Tuesday, April 1, 2008

In Defense of Academe

In response to a blog post from yesterday, a hostile commenter left this bit of muscle, when I'd written: "As for the criticism of literary academia on this blog, I welcome it, along with any other critical thought about any other topic, including the blog itself. I think a lively exchange of ideas is healthy, don't you?"

"No. Not if you're criticizing academia. Without it there would be no journals, nowhere to publish fiction or poetry, no awards or support of any kind for writers. Remember that. How dare these uneducated (and probably unpublished) writers criticize the MFA, the academic system, and journals? Probably because these journals reject their work. There is no substitute for paying your dues and learning. Go back to school, work your way up. You'll be happier, and in the end you will be published."

I hope such a narrow, ungenerous response does not represent what we might find inside those ivory towers! But anyway, we've been dancing around this topic for months, so we might as well have it.

Question of the Month: "To MFA or not to MFA?"

Readers, you decide.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

somebody who calls other people 'uneducated' (as though it were an insult) and says things like 'how dare you'...what can you say? I mean, the whiff of self-righteous I-had-to-do-this-so-you-should-have-to-do-this-too bullsh*t is too stiff, mister. are you for real? academia is above being criticized?

but as per my thoughts on the old mfa degree. i think it's a fine and dandy thing to pursue if you want to work closely with some peers and some working writers who also happen to teach. if you think that the degree will get you gainful employment or even publication...sorry, charlie. that comes from working and sweating and enjoying the height of your anonymity (which for me is right now!)

it also comes down to the program. some are better than others. and in terms of money and time, you might be better off hiring one of these acclaimed author-types in the classifieds of poets & writers magazine than paying technology fees at the u.

that said, there are some fine writers/teachers/human beings who make their bread from these programs. and some real jerk, ego-maniac types. (name names? never)but if you really want to write, if it's more than just a hobby, you're going to need somebody's help along the way.

and even once you've gone pro, you'll still need help. not a bad idea to learn how to ask for it and how to find it.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog! I am addicted.
I have an MFA from Iowa --but whatever. I don't think journals care one way or another, unless of course they're publishing a buddy, which I know is often the case. However, when I've been on a judging panelfor a literary award, I 've almost always rooted for the person not associated with academia, figuring--correctly or not--that the unassociated writer was more deserving.

The 'Go Back to School, work your way up' comment seems a little off-base, in that success is not so much talent or even luck, but that other thing......

Thanks for your terrific blog and I wish you all the luck in the world with your new novel.

Anonymous said...

I hate to debate and I think that this is a particularly silly question to wrestle with at all, considering that there truly is no right or wrong answer here...however, that said, here's my two cents.

I wouldn't have been published or had the modest amount of success that I have, had I not gone for my MFA. I'm a better writer, with a better understanding of the business aspect of these things for having received my MFA.

However, this is only my personal experience and is based on my state of complete ignorance to all things publishing related prior to going back to school.

For me, the MFA was crucial as the jumpstart for my "literary career"

For others, it may not be required. I don't think there's any sort of one-size fits all route to success in any field, and especially not in one as subjective as writing.

a nameless (and blameless) editor said...

Sigh. I have been irritated by these comments on this blog and only wonder what the motive could possibly be. Will some people never learn?

This is not the day of Flannery O'Connor or F. Scott Fitzgerald or whoever your heroes happen to be. Their day is past. You probably don't use a typewriter to draft your stories, either. In case you haven't noticed, literature is more or less an academic industry now and the MFA has become its gold standard, even outside of the so called "ivory tower"; almost every literary agent under 30 has an MFA. You expect to be taken seriously without one? Think about it, people.

I hold a fiction editor post at an upper tier journal. While we are technically open to anyone, I do have to wonder about those outside academia who are submitting. I have to question your motive.

And I'll tell you why my serious attention is given to submissions that come from an MFA graduate or student. First, because it shows dedication: he or she is serious about the writing craft; this person has decided to make the craft his or her professional career. Second, because it shows that a qualified authority has also seen at least some ability in this person's writing, and is guiding them appropriately. But there is also an unavoidable third reason. As a teacher my salary does comes from student tuition, and I say with confidence that all teachers in my position realize this. It behooves us to support the very system that keeps us going, so common sense says to pay closer attention and give extra support to those who are part of it. You don't have to have the MFA yet, but as long as you're working on it, it shows that you're serious.

Even if you choose to ignore me, think of the practical considerations, people. If you don't have an MFA or aren't working on one, I have to ask: what are you doing??? This is an academic journal of new writing; almost everyone who reads it is teaching writing or somehow connected to the "ivory tower". Among journals, we are among the more generous; besides the token copies and discounts, we pay $20 per page for literary fiction. It usually works out to around $200 for an accepted story. This is a nice perk, but if you're not a student, you're simply taking these funds away from those emerging or established professionals they were intended for. Surely you don't expect to survive on acceptance monies alone!

Steve said...

What you describe as sensibility on your part--of being skeptical about those writing without the degree--sounds an awful lot like a way of justifying your laziness as an editor.

I expect more from my "upper tier" journals.

pr said...

Finally, the truth! (I'm referring to the comment from the editor.)
As Truth, it is valuable and should be heeded (especially by those insisting that an MFA doesn't matter in getting published).
Yet it is an apologia for exclusivity. Is exclusivity (and its first cousin, discrimination) ever good? Healthy? Inbreeding was a factor in the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, you know.
What of the people who didn't have the luxury of pursuing an MFA -- who had to get down to the task of making a living? Or who had a non-academic nature? Is their work to be ignored? Yes, it seems so.
And why does so much of the fiction that appears in literary journals have an appeal only to other MFAers? What is your circulation, Mr. Editor? I'm talkng about outside academia. Is John I. (for Intelligent) Public interested in what you publish?
Still, I admire and respect your honesty.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

I'm an MFA dropout. One of the zillions of reasons besides that the director shot himself in the head and I was already depressed: Neither of my two assigned MFA teachers had one. One insisted that I, with the same (Harvard) Ph.D. she had, didn't need one and should get the hell out of there. There was nothing I could do with an MFA that I couldn't do without. The other, during my stay there, was quoted in an interview in Writer's Chronicle saying that though she taught in an MFA program because writers need jobs and like to socialize, she herself could never go through such a program. Writers were inherently rebels, questioners of the status quo, and trying to educate them in the effete halls of academe was simply a contradiction in terms. Also, neither showed anyone their writing until they were done, which had to be in its own time, and forcing students to show work before it had "gelled," before they were ready to show it, did more harm than good. I finished a Ph.D. program at Harvard with flying colors. I found the Bennington MFA program, in contrast, to be a total joke of a graduate school, with zero communication among teachers, "policies made up on the spot by individual teachers," some crazy-ass teacher interactions with no outlet for complaints as the teachers were always right. I will NEVER take another writing class again. Oh, and I published fiction before entering the program. None since. I'm still recovering from PTSD. Am I educated enough for you Mr.Editor?

Anonymous said...

"Is John I. (for Intelligent) Public interested in what you publish?"

Since you asked: no, I'm not. I hate literary journals.

It's the wrong question, though. Journals are the forums for discussion among academics, for ideas relevant to academia.

Glossies are commercial products for the general public, and their high-paying content is written by pros.

The point of all this is that high-paying fiction for the glossies is extinct. So the only "fiction writers" now are academics, outside of some struggling rebels.

Turning a uni journal into a commercial glossy won't work, and it's the wrong solution anyway: you'd have to change the whole focus and content of the journal.

rmellis said...

My pal Brian Hall doesn't have an MFA and doesn't teach, and he doesn't have any trouble getting published or being taken seriously. He is also probably the smartest writer I know, inside or outside of academia.

But MFA programs have also helped lots of writers, including myself, focus on writing and get established.

There are many paths...

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous #3, I don't think there is a "one size fits all route to success" especially not in a creative field like writing.

For some, the MFA is an intensive program to work through writing and fine tune your skill. It's an exploratory opportunity. I think it's exciting that we now have programs such as the MFA. If these types of programs were around when many of the classics were produced I think Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dosteovsky (whoever) would have been thrilled to partake. I wouldn't scoff at such a great opporunity.

For me, I would do the MFA so that I could teach writing. Why? Because the MFA is the terminal degree for creative writing instructors and you can be paid the same as a PhD teaching Brit. Lit. It's true. Sorry. Also, among other reasons, I just want the opportunity to grow in my own writing. However, this isn't for everyone.
Some people find the same opportunity in a writing community, such as the one writer, rejected lives in. Others may find opportunity in solitary. Who cares how you grow as a writer. "To each his own." Why do we have to judge that?

-C

Anonymous said...

"I think Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dosteovsky (whoever) would have been thrilled to partake."

That's what all the MFA program-masters say. They forget that so many of these "classic" authors were college dropouts. (Or never went in the first place.)

It is, admittedly, a great way to learn how to teach writing. But to write good fiction?

Sorry. Try Again.

Anonymous said...

different world, different times. aint no way around it now - its work but im havin fun too. buy the ticket, take the ride

Anonymous said...

I'm not an "MFA program-master," just someone who believes in writers coming from all backgrounds.

An MFA doesn't mean you will write good fiction. It doesn't assure anything. The programs can only promise structure where it is lacking. Some writers thrive with structure, some don't. It depends on what type of writer you are.

-C

Anonymous said...

The fact that many classic authors were college drop outs doesn't have much relevance now. If it did we would have to assume that college programs have stayed exactly the same. However, they haven't. Programs have evolved and now recognize many different talents.

Also, people drop out of college for many reasons (family situation, money, boredom, etc.). We cannot use this as ammunition against academic writers - "so and so dropped out of college and became a great writer, therefore if you want to be a great writer, you have to drop out of college." That isn't an accurate statement.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, these so-called "classic" writers don't have much relevance to our world today. If you look into it, many of them only got where they were because there was a strong commercial demand for fiction. It was the mass entertainment of the time. Now we have YouTube. Those writers were mere entertainers, often self-taught, and would likely have failed miserably in the academy. Still, we now have programs for everybody. Whatever your interest, you can find it. I doubt you will get far without it, that's just the way of the world. But whatever, you do have free will. The journals try to make some concessions, and keep up with youth culture. Look at all the experimentation going on. You won't ever find stuffy or out of date work in the journals. Most strive to be fresh. So give it a chance. It's an exciting time.

Anonymous said...

Anon said: "So the only 'fiction writers' now are academics, outside of some struggling rebels."

Are you kidding me? Pardon my French Canadian but that's a load d'hostie. Personally, I've never 'sold' a story to an academic journal (I've published a few research articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, but that's beside the point). I have nothing against literary journals on principle, but I do have this bizarre preference for getting paid for my work and being able to walk into a Chapters and find copies of the magazine/anthology where my work is published *on the shelves*. Is The-back-of-beyond Review carried by Chapters, perchance?

And, since you asked, yes, I've sold my stories, quite a few of them. Sans MFA.

I'm not bashing MFAs, but to say that without one you'll never make money or get critical attention for your fiction is misguided at best.

Anonymous said...

"Pardon my French Canadian but that's a load d'hostie."

So are you saying that you're a professional writer of fiction -- or is it your hobby?


"I do have this bizarre preference for getting paid for my work and being able to walk into a Chapters and find copies of the magazine/anthology where my work is published *on the shelves*."

Me too. But where? I don't see much fiction on the shelves at all. Care to name names?


"I'm not bashing MFAs, but to say that without one you'll never make money" ...

The point is: with an MFA, you'll make money as a teacher. And get published in the journals that are for and by other teachers. Without one, you'll have to find some other job besides teacher, and get published in ... well, what's out there on the rack? The New Yorker? Harpers? The Atlantic Summer Fiction issue? That's a prize; it's no career for anybody.

Anonymous said...

I get paid for my fiction, Anon, but I earn the lion's share of my money as a vet, so writing is my part-time job. I wouldn't make as much money teaching as I do at my present job (and I have no desire to teach anyway), so an MFA wouldn't make economic sense for me. I love my day job too--it's not just a way I earn money.

Sure, I'll name names. One of my stories was published (for actual money) in Tennis Shorts: Great Writing on Tennis and Life (from Citadel, published in 2005). That's a paperback antho. The hardcover edition came out a couple of years earlier. That was my first publication sold on the shelves at Chapters. My experience is that anthologies are the way to go if you want copies on the shelf in a bookstore for more than a month or two.

Part of going beyond being a "hobbyist" writer is doing the market research, finding markets with good exposure which pay good money and which buy stories over-the-transom. You don't need an MFA for that, or connections.

Again, I'm not bashing MFAs, just saying it's not the only way to go.

Anonymous said...

"I get paid for my fiction, Anon, but I earn the lion's share of my money as a vet, so writing is my part-time job."

Well then I think we're on the same page. It's easy to say you get paid for your fiction when you sell one or two stories a year. I can say that too. Now try making it your career. Even try earning half your money at it. Won't happen for me for the same reason it won't for you: there just aren't that many markets. Therefore, I have to hold another job. However, the way it used to be for decades is that if you were good enough at it, you could make writing fiction your full-time job; and in fact, if you wanted to be a great writer and you had the talent, certainly it would have to be your full time job. But now that's about impossible to do.

MFAs abound, but that's a different world, that's the world of teaching at the college level and writing in college forums, not writing commercial fiction for "markets with good exposure which pay good money and which buy stories over-the-transom"; an MFA has nothing to do with those markets and editors at those markets don't care if you're a fourth grade dropout, so long as you can give them the copy they need. These writers don't need no school or degree. But I'm not against MFAs like some of these commenters. MFAs are great if you love literature and want to spend you life doing something with it. Teach or whatever, write a bit too. But again, a good choice for the serious (full-time career) writer? No. If you are of the mindset of the full-time writer, you're SOL. You have nowhere to publish, and the MFA is out of the question: you couldn't survive in the college world. You wouldn't find the audience you need and they wouldn't want your stories anyway.

I guess I don't care about what everyone above is debating, my only point is that fiction is divided. There is the commercial fiction career (which is gone), and the academic career that "studies" writing (MFA), which is where most writerly types flock now. Even the literary agents, as someone pointed out. It might solve the paycheck problem but it's still not a career of writing, and even if you're an MFA journal superstar you still won't be widely read, which for the commercial writer is the point of it all.

bookfraud said...

well, it looked like you kicked up a real shitstorm here.

as an mfa grad myself, i don't have much to add except that it probably had some deleterious effects on me as a writer (in terms of the quality of my writing) but helped me make contacts and understand the publishing world.

like that's helped one damn bit.

are you sure the original poster wasn't being tongue-in-cheek?

Anonymous said...

commercial writing sux

Lori Witzel said...

Oh my -- I followed another blogger's trail here, and I'm doing everything I can not to laugh myself silly at some of these comments. Brilliant parody -- or someone who doesn't know much, degreed or no.

"...there was a strong commercial demand for fiction. It was the mass entertainment of the time. Now we have YouTube. Those writers were mere entertainers, often self-taught, and would likely have failed miserably in the academy. ..."

Mere entertainers like Sam Beckett? Like Dostoevsky? Goodness, we have streaming video now -- all that dusty old media is bound to die off any minute. And now that's past, folks without the imprimatur of the degree oughta pack it in -- or get an MFA if they're serious about writing... *snork*

This sounds like the sorts of arguments one would hear in Paris during Bouguereau's tenure -- arguments that had little impact (other than making it difficult to find high-status venues for exhibit) on Delacroix and Millet, much less Degas, Gauguin, et al.

I'm tickled this faux-kerfuffle, like a zombie in Shaun of the Dead, lives again.

Cate said...

As a bright-eyed writer just beginning her MFA, I have a hard time trying to explain to people why I've chosen to spend the next couple years (gasp) writing instead of (groan) making money. The answer is two-fold: one, because I'm not ready to not be in school yet (what's a little more debt? a few more deferments?) and two, because I want to be better. Better than the next guy? No. Better than I was when I started.

For me, my MFA is about spending time in a literary community, learning about the craft from writers who I admire, improving myself. It isn't about publishing for me. Sure, it's nice to see your stuff in print, but at the end of the day that isn't why I write.

And I'm still young and stupid enough to really believe that.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion among, what appears to be, quite young posters. The truth is that literacy (reading and writing) is, for a majority of students, at the basement level. Those who can actually create, imagine, and dream, and then do so on paper with some ability, with some understanding of the English language, is a very small number. I am surprised that there are that many MFAs out there. I have a PhD in Lit. and have been teaching composition courses and lit. for over ten years at a large university, and only a handful of young people can actually write. If you do not know the basic rules (punctuation, sentence structure, parts of speech) nor have any idea how vast and beautiful the English language is (usually obtained by having read voraciously), how can you write in a new and fresh way? I think for many the "old" writers (i.e., Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy) are still the epitome of genius and incredible storytelling and maybe never equalled. Hopefully the day when people care about reading again (and, yes, reading books that are classics and/or make you think) is just around the corner. For now, those of us in the Humanities in academe may not be teaching lit. much longer. Lit. courses are slowly being cut, and "creative" writing may not be far behind. Students, in general, have little use for either in the 'real world.' Being educated and well-rounded is not a requirement or a goal for many who are getting a college degree. That said, college degrees also mean much less today. Employers are checking credentials more often now, as they do not trust the degrees, and it does not matter from which kind of college you graduate- an Ivy League, a Big 10, a state university, a liberal arts school - because it is well known now that students are 'passed along' at lower levels and also in college when they should not be. What does this say about our society? Would you want someone marginally qualified to be "passed along" in med school and then operate on you? Or someone who can not write who.... It goes on and on, and has and will have serious implications. Something to ponder...

Boondocks Journalist said...

Sheesh. Reading this comments thread has been quite an experience.

I have a Ph.D in Comparative Literature from Berkeley. I used to think I would get a high-paying job, then write fiction in my spare time. I spent six years fruitlessly trying to find a tenure-track position, despite publishing in a good journal in my field. On the job market, I met many MFA grads who were scrambling desperately for jobs of their own. (Yes, Comp Lit is a particularly stupid degree to have. But in general, there is an oversupply of MAs and Ph.Ds in the humanities.)

In the end, I gave up and discovered there were people in the "real world" who valued my writing and editing skills enough to pay me for them. Do I regret having the Ph.D? No-- I enjoyed those years of reading and study. Has it had any practical value to me? None.

I was lucky enough not to go into debt for that degree. But there's no way you'd catch me in an MFA program now.

I'm not knocking it for everyone. By no means. But I've had all the schoolin' I want or need at this point. And I would certainly caution anyone going for an MFA to keep in mind that a good job (i.e., non-adjunct, with a living wage) is not guaranteed.

I'm enlightened and dismayed by the comments from editors saying they don't give serious consideration to submissions from writers without MFAs. I understand their position, because I know how little academic turf there is and how fiercely it must be defended. But it goes against my belief that writing should be judged ... as writing. And I will try, if I can, to submit to journals that somehow manage to consider the writing in the slushpile as writing, not as material for a tenure review.