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.
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.