October 3rd, 2010 / 4:22 pm

A Brief MFA Discussion Round Up

This weekend I spent some time thinking about how much people love talking about MFAs, what they’re good for, who should get one, why they’re terrible, how much they cost, why they’re wonderful and on and on and on. I never imagined that a college degree could generate so much vigorous discussion. I love it.

At The Rumpus, Anelise Chen wrote an essay about the MFA Ponzi Scheme. It’s a great, witty essay that makes good, if not commonsensical points. The comments are pretty intense with all kinds of opinions being shared about the MFA with a great deal of cost/benefit analysis. I love when writers get all math-y. I don’t have much of an opinion on MFAs. I do not have one. I do believe one should never pay for graduate school but that a graduate education is awesome. There are worse things someone could spend their money on, like drugs, though for some, that might be something better to spend their money on.  I don’t judge.

In the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman wrote nearly 8,500 words about creative writing programs. The essay was damn good but a bit (very) condescending. It was, supposedly, a book review, but really it was an opportunity to talk about MFA programs and their utility in a pretty narrow way. With a title like, “Get a Real Degree,” you can guess what stance she adopted. Writers with PhDs do love to talk about why they chose that degree over the MFA which is, lest you forget, also a terminal degree. I had a chuckle when she made it clear that she chose the PhD over the MFA.

Lincoln Michel responded, eloquently, as he is so often wont to do. I pretended he was the Leave Britney Alone guy, tearfully shouting, “Leave MFAs alone.” Let me not be flippant. His response bring up some really good points. Adam Wilson also had thoughts on Batuman’s essay. So does Andrew Seal. Mark McGurl, who wrote the book Batuman reviews in the original essay, also spoke up.

Not all discussions about MFAs are serious. This guy will tell you how to be an MFA student, tongue firmly in cheek.

A Columbia MFA professor wrote a delightful letter to her former comrades at the University of South Carolina about the wonders of the literary life beneath the bright lights of the big city. Seth Abramsom was all, “that woman is telling tales.” Girrrrrrl! Oh snap!

How much do we love the Internet, though? Honestly, best thing ever.

In other news though, that lady whose hands appear on the cover of Twilight, well she wants a piece of the vampire action. The world continues to turn.

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  1. Roxane

      I think we have to get around to seeing the movie first.

  2. Roxane

      I think we have to get around to seeing the movie first.

  3. zusya

      december deadlines are fast approaching… concerning this: ‘How much do we love the Internet, though? Honestly, best thing ever.’

      is anyone on this site going to get around to writing about ‘The Social Network’? or this is sentiment hitting way too close to home for some:

      “Socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.” <-- Aaron Sorkin

  4. Roxane

      I think we have to get around to seeing the movie first.

  5. lily hoang

      I’m thinking over a post. Saw it last night, but to be fair, I’m not sure I was sober enough to make a coherent argument one way or another.

      Also, long live bitching about MFA programs!

  6. Mike Meginnis

      Today my opinion on MFA programs is fuck MFA programs.

  7. Kyle Minor

      Mike, I don’t think you’ll know what it was worth until five or ten years after you’ve graduated. Right now you’re sitting in the birth canal, where it’s bloody and full of viscera, and your head is getting squeezed into a new shape, and it hurts like hell. Soon you’ll look at your mother and think: “Is this person who birthed me a decent person? Will she do right by me?” And until you’re out from under her authority for a few years, you won’t have sufficient space to make your determination.

  8. Mike Meginnis

      Yeah, no, and actually I think long term it will be easily worth it. Just very grouchy today, right now.

  9. Daniel Bailey

      i will write briefly about the social network in a comment:


      (i haven’t seen catfish yet.)

  10. RumorMonger

      Rumor has it that Columbia’s legal department is preparing one hell of a defamation suit against Mr. Abramson.

  11. c2k
  12. John Minichillo

      A really large percentage of literary and nonliterary writers have come out of these programs. I would suggest that nonliterary writing has been getting better as a direct result, but no one wants to hear that. The generalization usually goes that there’s a particular kind of story, an “MFA story,” you know what used to be called “a New Yorker story,” plot de-emphasized, “literariness” ultra-emphasized, to the detriment of the story for all but the effete with the sensibilities to appreciate such a story, while the hoi polloi just want a good plot.

      But MFA programs do teach plot. And many of the writers educated in them go on to write in the genres, where plot is king.

      In my experience, if you want to be a writer, if you have the time, if you are willing to move to another city, if you are willing to work as a teacher or take out a loan–then right now in our society at least–there’s no better way to become a writer. As Kyle points out you may not reap the benefits for many many years, if you keep at it. And many won’t. And a very small number will get lucky and hit it out of the park in the first year or so after graduating.

      The emphasis is different than in a literature program. The canon of work and the approach to the work are radically different. There are mechanical approaches, i.e. how is the Porsche made vs. gee ain’t that a lovely beautiful car. And in most programs, yes, you are doing both. In my experience the MFA student is different from the student of literature. There’s this disconnect in literature programs where they don’t see writers as people, they don’t see any student as having that potential really. Writers are worshipped from afar, mostly as dead ghosts that loom large.

      The MFA is a terminal degree but you really need a book or significant publications to actually get a job teaching creative writing at a U. Though you can keep on teaching composition or lower-division literature classes. Meanwhile the MFA graduate has to take what they learned when they had all the time in the world and a supportive writing community and a mentor or two and try to make it work despite a full-time job and hardly any of the time they once had. A teacher of mine always told us the book was the real degree. And I think it’s true. So many of us go on to a second MFA and/or the creative Ph.D. Which buys you more time and that supportive community and the mentors…

      Whatever else academics want to say about MFAs, I think most MFA students understand that they are going out into a world with very few writing jobs for them. And that most English departments are dominated by the literature professors with the scholarly perspective–people who are hired young, right out of their Ph.D. programs with few or no publications and very little teaching experience, but hired primarily because of their potential. Meanwhile, the creative writer is probably the only academic who has to have a book BEFORE they get hired. Everyone else is given the job and several years, with the expectation that tenure will be the reward when the book comes. A book hardly anyone will read, but that’s beside the point. So the biases against MFAs are pretty strong in English departments, even the English departments that have MFA programs.

  13. deadgod

      Abramson writes, “There are no conventions of etiquette or civil discourse known to this writer which require him to describe this claim [that “about half the graduating class [at Columbia] has a book published or a publishing contract in hand by graduation”] as anything other than a falsehood.” He goes on “to dare Professor Hospital or any other professor at Columbia to prove the claim” – or (my guess) to demonstrate the truth of any of what Abramson calls “whopper[s]”.

      Whatever “Columbia’s legal department” prepares, the snap ringing in Hospital’s ears is probably coming as much from the fingertips of her colleagues at Columbia as it is from Abramson’s take-down, no?

  14. deadgod

      Kyle, that one sometimes simply has to have faith in the connection between sowing and reaping is a helpful perspective during “grouchy”-making times. It’s also true that, for a writer, no experience needs to go wasted. But if, during one’s nascence, the birth canal is “full of viscera” not one’s own, that parturient might not be exercising any more “authority” ever.

  15. I don't get it

      deadgod, why do you always inappropriately boldface things?

  16. deadgod

      Such as?

      (It’s a genuine question, uncomprehendonym. You say “always”: is the one boldfaced word in the comment you respond to here an example of the “inappropriate[ness]” that defies your understanding?

      Would you like to risk expressing a point of view about Hospital’s trashy email and/or Abramson’s indignant response?)

  17. zusya

      lol @ ‘uncomprehendonym’

  18. RumorMonger

      She likely meant the non-fiction MFAs – I’d believe that half of the non-fic MFAs end up with something. Most come in with a book proposal. Also, not many Columbia MFAs graduate on time

  19. Lincoln Michel

      Thanks for the link Roxane!

      I think I might disagree with the “leave Britney Spears alone” reference, only because that makes it sound like I think MFA programs shouldn’t be criticized. I’m fine with criticism of them and could provide plenty myself. I just think you shouldn’t be attacking Britney Spears when you are a big fan of Christina Aguilera or something… basically, I didn’t see how any of her criticisms applied to MFA programs more than anything else.

  20. Nicolle Elizabeth

      amy hempel has a really interesting essay in a 1984-ish i think vanity fair about her time at columbia. marie howe also famously write a pretty scathing essay about her time doing the mfa also

  21. keedee

      On a quote by Kesey from “The Program Era” Batuman’s all:

      “But there is something disturbing in the idea of a Stanford creative writing student – a college graduate pursuing an advanced degree in ‘fiction’ at a world-class university – who appears to believe that he invented intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration.”

      There’s something disturbing about the words “intradiegetic-homodiegetic” in that sentence that has nothing to do with the fact that they’re Greek. They aren’t Batuman’s. I can see her thinking to herself “Yes, there’s a term for that” as she goes to check her references and probe Ken Kesey wrong. This to me is the weakness of literature studies programs: the rigid requirement that writers work within theories and terminologies that have nothing to do with their style, just as much as the words “intradiegetic-homodiegetic” don’t fit into the cadence of that sentence.

      Kesey may look like an idiot for believing that he was innovating but naivete shouldn’t negate his work, or place the blame on MFA programs. Kesey was an egotist who thought the world revolved around himself, of course he invented the technique. I’m sure it’s not the only one he claimed. Not his MFA program’s fault that he never read and bragged about it in a personal letter.

  22. Joseph Goosey

      I am currently mid-way through my first + last semester inside of one. I do not passionately loathe it, it just strikes me as completely unnecessary, and it’s not like a really fun unnecessary thing, so I’m going to stop doing it.

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  24. P. H. Madore

      I loved this from the tongue-in-cheek one:

      Develop a hierarchy. It doesn’t matter that everyone was an introverted wallflower who relished their time as a dungeon master, every MFA program needs a group of “cool kids” to exclude everyone else.

      As does every scene, right?


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