Grab Bag: The MFA effect

First: Read this story in Salon, provocatively titled “Are MFA programs ruining American fiction?” (I’ll end the suspense now and tell you that the piece doesn’t answer the question in any substantive way.) Then come back and I’ll share my meager thoughts.

I was fascinated to read that article because it’s a topic my good friend Jim Thomsen and I bandy about with some regularity. I’m afraid we’re no closer to an answer than anyone else is, and we probably never will be.

As the article itself points out, for every citation one can make that MFA programs are herding American letters into stultifying sameness that’s slavish to style, there’s an MFA holder who is writing superb, accessible, popular fiction:

Still, you can publish adventurous work without an MFA, as Jennifer Egan has repeatedly proven, and MFA programs have also produced writers with great popular appeal, such as Michael Chabon.

What I have found is that there is a certain kind of writing — affected, self-reverential, beautifully constructed but stripped of soul — that I sometimes wander across, and sure enough, I flip over to the “about the author” section, and the writer holds an MFA. But just as often, I’ll read something that moves me seemingly without effort, and that writer will turn out to have an MFA, too.

This is one of those areas where regardless of where you stand, ammunition is at the ready to bolster your point. I’m just not certain that either side is right, or wrong. Mostly, I find myself nodding in vigorous agreement with the author of the piece, Laura Miller, when she notes that “I must confess to being completely indifferent to the ongoing MFA controversy.” Snootier-than-thou MFA types annoy me. So do artless genre hacks. And Washington Redskins fans. Whatever.

The thing I can say with certainty is that I despise any tendency to put storytelling in a box. To the camp that says MFA-fueled writing, categorically, is better, I say: Steinbeck. Hemingway. Egan. Evison. To the camp that finds literary writing to be too high-falutin’, I say: Read some Chabon, or Roth, or Wolff, or O’Connor and get back to me.

Jim, on the other hand, sees some real danger in the MFA-ification of American letters. Read on:

Jim Thomsen

My objections to “MFA writing” can be boiled down to a few key thoughts.

One, most of the MFA writing I’ve read has a dreary sameness. It’s almost all arid, airbrushed, emotionless prose drained of all blood and heat and light, as cold and perfect as the surface of a stainless-steel toilet. It seems to promote the idea that the sentence-crafting matters more than storytelling, which is a disturbing idea to promote in the world of writing, you know, stories. And that seems to come from the open boot-camp atmosphere of MFA classes and workshops, in which works are presented to peers and often mercilessly perforated, leading to rewriting that seems passive and even defensive, written specifically to avoid drawing classmate-driven scorn.

All that heavily implies that, two, an orthodoxy has been imposed on all such writing and that, as one commenter on Laura Miller’s essay put it: “Those who do not conform are locked out.” And that leads to three, which answers the question, “Locked out of what?” That answer: Many of the most prestigious and best-paying literary journals and publishing houses, and the critical establishment that moves in lockstep with it. It’s a scary idea, and a distinctly un-American one, this reality that, often, literature is not judged on its merits but by its pedigree.

Four: The idea that getting right out of college and cocooning oneself in an MFA program seems antithetical to the idea — and, I submit, the established fact — that the best writing AND storytelling stem from wisdom and perspective gained from actually being out in the world and experiencing a rich sampling of what’s best and worst about it. You have talent and want to write? Join the Army. Take a freighter to Argentina. Spend a month in a county jail. Fight wildfires in the high Sierras. Play minor-league baseball. Work a season on a sorghum farm in Saskatchewan. Spend a year in an Israeli kibbutz. Do some fucking thing. Just, you know, LIVE. Otherwise you’re just trading on trite and overthumped themes and subjects: Daddy Didn’t Love Me Enough. My Parents Divorced Sixteen Years Ago And I Still Can’t Get Over It. The Boy Who Drove Me To Bulimia In Eighth Grade. My Freshman-Year Existential Crisis. Sartre And Small Boobs Ruined My Life. The Weird Homeless Guy Outside The Dairy Queen.

And five, the MFA program simply isn’t available to poor people. It’s a form of literary redlining. You can’t get in without a bachelor’s degree, which many of us spend years paying off if Mom and Dad aren’t footing the bill. And all the fellowships and teaching gigs in graduate school won’t come close to covering your tuition, housing and daily living expenses. All of which is fine for those who are willing to do it but not so fine for those of us who can’t do it and have to settle for being told that we can’t be in The New Yorker or Glimmer Train or reviewed in The New York Times because of it.

Six is really one, but it bears repeating: MFA writing is largely BORING writing. And boring writing is always bad writing. Bad writing should never be rewarded, particularly to the exclusion of all other kinds.

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