No surprises here, of course, but when you ask people who teach creative writing in American universities what books they assign, almost all of them assign books written in the past few years. A couple of people reach all the way back to Chinua Achebe, Saul Bellow, and Jean Rhys, and one bold trailblazer — Joel Brouwer, who teaches at my alma mater, the University of Alabama — actually assigns Homer and Virgil. But the rest don’t dare look any further back than yesterday, and, moreover, the great majority of the texts they assign are by Americans.
This studied avoidance of the past, of the world — of anything that isn’t immediate and local — is bad for the future of fiction and bad for the American mind more generally. The default assumption that our writers can be valid only when they’re working in the idioms of their peers is something close to a death sentence for artistic creativity. Looking at reading lists like this, I can’t help thinking that they play a significant role in maintaining the dreary sameness that is so characteristic of the fiction and poetry that come out of contemporary MFA programs.