The Cons of MFA Programs

Photo Credit:   Ed Yourdon   via Compfight  Creative Commons

Photo Credit:  Ed Yourdon  via Compfight Creative Commons

After reading an interesting Salon article, Are MFAs ruining American fiction? by Laura Miller, I was intrigued by the argument and decided I would tread into the unnerving world (for a writer) of researching MFAs and  contemporary literary fiction.

It took me almost a week of wrestling through articles (which are  listed at the bottom of this post) to arrive at a “sort of” list of pros and cons of MFAs and even then I was loathe to post it due to some of the tricky aspects of the debate (i.e. people tend to get upset and in the book world you don't want anyone to be upset with you). To be clear, I have not formulated an opinion one way or the other. I am just trying to articulate some of the key arguments for and against so I can better understand the debate.

There is no doubt that there has been a huge proliferation of  creative writing programs, including MFAs in the United States and  Canada. According to Chad Harbach in his Slate magazine article MFA vs NYC:   “There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975;  today, there are 854!” The sheer number of MFAs who are writing and  publishing novels has to have had an influence on contemporary fiction. This post focuses on some of the main critiques of MFA programs. My next post will focus on some of the key benefits of MFA programs and responses to the critiques - just so you don’t think I am taking sides  on this issue. (Have I equivocated enough for you yet?)

Disclaimer (more equivocation): Remember these are a compilation of  what other people have said, not what I think. I have however taken the liberty of ordering them from what I consider to be potentially the strongest to weakest arguments.

1)   MFA programs only teach writing craft and not how to write  a really great story. Thus MFA programs produce a lot of writers who are competent at their craft who still can’t tell a story and the ability to tell a story matters in good writing. 

This argument is based on an argument between Mark McGurl, who wrote The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing and Elif Batuman, an American academic and author who responded to his book with Get a Real Degree, and is outlined effectively in Miller’s Salon article, although Batuman’s original article is also worth a read. As Miller observes: 

“Batuman is right when she claims that good writing, if you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition,”

does not necessarily lead to more interesting or appealing books.” The importance of story is echoed by Anelise Chen, in On Blowing My Load: Thoughts from inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme who states:

“let’s face it, any of us would rather read an amazing  story dictated by an illiterate drunk than a boring “in the house and around the yard” drama expertly crafted by a well-turned Program  writer.”

This is further emphasized by Jon Reiner in his Atlantic article, Live First Write Less: The Case for Less Creative-Writing Schooling. Reiner observes: “Creative writing programs can teach you how to write, but they can’t teach you what to write.”

Robert Olen Butler perhaps got at this best in an article in The Atlantic by Edward J. Delaney Where Great Writers are Made. Delaney observes that: 

"Butler "believes that too many writers intellectualize their writing but  never tap the deep emotions that create great art, and that the  practice has  led to an abundance of polished, bloodless prose. 'Creative-writing students, who are typically trained almost exclusively in craft and technique, come to me knowing the second through the tenth things about being an artist,' Butler says. 'But they don’t know the first thing about it.' In his workshop, students first struggle to find what Butler says is a primary element of a story: the yearning of the character. 'Many don’t get it by the end of the workshop. Some will get it later. But some will never get it,' he says. 'Not everyone is destined to be an  artist.'"

2)   Because they are competent at their craft, MFAs are saturating the market with well-crafted, but mediocre books, which makes  it really hard to find the great ones.

J. Robert Lennon observed in his Salon article Most contemporary fiction is terrible

“[M]ost contemporary literary fiction is terrible: mannered, conservative and obvious. Most of the stories in the annual best-of anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most  magazines… MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published.”

This has the effect of overloading bookstores with reams of mediocre fiction. The Big Think Editors commented:

“That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days:  it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?”

This creates problems not just for readers, but also for editors and it results in a certain ‘sameness’ of much fiction. Jason Sanford, founding editor of a literary magazine entitled Story South, observed:

“Editors are now flooded with tons of these look-alike MFA stories. Instead of the majority of the submissions being bad, the majority of  the stories are now decent. The hardest thing about being an editor today is having to wade through all of this pablum.”

3)    MFAs are to a large degree career training for people who end up teaching in MFA programs (often at an obscure university or in several obscure universities in a patched together set of adjunct positions for at least 10 years) because it is a good job and  they likely can’t make a living writing. Once they are employed, then  they are no longer hungry and don’t write in the same way.

This argument primarily comes from Chad Harbach again in MFA vs NYC.  Harbach observes that the:

“explosion in MFA programs has created a  huge source of financial support for working writers.” “And (the  ambitious student rightly asks) why not enter that field straightaway? After all, there are actual jobs available for MFA holders.”

As a result of this, Harbach argues that gainfully employed MFAs become comfortable, lose their drive and do not ‘have’ to write that bestselling novel in order to eat (or have any sort of dignity whatsoever).

“For the MFA writer, then, publishing a book becomes not a primary way to earn money or even a direct attempt to make money. The book instead serves as a credential.” “The NYC writer has to earn money by writing (or else consider herself a failure in her own terms), which gives her a   certain enlarged dignity and ambition. It also imposes certain strictures.”

Like that you have to write, and preferably novels.

4)    MFAs are based on workshopping/group critiques and workshopping does not produce good results. 

Anyone who has workshopped their work is now probably nodding their heads. Or not. I am, although I will nod quietly because I know there are many strong workshop advocates out there and what the heck do I  know? This argument primarily comes from Briggs Seekins, although it is backed by several others. Seekins describes the workshopping experience for poetry as such:

“Sometimes a poet does bring something strange and experimental to workshop, and nobody understands it—the poet probably doesn’t understand it yet, either. Everybody sits around the table and says: “Wow, this is really trying to do something different.” Or often times the members of the workshop and the presiding professor react with a certain amount of hostility—“What is this, some  sort of crazy experiment? It certainly doesn’t look anything like a poem to me!” It’s not cool to be strange in a graduate poetry workshop, which is kind of alarming, when you consider how strange some of the greatest poets seemed when they first appeared on the scene. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman would have been warmly received into a graduate workshop, had the institution existed in the mid-nineteenth century.”

There is no argument that workshopping can offer valuable insight into what is working and what is not in your piece, but it is also subject to a wide variety of challenges such as group think, the lack of an overall vision (especially if the workshoppers are only reading a short excerpt) and disparate views. As Seekins observes, “People become less bold and only  take work that they think will get praised, and eventually all work conforms to that.” One of Seekins’ commenters noted the value of working with a single editor who is willing to spend the time understanding the overall vision for the work.

5)    MFA programs create a system whereby people  promote/hire/publish their friends and people like themselves this results in mediocrity.

This is from Jason Sanford again, but it is a common thread throughout some of the MFA criticisms.

“The average MFA professor is white, upper-middle class, and unacquainted with anything other than their little academic life. It is through their particular worldview lens that all MFA students pass through and hone their skills. Students who don't match these professors' ideas of life and writing either don't get into the programs or get their writings gutted from the inside out. In genetics, this type of phenomenon is called the Bottleneck Effect. That's where a small group of animals is cut off from the rest of their viable population and only breeds among themselves. This inevitably results in animals having less genetic diversity than their relatives who didn't get isolated in the first place”

Unidentified Elephant on the Roof blogger echoes this and says that the problem with MFA programs is that: 

“they 1) ensure that all literary writers with more than an infinitesimal chance of success come from the same background; 2) forge powerful cliques that support their own members at the expense of  outsiders, regardless of talent.”

6)    MFA programs are expensive and they will not result in you getting published.

Nobody really disputes this observation. I’m not really sure that  anyone expects to come out of an MFA program published anyway. We all know it is a crapshoot at best. But, hey, you might get a good tenured job. Just saying.

7)    MFA programs lack rigor and a commitment to literary history.

The lack of rigor argument comes from Batuman. Her essay is rather dense (but certainly worth a read, or three). She argues that MFAs are too  autodidactic (self-directed) and that they are not sufficiently grounded in literary history or scholarship, such that MFAs claim they are doing creative things with, for example, POV or genre, when they in fact many other writers have already done the same thing. Batuman notes:

“Formed in the shadow of New Criticism, the creative writing  discourse still displays ‘not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but … a commitment to innocence’. This commitment, this sense of writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum, is what turned me off the programme to   begin with. Contemporary fiction seldom refers to any of the literary developments of the past 20, 50 or a hundred years. It rarely refers to other books at all”

8)    MFAs do not have enough life experience to write interesting stories.

This argument comes from Jon Reiner

“Ideally, creative writing programs should exist to guide students in discovering their voices within the nurturing world of the classroom.  But what they can't do is provide writers with real-world experience and   the perspective to make sense of it, without which there is no  storytelling, there is no "editor I'm going to work with" giving the green light.”

Reiner further points out the value of “working for a man you hate” and “struggling” in shaping stories that people want to read and  cautions against spending too much time too early in life in school (getting an MFA say).

Disclaimer again: These are not necessarily my views, although I find some of them somewhat intriguing and I wanted to compile and organize them for my own purposes. I do not think that it can be disputed that the abundance of MFA programs has had an impact on contemporary fiction. The nature of that impact though is still in question and I think these  are worthy points of debate. My next post will focus on the positive  aspects of MFAs. 



Big Think Editors:







Elephant on the Roof:


Postscript: Since researching this post, I came across two other interesting things to note.

1) An observation from Anelise Chen which I missed the first time:  There are many bestselling authors without MFAs. Chen looked at the New York Times best seller list on the day she wrote her blog post in 2010 and observed that not one of the writers in the top five hardcover  fiction category (Nicholas Sparks, Jonathan Franzen, Janet Evanovich,  Stieg Larsson and Kathryn Stockett) have MFAs. These are just a few of  the many who also include Jennifer Egan (who was not accepted into an  MFA program), Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, an Hunter S.  Thompson.

2) A great article in the Huffington Post by Hillary Rettig, who observes that most MFAs in fact do not go on to a successful writing career "If MFA programs accepted even partial responsibility for their graduates' writing careers, however, they'd have to face the  damning fact that most of their graduates don't have one." Surveys of  MFAs have suggested well under 40% make a living as writers.