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Thinking About an MFA? Two Perspectives…

I read two interesting articles recently, and they both give some insight into the Masters of Fine Arts programs, but in two very different ways. I thought they might be interesting reads for folks who are considering applying (or have recently applied) to an MFA program.

Get a Real Degree

Writing for the London Review of Books, critic Elif Batuman makes the claim that “…a schism has opened up between literary scholarship and creative writing.”

The author of this piece goes on to describe the result of the MFA culture in American writing: “Basically, I feel about [literature as a product of the MFA culture] as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition…[it produces books filled with] oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition.” The result of the over abundance of MFA programs is, for this writer, the creation of books she doesn’t care for and which do not sufficiently ground themselves in the literary past. “To me, such ‘performances’ are symptomatic of the large-scale replacement of books I would want to read by rich, multifaceted explorations whose ‘amazing audacity’ I’m supposed to admire in order not to be some kind of jerk.”

Here are some more quotes from this (rather long) piece:

Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims. Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ‘disciplined’ by the programme – as McGurl documents with a 1941 promotional photo of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa workshop, seated at a desk with a typewriter and a large whip. … The workshop’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ ‘Show, don’t tell’ – also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: ‘Writers’ Workshops’). As long as it views writing as shameful, the programme will not generate good books, except by accident. Pretending that literary production is a non-elite activity is both pointless and disingenuous. It’s not impossible to be a writer and non-elite… But writing, especially nicely turned prose, demands a certain surplus of money and leisure. Very little of it can be done on iron benches surrounded by barking dogs. The best thing about the programme is that it frees would-be writers from material lack. As for the project of redeeming literature as a means to social change, this is a more complicated issue. Despite the recent trend in viewing fiction as a form of empathy training, I’m pretty sure that writing short stories isn’t the most efficient way to combat injustice or oppression.

There’s more, but you get some of the highlights. (You can read the entire piece, which is a critical review of a book called, The Programme Era, at the LRB Website.)

There are some interesting points made, though I do find myself leaning more toward a balanced view of the current state of hyper-activity in reading and writing. (Partly, I’m sure, because I do buy into both the MFA and workshop idea that writing can be improved/taught and pursued by the non-elite.)

Why Critics Have it Wrong

The interview on Salon of the director of the Iowa Writing Workshop is an interesting counter-punch. Lan Samantha Chang’s interview is interesting on several fronts. First, there is some push-back against the idea that MFA/workshop structures are weakening the literary value of today’s writing (She says, for instance: “It’s so fascinating to me that smart people waste, or spend, an enormous amount of effort criticizing people who love to read and write. You know? I mean, people enter the MFA system, and some of them are paying money to do so, because they love to read and write. Bottom line. That’s not a sin to me. I feel that people have a lot of reasons for pursuing an MFA and they’re not all the reasons that the critics of the MFA program would necessarily accept and understand.”)

But, even more interesting for MFA applicants, or those thinking about pursuing an MFA, she details some of the admissions process for Iowa.

What is the breakdown of how you spend your time, day-to-day, month-to-month, etc.? … My time is seasonal. The worst time of the year is in January, because that’s when the admissions applications come in. With the recession, the number of applications we’ve received at our program has jumped. In 2010 it jumped by 50 percent. Wait, how many applications in 2010? In fiction, it was over 1,200. I think it was more like 1,300. What was it in poetry? Gosh, close to 500. I’m not responsible for reading the poetry manuscripts, thank goodness. Am I right in thinking that of the 1,300 applicants in fiction, 25 were accepted, and of the 500 in poetry, 25 were accepted? That particular year I think I accepted 29 people because there were so many good people I just couldn’t resist. The poets accept around 25. Those numbers are terrifying. For someone applying in fiction, if there are a maximum of 30 spots, and 1,200 people are applying — let’s say you met someone on an airplane who desperately wanted to go to the Workshop. What advice would you give that person? Well, I would say turn in your best work. That’s the only advice. It doesn’t matter what your letters of recommendation say; it doesn’t matter what kind of grades you got. We just don’t look at that. We look at the work. We’ve done that always, and it’s still true. Can you describe a little bit about how the admissions process works? Ultimately what happens is that I choose 50 or 60 finalists, and then the permanent faculty and the visiting faculty read all of the finalists and have a vote. And every year, I’d say there are probably 25 or 30 people admitted to the program in fiction, and every year there are 80 people who deserve to be in the program. So, as you can imagine, we vote down a lot of wonderful people. What’s interesting to me is the number of extraordinary writers who are good enough to get in but who don’t get in because we don’t have enough spots.

This is an abbreviated portion. You can find the entire interview at Salon. (It is much shorter, and easier to read than the criticism piece above, as an interview should be.)

Bottom Line, For Me

We live in the early stages of a completely different publishing landscape. Much to the chagrin of some critics, the proliferation of writers and would-be writers has less to do with the MFA culture, and more to do with an opening up of the literary playing field, much like what has happened to music. What creative writing programs (and alternative forms of creative writing education) have to offer is a play book for competency and some guidelines to setting a path toward a life of art and literature. Yes, the waters are muddied, and it’s going to be messy, but from this primordial soup of literature, new things will arise. Some good, some bad. That’s just the way it is. Caging art within expectations of the critics seems as counter productive, to me, as limiting science or medicine to only the things we know from the past. Art, too, is a growing and evolving field, perhaps even more so than science or medicine, because it is more closely linked to the immediacy of the human condition.

Interestingly enough, these two stories sparked a whole series of posts that I’m planning. Things like “Write What You Know” and the BENEFITS of focus and time that a structured (i.e., MFA) approach to writing can provide. Stay tuned!

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