The Rail’s Philip Kadish recently spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham in his office at Brooklyn College, where he’s recently taken over the fiction division of the MFA Writing Program, which was founded in 1974 by novelist Jonathan Baumbach and poet John Ashbery.
Philip Kadish (Rail): How would you describe the differences between the fiction program at Brooklyn College and other such programs?
Michael Cunningham: Diversity, which comes from the fact that Brooklyn College, as a CUNY program, costs a tiny fraction of other programs. I mean diversity in every sense: racial, economic, there are older students here. People with children rarely, in my experience, have an extra $60,000 to spend. There are in every sense more writers from different backgrounds, therefore more writers with different stories to tell, and I love that.
Rail: How would you characterize the benefits of that diversity for your students?
Cunningham: Oh, I think it is not only good for any young writer to read the work of people whose life experiences are very different, it’s good to be read by people whose life experience is very different. You may have written a story that is quite moving and makes perfect sense to people exactly like you but may be utterly baffling to the forty-five year old Jamaican woman sitting next to you. Now, it is up to you if you want to write stories that will appeal to a forty-five year old Jamaican woman if you are a twenty-five year old white guy. But with a more mixed group you get a better sense of the world of readers, what plays and does not play outside the set of assumptions about gender, class, and race that we carry inside us.
Rail: Beyond the more diverse student body that lower tuition allows, do you have any particular vision about the kind of program you want to foster at BC?
Cunningham: Well, I also set about hiring some really brilliant teachers. I’ve been around a while; I know a certain number of extraordinary writers who I also know to be great teachers. So I could hire people like Susan Choi and Coleson Whitehead, Ernesto Mestre-Reed, Mary Morris, Jenny Offill. They were right there; all I had to do was ask them. As it happens, I am the only member of the [fiction] faculty who lives in Manhattan; everyone else lives in Brooklyn. There is this incredible wealth of incredible writers and teachers who are five subway stops away.
Rail: So Brooklyn has gone from being the place from which writers escaped to make their careers in Manhattan to the place in New York City where writers flock?
Cunningham: Oh, yes. I’m a dinosaur, still living in Manhattan.
Rail: What was your own experience as an MFA student?
Cunningham: I attended Iowa a long, long time ago—Lord, from 1978 to ’80. My experience there was a mixed one. I was glad I went. But it was very competitive, or it was then. I hear it’s changed. I hear that it is not what it once was. But when I was there, it was very competitive…
Rail: Excuse me, but when you say Iowa was competitive, are you referring to the atmosphere within the program, or to the application process?
Cunningham: Yes, the atmosphere within the program. It was competitive to get into the program, of course, but it is competitive to get into Brooklyn College’s program. I meant within the program. The criticism would be extremely harsh. It was a kind of boot camp. And the general feeling was, if you can survive this and still write, then you are ready to go into the world.
Rail: If you can survive that kind of constant abuse?
Cunningham: Yes, exactly. If you can sit in seminar rooms for two years with people questioning every aspect of what you do and still come out writing, or writing a perhaps improved version of your work, then they can send you out into the world a writer.…I understand that, it makes sense to me, but I didn’t see it working especially well for a lot of people. I think that writers are, as often as not, rather delicate people, or some of the best ones are rather delicate. And I think the kind of boot-camp system tends to work best for the most hubristic writers, the ones who are the most confident about their writing, who are not necessarily always the best writers.…I am often drawn to writers who feel doubtful about their work. That feels healthy to me. Not so doubtful, of course, that your doubts become paralyzing, but I like the degree of, sort of, consciousness implied and the degree of ambition implied by someone who’s a little unsure about what they’re doing. And maybe that writer can stand up under onslaught after onslaught after onslaught, and maybe that writer can’t. I came away from Iowa convinced that writers need a different kind of balance between real scrutiny and…well, you know, support is a tired term, but you know what I mean.
Rail: Can you describe the difference between a critique of a writer’s work that involves the straightforward acknowledgement of things that are problematic, perhaps not working in the piece, and what you might regard as competitiveness, abusiveness, or just plain personal nastiness?
Cunningham: It is partly an insistence on the discussion of what is working as well as what is not working, and it is partly a mysterious issue of the atmosphere in the room. You can subtly but palpably create an atmosphere in which everyone present is heroically trying to produce something good, for which they deserve congratulations, whatever the current state of their abilities. The more you produce an atmosphere in which everyone in the room is perceived as a hack and a loser—barring the occasional writer who breaks through and does something good—the more you crush some developing writers whose work we’ll really need at some point.
Rail: What would you say is the significance of the perceived hierarchy among MFA programs?
Cunningham: You know, as far as I know, not one publisher of any kind gives one shit where a writer in question got their MFA, or if they did at all. I can just about guarantee you that there has never been an editorial meeting in any publishing house in which the question of where the writer got his MFA came up as a significant issue. It’s about the work. I suspect that the more competitive programs are the way they are because they attract more competitive students. I think the more expensive ones tend to attract students who are determined to leave there with six-figure book deals, which doesn’t always make them the most interesting students. It is not so much fun to talk with a student who is interested in learning the formula for a best-selling book so that they can reproduce it; that’s not what I’m here to do. And when you’ve mortgaged your house to attend an MFA program, you are naturally worried about the big book deal and naturally worried that the person sitting next to you is going to get it and you are not. No one cares about the status of your MFA program. It may matter to you when you are in an MFA program, but it certainly doesn’t matter in the larger world.
Rail: Is there anything that you’d like to tell our readers about things currently going on in the program?
Cunningham: We have gotten a very generous endowment from Carole and Irwin Lainoff [Brooklyn College alumni] that has permitted us to admit more students and add new faculty. We are honored to have as faculty at this time Stacey D’Erasmo, Colson Whitehead, Amy Bloom, Josh Henkin, and Ernesto Mestre-Reed. We’ve added a novel-writing workshop, which I’ve always wanted to do, since the traditional workshop is often less helpful for people working on longer things and would not have been possible without the recently expanded workshop. The classes are smaller now since the endowment; they were 12 to 13 people previously, and now they are 8 to 9, which is a big difference. Second-year students get private tutorials with wonderful writers each semester.…I’m doing my best to make it into the MFA program I wish I’d gone to.
Rail: Now to the crass question: Why is Michael Cunningham working so hard?
Cunningham: I love doing it. If I didn’t, believe me, I wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve loved building the program up and seeing it flourish. The students seem mostly happy, their writing is growing and changing. And I love sitting in a room one day a week talking to gifted people about writing. I don’t do that the other six days of the week. I don’t sit around in cafes and argue about literature. Most of my friends are not writers.
Rail: How does your work at BC dovetail with the life of an active writer?
Cunningham: Part of it is, I get a great deal of nourishment from talking with other writers about writing, about where it comes from and solving problems—much of it feeds my own work. The issues that we discuss in class are the same ones that I face in my own room, in front of my own computer. And I feel like a part of a community of writers. I’m older than most of the students, but I don’t feel an absolute division between what they are doing and what I’m doing. It’s an exchange.