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11/23/2010 06:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Million Exploited MFA's: How James Frey Benefits from MFA Programs' Willingness to Sell Out Their Students

The New York Magazine article about the James Frey atelier cum literary sweatshop has performed a valuable service by highlighting not just the desperation of MFA students to get profitably published, but the willingness of MFA programs to let their students be exploited. Frey apparently decided to bypass the whole "1,000 monkeys working on 1,000 typewriters" plan in favor of an even cheaper and more tractable workforce: MFA students and graduates willing to write entire young adult novels for a $250 advance, 30-40% of the net (meaning, after whatever deductions Frey decides to take) after the book is sold, and full legal liability for the work but not copyright ownership. And that's all just for starters: Frey's contract also allows him to co-opt both the writer's pseudonym AND real name, and block any future work the writer might take on if Frey deems it in conflict.

All-in-all, a heinous contract, but Frey isn't coercing anyone into signing it. He doesn't have to: writers flock to him, many after having heard his pitch at MFA programs, where he seems to have no problem getting invitations to speak despite his infamous record. The writers who sign with him are "desperate to be published," according to Suzanne Mozes, author of the New York Magazine article, and a member of a Columbia writing program seminar Frey visited. I'm guessing that Mozes and her desperate colleagues have become increasingly aware, over the months and years of their studies, that they are not, in fact, destined to be one of the literary lottery winners who emerges from an MFA program with a lucrative book contract. They are also presumably aware of My Misspent Youth, the famous essay by Columbia MFA grad Meghan Daum, on the consequences of her having accrued $75,000 in debt, mainly from her degree:

I have no dependents, not even a cat or a fish. I do not have a car. I've owned the same four pairs of shoes for the past three years. Much of the clothing in my closet has been there since the early 1990s, the rare additions usually taking the form of a $16 shirt from Old Navy, a discounted dress from Loehmann's, or a Christmas sweater from my mother. At twenty-nine, it's only been for the last two years that I've lived without roommates ... I do not own expensive stereo equipment, and ... cannot bring myself to spend the $30 a month on cable.

My Misspent Youth is part of a growing genre I call "debt lit," in which highly educated writers describe their penury as a result of having financially overinvested in a creative or liberal arts education with little career potential. Another example is Beth Boyle Machlan's How Scratch Off Lottery Tickets Have Not Yet Changed My Life, about the debt she accrued while getting a Ph.D. in American literature:

All I know is that in spite of her upscale upbringing and four degrees from name-brand schools, the Irish girl is back in a Brooklyn basement, overeducated and utterly screwed. It's possible to romanticize poverty. It is not possible to romanticize debt. If they could foreclose on my education like a house or a car, I'd happily pack it up, pull out my memories of each and every course -- "Tudor and Stuart England," "East Asian Art" -- and leave them stacked neatly at the curb. ("Take my Ph.D.-please!") Hell, I'd even downgrade, trade in my ivy and the New England Liberal Arts degree for any of your better state schools. But I can't, and so I'm fucked.

Daum and Machlan are both successful writers, mind you: Daum is a Los Angeles Times columnist, and Machlan is on the faculty of the N.Y.U. Expository Writing Program. Imagine the fate of their less-successful peers.

MFA Programs versus Their Students' Needs

Criticism of Frey has been rampant, but two parts of the story have been under-discussed:

(1) Why on earth would MFA teachers invite a disgraced liar and fraud like Frey to address their classes? Science fiction author John Scalzi, in an excellent blog post about the Frey flap, states, "It's probably not a bad idea for the kids to see a prevaricating hustler up close to observe how one of his kind can rationalize bad actions and even poorer ethics as transgressive attempts at literature." Well, maybe: but only if the kids are protected from the hustle, which obviously didn't happen.

(2) Scalzi also calls out the MFA programs for leaving their students vulnerable, and makes what could be considered a pretty modest suggestion, under the circumstances: that they include at least one class on, "the business of the publishing industry, including an intensive look at contracts." Not surprisingly, one MFA teacher has already gone on record to say why that's a bad idea. I'm sure Elise Blackwell's heart is in the right place, and she's right to distinguish between programs that offer reasonable tuition and abundant scholarships, and those, like Columbia, that soak students. Still, she shoots herself in the foot by attempting to rebut Scalzi with the ludicrous claim that, "a one-on-one session with a trusted professor who knows a student's work and ambitions is more useful than a semester-long course on contract law." (Her response also elides the vital "business of the publishing industry" part of Scalzi's recommendation.) I wonder if, the next time Blackwell needs legal advice, she'll skip the meeting with her lawyer and just consult a colleague.

Blackwell also admits that her students actually want what Scalzi is proposing:

But most of my students...want to know how to secure a legitimate agent, the relative benefits of large and small publishers, whether entering contests is a good idea, which conferences are worthwhile and which ripoffs. Most programs offer that instruction, with varying levels of formality...

That "varying levels of formality" is worrisome: what the students are asking for are survival skills, after all, and those shouldn't be haphazardly taught.

Blackwell also writes:

I worry that stressing the utilitarian too soon may be counterproductive. You have to write a great book to sell a great book, and it's hard to write a great book when you're already fretting over how it will be marketed.

True enough, but to sell a great book you also need to know how to sell - period. Also, I would say it's Blackwell's and her colleagues' jobs to teach students how to balance a project's creative and non-creative (including, commercial) goals. I teach that to students in my classes at Boston's Grub Street Writers community writing center and elsewhere, for a lot less than the cost of an MFA.

Finally, most students probably want less to "write a great book" than to develop a sustainable writing career; and even if they are naive enough not to want that, their teachers should want it for them. If MFA programs accepted even partial responsibility for their graduates' writing careers, however, they'd have to face the damning fact that most of their graduates don't have one. In his book Mentor (Tin House Books, 2010), Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Tom Grimes reports on a lunch he had with three other graduates: "We represented a typical workshop graduating class: three out of four hadn't survived as writers." MFA programs unsurprisingly rarely publish quantitative data about their graduates' careers, preferring, instead, to dazzle visitors with bookshelves filled with graduates' books. In 1999, however, an article by Daniel Grant in The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a survey by the University of Florida at Gainesville of its MFA graduates that found that, of the 40% who responded, just 40% had a permanent job related to writing, although not necessarily a full-time one. And a quarter of those were technical writing, which is not a field most MFA students aspire to. Hardly impressive - and we can assume that employment figures among the 60% who didn't respond were even lower, and perhaps much lower.

Of course, teaching students to survive as writers means teaching them how to publish commercially viable work, which is problematic for programs that define themselves primarily in opposition to "evil commercialism." That dichotomization is not just intellectually incoherent -- Blackwell tries to defend it, falls into a muddle, and for her pains gets called out by Scalzi for being "egregiously classist" -- but ultimately a trap not just for the MFA programs themselves but their students. Quality and popularity are not opposites -- many, and perhaps most, of the works we now consider classics were popular in their time -- and if certain categories of writing appeal to small audiences, that's an entirely different issue. Is an understanding of all this too much to expect from teachers who possess a deep knowledge of literature?

The Secret to Success is Empowerment

In the end, Frey's atelier is not all that different from the MFA programs themselves, in that both extract huge amounts of resources from desperate writers in exchange for vivid but undefined promises of success and glory. MFAs relentlessly flog their celebrity and quasi-famous faculty and guests, as well as the occasional successful student, all with the implicit promise that, "you can be one of us." Given the odds against that happening, as well as the arbitrary, capricious and faddish nature of the publishing industry (which Frey previously gamed by recategorizing an unsaleable novel a memoir and then selling it for big bucks), it's no wonder that many MFA's find Frey's in-your-face exploitation an attractive option.

Do yourself and other writers a favor, however, and don't sign up with Frey. And don't get into extreme debt for an MFA. There are other options, notably:

1) Get high-quality training and critiques via community organizations such as Grub Street Writers or the New York Writers Workshop, or the local chapter of a professional group such as the Mystery Writers of America, Science Fiction Writers of America, and Romance Writers of America. I guarantee that you can go to any of these organizations with the dual aspirations of literary and commercial success, and find a home.

2) Reclaim your power from a crumbling and desperate (and, thus, increasingly grasping) publishing industry by self-publishing in print or electronic format. More and more writers are doing that either as an ongoing business strategy, or to position themselves for a more equitable and profitable relationship with corporate publishers. (A short list includes Brunonia Barry, Lisa Genova, Jeff Kinney, Chris Paolini, J.A. Konrath, Seth Godin and me with my forthcoming book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific.) These writers understand not just the enormous power that 21st century technology offers writers and other creators, but the dire professional consequences of keeping one's head in the sand.

Create a career path based on rational choices and a clear view of reality, instead of on speculation and starry-eyed fantasies; stay away from people and organizations who seek to disempower you, financially, contractually, or otherwise; and you should do fine.

(c) 2010 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. Permission granted to reproduce this article noncommercially so long as full authorship and copyright statements are included.