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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Guess E Told Us!

The old MFA-argument has reared its ugly head in the comments section of yesterday's post. One LROD regular, who calls herself E., has this to say about that:

"Jesus God, the MFA crap again. I am so fucking sick of this argument -- frighteningly similar to the anti-intellectualism of the outgoing neocon fearmongers -- that to actually study a subject is to somehow limit one's ability in that subject, to stifle one's worldview, and to fail to be a real, authentic, genuine "artist" (or American, if you like).

For the umpteenth time, people: MFA programs do not program writers to write in a certain way--to value or emulate particular elements or style or forms--any more than individuals not in MFA programs train themselves by reading what they admire and growing as a result of the exposure. I challenge anyone to try to sculpt another writer's voice by way of instruction, discussion, and critique; it is impossible. Sure, it's possible to imitate, but imitation is not sustainable.

Furthermore, who says the finalists in this contest are recent MFA grads? Could it be they graduated ten, twenty years ago? It could. Who says they earned their degrees when they were in their tender twenties? It may be that, like me and many of my fellow MFA classmates, they are in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. But even if they're not... Extrapolator Anon, you know *nothing* about these people, least of all the extent of their personal life experiences. Paint with a broad brush much?

As for being in debt: I'm not, because I have a full ride. Elitist luck? No; I worked to be admitted, and I'm working my ass off in the program as a writer and a TA. Most MFA programs offer at least partial funding; most students manage to sidestep this mythic mountain of debt I keep reading about. The fact that I'm lucky to be doing this doesn't make me a hack writer. I've carved out time at great personal sacrifice to devote myself to writing. After my three years are up, it's back to writing between the margins of a fulltime job, just like I did before.

There are a lot of reasons to whine about the state of publishing. People who dedicate themselves to studying the art are not one of those reasons.

If you're going to make an argument, make it original and cogent, will you please?"

She makes a good argument. I'm almost convinced. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

"that to actually study a subject is to somehow limit one's ability in that subject, "

I think the point of the post to which you're responding, E, is that one's ability to write about the wider world is somewhat limited by a life which largely revolves around the University.

Of course, the obvious response is that one's "experience" is ALSO limited by a life which only consists of, for example, unskilled labor.

Either milieu may produce lasting literature - or not.

I think the frustration, for many of us, is that, at this point in the ongoing saga of American publishing, the literature produced by MFA writers is overrepresented, and other voices are underrepresented.

I don't agree that MFA writers are to blame for why no one reads. I do agree, however, that in an ideal world their ouput would ideally be balanced by other viewpoints and life experience.

Unfortunately, the gatekeepers, appear intent on perpetuating a particular stream of literature. And I think it's fair to say that the homogeny of what they produce has had an effect on the appeal of literature to a wider audience.

Anonymous said...

As for MFA programs, good or bad, the proof is in the pudding. And when I taste the pudding, I don't like it.
Why don't you get an MFA, w/r? I can't understand that. You strive so hard, but haven't taken the obvious step.

Anonymous said...

anon: There are many reasons why people cannot get an MFA. For example, they may not physically be able to attend a university. That's certainly my case; we live where my husband can work and there isn't any MFA granting institution for many miles around. So I'm a writer sans-MFA for now. That doesn't make me an amateur, poseur writer wannabe. It just makes me a writer constrained by family obligations, which I do not resent. I love my young family and am lucky to have one.

Some people cannot attend MFA programs because they do not have a bachelors degree. They may be very talented self-taught writers, but an MFA requires at least an undergrad degree.

I think the reason why MFA haters on this blog are so touchy and bitter is because there are editors and agents (and MFA grads too) who mistakenly believe that people without MFAs are sub-par writers and not serious about writing. Literature existed long before the MFA degree was invented.

Writer, Rejected said...

Yeah. I don't have the money, or the inclination at this point.

If I were to go back to school, I'd follow-up the master's I have with a PhD in that subject, or maybe something entirely different. I'm not so interested in another MFA.

Besides, I prefer taking the stairs to the elevator. Just like making things harder for myself, I guess.

Writer, Rejected said...

Oh, I meant to say: "I'm not so interested in another MA."

Steve said...

Stroll through your local big-box-book-store and I think you'll find that most authors on the shelves have at least some kind of college degree. We don't knock the BA in psychology who wrote a thriller. Or the scientist who wrote a sci-fi novel.

Anonymous said...

Maybe that's because those degrees (sciences, psychology) actually have a subject matter: a topic, a body of work, rather than just a whole lot of sitting around in workshops listening to some blow hard pontificate. Certainly, there is craft, but most of the authors before the MFA craze started learned it themselves. You can workshop your writing for free if you put together a bunch of writers from the neighborhood. Let's face it. The one thing you get out of an MFA program is time purchased to write and connections from more established writers. These are good things for some, but not for everybody.

Just saying.

Anonymous said...

what is steve talking about this time?

steve always misses the point of the comments! awww, poor steve.

Anonymous said...

Heynony: Even the best writers with MFAs get rejected by top-paying journals where they are unknown to the editors. But you're right, having some connections is better than having none. With a few, you can work your way to the top tier journals slowly but surely. With none...I don't know. I've never met a pshares contributor who went through the slush pile. Just saying. I agree with you. And also with 'd.'

Anonymous said...

Funny, I was actually discussing this very MFA question with my colleague the other day. We are both literature professors, and like other young profs, we have this lingering desire to write and publish our fiction. However, one of us is gung-ho MFA programs and the other, not so much. I'm the one for the programs. This is why:

Everyone gets to his or her writing in a different manner. Some need to sit in front of their laptops for hours, others find a scrap of paper and the words flow freely. Some need extensive probing or exercises to get to the root, while others are better off writing what comes to them. The point is, there is not one way to write. MFA programs allow writers to focus on their craft. What is so wrong about that?

I think some are upset by the idea of the MFA, because they think that the programs were not around for the great writers before us. If they could write without classes, then why shouldn't everyone. Really, creative writing cannot be taught. And I have to argue that this is not what MFA programs are doing, because those who run them know this. These programs exist to teach writers how to perfect their craft, and to allow focus. Focus that may not be manageable outside of an intensive program. So why the bitterness? Can't we all just respect that some thrive with this direction in their writing? That though it may not be for everyone, the MFA is helpful to others?

And honstely, WR, I'm bummed with your comment that you'd rather take the stairs than the escalator. I've been a longtime reader of your blog, because I value your knowledge of the publishing industry; however, I find your comment rather naive. Just because someone is in a program, learning how to hone his or her craft does not mean it is the easy route. In fact, the programs can be quite difficult when considering the competition and the need to constantly produce. To say those in MFA programs do not experience their own "dark nights" is closeminded.

I wish everyone could just accept the idea that everyone takes his or her own route: "to each his own." Just because the MFA may not be your route doesn't mean it is wrong. It may represent different wings, but they are wings all the same.


Writer, Rejected said...


You misunderstand my comment.

I don't mean that MFA's are easy in terms of writing. Believe me, I know that writing is always difficult, no matter who you are or what degree you have. I just meant that I've had to win my contacts slowly over decades from the cold outside. That's the hard way, no? Stairs not elevator.

The business of the publishing business has been hard on me (not that it's easy for all MFA-ers, but for some). ANyway, I have no professorial/famous writerly mentor to usher my way into the literary world. And that's what I think there is to gain from MFA programs: contacts.

But, anyway, it's not surprising you're disappointed in me. I'm very disappointing.

Anonymous said...

I've got fungus on my shower-shoes but I'm not in the big leagues yet. That's the problem, yo.

Anonymous said...

there are other ways to make contacts besides getting an mfa...

how about making friends at a chichi artists' colony? editors who've published you? writers you've been published along side?

it must take work to have *no* friends in the lit biz, after 20 or so years. complain much wr?

your writing should usher you into the literary world on it's own merit. after all the $$$ you won, you sound like an overgrown spoiled brat. i'm sure if your defenders knew all the breaks you've had they'd think twice about championing your blog. your literary lottery winnings trump those of most people with mfa's. if you don't like where your career is at, you have only yourself to blame.

Anonymous said...

LROD is the Mobius strip of blogs. Just when you start to think you're heading in a new and interesting direction, you end up where you started. I'll check back in two or three months when the whole MFA debate returns -- YET AGAIN. But only after a few entries (yawn) on VQR, Narrative, and Darrin Strauss.

Anonymous said...

You do not need a BA to apply to every MFA program.
Low-res programs seem like a possibly good alternative for people constrained by geography, time, etc.
My MFA program paid me! Enough to eat and scribble.

Anonymous said...

Gimme - well said.