On MFA vs NYC vs Love of the Art

By Michael Nye

Last week, I gave my class Chad Harbach’s essay “MFA vs. NYC,” which I sent to them from the N+1 website. The essay has a few updated numbers and locations where writers teach, but for the most part, it’s the same essay that went up on Salon months ago and made a nice bit of buzz. Since Harbach’s essay first appeared online, N+1 has produced an essay collection about writing programs and writers living in New York, a book that includes pieces by Alexander Chee, George Saundres, Elif Bautman, and Diana Wagman.

Harbach’s essay is an excellent primer on the current dichotomy in literary fiction. One can disagree with the premise: it isn’t perfect. In the introduction to the book, Harbach writes “this rubric of two cultures, I think, makes for useful descriptions of material, social, and intellectual life for young and youngish American writers. It also, like any useful rubric, leaves stuff out.” I completely agree. So, for a class made up primarily of undergraduates seeking to go into the overlapping worlds of writing, editing, and publishing, this is a terrific essay.

The class correctly picked up on this essay being about money. How to make a living as a writer in these two cultures, what the financial expectations and pitfalls will be, and so forth. Our discussion on this was good, but there were two other tangents that came up that surprised me.

First, several students were aggravated that this was an essay about commerce, and argued that Harbach should have written about something else. What somethings? One student thought this essay should focus less on money and more about what goes into making the art that is distinct to these cultures. Another student that there should be more of a focus on sexism and gender bias and LBGT issues. Many were put off about the association of literature with money in the first place.

While the issues raised are certainly important, they aren’t the focus, nor should they be, of Harbach’s essay. The purpose of the essay is classification, explanation, and definition of a dichotomy that is a helpful guide. It shouldn’t have to be about anything else. It’s like evaluating a Merchant Ivory film under the rubric of action movies: of course, you’ll be disappointed things don’t blow up in slow motion or the cop doesn’t kill six hundred villains. It’s not that kind of flick.

The second issue is about MFA programs.

Every semester, there are at least a handful of interns who are unfamiliar with MFA programs. I usually walk through what the basics of a graduate writing program are like, and I touched on it briefly in class last week. Last year, one student’s mind was completely blown (no, really: he was pretty frazzled, which was a bit endearing) by the whole concept of these programs and writing workshops and all that.

My take on MFA programs was one of caution. I said that they are not academically rigorous. I said that the culture of teaching/writing is ingrained in the programs; I went into my program not knowing anything about associate professors and tenure and all that and, by the end of my third year, I was adjuncting in St. Louis. I said there are significant pitfalls to where programs leave you, which is often up the creek without a paddle when it comes to professional development and, yes, your writing.

One of my students disagreed, and insisted that MFA programs are quite a bit of hard work. MFA programs, this student continued, meant so much for a life of writing, for creating art, and for gaining valuable experience teaching composition. And it was said with quite a bit of heat.

What I actually said was that MFA programs aren’t academically rigorous, which is true, and has nothing to do with how much effort or work an emerging writer puts into the degree. How much effort one points into the MFA degree is, frankly, wholly irrelevant. Unless one is completely lazy, it’s pretty difficult to fail out of a MFA program. Getting in is, by far, the hardest step toward a MFA degree. It is a self-directed program, really, as it creates “time to write” or “time to focus on craft” or something like that, all of which is a good thing. Just recognize it for what it is.

The university shift to a part-time, underpaid, under-appreciated, marginalized work force–or “adjuncts”–is a topic for another day. But if this photo doesn’t give you an idea of what that life is like, take a few moments to Google the issues that have been raised on all your social media platforms and websites like the Chronicle of Higher Education. In fact, many writers are already aware of this but hope to be one of the lucky ones. Emerging writers go into graduate writing programs, get sucked into the teaching life, and then find themselves adjunct teaching, with dozens of students (if not over a hundred students), no administrative support, no benefits, an inconsistent paycheck, and no time to write.

It is reasonable to ask why we encourage anyone to do this. At the very least, we should caution emerging writers, in no uncertain terms, of what they are getting into by pursuing a MFA degree. And I write this as a person with a MFA degree, fully aware of how very very very lucky I have been with my career.

Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but I don’t regret getting a MFA, and I would encourage a serious emerging writer to do the same. I would also encourage a serious emerging writer to never pay for the degree (like I mistakenly did), to know or at least deeply consider whether or not a doctorate program is in the plans, and to be aware of the issues of wage inequality in higher education. Writing programs are implicitly encouraging a career path of indentured servitude, and in good conscience, I don’t see how we can continue to hoodwink students with this “time to write” nonsense when the writing program culture encourages professionalized poverty. A graduate writing degree is the beginning, not the end, of a writer’s education. And maybe the first of the beginning lessons is to treat that culture with suspicion.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye