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.

"The Lost Arts of Writing, Reading, and Drinking"

Tip o’ the cap to TMR favorite (and fellow Buckeye) Kyle Minor for posting about this interesting site from acclaimed writers Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner.  I would tell you what it is, but I’m not entirely sure how to classify it. There are essays, cartoons, podcasts, links, and all kinds of thought-provoking goodness.   It’s fascinating and fun, and really, if Kyle Minor digs it, then you’ll dig it, too.