November 9, 2010

Can MFA Programs Teach Novel Writing?

This weekend, writer Kyle Minor started an interesting thread on his Facebook page with this observation: MFA programs are producing better short story writers, both in terms of quality and quantity, than novelists.  He suggested that the novel requires a “deeper skill set/toolbox” than the story.  In Kyle’s thread, the conversation focuses primarily, however, on the writer’s education: MFA programs.  Go check it out: writers like Matt Bell, Cathy Day, and Sherrie Flick have all posted their thoughts.  One commenter pointed out, as per usual in these threads, that many writers, such as Jonathan Franzen and Toni Morrison, did not go to MFA programs.  Does this mean MFA programs are inferior and incapable of teaching novel writing?

I’ll toe the line here: MFA programs are more than capable of teaching novel writing, but most currently fail to do so because the standard workshop model is unsuitable for novel writing.

Let’s start with the second part first.  Why can’t workshops teach novels?  After all, many of us have probably been in a workshop where someone brings in Chapter 1 or Chapter 2.  The discussion often becomes pretty general: I think this is good, this is interesting, etc., because we do not see the end, we do not see whether the chapter’s promises were brought to fruition and in workshops, we are used to seeing the end—the denouement, the last stanza—so we can can declare if the piece “works.”  If there is any real guidance or discussion of what a first chapter of a book could or should do, it’s often spacious and of little immediate relevance to the chapter at end.  For the next workshop, the novel writer brings in Chapter 2, the bulk of time is wasted trying to remember what Chapter 1 was about and/or rehashing the same discussions/arguments of likes and dislikes of chapter 1 from earlier in the semester, and nothing much is achieved.

Other workshops in the novel will only look at the first fifty pages or so, and the rest is up to the writer to do alone.  Why?  Well, I mean, my goodness, who has time to read all those first novels?  Imagine you are in a class with eight other novelists.  Do you have time to read 300 pages and teach your two classes and do your own writing?  What happens if, as with many workshopped short stories, the novel is clearly dead in the water by page five?  In the short story, if a particular aspect of the story doesn’t work, hey, you can read those twenty pages, get a sense of what an author is after, and provide a response based on your critical and analytical faculties to show how the author can get to what he/she is after with her short story.  After all, in a graduate workshop, the other writers have almost certainly been in writing workshops before, have written bad and good stories, have written many stories.  There is some comfort (or pleasing discomfort) with the form of the discussion.  We have plenty of experience discussing short story writing, but not much experience discussing novel writing.

I took the third year of my MFA program to write a novel, which was my second attempt at writing one.  In one year, I completed a competent draft, probably a second or third revision of it in the end, and turned it into my committee.  Yes, I turned in the whole thing and I spent two hours discussing with my committee what I wrote. (yes, I was That Guy in my program, the one who often argues passionately for no reason with the teacher and does things like giving his thesis committee not the first 100 pages, but all 342 pages of his 104,000 word thesis and expects them to read it in two weeks. No one likes me much.)

For me, the novel’s challenge was a structural one: to go chronologically backwards over a period of twelve years and explore a family dynamic.  Think Charles Baxter’s novel “First Light”, only my novel wasn’t any good.  My committee was incredibly generous with their time and thoughts and ideas, but towards the end, one of the committee members told me this: even if you can make this novel work, and I don’t think you can, you can’t sell it, so you should just write a new one.

Whoa.

Later, out on the quad, another committee member pulled me aside.  He couldn’t believe what was said to me.  But he also didn’t think it was necessarily wrong.  I don’t think any writer likes telling another writer “can’t” in any discussion, but I sensed that he too was feeling the same thing.  I did what any newly minted post-MFA writer does: I sat on the novel for three months, feeling indignant, writing new short stories; then one night, I broke out the novel and started rereading, decided they were right, and put the whole thing away.

Novel attempt #3 took me three years.  There is no guarantee that this third novel, which I think is pretty good (I’m biased: I know the author) sees the light of day.  But it’s done now and I’ve started writing another one.  So, then: Can MFA programs teach novel writing?  And, if so, why does it seem they can’t?  Was I “taught” how to write a novel or am I just stubborn?

For all the noise that is out there about MFA programs and whether they are good and bad, whether this noise comes from Ted Genoways or Anis Shivani or Na-Nu-Na-Nu (wait, what’s the acronym thing again?), what it comes down to is writing.  This is completely and totally up to the individual writer to do.  A program can’t make you write anything.  Lots of people want to be writers but lots of people don’t want to write.  Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing, but I love having written.”

I don’t really agree with the first part of that statement, but I know the feeling.  Some days, you sit down, and you get nothing.  You stare at the page (or play Spider Solitaire) and come up with zilch.  What do you do?  Mope for the day, and then tomorrow morning, get back in front of the page and write again.  That’s it.  Workshop is really nothing more than a due date.

Listen.  Teaching a competent writing workshop isn’t hard.  It really isn’t.  You know stuff that the student-writers around you don’t.  You know how to analyze and respond to a story better than they do because you have more experience.  Now, to teach a great writing workshop, to be an excellent teacher, that requires something else, which, for now, I’ll leave aside.  Here’s the thing to remember: workshop teachers are, in the end, writers first and teachers second.  The teachers I know that are great writers are extremely protective of that writing time, and don’t let teaching infringe on it in any fashion.

Consequently, for those time-protective writers, short stories are much easier to teach.  If I was guessing—and this is just that, a guess—I’d say a working model for teaching the novel might be this: a final-year, two semester novel-reading/independent project, where one professor teaches several novels each semester that are instructive to the particular goals of the program’s novelists (MFA programs do have their own aesthetics, so, it would be fair to pick novels that are after what those writers are trying to do) with two deadlines to turn in manuscript pages (winter break and May/June) with the goal of completion by spring.  One could study first novels only, or study novels that are more middlebrow and commercially successful, or by studying really ambitious and complex novels (or some other combination of goals).  The idea isn’t perfect, of course, but it could be done.

Then why isn’t?  Well, the incentive isn’t there for anybody to redo the workshop model and try again.  As noted in Kyle’s thread, low-residency programs and Goddard College and, perhaps, others, are making bold attempts.  Sherrie Flick pointed out that a Mentorship class she is working on has been pretty successful.  Mentorship probably is the best thing for a writer, but hey, we can’t all be Papa and head off to the Left Bank and, lo and behold, there’s Gertrude and Ezra and Scott and the like.  I mean, I suppose we could, but, in reality, nothing yet has worked out within the framework of MFA programs.

Let’s offer this quick and easy tangent: I can think of two really good writers, Andre Dubus and Alice Munro, who don’t write novels.  So, it’s fair to ask: why do you want to write a novel anyway?

(That’s a writer’s existential question.  I hope this isn’t the case, but I fear it is, that for many, writing and publishing a novel is to get a tenure-track job and/or tenure.  I’m not a husband or a father, so there is part of me that only knows the answer to this question on an intellectual level, but as a writer: Sorry, kids, that is a lousy reason to write a novel).

Writing a novel is lonely.  Or, more accurate, novel writing is done alone.  Those of us in writing programs like to resist this loneliness.  Frankly, we seem to resist this in all of our art now, if we can call commercial art “art.”  We like to vote on who wins, who is best.  We like to win awards and get prizes. We like our writing community, whether it’s message boards or email threads or writing workshops.  We get to show our writing, regardless of its artistic merit, to other people who understand what we are going through and this makes us feel sane and understood.  The self-esteem beast raises its head.  And the writing programs and their deadlines feed the beasts (these people are us) by making sure we give everyone twenty pages in neat, weekly rotations.

But the novel resists.  The novel takes months; the novel takes years.  The novel takes a certain amount of artistic isolation.  This is a scary, lonely, and dangerous place to be.  Let’s face it: what if you spend five years on a novel and, in the end, it simply does not work?  Especially when the language we use—“it doesn’t work” or it’s a “failure” or whatnot—is so utterly destructive, ruthless, and self-loathing?  How do we, as writers, face that fear?  How do we accept that risk?

Might we approach that fear by not approaching it but by writing short stories instead.

(Another writer’s existential hand grenade!  I know.  Can’t help it.)

We may not be consciously saying it, but the change in writing over the last three decades – partly from writing workshops and MFA programs, partly from the Internet and the ease of connectivity, partly from our culture – is to give us the idea that we are all one community that we are in this together.  That somehow writing our books can be a team effort.  And, I’m sorry, but I disagree.  When it comes to writing the novel, you’re on your own.  To come back to Kyle’s question: we have the toolbox with all the tools we need to write a novel, but it’s up to us to use them correctly.

Writing programs tend to be a collective, which isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. If there is any valid criticism of MFA programs (oh, bollocks, I’m sure there are tons of valid criticisms; c’mon, hang around for just another paragraph), I think Kyle has found it: they don’t churn out great novels.  They teach a type of writing that may be too narrow and institutionalized for the type of novels that, to borrow from Lee Abbott, are as honest as a fistfight, the kind of writing that make the tyrants weep.  And, ultimately, that might be a good thing.  Maybe we don’t need more mediocre novels in the world.  Maybe those mediocre novels are all I’ll ever write.  What I learned from graduate school is not how to write a novel, but how to figure out how to write a novel.  The actual writing of the novel?  I have to do that on my own.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Kenyon Review, and New South, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

22 Responses to Can MFA Programs Teach Novel Writing?

  1. Kyle Minor says:

    I want to say that the point of my thread was to raise some questions, not to offer up answers. For the record, I hate the attention-grabbing MFA-bashing articles I’ve been reading lately on the Internet. My MFA education made it possible for me to be the writer I am, my teachers were good, and their classrooms were open to a wide variety of aesthetic approaches. Some of my classmates completed good novels while I was in school, and others subsequently, and they enjoyed help and one-on-one attention for their novels. I benefitted from a first-rate forms class in the novel from a first-rate teacher, Erin McGraw, which has informed my work as I go forward on my own novel.

    My questions are largely structural: Since most MFA programs privilege the workshop model, and the workshop seems best suited to an education in the short story, it seems likely (and anecdotal evidence seems to reflect) that MFA programs are consequently producing good short story writers in higher quantities than good novelists. I think that this is not a terrible thing. Certainly the story as a form has benefitted from this influx of talent and energy. However, given the way that our culture and the marketplace of readers-who-are-not-writers seem to prefer the novel to the story, I wonder if it might be a service to American literature if the proportional imbalance between the amount of better writers who are receiving a good education in each form might be somehow addressed, structurally, by those who make curricular and procedural decisions in the MFA education.

    It might be that the conventional wisdom holds — the story is a better pedagogical tool, because it allows the writer to fail more often and more quickly on his or her way to an aesthetic breakthrough. Certainly it is easier for the teacher to conduct a traditional workshop around the story, and it is easier for a class cohort to discuss a story in one sitting.

    Certainly it is true that many of the tools required to make a story — questions of language, point of view, characterization, etc. — are portable. But the act of novel-making often privileges additional skill sets, and requires a working method and manner of thinking that is less immediately lyrical and more strategically cumulative.

    I think that, given the huge variety of MFA programs and approaches to learning within individual MFA programs, it would be foolish to do as many have done and propose some kind of one-size-fits-all solution. Better, probably, to invite a conversation about the question so that those inclined to deem it a worthy problem might consider within their own spheres of influence the kinds of incremental changes or option-makings that would raise the profile of the novel as a pedagogical object to a level nearer the story.

  2. Marisa Birns says:

    Read this post quickly and returned to read it slowly, savoring every sentence.

    Did take a writing workshop once, and it is as you say. The teacher, while wonderful, was first and foremost a writer. She was complementary about my stories, and I’m grateful not to have embarrassed myself in front of the others, and wasted everyone’s time.

    But, also as you say, I found myself using the workshop as a weekly writing deadline. Don’t regret going and paying for it, but firmly believe that it is all about the writing. And I must go it alone.

    You said that, too, didn’t you. :)

    Thank you.

  3. J. Bowers says:

    When I was getting my M.A. at Hollins University, all of the fiction writers were writing novels, and meeting in 3 to 4 member groups with Pinckney Benedict kept us chugging along. Things might be different there now that it’s an M.F.A. (I was a member of the very last M.A. class in 2003), but novels were definitely the accepted and understood “standard” back then.

  4. Michael says:

    @Kyle. Wrote you back. The Essentials: Your thread was awesome and worthy of a long post. You’re right: no need for answers here, just furthering the conversation. And, as always, gracias.

    @Marisa. Thanks! I had some wonderful teachers and some okay ones. I think, and I should be clear about this, MFA programs are a good thing, and most of us come out of these programs as significantly stronger readers and writers. But it’s really just the beginning for all of us, and one of the things we need to do is make sure MFA graduates know that is a long and lonely (and worthy) haul.

    @Jess. I didn’t know that about Hollins. I do know Pinckney a little bit – he’s a wonderful, fierce, smart teacher. Not the least bit surprised to hear this.

  5. Cheryl Wright-Watkins says:

    Thank you for the post, lending credence to the MFA and clarifying a bit the recent controversies bantering the pros and cons of attending. To my delight and near astonishment, at the age of 53, I have been accepted to the MFA program at VCFA, and begin my first semester next month. The prospect is daunting at least, and I found your article and the follow-up comments encouraging.

  6. Cathy Day says:

    Michael, thank you for furthering this discussion. You say, “Other workshops in the novel will only look at the first fifty pages or so, and the rest is up to the writer to do alone. Why? Well, I mean, my goodness, who has time to read all those first novels? Imagine you are in a class with eight other novelists. Do you have time to read 300 pages and teach your two classes and do your own writing?”

    You have just described the job of every fiction writer who teaches in a writing program. If the teachers can do it, why can’t the students?

    I think also that we can read and respond to different kinds of manuscripts differently. Say someone turns in a 10-page story for workshop. I might instruct the class to read the story thoroughly, annotate, write a long critique, which might take 3 or 4 hours total. Say someone turns in 60 pages of their novel in progress. I might instruct the class to read those 60 pages and suspend thorough annotation and critique writing, which could still keep the activity down to 3 or 4 hours total. And might prevent the kind of “over analysis” of novels in progress that often causes them to stall.

  7. Michael says:

    @Cheryl: Hey, congrats on pursuing the MFA. It’s absolutely worth it, and I think you’ll find that it does wonders for your writing. You’ll love it.

    @Cathy: My pleasure. Kyle’s onto something here and I couldn’t help writing much more about it.

    Other students should read with the same care and attention that profs do, but I know this doesn’t always happen. There are always a handful in programs that don’t do this really basic element, and that can be frustrating for everyone. I think your suggestion about how to approach those 60 pages, say, is a good one; there isn’t one blanket way to do deal with it. But I wonder if MFA students know how to “workshop” a novel. A bit of a pivot here, but many MFA poetry students are unsure of how to read a poetry collection; it seems like the skill of reading is often assumed rather than taught. Perhaps what we need from teachers is some element of the macro (novel, poetry collection) to build on the micro (word choice, comma usage, etc.).

  8. Brilliant post. I agree MFA programs don’t make novelists, and I’m glad! In the five years since I’ve been “on the outside,” the many mistakes I’ve made in various novel attempts have served as profound, resonant lessons. I wouldn’t have missed them for the world.

  9. Cathy Day says:

    Maybe it’s the term itself, “to workshop,” that’s the problem. It has come to imply dissection, interrogation. This essay by Peter Turchi provides an alternative way to frame a productive discussion in which novels, story collections, and poetry collections are on the table. http://www.peterturchi.com/resources.html#WorkLab

  10. Michael says:

    @Amos. Thanks for the kind words. I’m flattered. Gracias.

    @Cathy. Yeah, maybe the phrasing “to workshop” does have something to do with how professors tailor expectations, and what student-writers demand. I saw the link to Peter on your blog: thanks for putting it in the blog comments so others can read it, too.

  11. As a short story writer, I feel so dismayed by the notion that a novel requires a “deeper skill set/toolbox,” and I think there are other factors in play when it comes to the question of whether MFA programs can teach novel writing. It’s true that workshops for novel writers are problematic; having a group of people poke their fingers into a first draft that is still in development can often make a gummy mess of the thing. In the ideal novel workshop, participants would complete a first draft before they exposed the manuscript to criticism. Yet it makes sense that apprentices new to the craft are inclined to try to learn the fundamentals by writing stories. You can actually see it from “beginning to end” and practice on a smaller scale the skills you’ll need for a novel. But this doesn’t make the story form a lesser version of a novel. To me, it suggests that just because a story can be written and revised in a shorter period of time, competence may be achieved more quickly. If a story doesn’t work, you can toss it and start another. Because novels require more time, both in composing and revising, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that an apprentice writer may have to do the same thing with a novel draft–toss and start over–and it simply takes a little longer for the graduates of MFA programs to do so and finally put together a publishable work. And let’s not forget that novels are more at the mercy of commercial pressure–because they sell better than stories do, they’re more subject to marketing considerations of agents and editors, more likely to be rejected for reasons that may have little to do with competence.

  12. I don’t know if anyone was trying to say that the short story is a lesser form, but, there is something to the old running metaphor. Sprinting is no less an athletic feat than running the marathon, but they do take a different sort of training, and to a lesser degree, a different temperament. That seems obvious. I think the same can be said about novelists and real story writers–like Cheever, Dubus, etc.

    When I write, “real,” I mean a person who writes stories because she thinks that that is the medium in which she can make real art. I am not talking about the failed novelist who is writing stories because she thinks it’s going to be easy. I don’t think that that is what Mr. Minor had in mind.

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  14. Kyle Minor says:

    Two difficulties that attach to exercise of the Facebook post are that (1) It’s semi-private but also semi-public and (2) It is too brief to develop any kind of thought at length.

    My immediate fear when Michael posted this note was that people would think I was bashing MFA programs (I wasn’t). Catherine’s note raises in me a second alarm — the idea that this blog post has left an impression that I believe the story to be an inferior form (I don’t).

    I think it’s probably more difficult to write a short story of lasting resonance than a novel. I think that in general the novel is the more forgiving form. The story will foreground every imperfect thing, whereas the novel might absorb or even turn into a virtue things that would sink a story.

    However, I think it might be easier to write a decent, competent short story than a decent, competent novel, if for no other reason than the time it takes to generate a work of a greater length and structural complexity. And I also think that the novel requires an adjacent but distinct skill set from the story, and that the skill set the story requires is the one that the workshop privileges.

    Thanks to all for having the discussion. I think it’s a useful discussion that isn’t often enough taken up by those of us who care about such things.

  15. Michael says:

    @Kyle: I don’t think any reasonable person would think you were bashing MFA programs at all. That wasn’t, to me, the point. The point was more of a “Hey, isn’t that strange?” observation that, when discussed in detail, is really beneficial for writers and teachers alike. I, for one, am really glad you started it.

    @Catherine: Novels are, to a large extent, under the thumb of commercial publishing. Which is why I wondered aloud, though it has been pursued in this thread, why people want to write novels in the first place. On the other hand, there are more and more outlets for novels at small and independent publishing houses. The same as being on Knopf? Of course not. But all hope isn’t lost either.

    @E’eryone: Thanks for contributing to this post. Lots of really smart, interesting ideas being kicked around here.

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  17. Peter Turchi says:

    I know of several quite good novels written by MFA students in recent years in just one MFA program (Warren Wilson’s); but it’s worth noting that those novels were started and drafted while those writers were students and completed after graduation–in one case, a year later, and in another, nearly five years later. And for every MFA student who successfully completes (drafts and revises to someone’s satisfaction) a novel, there are many more who begin longer projects, then back up, or set it aside, to work on aspects of fiction writing in shorter pieces. That’s by no means an inevitable or necessary sequence, but it’s often the most practical one. So among other things, it may be that more writers are capable of writing effective shorter works when they’re still students, and that the gestation period for novels means that more or written or completed after graduation.

    All of that said, it seems true that the typical workshop is best-equipped to deal with shorter work. There are admirable exceptions–workshops designed to deal with book-length projects–at New Mexico State and Houston, among other places, and the one-to-one mentoring approach, as it’s practiced in low-residency programs such as Warren Wilson’s and at residential programs such as Arizona State’s.

    In my own experience as a teacher, I’ve worked with more developing writers who felt the desire to write a novel–for whatever combination of reasons–than who had a novel to write (at the time, at least). Most runners don’t begin by running a marathon, most composers don’t begin by writing symphonies; it makes sense that most writers, even on the graduate level, start with the shorter form. But the larger question is important to anyone teaching writing or leading a class or workshop: does the form of the instruction impose restrictions on the work produced? If so, we need to keep making room for more possibilities.

  18. Bill says:

    When people ask me what I learned during my MFA, I say I learned to read like a writer. For me, it was good to hear smart people help me see what different writers did to succeed. (there are so many ways) I began to think about the way stories or novels paid off: the language, the plot, the surprise, the hilarity, the sorrow, what a reader learned while reading, and so on. I learned what I know about writing mostly by writing everyday. I do think it helped me a lot to write multiple novels. I wrote an unpublished MFA novel. I revised it. I wrote another one. Nothing happen. I wrote another one. I accepted that my life was better when writing and I was willing to keep writing books that didn’t get published. I did my part: I looked for places to send my work and I kept at it steady.

    My second novel, Love on the Big Screen, is forthcoming in February of 2011. Just like a lot of other things I’ve lived through (school years, basketball seasons, marathons run, romantic relationships) I have a better sense of what’s happened, what’s happening, and what is going to happen when I am going from start to finish of a novel manuscript. I enjoyed the article and the conversation that has followed. William.Torgerson@gmail.com

  19. I believe it could be a possibility. I don’t see it going in that direction. Having worked with a publisher and editor and having received a checklist of what made my novel, Anastasia and the Cuban, acceptable to them; I think there are elements that can be taught. I recall the checklist of what my editor expected, to be a wonderful teaching tool. It was concise and direct. Here are some of the items they expected (and to be fair, this was for a specific genre of novels…mine fit the mainstream category of romantic suspense).

    1. Does the book start with an intriguing element that draws the reader in?
    2. The opening hook of each chapter is not expository writing, long narrative, inner reflection, or back story.
    3. Each chapter is a page turner
    4. Each chapter ends with a hook.
    5. Is the ending abrupt or too contrived.

    It goes on and on with various elements that could be taught in a novel writing form. Those things can be taught. They should be, because it keeps the reader involved. But can you teach technique, voice, mechanics? Not sure.

    I think work shopping is a valuable experience; but it also can lead to some uniformity of a group culture. I found some of this in a web site used for review I belonged to. I grew up to a point; then, I began to lose my voice and found my writing sounding like many there. If a certain form is trendy and the group prefers this at the time, a novelist bucking this trend may not gain a real evaluation. It may reflect the values of the group. I hate trendy writing; so for me, work shopping has had its value and drawbacks.

    Studying literature? Should be a precursor for writing a novel. Goes without saying. If MFA programs do this much, they teach. But does that produce good novel writing? Not sure. It creates good analysis, which could produce good novels.

    I refuse to compare short story writing to novel writing. They are two very different beasts; and I don’t judge them as better or worse. It’s like comparing a fine wine to a fine liquor…they aren’t the same.

    I do think that short story writing may lend itself to MFA programs better than novels because of time constraints. I have not attended an MFA program though; so I could be speculating on what they do. The MFA graduates I saw in one particular site did not impress me for the most part. They seemed too contrived; but again, that could have been the group culture reflected and adapted into the writer’s style. I saw more than a few change from good writers to mediocre by adopting the culture’s perspective. This happened to me as well.

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