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Brian Joseph Davis

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Why MFA Programs Matter

Posted: 08/17/2011 10:30 am

The love-hate relationship between creative writing MFA programs and writers has not changed much since Kurt Vonnegut was playfully piqued by the emerging phenomenon of writing programs in the 1960s. He liked the attention and money, but doubted that writing fiction could be taught. With intense changes in publishing, though, the normally fraught relationship between writer and academy seems more rocky than usual, perhaps even broken.

Last year, N+1 Magazine persuasively schematized the path to publishing a novel as either "live in New York" or "get an MFA" and argued that, despite the cost in tuition and a powerful place in the publishing ecosystem, MFA programs have little effect on the quality of writing a student produces. An opposing opinion states that MFA programs have too much of an effect on writing, and produce a consistently polished and boring "McLiterature." Some consider it an outright shuck.


Despite sounding like he's singing a blues song about the disappointing seats in his new Jaguar, an MFA grad does have the right to question and critique the value of his expensive education. Yet, when you question the intrinsic value of an arts education for everyone else, the cynical attitude is revealed to be very close to the neo-con belief that the arts don't pay so there should be no arts education. Of course, success being relative, it's always difficult to quantify the value of the arts. If, as its publisher claims, Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" sold 3 million copies, then it netted no more money than "Saw 3D." Now, according to the theory that only things that make lots of money should exist, and because the most critically discussed literary novel of the last decade--by an author with no MFA at that--only made as much money as an underperforming 3D sequel, we should rethink this whole MFA thing.

There was a time, before bookstores went big box in the 1980s and 1990s, when young authors didn't have expectations of seven-figure success from writing literary fiction. The industry's growth did necessitate a commensurate increase in published books and, as part of that growth, MFA programs did become a college draft of sorts for agents to pick over and that worked well, for a while. As the corporate model of publishing struggles to turn itself around amid the total collapse of bookstore floor space and volatile new digital markets, does the need for MFA programs also diminish in tandem?

No, because despite what publicists and admissions brochures claim, MFA programs have always had other benefits to culture besides individual, mostly unattainable, meteoric success.

More than giving employment to a few hundred writers as instructors, and teaching basic composition lessons like "show, don't tell," MFA programs have created a culture of connoisseurship in readers and practitioners, and this has kept literary fiction alive. This is what arts education does better than anything else: it protects traditions from suffering market fluctuations, challenges forms with new traditions and constructs large buildings named after dead people and equipped with ace sound systems, in which to debate and perform. To bury this living database with a flat-out incorrect argument that there is no effective post graduation job market is a sock in the gut to language itself. It's also disingenuous to hold the sciences up for comparison as many branches of the sciences struggle--and chase funding--just as much as modern dance departments do. To be anti-arts education is to be anti-education under the cover of sophistry and taste.

I don't have an MFA. I came to writing through visual arts and the unfinished tatters of a BA. Despite what some claim about MFA culture colonizing all fiction, many authors still come to book writing from strange places, as well as not-so-strange places like journalism, philosophy, starring on "The Hills" or plain dumb luck. So why am I arguing for MFA programs? No matter what the resume says under the heading "education," all authors benefit from the existence of MFA programs, either directly by being a student or indirectly. My life as a writer and a publisher at Joyland is affected by MFA culture every day and wouldn't be the same without it. There are students who buy my books, instructors who teach my books, and the comradeship and advice of the editors who work at Joyland, several of whom hold creative writing degrees.

As for the argument that MFA programs produce a generically polished "McLiterature," I know, down to statistics of my in-box, that is not the case. Programs are too diverse and writers are too diverse to fall into anything other than short-lived trends and tropes. Every month at Joyland, we look at over a hundred submissions. Not all the best and most original work comes from MFA grads, but a lot of it does. While it's true that there was one week where we received three submissions from MFA grads from across the country all featuring amputee characters, you could blame the "Saw" films as much as instructors teaching Flannery O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." We still published one of the stories because it was great.

I also spent this summer mentoring an MFA student, and I know firsthand now what it means for a student to grow in a workshop setting. As much as the experience proved to me the value of such programs, I understand that the thwarted expectations of those who pay for postgraduate education can run counter to everything the middle class believes about upward mobility. I can imagine what it's like to have paid a lot of money for a creative writing MFA and then not publish anything, but if you thought a National Book Award would be handed over to you after cutting a tuition check, the problem isn't the programs; it's the expectations.

The critics of programs are far from wrong on a few issues though, and the creative writing schools must change, especially with publishing evolving so quickly. As creative writing instructor Cathy Day and the N+1 article both point out, avoiding the easy trap of short story teaching would help. Also, diversifying with more commercial applications of creative writing would balance practical skills with the no less important art of completely impractical, clever and beautifully unmarketable literary fiction writing. I'd suggest including screenwriting, as some programs already do, or adding more new media courses. How about courses that prepare MFA grads for ghostwriting an unauthorized Hugh Laurie biography, one that earns them enough money to pay rent for a year so they can work on a novel?

School can't prepare writers for everything in life, but that doesn't take away what a good program does give writers and readers, or the protected habitat for fiction that it provides.

 
 
 

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