Friday, July 13, 2012

Rearing its Head

Ye Old MFA Debate is happening on this blog in the comments section of a recent post.  It goes like this:

Anonymous 1: "It's gotten to the point where an MFA is a license enabling one to practice. Just like dentistry or law require a license. Can only "trained" writers produce good work? In today's literary world a discriminatory mindset prevails. -- and this is wrong. But those in academia are in the driver's seat -- and they won't change a status quo that favors them. I know -- this is an old gripe, But that doesn't make it any less valid."

Anonymous 2: "No, what makes your gripe less valid is how silly it is. . . ."

Anonymous 1: "Silly? That's it? Perfect example of the attitude I'm talking about. One that reeks of a superior dismissiveness. (BTW, what MFA program did you attend?)"

Anonymous 2: "You don't offer any evidence for your argument--that's what makes it silly. Sorry if that's elitist. Now to begin: have you considered how many people with MFAs are also getting rejected? The MFA is a chance to work with established writers and to network and to teach--in no way is it a license that 'enables one to practice.' I know plenty of MFAers who send out story after story with nothing to show. Also: can only 'trained' writers produce good work? Uh, have you been reading lately? 'Good' work is among the rarest published. 'Good' work has a hard time finding a market. Publishers aren't interested in 'good.' They want something that 'sells.' Academia in the driver's seat? Tell that to the University of Missouri Press, one of the last best places for literary fiction. Their funding has been yanked. Also: Have you considered that in order to get a job in academia, today's writers must first have published with major publishers? Lastly: you're going to dismiss Jacob Appel and his work because of his degree? That is ridiculous. Go back through this blog and read the posts where Jacob is mentioned. He has had to work and work and work. It's insulting that you would try to diminish him in any way by suggesting that he hasn't earned his success. Now, you may not like my attitude but, upon examination, yours is quite a bit worse. A real writer wouldn't begrudge anyone else his/her success, because a real writer understands how difficult it is to write. In an MFA program or not."

Anonymous 1: "You still miss my point. Sure, a lot of writers with an MFA don't get published. But at least they have a shot at getting read. Why else would almost every writer in a magazine or journal of any prestige have an MFA? The point is this: if you do NOT have an MFA, you aren't even in the running (unless you're writng in a popular genre; but I'm talking literary fiction -- by which I mean "good" fiction). Some people in the "establishment" admit this; some even lament it. I had a email discussion about the state of things with an editor in a top tier publication (east coast city) and he wrote me -- exact words: "You're right -- it's all MFA all the time. Don't know quite what to do about it." Why did he respond? Because 1) he was an editor of non-fiction and 2) he was a man in his late sixties. Anybody who writes well has my respect. But a lot of what I see published in the last ten years I don't consider to be good. Much less very good -- or great. A lot of the writers who did great work never got an MFA. Back in the day, it was."


Court Merrigan said...

Anon #1's problem is, he thinks literary fiction is "good", e.g., better than genre fiction, while failing to realize that literary fiction is simply another genre.

Anonymous said...

I see this debate come up quite often, here and at other sites. As a current MFA candidate at what is a top ten program according to the PW/Seth Abramson rankings (you might think such rankings are BS, and you might be right--just trying to offer some credentials), perhaps I can shed some light, or at any rate offer my opinion on the value of an MFA.

The way people talk about it, the gatekeepers at magazines and publishing houses don't let you in the door without flashing your MFA security badge. I can assure you, with or without an MFA, you are usually not getting through these doors. Let me put it another way: You are much more likely to get published if you spend the next three years working on your trashy vampire or lite S&M novel, than if you spend them workshopping and teaching at Iowa or Brown or wherever.

I have worked on the editorial board of one of the better-known literary magazines. I can 100% unequivocally state that we gave no preference to submissions from MFA holders. After the first week, I barely read the cover letters, and at any rate learned quickly that academic pedigree and even former publications had very little correlation with the likely quality of a piece. It's true that we had a slush pile and an "Approved" pile (rubber stamped for various reasons by the editor), but to my knowledge they weren't categorized as such b/c of the author's academic history. I read a metric ton of slush submissions from MFAers out of top-flight programs.

Here's the main thing an MFA degree is good for: having time to write. That's it. Having two or three funded years to learn and to work on your projects. Afterwards, the large majority of MFA holders return to the workforce.

Now, it's true that you get to network a little. You meet people you wouldn't have met otherwise, and I'm sure a few savvy types manage to parlay these social connections into publishing deals, but I've never seen it. MFA or no MFA, getting published mostly comes down to working harder than everyone else.

Anonymous said...

UGH. This debate always feels to me like the same sort of conspiracy theory that leads people to claim a left-wing media cabal. You'll see it if you want, but you're bending the facts backward: a lot of writers have MFAs not because they feel they need one to be published but because (gasp) THEY LOVE WRITING AND WANT TO SPEND A LOT OF TIME PERFECTING THEIR CRAFT AND MFAS HELP THEM DO THIS. It's a self-selecting degree in that sense.

I find it odd that I rarely ever see discussed the idea that MFAs can make people better writers and that is why people get them and also why people publish during and after their programs. For a lot of people I know, there was never even an attempt to publish before the MFA. The degree often gives people tools to publish they didn't have before, in all senses. So why is it surprising that people with MFAs are often published?

And for the record, I've been published plenty and I almost never include my academic information in my cover letters. In fact, I get the sense that journals, publishers and agents are actively looking for non-MFAed writers because they seem more authentic. If anything, I've run into reverse, anti-MFA snobbery FAR more often than it's opposite. In fact, I've NEVER heard anyone say of anyone ever, "Oh, that person is a really good writer but he doesn't have an MFA so I totally can't take him seriously." Ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

The post above makes some very good points. It takes a certain type of person to even want to do an MFA--the type of person who's willing to uproot themselves for 2-4 years and spend most of those years writing, studying writing, talking about writing and teaching writing. Should it be hugely surprising that this type of person is, on average, harder working and, to put it bluntly, better at writing than the average non-MFA writer? I don't think so.

It's true that, as per Anon 1's complaints, back in the day, plenty of great writers didn't have MFAs. But back in the day, there weren't a million MFA programs and a thousand offering full funding. It's not pro-MFA to say that most serious writers in 2012 will at least consider availing themselves of the resources an MFA provides, just a statement of fact. The idealized "writer as a lone voice in the wilderness" persists, and there are some examples, but by and large talented writers in today's economy are going to take advantage of the one opportunity they have to get funding and health insurance for a few years, and why shouldn't they?

Anonymous said...

I also know plenty of writers, and happen to be one, myself, who were publishing before ever considering an MFA...and who subsequently continue to publish without ever mentioning their academic backgrounds in a cover letter. Truly, I DO NOT MENTION IT, because at least in that context it seems utterly irrelevant. My cover letter says pretty much this: Here's a story. Hope you read it, hope you want it. If not, thanks anyhoo. I send stories out, and they get taken or rejected, and unless some unimaginably curious slush-pile reader with some unimaginable amount of time on her hands is doing some fairly serious googling, magazine readers don't know whether I have an MFA or not.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, honestly, to anyone who's ever worked at a literary magazine, the paranoid misapprehension out there that readers are looking for MFA degrees in cover letters is completely laughable. No one cares. No one really cares about anything in a cover letter, barring the person already being well known. That helps. But even bigtime credits--i.e New Yorker, Paris Review, etc.--don't really raise eyebrows after the first couple of stories with said CLs that turn out to stink.

People need to spend less time being bitter about MFAs and more time improving their writing, is the bottom line. Good writing ultimately gets published.

Anonymous said...

For the last year or so I visit this site about twice a month. It's lost all vitality -- and now I see why.
The criticism that the first anon makes would have, in the past, been supported. But what do I see? -- all pro-MFA reponses.
So what's become of all those who held the belief that all was not hunky-dory in this best of all possible literary worlds --that, in fact, it stinks? Have they given up and retired from the fray (realizing it's useless to fight City Hall)? Have they committed suicide (I hope not; it's not worth it). Have they moved to another blog?
BTW -- I occasionally read MFA-generated fiction. To make a generalization: finely-wrought prose totally lacking in substance. It's Yuppy fiction.
This is the masterful product of MFA programs?
Read Saramago's Blindness, people, and weep. You can't learn that in any class.

Anonymous said...


I think that readers of this blog are tired of the kind of silliness inherent in your argument (if you could call the kinds of unsupported generalizations you make an argument). What's at stake for you in denigrating MFA programs or anyone else's writing for that matter? And Yuppy fiction? Is this the '80s?

Anonymous said...

To 7/19 Anon,

Sorry to hear that you didn't get accepted to an MFA program this year. Better luck next time!

Anonymous said...

Being pro-good writing is not at all the same as being pro-MFA. The generalizations that happen in this argument are truly astounding.

Cari Hislop said...

I blame the American culture which encourages self-delusion on a grand expensive scale. Being able to "think up" a beginning middle and end or graduate from a program doesn't make one a story teller. Stories are independent domineering wraiths who appear out of nowhere and take over one's life until they've had their say. Unless you're telling the story of your life then your life takes over your life, but that's another story.