Dispatches | September 07, 2011

The rumors of  both the birth and death of MFA programs in the United States are greatly exaggerated. While academia continues adding new programs unchecked, large swathes of the “reading public” bemoan the sterility, uniformity, and lack of passion animating the work of writers who emerge from these programs. Haters hate, and lovers defend doggedly– “look at the tremendous variety of work coming out today,” “only those who experience life a la Hemingway deserve to write,” “more non-white, non-affluent, non-male writers are working today,” “institutionalizing Art is tantamount to killing it,” “Writing programs do not make writers; they merely provide a nurturing environment for those interested in learning the craft,” etc.

The truth, as it usually does, resides somewhere in the middle. Because I’m a graduate of an MFA program and am currently a Ph.D student in a creative-writing program, I bristle at the suggestion that writing programs signal the death of literature. This is partially because to accept this argument would mean invalidating every life decision I’ve made, but also because I truly think that MFA’s have worked in democratizing the writing industry, made it easier for people to learn the craft of writing, and imparted a New Critics style focus on close reading that (in my humble opinion) is peculiarly well-suited to writers.

However, while not espousing all the criticism levelled against writing programs, I do think there are certain fundamental flaws in how they operate. Not as regards the quality of writing, or the nature of it (both of which seem to draw the ire of critics and the public) but in how the MFA program views and positions itself, generally. There is a response, among MFA programs, to the persistent nagging on the nature of writers/ writing. As an industry, writing suffers from seeming to be easy. Almost every human can string words and narratives together—such is the nature of human communication—and there is a widespread notion that everybody is one three-month vacation away from composing the next Moby Dick, Dream Songs, or To Kill a Mockingbird.  The truth of the matter is that good writing is very hard, great writing next to impossible. Because writing programs do not throw out 2000 Hemingways or Faulkners each year, they are castigated as somehow dimming the holy pursuit of Literature. The Romantic notion of writing being an art, an epic search for some great Truth, existing solely for its own sake, remaining pure only if it holds commodification far away, is the persistent bugbear of the writing program. Writing programs are therefore held up as villains because they make writing a learnable skill, something that improves with practise and study, the results of which no one is particularly pleased with. The argument against writing programs has been that it stifles genius, homogenizes talent into craft-oriented, “safe” work that exists solely in a circular, circumscribed economic system of literary journals and small presses.

Because of the idealistic notion that writing stems from some uncontrollable inner genius yearning to break free, writing programs find themselves forever in a state of conflict. Their existence is contingent on the idea that they have some knowledge to impart on the nature of writing, which is an unpopular notion. Therefore, they must continue existing while disavowing the view that institutionalizing writing will lead to the death of literature. To do so, writing programs have to organize themselves into an academic program designed in a non-academic way, which it has done by centralizing the workshop and marketing themselves as a place where writers are guided and nurtured while being allowed time to write, instead of as a degree that qualifies its graduates for something tangible. The result is a couple thousand freshly minted MFA’s each year, people who have left the workforce for two or three years, received what is disingenuously called a terminal degree akin to a PhD, and now find themselves unqualified for the positions their mentors hold, tenuously grasping some notion of having kept their artistic selves pure, and unable to teach any academic courses (usually) besides  First-Year Composition (a field they know little about since the teaching of it cut into the three years they gave themselves to write). Unless a writer enters an MFA program with a completed manuscript, the time spent in the program is rarely enough to compose a manuscript, edit it, send it out, have it accepted, have it be published, and place onself on the academic job market.

The MFA program is thus designed to appeal to the writerly heart and soul, which is a noble pursuit, but unfortunately we live in a time when the “heart” and the “soul” are of absolutely no importance. I personally enjoyed my time as an MFA student—I loved my teachers, I liked my fellow writers (most of them), I enjoyed teaching Composition almost as much as I enjoyed whining about it, and I liked drinking copiously on Wednesday nights. But I did apply to enter a PhD program my final year in the MFA program—partially because my student visa would run out and no one wanted to employ me, and partially because, while I learned a lot about the craft of writing, I had not exactly written anything and wasn’t sure I would be able to. While my mentors were incredibly kind, wise, and wonderful, I felt that guidance was not all I needed before trying to become a professional writer, one who pays his bills by writing.

To continue to exist in academia, which is rapidly becoming a marketplace rather than a safe haven for intellectual fomentation, the writing program needs to prepare its graduates for more than “the writing life.” It needs to provide students with a firm and stable grounding in theory, the history of theory, the history of literature, and the way in which academia operates and works. The actual practice of writing should be expected of students, but it should not take up the majority of the academic side of the program. Too many MFA programs allow students to leave without grounding them in the history of their field or the theory of it. Too many students mistakenly believe that writing requires less reading than it actually does, and that understanding how scholars view pieces of literature somehow makes it harder to be a true writer. By making the writing program an actual academic program that focuses on a different manner of reading than a traditional literature class, the MFA program can fight off the charges levelled against it—that it is small-minded and unconcerned with the greater world, that it is training a generation of writers who do not read, that it is ruining literature by making it too similar. By marketing themselves as a place where writers are trained instead of “guided,” and as a part of academia that provides its students a real academic degree, the MFA program can explain itself to the world outside better while fixing a lot of the problems within. Because if they don’t the result is a lot of time and effort on the parts of talented, hardworking, well-meaning people being wasted while the world outside rages at them for being inefficient and insufficient at what they do.