Kay Boyle? John Barth? Cormac McCarthy? Louis Menand?
Dear Quote Investigator: I have been reading about creative writing programs because I am seriously considering attending one. Recently, I encountered a quotation from the writer and educator Kay Boyle which stunned me. Her comment appeared in an article in The New Yorker magazine titled “Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught?” by Louis Menand. Boyle’s remark was extravagantly, almost comically, negative [KBNY1]:
Kay Boyle once published a piece arguing that “all creative-writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” She taught creative writing for sixteen years at San Francisco State.
I was disappointed to see someone who was long-time teacher of writing harshly attack the discipline. I tried to locate this quotation, so I could learn more about her perspective, but I could not find it. Is this quote accurate? Could you help me locate it if it exists?
Quote Investigator: Yes, QI can help you. Kay Boyle did not say the words between the quotation marks. Hence, tracing this quote is problematic. Despite obstacles QI did succeed in this investigation. Proponents of creative-writing programs will not be pleased with the comment that Boyle actually did make because it is very similar.
The first step in tracing this quote is locating a 1999 book about the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This collection of stories and essays contains an introductory piece by the editor, Tom Grimes, which includes the exact same words attributed to Kay Boyle [WSD]:
So why should we have to learn how to do something we’ve been doing since childhood? Cormac McCarthy said teaching creative writing is a scam, and Kay Boyle declared that “all creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” Were they right?
No. It’s amazing to discover how difficult it is to write a good story.
The next step in tracing this quote is locating a 1985 essay “Writing: Can it be taught?” by John Barth that appeared in the New York Times Book Review section. John Barth, a well-known novelist and short-story writer, was also a professor of English and creative writing at The Johns Hopkins University for many years. His essay contains the words attributed to Boyle, but there is a significant difference. The words are not between quotation marks [BRT]:
Kay Boyle, late of San Francisco State, opined in these pages not long ago that all creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law.
The phrase that appears in quotes in later references is, in fact, John Barth’s description of Kay Boyle’s position. It is not an exact reproduction of something that Boyle stated. Now the task of tracing becomes more difficult. QI systematically read an array of works authored by Boyle in the period around 1985. QI also searched databases using variant phraseologies to try to find the correct version of the statement attributed to Boyle. The Los Angeles Times in 1986 contains an interesting interview with Boyle that reveals her attitude toward courses in writing [KBLA]:
Boyle taught – what else? – writing. Not that she approves of creative writing courses: “Every time I teach one, I say, ‘Geez, never take another one.'” Some of her students at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she taught this spring, had taken eight creative writing courses and planned to take more, she said, shaking her head in horror.
“It’s ridiculous. Go out and live. Do anything. I flunked kindergarten. Actually, I never went to school at all. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have written all the books that I wrote because I didn’t know that other people had written so much.”
In the above interview Boyle criticizes a subset of chronic writing students but does not suggest that courses should be abolished by law.
At last, QI found another interview in 1984 that is probably the basis for the later citations. Boyle discusses a lecture given by Nelson Algren about the difficulties faced by American authors such as Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the following excerpt “he” refers to the lecturer Nelson Algren and “I” refers to Boyle [KBNY2]:
And then he told the devotees—these endless devotees of writers’ conferences, creative writing programs, all of which I feel should be forbidden by law—that it was in his personal failure that Fitzgerald’s art succeeded.
Thanks for your question. QI hopes this information is useful to you. Good luck with your decision regarding creative writing and remember that the remarks from Boyle are just one opinion.
[KBNY1] 2009 June 8, The New Yorker, “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing be Taught?” by Louis Menand, New York. (Online archive of The New Yorker) link
[WSD] 1999, The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop edited by Tom Grimes, Page 6, Hyperion, New York. (Google Books snippet view) (1999 edition verified on paper) (Link to a 2001 edition) link
[BRT] 1985 June 16, New York Times, “Writing: Can it be Taught?” by John Barth, Page 1, Column 1, Section 7: Book Reviews, New York. (ProQuest Newspapers) (Online archive of New York Times) link
[KBLA] 1986 October 12, Los Angeles Times, Kay Boyle: A Writer’s Duty to Speak for the Disfranchised by Kay Mills, Page G3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
[KBNY2] 1984 July 15, New York Times, Kay Boyle – Paris Wasn’t Like That by Leo Litwak, Page 33, Column 3, Book Review section, New York. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)