Sunday, July 5, 2009

Everybody's Doin' It: The MFA Rag

Interesting blog post by David Lynn editor of The Kenyon Review. He references an article in the New Yorker re: MFA aka Creative Writing programs that, in turn, is a review of a book on the subject by Mark McGurl. Full disclosure, if you've read my blog at all you know I spent a week at the Kenyon Writer's Workshop a year ago. I loved my week there and learned a lot from Chris Tilghman's input, but then again, I had a lot to learn, which brings me to some of the differences I have with David Lynn's remarks. So, for this post, allow me if I may, to play devil's advocate, addressing Lynn's points one-by-one though not necessarily in the order in which they were presented.

The noble cause
Lynn makes it clear that an MFA, at least today with 822 programs available, no longer guarantees publishing success and/or a prestigious teaching job. However, his contention is that a creative writing program, unlike a job-focused program, can be an end in itself.

To an extent I agree with Lynn. Outside of a handful of fields––engineering and software development come to mind–-few four-year grads walk into a job these days. The world does need engineers and software developers and doctors and lawyers, but I also believe a grounding in the Liberal Arts is a necessity for living and learning well. However, when we're talking about the additional expense of time and money on a graduate program, most applicants require more than enrichment when they get out. It's sad to think that these programs will be limited to the wealthy or those few underprivileged talented enough for scholarships to the best programs, not too far from home, that will guarantee income on graduation.

Rise in Excellence
Lynn bases this point on a quote from McGurl,

"...far from homogenizing literature or turning it into an academic exercise, creative-writing programs have been a success on purely literary grounds. “There has been a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period..."

Unfortunately, just saying it doesn't make it so. On what does McGurl base that conclusion? What objective criteria does he use? Certainly there are many readers outside of academia (and many within as well) who disagree. Check out this thread on P&W's Speakeasy Forum regarding BASS anthologies. Many believe that over the past few decades literary writing became far too focused on style and far too little focused on interesting themes or plots. This seems to be changing, but I'd suggest it is more to do with the growing popularity of online publications over the past few years than the over-proliferation of writing programs since the War.

Community and shared purpose
According to Lynn, while writing programs cannot provide a guaranteed job, what they do provide is "a sense of community and shared focus." Of all the justifications in Lynn's post, this is one I find most troubling. Writers do benefit from a sense of community, but a two-year program requires a lot of time and expense for something writers once shared with each other for free. Unfortunately, most literary writers today depend on teaching to pay the bills. Not that I blame them, when there is so little money to be made from their craft. However, many would argue it is the needs of the instructors rather than the needs of the students that mothered so many creative writing programs.

Which leads me to my main issue with all degree programs in creative writing. That is, by their very existence they have turned writing into just another career for which an advanced and very specialized degree is required, and only a degree from the best programs guarantees success. No, you will not find a magazine that requires an MFA for submission, but you will also not find a top-tier, and now many mid-tier journals, where the majority of contributors (often all) are not MFA grads or candidates. Editors will deny it up and down, but this can't be a coincidence as the slush pile has to be filled with non-degreed submitters.

Certainly one could argue that programs screen for the best applicants, so naturally the best writers will come from writing programs. However, one can't help but wonder if these applicants weren't writing publishable work before receiving their MFA ticket into the big leagues or whether there aren't equally good writers out there who simply can't afford a program.

The following quote in The New Yorker from the prestigious Iowa Workshop's website seems to bear this out:

"The fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us...Iowa merely admits people who are really good at writing; it puts them up for two years; and then, like the Wizard of Oz, it gives them a diploma."

I have no problem with writing programs per se for those who want and can afford them. But whenever success in a field comes to hang on the letters after one's name, whether it be MFA or MBA, the oxygen can get sucked out. Those schooled within the box naturally favor others schooled within that box and pretty soon thinking outside the box becomes ever more rare–-and at worst is suppressed.

This lack of innovation and initiative brought the US auto industry to its knees and is limiting our options for healthcare reform, just to name two. If we aren't careful it can sap the creativity from creative writing.


Angie Ledbetter said...

Loved this, Nannette.

I get my "community" from my writing group and online with the writing/blogging folks. Am also proud to say at Rose & Thorn, we read submissions without looking at bios (where all those letters after names are listed) first.

Nannette Croce said...

I can attest to that, Angie, as I used to review for R&T as well, as you know. Didn't give a fig about degrees or even past credits (which honestly sometimes surprised me in what I considered mediocre submissions). Also at Sotto Voce no identifying info is included when pieces are reviewed.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Yup, what Angie said about R&T!...but yes, you know that don't you Nan :)

intelligent post....


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