Tuesday, October 7, 2014


A Perspective on the Masters of Fine Arts Programs


I was at the library picking up an interlibrary loan book that was on hold for me, when naturally, I couldn't resist perusing the new books shelf. Lo and behold, I came across a book that compares the literary cultures of the Masters of Fine Arts university degree and the literary fiction trade publishing houses of Manhattan, New York City. I had to pick it up and bring it home: MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach.

And as serendipity has its way, when I arrived home, I ran across an article in the New York Times asking: Can Writing Be Taught? The authors of the article were Zoë Heller, whose book Notes on a Scandal was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Rivka Galchen, a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction.

My comments here are restricted to the NYT article, the introduction to the book, and some of the essays in the book: "MFA vs NYC" by Chad Harbach, "A Mini-Manifesto" by George Saunders, "The Fictional Future" by David Foster Wallace, "Money (2014)" by Keith Gessen, "People Wear Khakis" by Lorin Stein with Astri von Arbin Ahlander, "How To Be Popular" by Melissa Flashman, "The Disappointment Business" by Jim Rutman, and "Basket Weaving 101" by Maria Adelmann.

The "MFA" part of the title of the book refers to the rapid flourishing of creative writing programs offered by universities, leading to lucrative academic careers for writers and other graduates of the MFA program that rival, and far often exceed, publishing earnings. The "NYC" part of the title refers to Manhattan's trade publishing industry.

I talk here about the MFA program and its pros and cons as presented by the essays.

As is quickly established, the editor Chad Harbach's antipathy towards academe is illustrated with choice words, such as: A system with problematic elements "in their very American way of charging large numbers of students large sums to pursue a dream achieved by a few, economically." This is echoed in the NYT article: "An M.F.A. is not a passport to becoming a great novelist, or even a published one," says Zoë Heller. "The former depends on something numinous called talent; the latter has to do with the exigencies of the marketplace."

Harbach claims that MFA programs are not rigorous; in fact, they're easy and laissez-faire. This is echoed in Mary Adelmann's description of her experience with the program. While she worked and reworked many drafts of her stories, they were written with workshopping them with her peers in sight, not publishing or the reading public at large and not even art for arts' sake. And the sheer quantity of output for a two-year program was low.

People debate whether creative writing can be taught. Both Heller and Galchen believe that there are certain rules and techniques to writing in the English language that can certainly be taught. But I ask the question: Can creativity be taught? Should it be taught? To some critics, the workshop method of MFA learning is the kiss of death to creativity. The grading of assignments and workshop method of peer-critique-based writing lends itself to a certain converging-to-a-mean type of storywriting. To others, the MFA reading and writing assignments are a way to learn and absorb from the greats who have come before. Yet, does this teach creativity?

"The question of why it is, when thinking about writing, we are disproportionately detained by the question of teachability," asks Rivka Galchen. "Is it just that it's somehow flattering to feel one's endeavor is more gift than labor, and are writers more in need of such flattery than others?"

According to David Foster Wallace, the MFA program attracts certain types of students: ones who "(1) Determine what the instructor wants; and (2) Supply it forthwith." Those students who choose to deviate from the norm are either expelled or face opprobrium from the faculty. However, those who "the minute fanny touches chair, make the instructors' dicta their own" are encouraged with financial inducements and teacher approval. "They begin producing solid, quiet work, most of which lands neatly in Dreary Camp #3, nice cautious, boring Workshop Stories, stories as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down."

George Saunders, an MFA professor, writes a defensive piece in support of MFA programs. He claims that the homogenization that happens in an MFA program is not different from societal and cultural homogenization that happens daily. This is disingenuous at best. The forces at play in society are far more varied and far more numerous. The microcosm that is the MFA has few variables at play and very few people in charge. This top-down approach will, by definition, have a flattening effect on the peaks of creativity of a sizeable class of students.

This is borne out by Keith Gessen's essay on how he interacts with his students. Before I get to that, I found his lack of teaching knowledge, his indifference to learning basic teaching techniques, and the lackadaisical way he approached his preparation for class to be playing into the criticism of the MFA programs. In his interaction with students, one predominant theme was his disappointment with the students if their answers to his questions didn't match his expectations. If what they wrote was not to his taste, he was unable to see the merit in them. "I had read their first exercises and they were not for me. They were obscure; rather than less self-involved than traditional first-person writing, they were more self-involved. I should have said [to them]: 'You are not ready to do this sort of work.'"

(An aside: I found this statement by Saunders troublesome in its defiance: "If someone wants to go to a CW program, then goes [sic] to a CW program and [if] it sucks, she probably won't die from it.")

So why are MFA programs so popular? Harbach believes it is a way for students to feel that they're doing some positive towards their writing career and that it is an easy degree. Writer-teachers, themselves graduates of MFA programs, are drawn towards teaching, because it provides a lucrative steady income in salary, guest lectureship, paid talks, etc., in addition, tenure provides job security, all of which publishing books through NYC cannot guarantee. So the MFA program is a circular system: generating writers who in turn return to teach more writers.

What the writers in the programs are learning are to write short stories. Short stories are workshopable, if you will; novels aren't. Many of the top-notch stories go on to be published in university literary magazines and periodicals; some may be published in literary magazines of NYC, however, that number is small. Stories in university publications are assigned for reading in that university's MFA program as well as in a reciprocal arrangement with other MFA programs. As a result, rising popularity of certain short stories can lead to their canonization, which is a proud accolade to have.

So despite the cons, the pros seem to outweigh the balance in favor of the flourishing of MFA programs.

Edited 3/7/2015: A hateful essay by a former teacher of the MFA program about his students.


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