Monday, June 04, 2007

Field research

In an article in New York magazine, Peter Carey talks about teaching creative writing in New York. Toward the end, he mentions what some of his students are up to:

"So that student over there, the one who arrived from San Francisco, is now working as a research assistant with Jonathan Franzen. (…) And there is A. working for Toni Morrison, and V. working with Salman Rushdie. And C. who went to work with Richard Price and found him a psychic and a haunted house on the Lower East Side. E. researched for Siri Hustvedt. G. worked with Patrick McGrath and collected information on spinal injuries for the book he is now just finishing. The list of mentors goes on and on."

What I wonder is: Why aren't these acclaimed writers doing their own research? What do they have to do other than research and write, write and research? They don't have day jobs to worry about. It's not like they have to pull lobster shifts proofreading at law firms. They may teach creative writing, but honestly, how much of their time can it possibly consume? Reaserching actually is part of the writing process, and getting Cliffs Notes from MFA students can't be the same as immersing yourself into a topic. As for the MFA students themselves, they should use the $60,000 in tuition to travel, live, read—above all, read—instead of learning how to craft innocuous prose in windowless college rooms.

2 comments:

Ben said...

You've opened a box of files compiled by Pandora's research assistant. Now I wonder about the shared labor behind a novel -- the extent, pay, attribution, everything really. Why hire someone from the realm of creative writing as opposed to history or other specific subject area? Wouldn't these MFA's basic research inevitably be more "writerly" and therefore more difficult to improve upon in one's own voice? Is it a classic apprenticeship system, sweat equity toward intros to agents and a debut jacket blurb? What kind of contract do these apprentices sign?

Man, maybe in the end I'd rather not know . . .

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Overall I like the idea of an apprenticeship system, but perhaps it works better for plumbers and electricians rather than writers. I guess this whole scheme is linked to my distrust of MFA programs, where people write for an audience of their peers—a habit many find hard to shake once they're out in the "real" world, leading to predictable, homogenized stories and novels.