Chad Harbach’s piece describes the MFA side of the pyramid scheme

On Friday, published a fantastic piece by Chad Harbach titled “MFA v. NYC : America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?

The question he should have asked was “Which one can last?” because the MFA culture he describes clearly exhibits characteristics of the same sort of inadvertant pyramid scheme I have already described in regard to the consumerization of writing.

Not A Flaming Rant

Let me clarify, before we go further, that I do not believe that MFA programs are staffed by frauds and con artists.  I have known plenty of creative writing educators, and they are fine people with the best of intentions and a great love of literature.

In fact, let’s just do away with the unfairly accusatory “scheme” altogether and describe what the evidence indicates is an economic pyramid dynamic, in which the product being sold is the opportunity to sell the product to someone else.  In such a dynamic, a great deal of value is drawn into the system (in this case, primarily tax and tuition dollars) but very little value escapes it.

Other, intangible benefits might accrue for those involved, but in practical, economic terms such a dynamic is ultimately as unsustainable as fossil fuels.

I am also not saying that creative writing programs are by nature worthless — as a writer, I fully believe in the value of writing groups, the study of literature, and expert advice.  Finally, I am absolutely not sweepingly dismissing all MFA graduates (though some might) as cookie-cutter establishment drones bzzzing along with a rigid hive aesthetic.

However, there are fair questions about whether these programs as currently designed merit their costs, and whether all of the students merit the programs.  Negative answers to those questions point toward economically problematic dynamics (namely the rational and informed nature of the actors and the integrity of credentialing) before we even get into the pyramid issue.

Let’s see what Chad has to say.

The Piece

MFA programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work—especially shocking if you’re the student and paying $80,000 for the privilege. [Nelson’s note: This figure has been disputed as being unrepresentative.]

Staffed by writer-professors preoccupied with their own work or their failure to produce any; freed from pedagogical urgency by the tenuousness of the link between fiction writing and employment; and populated by ever younger … students, MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation, or finishing schools for almost-ready writers … and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.

Let me say that, were I an MFA student or graduate, that paragraph would feel like a kick in the gut with a pointy boot.  Ouch.

However, it does raise a serious question: how wise is it to operate MFA programs in a way that they can be described as coping mechanisms for an oversupplied labor market when the target labor market (i.e., creative writers) is one of the most toxically oversupplied in existence?  Does the enabling presence of MFA programs exacerbate a publishing task that has already reached Noahide proportions: filtering through the rising deluge of aspiring creative writers?

Never mind the economic consequence of ballooning supply and thus further devaluing the product MFA programs are ostensibly teaching students to produce for a living.

But, is there really a balloon?  Does the creative writing MFA exhibit the characteristics of a bubble market inflated by a short-sighted pyramid dynamic?

There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 854!

Okay, let those numbers sink in a moment.  That’s an average of over 20 new degree programs a year.  However, I think it’s safe to assume that, rather than remaining steady at 20/year, the rate of new programs has likely increased over the past 35 years.

There’s your bubble.

Playing Devil’s Editor (Briefly)

“But, wait!” interjected the hypothetical agonist, “It’s only a pyramid-driven bubble if the students are paying their tuition dollars for the opportunity to get tuition dollars from other students. Lots of fields experience rapid growth.  Expansion alone does not constitute a pyramid-driven bubble.”

Quite right, my inner counsel for the defense.  In order for it to be pyramid-driven, today’s consumer must become the next iteration’s supplier.

So, what are these credentialed writers doing with their credentials?

It would be fascinating to know the numbers—what percentage of the total income of American fiction writers comes from the university, and what percentage from publishing contracts—but it’s safe to say that the university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.

Answer: they’re being paid by universities.  Anyone who can’t see the obvious pyramid dynamic here has either never heard of a pyramid scheme, or simply isn’t putting two and two together.

But, perhaps we can best clarify by pointing out what a pyramid dynamic is not.

The difference between publishing contracts and university employment, for example, is that publishers sell books out of the publishing industry, to readers, the vast majority of whom are not also trying to become writers, agents, editors, etc.

The model for the MFA fiction writer is her program counterpart, the poet. Poets have long been professionally bound to academia; decades before the blanketing of the country with MFA programs requiring professors, the poets took to the grad schools, earning Ph.D.s in English and other literary disciplines to finance their real vocation. Thus came of age the concept of the poet-teacher. The poet earns money as a teacher; and, at a higher level of professional accomplishment, from grants and prizes; and, at an even higher level, from appearance fees at other colleges. She does not, as a rule, earn money by publishing books of poems—it has become almost inconceivable that anyone outside a university library will read them.

Note, however, that we are not talking about poet-teachers in the context of a booming field of MFA’s in Poetry Composition.  Therefore, the poet-teacher is not a pyramid-inducing loop of consumer-sellers.  Instead, the occasional poet spawned by university English departments takes a job teaching English (for students aimed toward a variety of professional ends) to pay the bills while he or she also publishes poetry on the side.

This is not, however, the case with the writer-teacher in a graduate program for students specifically aimed at becoming professional writers, which in a ballooning number of cases means writer-teachers.  In other words, that 75-to-854 bubble is driven by a recursive pyramid dynamic.

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.

A credential for doing what, class?  Raise your hands!  That’s right, Sarah: a credential for teaching new MFA students, who then publish a book to earn their credentials to teach new MFA students, and so on, and so on…

Just as the critic publishes her dissertation in order to secure a job in an ever tightening market, the fiction writer publishes her book of stories, or her novel, to cap off her MFA.

(Again, as with publishing contracts and poet-teachers, critics do not make a living primarily by training new critics.)

There is an element of liberation in this, however complex; the MFA writer is no longer at the whim of the market—or, rather, has entered a less whimsical, more tolerant market.

The problem with “the MFA writer is no longer at the whim of the market…” is that market dynamics do not simply evaporate at our bidding.  The “market” is merely a description of a very real emergent phenomenon at the convergence of physics, biology, and psychology.  Whenever people come together to make exchanges in a world of limited resources, the market is there.

Like any economic bubble, this one may operate in denial and defiance of market realities but, like any economic bubble, its defiance can only last so long.  The idea that an artificial bubble market that violates the rules of real-world economics can long survive is, no joke intended, utter fiction indeed.

The Enronomics of University Lit Journals

However, it does raise the question of how such a bubble propagates itself, particularly given the very different demands of the NYC publishing establishment.  As Harbach points out, MFA programs are largely short story oriented while New York loves its novels, particularly novels with film rights potential.*

Nevertheless, bubbles need a legitimizing reference, some sort of confidence-building assessment to keep those participating in the bubble (particularly the revenue source: prospective MFA students)convinced that it is not, in fact, a bubble.

Scores of colleges now have associated literary journals, which tend overwhelmingly to focus on the short story; by publishing in as many of these as possible, a young writer begins building the reputation that will eventually secure her a job as a teacher-writer, and an older writer sustains her CV by the same means.

I would never denigrate college literary journals.  I have published in them.  I was editor of one.  There’s some great stuff in them, by which I mean the vast majority of the stuff in them neither written nor edited by me.

But, when good things like literary journals proliferate as a way to provide legitimacy for an exploding number of MFA programs and MFA writers, this is the epitome of a bubble.  It’s a false economy, propped up by self-assessments of its own viability.

As Harbach explains, publishing contracts (and, I would add, literary journals which target readers outside the university) are driven by sustainable interaction with external actors, not only readers but also referees of quality like critics and prize committees.

Except at the very top [of publishing], reputation … depends directly on the market and the publishing cycle, the reviews and the prizes … The MFA canon works differently. The rapid expansion of MFA programs in recent decades has opened up large institutional spaces above and below: above, for writer-professors who teach MFA students; below, for undergraduate students who are taught by MFAs (and by former MFAs hired as adjuncts). All told, program fiction amounts to a new discipline, with a new curriculum … and the short fiction anthologies commonly used in introductory courses become the primary mechanism by which the MFA canon is assembled and disseminated.

To anyone with even a vague understanding of economics, this should be a disturbing revelation.  Make no mistake, these short stories can be fantastic works of art, but they create serious problems if they are used as a source of credibility while not being checked against an external reality.

Not being checked by an external, grounding, objective reality might not seem so troublesome to someone awash in the post-modern philosophy that pervades university literary culture, but try to imagine the same dynamic in an organization toward which that culture might not be so politically sympathetic: a giant energy firm hyping its own corporate health in its own self-assessments … right up to the very moment of collapse.

We all know how well that sort of mirror-gazing thumbs-uppery turns out on Wall Street, and the same dynamics apply to the campus.


The role of the creative writer at university must be reformed, and the bubble deflated.  But, how to accomplish this?

Despite Harbach’s hasty analogy between the poet-teacher and the MFA writer, the clear difference is that the poet-teacher lacks the economic recursion that manifests pyramid dynamics in creative writing.  One solution could be for universities to employ MFA grads as writer-teachers, but to phase out the creative writing programs in favor of a model in which grad students in writing aim toward a variety of professions.

Okay, so writing short stories on the side isn’t as fun as teaching short story writing to fellow short story writers.  But, it is economically sustainable.

Another idea would be for universities to sponsor salons of writers, poets, composers, and visual artists for educational and promotional purposes.**  But, perhaps the word “salon” would not be the best choice, as it rings all Frenchy. How about “association” or “circle” or “round table” or “gallery”?

The core idea is that these artists would exist primarily to be a crucible for ideas and mutual inspiration — a sort of Algonquin-esque stable of wit, wisdom, and wild ideas — and to showcase this vibrant cultural aspect of the university to the outside world through their work.  Getting university Algonks onto the television talk circuit (in place of the typical think-tank, trust-fund brats) would help foster a sense of engagement outside of islands of Academnesia.

And, of course, these artists (creative writers included) could continue to mentor up-and-comers, just not as the primary source of their income.

The Deluge of Creative Juices

I hate to end the piece so abruptly, but dozens of practical issues keeping popping to mind: how would such a gallery be best managed?  Would a form of tenure protect the freedoms of its participants?  Or perhaps some sort of quasi-autonomy from the university proper, with teaching and other obligations spelled out in a negotiated charter?

What could be learned from successful collegiate sports programs, like building the enthusiasm and support of alums, branding the program, recruiting members who create the right interaction, and so on?  An artists gallery certainly wouldn’t be a “team” in the strictest sense of the word, but it would still be important to attend to interpersonal dynamics in the same way an athletic team’s recruiting staff would, to keep their interaction lively.

In other words, if I don’t stop tap-tapping now, this will turn into a plan rather than a critique, and will never get posted.


*  Has anyone pointed out how many Stephen King short stories have gone on to become films?  Oh, wait … King’s not a “literary” writer, so he doesn’t count, does he?

** Wasteful you say? Then fire the football coaches, because they are essentially creative thinkers paid to be school promoters. Actually, of course, don’t fire the football coaches … just recognize that their value to the university translates to creative thinkers in non-athletic fields, no pun intended.

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  1. A great analysis.
    No society in human history has devoted such a massive amount of money and resources toward the creation of literature. Yet the result is stunningly mediocre. The short story, once the most popular literary form, is read by almost no one outside the academy. The problem is with the literary story itself. (And probably all literary writing.)
    The problem with most literary journals is that they have nonprofit status. There’s no incentive for them to increase readership– no market forces, as you indicate. In fact, as with all nonprofits, they gain funds by demonstrating their failure. (Grants, donations, etc.) There’s been for decades now no reason for them to alter the nature of the literary story, or poem, which have become increasingly generic, if not artistically dead. The exception is the New Yorker, whose stories and poems seem to be models for everyone else, but of course the magazine is aimed at a select and insular audience.
    The bottom line is that bureaucracies stifle creativity in art. Harbach describes competing bureaucracies, both of which are filled with go-along-to-get-along apparatchiks.
    Change will come only from outside these structures.

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