October 25th, 2010 / 2:03 am

There’s a new addition to my recent roundup of discussions about MFAs. Anis Shivani hates MFA programs. Or something. Sadly, the article reads more like the author is trying too hard to be… something. I found it difficult to take the writing seriously because it was so over the top. I love this response from Jason at The Barking. It’s something too. Who pissed in the Wheaties of everyone who loves to rail against MFA programs?


  1. Sara Crowley

      I rather like the response by Jason Bennet at Moby Lives “…At times one gets the sense that Shivani is compelled by a feeling of sour grapes. But still, the piece represents the kind of vital, dissonant disruption that those responsible for making our literature ought to be thinking about. Are editors and agents relying too heavily on this system simply because it’s too easy not to? Is the current system shutting out people who, on merit alone, would otherwise be considered modern lights of letters? If so, should we labor to do something about it?”

      More here: http://mhpbooks.com/mobylives/?p=19212

  2. Daniel Bailey

      if i had a bullet for everyone who ever wrote an article or blog post about mfa programs… #meanweek

  3. Jess Bee Dutschmann

      Even if you’re getting into deep discussion etc that article is way, way too long, especially for someplace like the Huffington Post. It couldn’t keep my attention at all, especially with the pissed off tone.

  4. gavin

      What I really took from that was that the same people who read Huffington Post must also be getting MFAs.

  5. AmyWhipple

      I made the executive decision while reading Anis Shivani’s piece that I’m done reading about MFA programs. Just completely and totally done.

  6. P. H. Madore

      Meanwhile everybody wants to breathe and nobody can and many say, “We will breathe later,” and those people don’t die because they’re already dead.

      Attributing that quote would be an act of theft, some might say, but for some reason it popped into my head.

      The first submission to the new version of dispatch was a batch of poetry from a 50+-year-old PSYCHIATRIST who had “recently completed his MFA.” The obvious irony of a psychiatrist attempting to effectively mete out matters of the heart for real people notwithstanding, these poems were the least engaging thing I’d read since Ever.

  7. Joseph Young

      i expected to dislike that article since i’ve disliked that guy before and since mfa railing is usually boring, but some of the things caught my eye and made sense– the hyperbole surrounding the idea of revision, the requisite grateful smile and prompt return to the writing desk in the face of any craft criticism, yeah.

  8. Eric A.

      I’m excited to read his series on the hegemony of fiber art degrees. Not to mention his upcoming eleven part piece on horseback riding fellowships and the degeneration student/colt/teacher hierarchy.

  9. gavin

      What I really took from that was that the same people who read Huffington Post must also be getting MFAs.

  10. Roxane

      There are some interesting moments in this article, and I thought that the analogy to guilds was clever, but my god, he spends so much time trying to show off in such a falsely reactionary manner that any value in his message is completely obscured by the bullshit.

  11. Karl

      as a writer stuck outside of the academy who is just now becoming aware of this whole critique-of-mfa genre, I found it a pretty good polemic. it was meant to incite, and it succeeds.

  12. Laura

      I too am so tired of the MFA debate—get a MFA, don’t get a MFA, who gives a shit?—and the whining about hopelessly insider-y everything is. Yes, of course some things happen for people because of the connections they made at MFA programs or elsewhere. Welcome to the world. It’s not always a fair place. And I think Shivani is off on some of the institutions he rails against, all of which are pretty easy targets. For ex, I know plenty of people who have passed through the hallowed halls of various prestigious colonies and conferences without MFAs or connections to speak of, let alone recommendations from “über-masters.” Which is not to say that connections aren’t a factor at times, but sweeping, reactionary generalizations rarely tell the whole story. The world might be an unfair place, but it’s also a lot more random, nuanced, and surprising than Shivani would have us believe.

  13. Karl

      Laura, you have an mfa, yes?
      i think the “mfa, don’t get an mfa, who gives a shit?” position—is easier held by those who have an mfa. i don’t have one—i wish I did, can’t afford it now—because from the outside it certainly looks like the key to certain scholarships, teaching positions, colonies, etc. the debate is tiring but it is a legitimate debate because the american writing industry is more dominated by the academy than ever before. from my outsider perspective, I don’t happen to think this is a bad thing—there are an awful lot of great short stories published in great journals, and i doubt these would be published if not for the protective umbrella of the academy—but it is just a fact that more writers make a living from teaching than writing, and to become a teacher you pretty much need an mfa, and so mfa programs have tremendous power in terms of which writers can make a living. thus the influence, possibly benign, possibly malignant, of mfa programs will always be a worthy topic—though, ultimately, the issue will never be resolved

  14. Laura

      Karl, I do have an MFA. But for what it’s worth the MFA-less writers I know haven’t suffered from their lack of degree at all. But they do, for the most part, have “regular” jobs, so if getting a teaching job is the goal then having a MFA certainly opens up a lot of opportunities that would be difficult to access otherwise.

  15. moofadashaka

      Your response, and the responses of other MFA apologists, neglects Shavani’s main point: that MFA writing is BORING. People who like art are sick of Richard Yates impersonators–and those impersonators have dominated the literary scene for decades, even the small journals. We’re sick of the New Yorker, MFA voice. Get it?

  16. Lincoln Michel

      Reading rants like this always make me wonder if I screwed up my writing career by not including my MFA on my submission cover letters. I almost never do that (mostly because it seems irrelevant and because I feel like many editors hate MFA programs) and have been pulled out of the slush a fair number of times, but perhaps I’d have three times as much published if they all knew about my MFA?

      But really I have a hard time believing an MFA attached to your name really helps you in the publishing world. Having mentors submit your stuff probably does and perhaps its much easier to get into Yaddo or MacDowell if you don’t have a book yet have an MFA (the idea that neither place accepts anyone, no matter how published of famous, if they don’t have an MFA is ludicrous) but in general this article seemed to be pretty full of it. I stopped reading after a couple paragraphs because it seemed too long and uninteresting, but the few claims I saw while scanning through seemed totally absurd (getting in best american new voices guarantees a book deal? really?).

      Working as an editor in NYC has allowed me to meet a lot of publishers and editors and I can’t say that anyone ever asked me about my MFA or made any indication that an MFA was some secret stonecutters ring that opened the publishing world for me.

  17. Lincoln Michel

      The exact quote: “getting into the Best New American Voices, a celebration of workshops, pretty much guarantees a contract by a significant publisher”

  18. Roxane

      I agree, Lincoln. I don’t know what publishing world these people are talking about when they discuss how influential an MFA is in terms of nepotism and the like. Having worked at a fancy journal and small journals, I cannot think of a single instance where anyone on a given staff gave a flying fuck about a writer’s MFA. This may be a relic of the past people are holding on to but it doesn’t feel representative of modern publishing. This is not to say nepotism and favoritism don’t exist, but to suggest that the MFA is the source of such practices feels a bit narrow and ignorant.

  19. Roxane

      There are a bunch of BAV writers wondering about their significant book deals right about now.

  20. moofadashaka

      Oh, and we’re also sick of the asyntactic fragments that have, since the 1980s, become the MFA poetry voice. This voice no longer defies expectations–it hasn’t for years.

      There are exceptions to the general lameness, of course, but they are amazingly few.

  21. Ryan Call

      i dunno, moof. ive read lots of stories by mfa people, and have liked the variety. i think sure there is a bit of that workshoppy sense to some of it, but theres also some different stuff that happens too. i think there are more exceptions than you think? but i dont have any numbers or anything to support that.

      not famliar as much with the mfa poets.

      i guess i feel less grumpy about it than you do, but i has an mfa.

  22. Karl

      (this thread is largely mfas talking to other mfas about why mfas don’t matter)
      i agree that it doesn’t matter in terms of publishing at most journals. but the writer makes a good point that many journals have become appurtenances of the mfa industry—an interesting observation, actually. we all struggle with this. for a while I thought that the good journals existed as the expression of this community, the product, and didn’t wonder at their physiology. but i have noticed that even the best of these journals are not widely read, if they are read at all. the community they are serving, and selling into, is the mfa community. and they serve, to a great extent, as credits within this community. (they are largely unknown outside this community.) so, they inevitably become coopted by this community—their writers, readers, interns, etc. primarily come from this community. now, that said, since I began seriously reading literary journals just a few years ago—in 2007—i have been stunned at the level of talent I am finding. so, maybe the system is corrupt, maybe not, maybe it’s rotten, maybe not, but there are some damn good stories being published.
      alas, when it comes to teaching, fellowships, colonies, etc—the actual pecuniary, non book-contract fruits of this industry, then the mfa does come into play. for whatever reasons. a tinker, a tailor, a candlestick maker who is writing and publishing on the side simply doesn’t have the connections to play this game, even the well-published tinker has trouble accessing this network. that’s just the fact, so the writing industry—such as it is—inevitably is dominated by mfas. (lincoln, of course the famous writer is an exception. but your earlier sentence “having a mentor . . . makes it easier . . .” is the telling one.)
      Most American first novels and collections these days are by mfas, is that good or bad? I have no idea. But it IS.

  23. DW Lichtenberg

      Is it actually officially mean week in the litosphere?

  24. deadgod

      The comparisons to the medieval guild system are […] ubiquitous[.]

      I missed the “comparison” made in Scientific American. I like the word “ubiquitous”, except when it’s omnilocatively misused.

      The modern reading was initiated by Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg’s high performance art.

      “High” intoxicated? “High” intensely cultivated? “High” hazy pomp?

      The “modern reading” was initiated by Dickens and Twain (and many vaudevillians and Shakespeareans whom I’ve never heard of) long before Thomas and Ginsberg – or what did they bring to reading publicly that was new? Rhythm, audience awareness, poem-embodiment? “Democracy“??

      The medieval guild was deeply rooted in its local community (the rise of industrial capitalism was a nationalist movement, and precisely the locality of the guild was merchants’ bete noir)[.]

      All medieval institutions, including the Church, were “rooted in [their] local communit[ies]”; here, “deeply” is a pomptensifier, as is “precisely”. Putting “the medieval guild” next to “industrial capitalism” is chronologically dubious. (What is the effect of pointing out that “industrial capitalism” was connected to “nationalis[m]”? – except to conceal the mundanity of the extra-parenthetical claim.) Let’s assume that “locality” is supposed, here (and inaccurately), to mean ‘local deep-rootedness’: my small mediaevalism is to the effect that tensions between guildsmen and merchants had to do with competition for ‘surplus value’ – and scantily to do with “locality”.

      In essence, the writing guild makes it possible for apprentices to internalize the principles of the Inquisition.

      The “principle of the Inquisition” is the use of “humiliation” to compel belonging — making of “the Inquisition” – which was, in fact, a characterized by torture and murder and, especially, the terror arising from their widespread official use and political and even arbitrary implementation – making of “the Inquisition” a paradigm for every social institution for, what, the last 10,000 years.

      Thesis: MFA workshops and seminars are disciplinary machines that cause “apprentices […] to feel guilty and ashamed” if they don’t write like Pynchon and Barthelme and Carver, so those “apprentices” become “journeymen” who all write like Hempel, who writes as much like the former three as they write like each other, and everyone in MFAvia, which is almost everyone in “publishing” and “academia”, writes the same as everyone else . . .

      At least “the Inquisition” was closer historically to the late Middle Ages than was “the rise of industrial capitalism”.

      MFA programs look to me like (at least somewhat) constructive fun, and as good a way to become a better writer – or to quit writing – as restaurant or construction work. And ok: surely there is an MFA culture, concomitant with diverse methods and goals of the degrees themselves, and that world merits critique.

      But why does a carelessly pomptense think-piecer like Shivani get oxygen at the Huffington Post??

  25. Michael Copperman

      I mean Shivani’s short stories, btw

  26. Michael Copperman

      Roxane, I read the thing a couple weeks ago in Boulevard, and my reaction was a combination of yours and Mobylives: fucking come ON, more MFA bitch, ok, guilds is a nice idea but stop extending the fucking parallel, ok, ‘conservative work’ comes out of MFAs? and all modern writers who are hooked into the system are part of a great big politically correct, properly humanist, anti-political craft first complacency system that is explicitly hierarchal and doesn’t value what is good at all?, and… ok sir, that there soapbox is tall but poorly constructed, and my you do love the sonorous sound of your own voice. It’s even worse than his mockery of the 15 overrated writers at HP, which I thought was petty and only on mark in cases that were appallingly easy to dismiss (so the whole writerly world hates Billy Collins, fine… that almost has become reason to like him). The worst of it was realizing that a full page ad for Shivani’s novel was in the same issue of Boulevard, and then noting that it featured Richard Burgin, the editor of Boulevard after all, praising Shivani’s writing. Ugh. His critique may be polemic and bold, and even interesting in conception, but his critical prose is turgid, and his self-regard sickens regardless.

  27. Michael Copperman

      I mean Shivani’s short stories, btw

  28. MichaelCopperman

      dg, just want to thank you for the critique of Mr. Shivani’s prose and reasoning. That was bracing.