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February 3rd, 2012 / 10:30 am
Vicarious MFA

MFApocalypse

Discussed: Academic Harakiri, Writers as Plumbers

Well, it’s finally started happening. Penn State’s MFA program decided to commit harakiri rather than go on forcing its students to go into debt over a degree to no where. I don’t think it will be the last we’ll see to go. I don’t even know if it’s the first (and it seems likely that it isn’t.)

What I do know is that we have too many MFA programs in this country. And the ones we have are often too big to succeed in giving their students what they need/want.**

Consider this: Let’s just say that this country needed 250,000 new plumbers every year. That’s the number of plumbers we would need for all plumbers to get enough work and for all pipes to be fixed and for all the water to flow into the correct places water should go. Let’s say we had 5,000 plumber schools in the country turning out 500,000 plumbers a year because plumbing started sounding so glamourous and enjoyable and some people discovered they deeply enjoyed turning on a really good faucet or flushing a Pulitzer Prize winning toilet. What we’d have if that was the case would be cafes chocked full of unemployed plumbers dreaming of the pipes they could someday plunge, or sad-looking Mario-ish plumbers walking in and out of bathroom fixture stores just to run their hands over hot and cold knobs. We’d have would-be plumbers writing cover letters to total strangers, begging to let them plunge a toilet for free.

How many academically “certified” writers does a country need? How many creative writing teachers? How many novels should be published a year? How many totally capable, creative-thinking, intelligent young writers need to go into debt for the chance to take a seminar with a writer they maybe don’t even like to read just so they can get a piece of paper that says MFA! and then stumble away broke and only hopeful that later, eventually, someday they can become a writer/teacher that their students have never heard of because they’ve been too busy with paying off debt and learning the art of creative writing pedagogy to write anything in a while? Is this a good system? Do I sound like a crank yet?

I think that system sucks but to say that it sucks is more complicated than just saying it sucks. It’s elitist. I am being an elitist. I’m saying some of those plumbers maybe should just do something else as a profession. Hell, most writers, even successful ones and certainly the just-started ones, have to supplement their income in some way. I know I do right now and likely will for whatever career I eek out in the future. But I think it’s cruel for universities to allow people to go into many thousands of dollars of debt for a degree that is little more than enjoyable to get.

No one, save a rare few, make a lot of money writing and teaching writing. The universities know this. They also know that selling an MFA program is at least partially selling a dream. But I think there should be way less MFA programs and they should all be fully funded. That seems only right.***

However, let’s envision what that looks like 10 years down the road. The universities will have a lot more sway as gate-keepers than they do now. No longer will so many students be bolstered by an acceptance letter, an invitation to write. Those who write books will be the ones with the luxury of time & space in an MFA or those who are the “fuck-what-anyone-says” kind of writer, rejected by a program or too proud/scared/indignant to apply. This would certainly have an effect on what kind of literature is produced overall but no one can be sure how much of an effect it would have. Basically, the economy of writing, writers and academia, when you draw back and look down at it, is a strange and unfair system, which makes it a lot like life.

**(Don’t get me wrong– an MFA can be a great thing. I have one that I do not regret getting because there was no debt involved. If I’d had to take out loans to do it, I wouldn’t have done it. That’s my plain advice to anyone considering an MFA. Do not pay for it. Anyway– that’s a different post.)

***There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have gotten an MFA if this was true, though, because the competition would have been so steep I would have been rejected or too intimidated to apply, and that’s fine by me. The MFA is a luxury, not a necessity.