Friday, January 4, 2008

On Second Thought

I've been feeling a little guilty about saying an MFA isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Okay, it's probably more helpful to have an MFA on a resume than the equivalent two years of temp work, which is what I'd have otherwise. And certainly, for me, the experience was more than worthwhile; it was life-changing.

I guess what I'm reacting to is the idea that MFA-holders are central to the literary establishment right now, and that non-MFA holders are outsiders -- and I feel that whether this is an accurate assessment or not, it really shouldn't be this way. I don't think a degree program can somehow confer artistic skill, or that the possession of such a degree denotes it. JRL will disgree with me here, but I do think the academy does have a numbing and dulling effect on literature -- though it doesn't have to, and not every program does. But in general, at least some of the blame for the tide of competent mediocrity we have to wade through at the bookstore can be laid at the foot of graduate writing programs. What would Flannery O'Connor say? They encourage too many young writers. There are over 300 graduate writing programs, for cripe's sake. We don't need that many writers. What we need are readers. How many literary magazines can claim they have more people on their subscription list than manuscripts submitted each year? Or even each month? Not many!

But most of the blame for the fact that it's very hard to find a good new book to read belongs to the stupidities of the marketplace. Of course.


Anonymous said...

I certainly don't disagree that academia CAN have that effect. It can take a semi-lousy writer and turn her into a competent one. But it can't make great writers. It can only help those. It can also hurt them, if they let it.

Don't blame writing programs for the flood of mediocrity--blame the publishing industry for publishing it, instead of throwing it in the wastebasket.

rmellis said...

I guess writing programs are only responding to a need, perceived or otherwise.

Still! I loved our program, and know of other good ones, but truly: how GOOD are most programs? That is a great unknown.

moonlight ambulette said...

You know, it always strikes me as a little funny that people get so worked up about MFA programs. Of course I don't think you need one to be a good writer, and they can hamper creativity I think -- all that seeking approval and grants and whatnot. But I definitely feel like I learned a lot about writing from my 3 years in one, and, like you say, more than I would have from 3 years of temp work. And maybe the most important thing you learn is how to not take criticism of your writing personally (as much as that's possible) -- getting used to being workshopped definitely made me tougher, and has made working at websites and magazines and being edited all the time much, much easier. Also: I think it's smart of writers, in this day and age, to have bought into this little cottage industry that is the MFA program. Um, what other jobs are there for writers, really? Not only that, but fine arts education programs have been around forever, and to me it just seems like an extension of that. Was Picasso a better or worse painter for going to art school? Doesn't it seem silly to even ask? Saying there's nothing in writing that can be taught almost seems tantamount to saying that there are no craft elements that go into writing, and that seems silly.

And, with all due respect, the idea that we don't need more writers strikes me as being vaguely, I don't know, irrelevant. Going to an MFA program or taking a night class doesn't, as you wrote, make you a writer. But so what? At worst, it gives someone who's not really going to be a writer a few years of fantasy camp, from which they take, hopefully, a deeper understanding of what goes into a piece of writing (and thus, maybe? Become better readers? Eventually? I know I know, there are way too many "writers" who don't read, and that's a whole other issue). All I know is there are several women in my family, including my grandmother and my husband's grandmother, who I think should have been writers and just couldn't figure out a way to make this happen, couldn't even imagine it in their own lives. They ended up being wives and mothers and school teachers, and these are all very good things, but I can't help feeling that they might have enjoyed their lives a bit more if there had been some way for them to get closer to their dreams of being writers. I know that sounds a bit cheesy. But how can it be harmful to make being a writer more of an ordinary and attainable thing?

This is the longest comment I've ever left, and I'll probably reread it and feel stupid, but I've been enjoying this MFA debate and always feel the need to defend MFAs. Because, mostly, they're fun. I like them. I liked getting mine. It was way funner than a job. Way, way funner.

Oh, but totally -- I would never take out loans for an MFA. That's just nuts.

Anonymous said...

THAT is a good comment. Thank you! I agree with pretty much all of it.

And you know, R., it's hard to say how good ANY program is, let alone how many ARE good. I mean...our program wasn't exactly awesome, if you are judging by how engaged the faculty was, or how high the stipend was, or how sweet the teaching gig. If you are judging by the bunch of peers we accidentally ended up with--well, then it was the best MFA program imaginable.

I think we've got a very good faculty where I teach, and the stipend and teaching deal for students are incredible. But I can't help but think the students end up relying more on each other than on either of those things. It isn't a crapshoot, for sure--but many of the elements that make a program good are hard to define, and constantly shifting.

zoe said...

I'm thinking about starting the Scottish equivalent of an MFA in the autumn and have been following the MFA comments with interest. The reason I want to do the MFA is because it would be great to have formalised, recognised, validated writing time. I hopefully won't feel apologetic about saying I would like to be (am?) a writer. Also, I'm really looking forward to the opportunity of talking to people face to face about ward-six type ideas and issues.
If I'm honest, the chance to meet people in the industry who might help me to publish is also very alluring. I can't claim to be writing purely just to write. If I'm putting my time and self into writing a novel or whatever, I want that baby read. I would also really love to stop teaching and write full time, but I realise that that is probably a mental notion.
I still think that if you are a decent writer, you will get published.

rmellis said...

Well, you know, when I say the world doesn't need any more writers I'm not saying it with the full force of passion behind it -- I am certainly one of the people the world doesn't need. Many women in my family should have been writers, too.

And I think you're right, yes, it is good to help people attain their dreams, mostly.

Perhaps some of my ambivalence about the MFA is a basic sense of personal fraudulence I cannot shake. I have a *degree* in *this*??? How completely decadent! And silly and absurd!

And I empathize with struggling writers who don't have an MFA and feel they can't get one and have a sense of being locked out of something important. It might be fun, and it might be good, but it shouldn't be an insiders' club.

Ya know?

moonlight ambulette said...

Right, you know -- I forget that writers without MFAs sometimes feel weird about it, like they're outsiders or something. I'm so busy trying NOT to feel weird about HAVING one! And the whole business of which program is "good" and which isn't is particularly odd. Take Iowa -- obviously it's got a reputation for being good, whatever that means, but I know lots people who have gone there and some loved it and others hated it. I went to an unfamous program and it was totally fine, with a great funding situation and some wonderful teachers.

Maybe it's just that I enjoy being in classrooms where people are talking about books and writing, whether I'm there as a student or as a teacher. If people don't, then fine, they can go the merchant marines route, whatever!

You know, scratch what I said before. I think maybe the really most important thing I learned in grad school was that it's most important to find the way you work best as a writer -- and grad school offers some good options -- and not to be constantly comparing yourself to others (their style, their work habits, their fellowship, whether they have an MFA and/or where they got it) which is obviously much easier said than done, but still.

5 Red Pandas said...


I quit teaching to work part time so I could write a book. Why don't you e-mail me and I can give you some ideas of what you can do with your teaching skills, that aren't necessarily teaching full time.

5redpandas AT gmail. com

C. Leigh Purtill said...

Great exchange here, really interesting. I liken the MFA argument to getting my MS in film production. It didn't make me more qualified to write and direct a movie; it simply gave me a jump start. I acquired skills in 2 years that would have taken other people several. Arguably, it gave me contacts (but since I didn't attend the "right" program, not so much).

Love the blog.

myles said...

I don't have a problem with writing programs, as such. After all, there's probably no such thing as too many writers, or readers or people interested in new ideas (so long as all the writers aren't Dan Brown).

And criticism and a bit of collegial support is essential. My little writing group can be pretty tough in its criticism of people's work, but it helps us all do it better. So, yay! for writing school.

However, writing classes can homogenise people's styles a little, in the same way that Macs and desktop publishing programs have made many magazine designs look the same. There's a kind of style, a sensibility, that can be imposed by a curriculum, and then everyone in class is producing that flat realism The New Yorker likes so much.

max said...

Rhian -- You make sense and are fair.
I too am not going to write anything Great. BUT -- would Deborah Treisman please, please describe the path that "After the Movie" and "The Maserati Years" took to reach the pages of the New Yorker? Did she pluck them from the slush pile? In other words, how do you become a "success" today? (I read those two stories at my library, and only because they were very short; time is too precious to be wasted on what's being written today.)
An MFA is all about contacts! Just like the contacts you make as a member of the Skull and Bones.
I'm seeing a shift; MFAers are actually hiding that "credential," at least for public consumption. It signifies privilege (who else can afford to spend six years getting a degree that, maybe, will allow you to read student manuscripts at a college?)
What's so bad about about working for temps? Go out in the big world. Work on an oil rig. Whatever. Meet a wide variety of people. You'd have material for more than books about dysfunctional families or dying parents or love affairs. You wouldn't need a desperate reliance on oddities for material.
Of course, you won't get published.

myles said...

Exactly, Max. Spot on. Working on an oil rig or travelling in China or being a waiter isn't as glam as being an MFA student, but you might get a lot more grist for your mill, and you won't write nearly so many stories about college professors or blocked writers. (Of course, you can do both - get the MFA and then join the circus)

TIV: the individual voice said...

Going to graduate school for anything after college can help to amplify the intellectual process and the social networking with other smart people. Like you Rhian, I also married someone I attended graduate school with -- in psychology. I think there are diminishing returns in going for a second or third postgraduate degree, whether it's an MFA or anything else. Sometimes one just has to say to oneself, as I did with a PhD attempting an MFA: enough with school already. Get a life.

rmellis said...

TIV -- I have a secret dream of going to school and getting a PhD in psychology one day. I'm kind of a bad student, though. Sigh.

Max -- if you hate contemporary literature so much, this blog must give you angina!

TIV: the individual voice said...

Actually, if your secret goal is to become a psychotherapist, last life students do very well due to life experience, but not in Ph.D. programs. In Psy.D. programs, which are proliferating like the MFA programs, spewing out more psychologists that needed, but they are practice-oriented, money-makers for the institutions, and churn out a lot of happy psychologists quickly. They are often independent schools, not affiliated with universities. Anyway, deep down I wish my MFA had worked out. I did it as a gift to myself, but I didn't need the degree to be a writer and it turned out to be no gift at all. Had I gone straight out of college, frankly, I might have done a lot better. Now that I'm a 56 year old Know it All, I think my teachers and I were equally threatened by each other.

TIV: the individual voice said...

not last life students. I meant late life students. I was still thinking of that damn poem about the cat who'd lived its last life. Yawn.

TIV: the individual voice said...

One last thing. I love the sentence about literary magazines having fewer subscribers than submitting writers. The irony!

Anonymous said...

I'm in a MFA program two years out of college. In between, I've tutored, bummed around, and been a county park ranger in NJ. The MFA gig so far has been the best for motivating me to write. Being around other writers and reading their work challenges me to work harder where before I would be lazy. I really had developed bad habits that were strongly pointed out during workshop. The shame has shaped me.

Lots of my fellow students express disappointment with the faculty or whatever they expected from the program, but for me it's what you make of it. Besides I still meet a variety of people (you could have lived through 20 various occupations and not meet a variety of people - at least not really get to know them. it's more about choosing to meet people) Anyway, I have two years in New York City with lots of free time to observe, write, and improve my drinking abilities.

Anonymous said...

I would assume that doing an MFA and having varied life experiences aren't mutually exclusive.

Max, if you hate contemporary literature so much and also have such limited time, wouldn't you be better served reading some ancient texts right now instead of wasting time sounding bitter? Just a suggestion...

max said...

"Max -- if you hate contemporary literature so much, this blog must give you angina!"
Thanks for your concern, rmellis. I haven't gotten any chest pains. I read this blog for the mild amusement it gives me. (Though not the "Ha ha ha ha!" amusement you got from from one of my comments.)
You don't want me to leave your little party, do you?
Hate? I never used that word. I simply think a lot of contemporary lit is bad, or mediocre. So my reading ranges back in time and place. The last four novels I read that were especially good were Achebe's "The Arrow of God," Unamuno's "Abel Sanchez," Orwell's "Coming Up for Air," and Dos Passos "The Big Money." I'm presently reading Oe's "The Silent Cry." I'm content with my reading.
What have you read lately? (No fibbing!)
The words Insider and Outsider are used a lot. Do they apply? As a reader pointed out, there's hostility toward me, and I'm only expressing an opinion.
As for your posting, I wrote that you "make sense and are fair." I was referring only to your posting. I don't know what you're really like.

zoe said...

One of the aspects of this blog that I really enjoy is that it isn't competitive or grandstanding. Whilst I'm a huge fan of free speech, I have to say Max I'm finding your hostile posts a bit of a pain in the ass. Your tone is increasingly negative and unhelpful.

max said...

I love your thoughtful comments, Zoe.
As in response to jrl's "We're One" post:
"Aw, I've got a nice, warm feeling now..."
That kind of thing. You know, exclusively positive and helpful, like free speech should be.

zoe said...

Goodness gracious, Max! Just what kind of axe are you grinding?

rmellis said...

I'm something of a bitch in real life, I'm afraid. I do try to be nice here, though I'm sure the real me comes through.

Frankly, I'm flattered you read our blog, Max. I take it as a compliment. Keep reading if you really want to know what I read! :)

TIV: I've never heard of a Psy. D. degree. Hmmm.... interesting.

jill said...

I like what Samuel Edmonson says about MFAs: they're the the passport to the published land.