is the writing process itself. Likewise, the consistent singling out of Raymond Carver in Muffin Top criticism is not only related to Carver’s minimalism but also to the impact that Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, had on creating his signature writing style. As Gaby Wood points out in The Observer, most scholars agree that Carver’s “sentences and paragraphs, the blunt, mid-air endings of his stories [were] in many cases engineered by Gordon Lish.” Carver himself expressed trepidation about the degree to which he was being edited; likewise, the anti-MFA contingent fear similar cuts that might reduce their unique style.
Indeed, self-identified “MFA dropout” Elizabeth Clementson blames this flattening process on group editing—the backbone of every writing workshop since the founding of the University of Iowa’s program in the 1930s. In a guest post on the publishing blog Moby Lives, she claims the writing workshop forces the writer to “mesh […] the ‘popular’ opinions of the group into his or her work, slowly removing the unpopular parts, until the work is readable and accessible to all.” It “destroys the writer’s initial vision, leaving behind a work that is void of passion and anything that is different, new, or creative.” Feedback from the teacher and the other students levels out all the interesting protrusions of each Muffin Top, producing dull works with no variation, nothing but stumps in a tray.
But if the stumps are bland, they don’t make up for it with nutritional content, say the Muffin Tops. According to Bennett, the trend in writing workshops—Carverite minimalism—is “steeped in anti-Communist formulation,” which originated in anti-progressive Cold War morality. Contemporary American fiction, Bennett says, is still affected by fallout from the early Cold War, when the CIA and conservative business interests both contributed to funding the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Clementson doesn’t go quite as far, but she does claim workshops force students to kowtow to big business, to kill their darlings and deliver the “‘sellable’ plot line that publishers want,” which again assumes conscious effort on the part of a group of people to steer the direction of literature.
No doubt, individual programs can push specific cultural agendas—at one time, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop did focus on American realism to the exclusion of other subgenres of literary fiction. Whether or not that was part of, as Vice senior editor Brian Merchant puts it, a “CIA-backed effort to promote a brand of literature that trumpeted American […] materialism over airy socialistic ideals” is up for debate. But on the other hand, Brown’s MFA program, headed by postmodern posterboy Robert Coover, has always been at the forefront of experimental literature, and plenty of options exist in between those two camps.
Furthermore, experimental novelist Blake Butler, writing about his MFA experience, articulates a common-sense response to Muffin Top criticism: “If you are the kind of person who can be made to mimic […] something else by mere suggestion, you are probably fucked in the long run anyway, as far as doing anything interesting is concerned.” Given that there are over a thousand different degree-granting creative writing programs in America, including at least some where a Muffin Top could rise to its highest potential, free of the constraints of the tin, I think it’s fair to say that the Muffin Top belief that the MFA system has a single premeditated agenda of “writing flattening” is paranoid.
Of course, not all paranoia is fantasy: conspiracies do exist, just not as often as conspiracy theories suggest. For every Watergate, there are innumerable examples of falsifiable theories all across the political spectrum: Satanic Panics, beliefs that the U.S. government orchestrated 9/11, convictions that Obama is a sneaky secret Muslim or Illuminati alien. But however unlikely, conspiracy theories are a mode of mass communication, reflecting a society’s underlying tensions.
The foundational text on paranoia as a mass culture phenomenon is the historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Harper’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in which he examines the language used by “angry minds” in the United States and lists what he believes to be its defining characteristics. These include a sense of dispossession, a perspective that relies on absolutes, and a compulsion to draw logical connections. For instance, dispossessed elites in America in the 1820s and 1830s, at “a moment when almost every alleged citadel of privilege in America was under democratic assault,” attacked Masonry with the following logical (if unrealistic) argument and black-and-white viewpoint: “Since Masons were pledged to come to each other’s aid under circumstances of distress, and to extend fraternal indulgence at all times, it was held that the order nullified the enforcement of regular law.” Mason judges and Mason cops would protect Mason criminals, so the law meant nothing! The earth was torn loose from its axis!
Although Hofstadter’s contemporary examples are limited to the American far right, he does note that the paranoid style also appears “in the popular left-wing press” and that it is not a uniquely conservative phenomenon. The right-wing paranoia Hofstadter details in his essay arose from the American far right’s fear that the country had been “largely taken away from them and their kind.” But the same words could be used to describe the contemporary left-wing fear that private sector involvement in education and public service is disenfranchising progressives. So, whether conservative or progressive, the paranoid feels dispossessed: something he deserves has been taken away.
He also sees his position as apocalyptic, as all-or-nothing—he is, as Hofstadter says, “manning the barricades of civilization” and concerned with “the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.” Whatever the battleground, no matter how frivolous, the spirit of capitalism clashes with the nanny state.
Finally, the paranoid is relentless in his drive to connect the dots in a rational manner and make sense of his powerlessness. There has to be a reason that he doesn’t have power anymore, because if there’s a reason, he can challenge it. If he’s on the far right, it could be that illegal immigrants are taking all the jobs; therefore, he is dispossessed; or, on the extreme left, that the CIA orchestrated the crack epidemic in order to destroy black communities; therefore, an entire community is dispossessed.
Leaving aside the fact that some conspiracy theories may be more legitimate than others (crack did in fact do incredible damage to many communities), the psychology is consistent: if the paranoid admits there is no simple and rational chain of events that he can blame—if he agrees that his situation, like every person’s, is the result of a dizzying mixture of ever-shifting social and economic factors, and not a plot against him—his powerlessness is complete, and his anger and frustration is without end, and without shape.
The same three characteristics—dispossession, absolutism, and the pursuit of logic—could be said to define the Muffin Tops. And in fact, the anti-MFA fiction writer and Hofstadter’s paranoid resemble each other not only in language but also in ideology, through a shared focus on individual value.
Like the paranoid zealot, the Muffin Top claims dispossession. The Muffin Top believes that what she has to say about the human condition and the skill with which she is able to say it (her dream batter) is unique and important enough that she deserves to express it in a public forum. This belief in her own uniqueness echoes the British historian Norman Cohn’s description of the millennial sects of Europe: Hofstadter quotes Cohn as saying one characteristic of believers in these movements is a “‘megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph.’” Of course, this dream of “ultimate triumph” has not become a reality for the vast majority of literary aspirants throughout history. And even if the Muffin Top understands the reality of the situation, she has an exceptionalist belief that she and her dream batter could buck the trend.
Exceptionalism forms a huge part of the American psyche: America has a “victory culture,” a term Tom Engelhardt coined in his seminal (and aptly titled) book on the subject, The End of Victory Culture. To Engelhardt, the conflict between libertarian settlers and native tribes was and still is the primary narrative of American culture: cowboys vs. Indians. The aboriginals were savages who merely stood in the way of Manifest Destiny; any setbacks to the settlers’ fated and deserved conquest of the continent were only temporary. Emanuel Leutze’s mural “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” is an early depiction of the cowboys vs. Indians attitude of American exceptionalism, which remains evident in popular conceptions of the wars in which America has since participated. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Germans, the Japanese, the North Koreans, the North Vietnamese, the Russians, the Iraqis, Al Qaeda, and now ISIS have all played the role of the Indian in the popular national narrative: ultimate triumph over all of these supposedly inferior groups was assured based on hard work and individual value. In a similar way, the Muffin Tops feel they deserve to expand, not westward across the continent, but in all directions—or at least until they conquer the literary fiction market.
Unshakeable confidence in one’s own individual value is also one of the cornerstones of both traditional liberalism and neoliberalism. Belief in individual value can lead to progressive policy, such as the United Nations Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, but attaching supreme importance to the individual ahead of the collective is also linked to the development of the free market system and its perversion—a slavish devotion to the bottom line across all industries—through to the idea that individual success is deserved through hard work. As Paul Verhaeghe, a Belgian professor of psychology and psychoanalysis, summarizes in The Guardian, “a neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual.” The Muffin Top writer’s belief in her own uniqueness and her natural right to dominate the market falls under the same ideological category as do defences of the free market.
At the same time, the free market works against the writer’s individualistic goals: when literary works don’t lead to significant profits with any degree of certainty, major publishing companies don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on them, because they have a duty to their shareholders or owners above anything else.
Given that Americans are buying and reading less literary fiction than ever, coupled with current supply-demand imbalances, reality dictates that “ultimate triumph” occurs only for the very well connected or the very lucky. A 2013 report from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts shows that whereas 56 percent of Americans read at least one work of fiction (whether literary or commercial) a year in 1982, in 2012 only 47 percent of Americans did, and fiction sales fell by 27 percent from 2010 to 2012 alone. And that was the year of Fifty Shades of Grey. More strikingly, a 2014 Atlantic article notes that in 1978, the number of Americans who had read 11 books or more in the previous year was 42 percent, but in 2014, that number had dropped to 28 percent.
Combine these figures with the fact that 70 percent of all titles on Amazon bestseller lists were genre fiction (such as science fiction, crime, and romance), and that a handful of household names like Jonathan Franzen accounted for the vast majority of literary works read—the result of multinational publishing companies pursuing the same model as Hollywood because it seems to have the least amount of risk—and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the widespread success of any given work of new literary fiction. (I don’t mean to be dismissive of genre fiction in any way; it’s just not the focus of the MFA debate, which focuses on the literary). There simply aren’t very many readers who seek out literary fiction outside of the small number of books that penetrate mainstream cultural discourse, in which the major publishing conglomerates invest their marketing and publicity budgets, based on comparable titles having sold well in the past.
The demand for literary fiction is decreasing in part because of the cultural consumer’s ability, via computer or cell phone, to access a wide range of other media almost as quickly as they can think of doing so. These media can be either one-way, like Netflix and news sites, or social, like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; either way, they compete for attention with books in general, let alone literary fiction. And at the moment, non-literary forms of media seem to be winning. It is important to consider that the explosion of MFA programs is closely linked to an overall corporate shift in the university system, to a need to balance profit and loss sheets through increased enrolment, and not to an increased demand in the market for literary fiction.
The pool of literary fiction readers is shrinking compared to the number of aspiring literary fiction writers, and the Muffin Top reacts to this personal powerlessness by attempting to make it more universal and therefore less petty: like the rhetoric used by the anti-Mason extremists, the Muffin Top also phrases his beliefs as a black-and-white opposition between big ideas. No Muffin Top says, “some MFA programs are giving some people who would write unoriginal literary fiction anyway a structure to follow.” Instead, the Muffin Tops turn their dispossession into apocalyptic conflicts to cover for their lack of control: they say, “MFA programs are ruining fiction” or “flattening literature.” Because they lack a reasonable argument, they put forth grandiose and simplified claims to explain away their actual powerlessness.
In his paranoid vision of the MFA system as having an agenda, the dispossessed Muffin Top constructs an enemy he can fight. Whereas Engelhardt says a cowboy needs a savage Indian he can justly vanquish to secure the success that was meant for him all along, a Muffin Top needs a faulty muffin tin preventing his dream batter, his own creative potential, from taking the unique form that would guarantee his literary triumph. He needs there to be something logical and tangible preventing him from getting what he wants, which in a personal sense is literary stardom—membership in the Elect—and in a more general sense is the primacy of literature as a cultural form.
Hofstadter says that the main factors leading to paranoid thought are “opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise”; in the case of the Muffin Top, the opposed interests are literary fiction writers like them who want to be read widely and consumers who don’t want to read what the first group has to write. In other words, the issue is ultimately that the Muffin Top wants to be known, but very few people want to know her. That is totally irreconcilable. And for this the Muffin Tops blame the MFA.
The idea that university writing workshops push bland, derivative literary fiction, and that if they didn’t exist, individual writers of breathtaking talent would produce more original work and get the acclaim they deserve, is much easier to accept than the fact that the market for literary fiction is shrinking. The latter fact is the result of a constellation of economic and social factors that are not under the control of any one group—factors which many writers are at least in a small way themselves complicit. MFA programs may exist in such high numbers because they make money for universities, but that doesn’t mean they share a corporate agenda that spans a thousand distinct workshops. For most of us, believing that another group of people is exercising power over us for a reason aligns more closely with our psychology than the idea that our persecution is the effect of uncaring and nonhuman forces, like the global movement of capital, which, contrary to periodic bursts of paranoia, no secret world government controls in its entirety. The sad truth that writers of literary fiction can take away from the situation is this: we can boycott the muffin tin companies all we want, but if consumers are cutting out carbohydrates, doing so is not going to get them eating our dream batter, no matter the shape, once it’s fully baked. If you want to write literary fiction, approach it in whatever way you want, but if you don’t make money at it and don’t develop a wide readership, don’t blame the MFA.
Jeremy Hanson-Finger’s fiction appears in Joyland, Little Fiction, and Monkeybicycle. He has worked as an in-house production editor for a multinational publishing company, and currently he is the e-book conversion coordinator at a multinational e-book retailer that isn’t Amazon (N.B.: the word “multinational” is relevant to the essay, not just a weird brag). He also doesn’t have an MFA.