The discussion on whether or not it’s any help to give a university your money, or funds you don’t have that you end up borrowing, so you can sharpen your skills as a writer will no doubt be reignited in the coming days and weeks with the release of the book MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. In truth, it’s a discussion that was going on long before the publication of the book, and one that will probably continue for years after the book comes out. Yet the one thing that is difficult to look past is how much studying with a teacher whose books or articles you respect can actually be a boost to your own work.
Before those discussions start up again, this week offers us an opportunity to look at some of those great authors that have helped teach new generations of fiction writers. Today is the shared birthday of “The Dean of Western Writers,” Wallace Stegner, and one of America’s most important living writers, Toni Morrison, both writers who took their expertise and taught younger writers what they had learned throughout their career. Morrison brought along her Pulitzer and Nobel prizes to the table, while we probably don’t have to tell you how the late Stegner — who taught the likes of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Edward Abbey, Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, and Gordon Lish — earned his nickname.
Learning from the likes of Morrison and Stegner — and the other authors in this list — surely meant a great deal to the people that decided to pay money and hear them talk about writing.
Jorge Luis Borges
How many people would kill to learn from the Argentinian master who taught at the University of Buenos Aires? At least we have his Norton lectures he gave at Harvard in 1967 and ’68 to listen to.
David Foster Wallace
Another one that most authors would give a limb to learn from, Wallace taught at Illinois State University, and later became the first Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College. Thankfully, you can still peek at his course syllabus.
A tenured professor at New York University, Smith has been described by students as “Super cool,” and is continuously the type of writer that even non-students pay to hear talk about her craft.
Like Toni Morrison, one of the most decorated writers in American history didn’t need to teach. Yet there was Saul Bellow, cranking out book after book, teaching everywhere from Puerto Rico to Minnesota, to his hometown of Chicago, and giving lectures like “The Distracted Public” to anybody that wanted to learn from a Nobel/Pulitzer/National Book Award winner.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that one of the 20th century’s most distinguished novelists and critics would also teach. If you’d like, The Groves of Academe is based off her experiences Bard and Sarah Lawrence Colleges. We’d highly suggest picking that up, and maybe reading her “Ideas and the Novel” lecture she gave at University College, London.
Hopefully we’re inching closer to the moment when readers who missed out when he was alive realize how amazing of a writer Harry Crews was. As Maud Newton put it in his obituary, Crews “empathized most with the people who needed it most: the freaks, the fuck-ups, people who’d been broken by loss of one kind or another.” Through his novels and his teaching at the University of Florida, Crews’ impact on American writing is undeniable, and his lectures, theses, and dissertations are further proof of that.
If you’re going to learn to write short stories, why wouldn’t you want to go to Vanderbilt and learn from Lorrie Moore?
It makes sense that a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize winning, MacArthur “Genius grant” receiving writer would teach at an institution like MIT.
Mario Vargas Llosa
Yet another Nobel winner who keeps on teaching while the award sits at home, the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa still takes the train from Manhattan to New Jersey to teach at Princeton.
It’s obvious when reading his work that Jim Shepard is a writer’s writer. Yet as a teacher at Williams College, Shepard has built up a small army of believers from his lectures.