How MFA Programs Can Hurt Literature

After commenting on a post defending MFA programs at Fiction Writers Review, I realized that the issue deserved a blog entry of its own.  The post was itself commentary on a Huffington Post story by author Lev Raphael and, after having read the full article, I was more convinced than ever that I needed to write a detailed rebuttal.

The problem with the Review blurb and the original HuffPost piece is that both focused on the value of MFA programs for writers.  Some quips from Raphael:

I enjoyed the company of my fellow students in what was in effect a giant writers group.

I learned … from all the tremendous amount of reading I did, from the literature professors, and the immersion in a community of writers.

Maybe I was an exception, maybe I was lucky, but nineteen books later, I have to say I got my money’s worth.

However, the debate about MFA programs is not about the benefits for individual students. The real debate is about their effect on literature as a whole.

Robbing Petersburg to Pay Paul

This is a common misdirection in all fields: focusing on the individual benefit of something while ignoring its detriment to the field.  It usually involves some sort of illusion from which the individual benefits at the expense of the group.

Indeed, the shelves are filled with books explaining how to get ahead in business or politics by exploiting cognitive biases and other decision-making flaws; none of these books ever seem to consider what happens to business or politics as a whole when they get flooded with all of these irrational choices.

A good example is Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, in which he describes the ways Republicans have used marketing techniques that exploit irrational decision-making in order to win support for their candidates and policies.  His goal, however, is not to create more rational support for more rational politics.  He simply encourages Democrats to use the same tricky marketing techniques Republicans have been using.

Even for those on the gaining end of Westen’s counsel, the idea of doubling the rate of cognitive disconnect in politics should give pause.  Judging from Brain‘s sales, it hasn’t.

In politics, business, and literature, people seem perfectly content to celebrate raking in rewards for individuals (particularly when those individuals are ourselves or “on our side”), even when it means laying waste to the field from which those rewards are reaped.

Sailor of the Week on a Sinking Ship

So when I read Raphael reminisce about all he gained in grad school, I am not moved.  The fact that MFA programs can help individuals get ahead hardly matters if, in the process, literature as a whole is deluged with credentialed yet bad writers.

Am I being too harsh? The effect of MFA programs on publishing is, in fact, summed up by Raphael himself when he confesses the nudity of the literary emperor:

Were they all good writers or even good critics of each other’s work? No.

Then why should they be credentialed above other writers and critics? One could reasonably expect that writing creds issued by reputable grad schools would go only to great writers but, by Raphael’s own admission, his MFA program was a mixed bunch, not even “all good” much less the best of the good.

Presumably most of these bad or mediocre writers and critics now have the stamp of MFA approval, not to mention all the networking they did while in school, a foot in a thousand doors. Hurray for literature!

Of course, I’m not saying that everyone with an MFA in writing is a hack.  Far from it.  But, great writers like Raphael, who remember very well that not everyone in their MFA programs were even good writers, should hesitate to defend the status quo.

If you’re one of these great (or even just good) MFA writers, this is not a reflection on you … unless you choose to defend the right of those not-so-good classmates to share that Badge of Quality Writing with you.  Then, you become accomplices to a fraud that is corrupting the literary culture you claim to love.

Bad Medicine

Here’s the bottom line. Any influence that corrupts merit-based rewards in any field should be discouraged.

When defenders of MFA programs have to focus on the benefits to individuals while both admitting and dismissing the fact that some (if not many) of these individuals are not good writers who are essentially buying their way into the literary club, it’s time to call the jury in.  Guilty as charged.

These programs are schlimmbesserung — attempts to make literature better which are actually making it worse. At their best, they are the literary equivalent of iatrogenesis.

Could these programs be purified and redeemed?  Absolutely.  There’s nothing inherently flawed about the idea of teaching writers, provided that the measure of innate talent is performed first and thoroughly, and then the cut is made consistently and ethically.*

And, provided that the tactical, short-term profit motive of the institution is subordinated to its duty to invest in the long-term health of the literary community at the strategic level, a community on which the institution itself owes its existence and survival.

But, if good writers need the intensity of writing groups to keep them writing, if they need assigned reading to become immersed in the literary culture, they can get together and do this for themselves, for free, and without deceptive credentialing.

_

* Don’t quibble that this is already going on; Raphael already outed the “not good” writers in his own, prestigious MFA program.  There should have been none for him to comment on. Just let it go, really.

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14 Comments

  1. Superb argument! I am firm believer in your “merit badges” having real meaning, and I see you are, too. In the past, in my Navy days, we had a board comprised of recognized experts, and if you could’t pass the board in our field of work, you were sent packing back to study. Only the people with the most thorough knowledge and the best skills passed and got to be part of our group. In the years following my departure, the standards were dropped and others were “qualified” — we needed more operators even though they were of poorer quality. It’s the same argument — what good is your qualification if the quality of your work is poor? What does that say about the qualification in general? What does that say about others with said same qualification? Now all is in question.

  2. You are not being too harsh. Some of the worst books I’ve read were written by MFA graduates eager to use that piece of parchment as a marketing tool. “Look! I gots a DE-gree, and it sez right thar that I knows how to write good!” Oddly enough, many of the bigger publishers think that’s all it takes.

    As an editor and publisher, I look for storytelling talent, a basic comprehension of literature and general composition skills. Talent cannot be taught. One comprehends literature from reading and discussing said literature. Basic composition skills are taught in high school.

    I am not impressed with a writer’s MFA. If anything, that MFA gives me a more jaded view of their work. I don’t want to know about it. I want to know why they wrote their story. I want them to tell me about the story. Give me a reason to believe in the work, not the MFA. The MFA did not write the story.

  3. I still don’t see your point. There is still the publishing community to get past, whether with or without such credentials. The larger problem I see in the literary community is the lack of integrity in some sections of the publishing community. Bad writers get published on a regular basis. Of course, this is all a matter of opinion as is your position on MFA programs. I do not possess an MFA and I am so far an unpublished writer. I don’t think an MFA would get me any farther in the literary community than I can get without one. There are many good writers sans MFAs and with them. The reading public, however, gets what they choose to pay for and apparently that is not always good writing. What seems to drive publishing more than good writing is good bottom lines. If the public would sit down and read a well-written piece of writing, or even purchase such a thing, then there would be more hope. But until we raise the standards of acceptable education back to where it should be, we will continue to have profit-driven, poorly written dreck that seems to win out over most good writing.

  4. You don’t have to be impressed. The MFA helped me have a successful career of 19 books translated into 12 languages; 100s of invited readings on three continents; 100s of reviews, essays, and anthology pieces; seeing my work taught in colleges and universities around the country and abroad; a handful of foreign book tours; and a major university purchasing my papers.

    Oh, and having my blog called a story and quotes from it labeled as “quips.”

  5. Firstly, you have no idea if you would have been able to achieve all of those things without the MFA, because there’s no way to test that short of accessing an alternate universe where a Lev Raphael just as talented as you did not attend such a program. However, since there are plenty of writers similarly talented with similar forms of success without MFA’s, I think it’s safe to assume that your degree was not necessary.

    More importantly, your MFA apparently hasn’t helped your reading comprehension much. You have come here to dispute my blog only to reinforce its main point, which is that people are so consumed with what they gain as individuals that they fail to see the detrimental effect for the whole.

    To brag all the louder about your personal gains only makes you look hopelessly obtuse, because the reason I said I wasn’t impressed was not that you, Lev Raphael, didn’t get anything from the MFA program. The reason I said I wasn’t impressed (and this “quip” immediately follows “I am not impressed”) was because the fact “that MFA programs can help individuals get ahead hardly matters if, in the process, literature as a whole is deluged with credentialed yet bad writers.” Middle Schoolers could drag the thesis out of that.

    So, kudos on your professional successes (sincerely, I do congratulate you on your career) and much thanks for providing a first-hand demonstration of the flaw in thinking I was trying to explain.

  6. We’re clearly talking about very different things.

    I wasn’t defending MFA programs in general, I wasn’t discussing their effect on contemporary literature, I responded to the charge that they’re a waste of time. That was right there in my title, and that was the thread of the whole piece: “Are MFA Programs a Waste of Time? Mine Wasn’t.”

    Are they producing credentialed writers dragging down contemporary literature?
    I’d have to see a list of the accused.

    Thanks for the kudos! Sorry you feel you need to be insulting along with them.

  7. [From a note I just sent to someone regarding the above post]:

    ____________,

    At this point the arguments against the MFA are so reactionary — so poorly reasoned — that on some level it’s best only to respond to those criticisms from major critics and/or those with a large audience. I’m not familiar with this person, but I took one look at his argument and wondered whether it would really be worthwhile to educate him: Consider, his argument (his narrative) is that “bad” and “mediocre” poets are not just occasionally but regularly being admitted to graduate schools in one of the most selective fields of study in America — nearly two-thirds of full-res MFA programs with known acceptance rates are harder to get into than Harvard Law School — and what’s more, what’s more, they’re then finding great success with major trade publishers and not only publishing occasional books that reach a massive audience but regularly doing so. And from this farcical narrative we’re asked to conclude that, even though the average starting age of a full-res MFA student is 26.5 — that is, most new MFA students have been writing poetry or fiction and forming their personal writing aesthetic for nearly a decade before they even see the inside of an MFA program — it is MFA programs, we’re told, not U.S. (non-institutional) literary culture generally (which MFA students are exposed to for nearly a decade before they do their MFA) nor big-city editors, who choose what gets published, nor readers, who choose what gets read, nor critics, who choose what gets praised, nor booksellers, who choose what gets shelved, nor bloggers, who choose what books and authors to discuss with their readership, that are to blame.

    This guy reminds me of a guy I knew in college (not a friend) who had unreasonable standards for female beauty; he once said to me, “You know, Seth, the average woman’s not very attractive.” And I said, “No, actually, the average woman is, by definition, average-looking.” He literally couldn’t understand his error.

    Likewise, this guy is calling “bad” and “mediocre” whatever fiction he doesn’t personally enjoy — rather than saying that it is perfectly technically competent work which he largely rejects as a matter of taste. Any person who tells you that the average book which has made it through dozens of flaming hoops in the most competitive publishing market in the world is “bad” or “mediocre” is a demagogue. Mind you, I think most of what’s on the bookshelves is trash — but I recognize that that’s largely a matter of my own tastes. I can’t (nor could anyone) actually look at what’s on the nation’s bookshelves and say that it is simply bad writing. Oh, there’s the odd exception, of course — Dan Brown is an outright technically incompetent writer — but most of the work that’s simply sub-competent is genre work. And what do you know, that’s the one sort of work which can’t get you into an MFA program nor is it supported by MFA programs. Genre writers are largely not MFAed writers. And to the extent this person (this blogger) is a genre writer, you can guess what’s behind these nonsensical, counter-intuitive, horribly broad (and generalized) claims. This is a “you kids get off my lawn!”-level critique.

    If this guy wants more terrible genre novels flooding the nation’s bookshelves, all I can say is, thank God he’s not in charge of anything beyond this blog.

    Cheers,
    Seth Abramson
    Contributing Author, The Creative Writing MFA Handbook

    [I’d add to the above that those who research and study MFA programs have forgotten more about the history, conception, structure, and mission of MFA programs in the last hour than this poster has ever been exposed to. Has he attended an MFA? Has he studied the history of the degree? Does he understand even the most rudimentary facts about MFA admissions? What sort of “MFA critic” claims you can buy your way into a program? Or that having an MFA leads to instant success in publishing? What is he talking about? These are wildly (laughably) false claims. Further: Polling shows that less than 30% of MFA applicants attend an MFA for the “credential,” yet this man claims otherwise? On what basis? Most of the top programs fund most or all of their students — and it is students from these programs that do most (nearly all) of the publishing MFA graduates ever do — yet this man says MFA programs are designed to bilk students of their money? What does he know about the MFA system that those of us who have researched it for years don’t know? Answer: Nothing. You know what they say about opinions and _________ — everyone has one. Well, this guy has one — hooray].

  8. Hey Seth,

    ‘Likewise, this guy is calling “bad” and “mediocre” whatever fiction he doesn’t personally enjoy — rather than saying that it is perfectly technically competent work which he largely rejects as a matter of taste’

    If by “this guy” you mean me, then you are yet another example of inept reading comprehension resulting from the MFA process, because when I refer to “not good” writers I am quoting Lev Raphael himself, when he confesses that not all the writers in his MFA program are “good.” This isn’t my judgment, it’s your fellow MFA promoter’s.

    You haven’t even accomplished the lowest order of thinking in Bloom’s taxonomy (remembering/knowledge) and you’re claiming to defend education?

    The reality is that you haven’t addressed any of the points I’ve made, and are simply name-calling (“to the extent that this person is a genre writer” speaks volumes about your failure to genuinely understand literature and my arguments) in a poorly veiled attempt to defend your source of income.

    By the way, thanks for plugging your MFA book so people know where your true interests lie: it’s not with the quality of the literary community, but with your own personal profit margin, precisely confirming the main thesis of the blog entry you have so completely failed to comprehend or debunk.

    You guys are helping my argument more than you seem to understand, and clearly represent the epitome of hollow, entitled credentialing.

    Next?

  9. JNL,

    You’re not serious. Of course you were quoting Lev — but you also were taking and adopting those terms as a reflection of your own opinion:

    “…most of these bad or mediocre writers and critics now have the stamp of MFA approval, not to mention all the networking they did while in school, a foot in a thousand doors. Hurray for literature! Of course, I’m not saying that everyone with an MFA in writing is a hack. Far from it. But…”

    You took “bad” and “mediocre” _out_ of Lev’s quotes because those are terms you decided to adopt for your own argument. And yes, I responded _directly_ to your arguments, as those who passed the Reading Comprehension portion of the GRE (perhaps another benefit of striving to be admitted to an MFA program? But I kid) would know.

    Finally — God, not that I should need to engage this — I actually wrote my section of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook as a _freelancer_, JNL (a term you should be aware of, as you will be doing much of it going forward), so I see no royalties from sales of the book. Zero. Zilch. In fact, I mentioned it _only_ so that you would understand that there are those who do actual _research_ before they form opinions that slander a U.S. MFA-graduate population now in the tens of thousands.

    S.

  10. Good blog.

    Hi, Tomi. 🙂 I agree that what you take from the classes matters most. However, other people will derive something from the piece of paper that you can present, quite possibly without being any more qualified than someone lacking it. That certainly matters, especially if they’re not truly given out based upon merit.

  11. So Seth… your argument rests on the idea that writers who are, as Lev describes them, not “good writers” cannot be accurately and honestly described as “bad” and/or “mediocre”? Can you think of another set of categories that better describe “not good”? You’re really grasping at straws here. I did not inject these terms; they are implied logically by Lev’s own testimony.

    Also, the fact that you pitched a book for which you received no royalties does not mean you weren’t promoting your personal gain as opposed to the common good of literature. It just means you were promoting your personal reputation rather than financial profit. I misidentified the nature of your personal gain (mea culpa) but this personal focus of yours still falls well within my thesis.

    And for the record, I have participated in a graduate program, just not an MFA in Creative Writing, and I make near six figures as a professional editor. My reading comprehension is just fine. Still, you have not addressed my argument that personal gain is trumping the common good in the MFA process. You’ve simply boasted, without even accurately identifying the arguments you claim to debunk.

    Finally, I feel it necessary to repeat that I do not believe that all MFA recipients are falsely credentialed buffoons. Nor do I believe that MFA programs are faulty by nature. But, when a beneficiary of MFA credentialing like Lev Raphael confesses that not all writers in his own MFA program were “good” writers, that begs questions that deserve to be answered, questions that you seem neither able nor willing to even address.

    The question isn’t whether there is such a thing as quality, “literary” composition as opposed to simple escapist writing. Clearly there is a meritorious difference between fun-yet-fleeting “beach reads” and novels that, in their sheer excellence, transcend the topical circumstances of their publication. Franzen is not comparable to Picoult, as I have elsewhere argued.

    The real question is whether the products of the current MFA system, including the “not good” writers with whom Lev Raphael shares a credential, constitute (as Jefferson distinguished them) a natural or an artificial aristocracy. Given Lev’s own testimony, not mine, we can assume that the MFA does not always equal good writing.

    Until this gap between merit and actual product is reduced or eliminated, the MFA is harmful to the aesthetic health of Literature as a whole. You have provided no evidence or argumentation to the contrary.

  12. Let me get this straight: In the past decade, approximately 15,000 to 20,000 individuals have received MFAs in either fiction or poetry. Another couple thousand in nonfiction. In some instances, these individuals were selected by faculties who saw promise in the work submitted to them even though the applicant in question was very young. So your best shot against the MFA is that some of these 17,000 to 22,000 poets and writers might not have delivered on the promise they showed in their youth? You’re submitting that the degree itself — the very notion of the degree — is harmful to America because there are some less talented writers out there? (NB: I never myself came across an outright “bad” writer in any MFA program.)

    So if an attorney in Iowa, say, is disbarred, do we close down all the law schools? What if an attorney in Nevada offers only a weak defense in a burglary trial in Reno? Ban the Nevada Bar Association from congregating in any public space, shall we? Besides relying again and again and again on “genetic fallacy” — as you won’t look it up, I’ll just tell you that it means you’re judging an argument not by the strength of the argument but by who’s delivering it — you’re also making such broad, absolutely unprovable claims that no one could possibly argue with you effectively except to point out (using specific examples of factual errors) that you have absolutely no idea what you’re on about here.

    Saying “the MFA is harmful to the aesthetic health of Literature” is like saying that all Martians are liars — how in the world could you ever prove it, or how could it ever be disproved? Really, sir, you’re ridiculous — if you want to prove that MFAed poets and writers are the nation’s new literary “aristocracy,” you’ll have to do much more than proffer your own distasteful, public bitterness as proof. Ever heard of Cormac McCarthy? Where did he do his MFA, hmm? Oh, that’s right. See — the conversation can’t be had, or can only be ridiculous if had, on these terms. You’re just not equipped for this conversation, I’m afraid.

    S.

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