From MFAs to Bloggers, Why Are There So Many Young Writers?

04/02/2015 05:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015
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The Internet loves to argue about MFAs. It's a touchy subject. Every few months some insider will publish an article that either rebukes the idea of the MFA program as a Ponzi scheme controlled by fascist eggheads, or upholds it as an Alamo for literary refugees. Then a bounty of hot takes will play ping-pong with some nuance and anecdote until everyone's opinion is sufficiently polarized.

In February, a former MFA instructor named Ryan Boudinot pulled all the stops in a piece for The Stranger that railed against an MFA culture that, he seems to believe, has been overrun by dilettantes and narcissists. His first two points were "Writers are born with talent" and "If you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it."

Suffice it to say the Internet was pissed. The article was so inflammatory that The Stranger received several requests to pull the article--which, in the very gentle world of literary fiction, is tantamount to a death threat. Someone, somewhere, most assuredly referred to the controversy as #MFAgate.

Electric Literature published probably the hottest take, and it was apparently so hot that it had to be published anonymously. The gist of that one came down to this: There are too many MFA programs popping up to supply an unfortunate and frankly misguided demand for graduate writing degrees, and unfunded MFA programs should be ashamed of themselves for existing.

But here's the question that none of these hot takes ever seems to ask: Why are there so many young aspiring writers, and why are so many of them seeking statistically useless degrees? It's because of a perfect storm of generational entitlement, high educational attainment, and a devalued market for words.

I don't have an MFA, but I am a writer, and that should neither surprise nor interest you. Writers are alarmingly common in 2015, at a time when employable skills are becoming more rarified with each graduating class. We're at a point where saying "I'm a writer" is shorthand for "I was never good at math."

It's certainly true that learning does not stop and start in the classroom, but it's safe to assume Americans are, on average, better educated than they were 70 years ago. In 1940, less than 40 percent of Americans had completed high school, whereas today that figure stands just north of 90 percent. Over the same period, the number of Americans with a bachelor's degree has skyrocketed from 8 to 30 percent.

Educational attainment is a good thing. Employment standards may tighten as the supply of college educated workers rises, but a more skilled workforce makes for a more competitive job market. That's Economics 101.

Given this competition, not to mention the dramatic uptick in literacy rates over the last century, it's also safe to assume there are more (competent) writers today than there were in 1940. That's not to say the quality of writing has improved, just that there are more people engaged with the craft--whether out of professional necessity or simple creative expression.

And that lowers the barrier to entry. Every creative medium--be it film, writing, painting, music, acting, or graphic design--requires some level of pedagogical initiation. But the thing with writing is that pretty much everyone, at some point in their education, receives that baseline level of instruction. It's far less exclusive.

So the sad truth is that writing is no longer a skill, at least not in a competitive sense. A recent study of millennial professionals by professors at the University of Virginia and New York University placed "written communication" skills on the same level as "critical thinking" and "problem solving" when it comes to landing a job.

Now think about Gen-Y.

I'm a millennial, and there's nothing I hate more than millennial-bashing, but I can't deny that a lot of Americans my age have spent their whole lives being emotionally coddled by their parents. This frequently leads to the unfortunate stereotypes of entitlement and narcissism. It just does, and survey after survey shows it. But it also leads to a false perception of the realities of the labor market. Not only do aspiring Gen-Y writers overestimate the likelihood of their success, they see it as somewhat inevitable, due to a lifetime of being told they're special.

Worse yet, because Gen-Y is the most educated generation in American history, a larger proportion of them already fancy themselves as writers. For a nastier subset of millennials with a creative bent but not the inclination to learn how to paint or illustrate or play the piano, writing is the most familiar form of creative expression. Why not give it a go? That anonymous post for Electric Literature put it best: "We've managed to confuse the fact that a good writer could be anyone with the idea that anyone could be a good writer."

In short, your ability to write clearly and effectively has become an interview platitude. And even if your end goal is to teach, an MFA--or even a PhD--won't help much. According to a recent report in Poets & Writers, each year, less than 1 percent of MFA graduates will land a full-time teaching position at the university level.

And then there's the financial reality. Among self-published or "DIY" authors, average annual income is less than $5,000, according to a Digital Book World survey. That figure hardly even doubles among traditionally published authors. Journalists and content writers don't have it much better. All the way back in 2008, Pew reported on a trend among both print and online publications to reduce staff while simultaneously increasing the speed and volume of editorial output. This could be understood as the "BuzzFeed effect."

Professional writing--be it screenwriting or copywriting--has never been a simple career path, let alone a financially sound one. The difference today is that the competition is way too fierce for the demand. Broaden the category to include all writers and authors--everything from journalists to screenwriters--and the median annual wage is still less than $58,000, according to Labor Department data. Compare that to $113,000 among lawyers, and $93,000 among entry level software developers.

The internet hasn't helped either. The freedom to publish freely and indiscriminately on blogs or social media has only devalued the status of writing as a profession, while broadening young writers' exposure to the craft. Or, in the stuffy parlance of economics, there is an oversupply of writers and written content, and because of this its value as a market commodity has plummeted. Media outlets, with their paltry budgets, know this more than anyone. Freelancers, with their paltry salaries, feel it more than anyone. Combine this with the willingness of many young writers to work for free (in the interest of simply getting published) and you begin to see how troubling the situation is.

But we still haven't answered the question: Why, despite such glaring competitive adversity and financial scarcity, are millennials funneling into the profession? Why are new MFA programs popping up like daisies?

I believe it's result of a toxic combination of generational entitlement, high educational attainment, and a newfound freedom of publication (thanks, Internet). But for writers who are already several years into their careers--writers like me--there's another more insidious reason: path dependency.

There comes a point when any struggling young writer has to make a choice: Continue on this path you've set out for yourself--a path that requires a relentless familiarity with rejection, failure, and destitution--or alter your trajectory and learn another, more hireable skill--such as teaching, graphic design, or accounting.

I can't speak for every writer, but I can say that it was this personal crisis that convinced me I needed to get an MFA. Several times over the past few years I applied to a handful of fully-funded MFA programs. (I happen to agree with the Electric Literature article that one should never pay for an MFA.) Every last one of them rejected me.

That's a tough pill to swallow, especially for a millennial. But like every young writer's choice about which path to take in life--the one of financial adequacy and job security, or the one of romantic destitution--there is another choice with regards to the experience of rejection: You can take it personally and let your own self-confidence wither into self-loathing, or you can channel that experience through meanders of bitterness and envy and spite, only to arrive at a state of resolve and righteous conviction.

I felt that for some time, resentful of MFA culture and the enviable experience of young writers who are given two years to do nothing but write. Eventually, that resentment turned to outright condemnation of the very idea of the MFA program. I ridiculed the system as a taste-making ivory tower reserved for sycophants and elitists. I complained about the boring "house style" of MFA programs, the belittling of so-called "genre" fiction, and the lamb-like unwillingness to offend anyone or anything.

But this thinking is silly, and unproductive. I have friends who have attended MFA programs, and their writing has drastically improved because of it. I also have friends who are great writers but have no business getting an MFA. There is no hard and fast rule, and I think it's premature to talk about the MFA's impact on 21st century literature. The only truth I know is that writing is a solitary endeavor rife with frustration, turmoil, and even resentment. But that's the stuff of inspiration.

For writers, there is no path that is nobler than others, even for a generation that, I believe, suffers from a lack of humility. I may very well be a victim of that same pride and entitlement, but I'm still on a path, and it's the only path I know.