One good outcome of McGurl’s analysis would be to lay to rest the perpetual handwringing about what MFA programs do to writers (e.g., turn them into cringing, cautious, post-Carverite automatons). Because of the universitization of American fiction that McGurl describes, it’s virtually impossible to read a particular book and deduce whether the writer attended a program. For one thing, she almost certainly did. For another, the workshop as a form has bled downward into the colleges, so that a writer could easily have taken a lifetime’s worth of workshops as an undergraduate, a la Jonathan Safran Foer. And even if the writer has somehow never heard of an MFA program or set foot on a college campus, it doesn’t matter, because if she’s read any American fiction of the past 60 years, or met someone who did, she’s imbibed the general idea and aesthetic. We are all MFAs now.
On the flip side (as McGurl can’t quite know, because he attended “real” grad school), MFA programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work—especially shocking if you’re the student and paying $80,000 for the privilege. Staffed by writer-professors preoccupied with their own work or their failure to produce any; freed from pedagogical urgency by the tenuousness of the link between fiction writing and employment; and populated by ever younger, often immediately postcollegiate students, MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation, or finishing schools for almost-ready writers (in the way of, say, Iowa in the ‘70s), and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.