Did GIRLS reveal the truth about college writing courses?

Um…probably. But should we really be surprised at what they’re like?

hannahwritesby Molly Hannon

In episode two of the new season of Girls, Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, attends a workshop in which classmates applaud a story by second-year African American student DeAugust. They love its spare language and how it addresses gender issues in an “almost offensive, but not offensive” way.

“I would cut off my arm to just read three more pages. I just have to know what happens,” one student gushes.

“I thought it was obvious,” Hannah says. “The mom dies.” The room falls silent.

When Hannah gets around to reading her own story, it’s immediately lambasted. She’s accused of trivialising abuse and lacking sympathy for the male perspective. When she tries to defend herself, her teacher cuts her off and tells her to wait until everyone’s done critiquing.

Ironically, it’s DeAugust, the unspoken class favorite, who unexpectedly defends her. “That’s her voice,” he says. “We can’t squash what she’s trying to say.”

The episode, which shows workshops as places where moaning comes ahead of critiquing and in which questions about gender are a minefield, made me grateful I’d chosen journalism school over an MFA program. In journalism, editors are the bottom line, ahead of wannabe writers. And teachers don’t cut you off.

Hannah’s first foray in MFA-land also brought to mind Chad Harbach’s MFA vs NYC n+1 essay about the pros and cons of graduate school in terms of making it as a New York writer.

In Girls, Hannah has left the New York hack scene behind and moved to the seemingly cosy atmosphere of graduate school. She’s a perfect fit for Harbach’s essay, since he focuses on rising enrolment in American MFA programs and wonders whether the industry can support the rising tide of writers.

Just what kind of writing does an MFA program hone, asks Harbach? Does it train a writer to improve, or just to write more acceptably in eyes of fellow wannabes?

Though Girls is not a mirror for everything in American society, Dunham does a solid job in showing how aspiring writers tend to respond to what they read based on personal bias and pre-established preferences. The critique of Hannah’s writing seems to have less to do with what she’s written than her background. Social class, perceived entitlement, gender and political correctness all play a part.

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