This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Steve Almond

Editor's note: Last week's guest column by Elizabeth Clementson decrying the influence of MFA programs elicited more reader response than any other story on MobyLives so far this year, including numerous requests to write a guest rebuttal column. Regular MobyLives contributor asked first.

27 JUNE 2005 — Reading Elizabeth Clementson's column Down With MFAs left me with a renewed sense of wonder: just how much fraudulence can one aspiring writer pack into one column? The answer: a lot.

There are plenty of others who have already exposed her flimsy, self–involved arguments, so I'm not going to waste time on an extensive rehash.

But I do want to make a couple of points, mostly because I'm so entirely sick of these "outsiders" who blame their own artistic failings on some supposedly inimical establishment that refuses to recognize them.

First point — Clementson loaded the deck.

She writes:

I was admitted to a prestigious program in the Northeast. On the first day of my workshop class, the instructor asked us one question. "What goals do you hope to obtain with your writing?" One by one, seated at the round table, my fellow writers spoke. "I want a big book deal." "I'm sick and tired of being poor." "When do I get my million dollars?"

I'll put aside Clementson's need to inform us that her program was "prestigious," as well as a necessary skepticism over whether an MFA instructor would ask students what goals they hope to obtain. There's a bigger problem here. I don't believe this happened — not for a second. Because the one thing that MFA students don't do (particularly on the first day of class) is glibly announce their own commercial ambitions. They do everything possible to obscure these motives.

I'm not suggesting that candidates don't have commercial ambitions. But the basic aim of these programs is to foster young artists, not breed cash cows. The students all understand this. They all know the language.

So Clementson is either exaggerating, or taking some satirical comments way out of context.


Why else? To make herself look noble by comparison.

There she is, the innocent little artist, surrounded by vulgarians. The innocent little artist, mind you, who traveled to New York expressly to work in publishing and — oh, by the way — make lots of literary connections. (Is anyone else starting to smell the unctuous musk of an unreliable narrator?)

Sadly, working in publishing was apparently not enough to land Clementson the book deal she so richly deserved. No, it turns out swilling drinks with the Manhattan swells doesn't do the trick.

She writes:

As I moved within New York literary circles while working in publishing, it came to my attention that I couldn't be classified as a literary writer unless I had an MFA in Creative Writing.

Now here is an assertion of such startling vagary that it's hard to know where to start. It came to my attention? Was there a memo going around? Does anyone actually believe that Clementson was told this? Please.

What more likely happened is that a few people in publishing urged her to get an MFA, probably after having read her work and having decided — I'm just going to throw out a wild guess here — that she still had a few things to learn.

No editor or agent gives a shit whether a writer has an MFA or not. All they care about is the work.

If anything, there's a bias toward authors who don't have MFAs, because they are viewed as naturals who don't need some sissy workshop to produce works of genius. Like Hemingway.

And this is why, every few months, some dumbfuck reporter will obediently write a story about how MFA programs have ruined American letters, homogenized the prose, blah–blah–blah. It's such a tired song.

MFA programs are like any other educational opportunity: what you put in is what you get out. The reason they exist is to help young writers develop the humility and gumption necessary to keep writing in a culture that largely ignores literature. They are welfare states for artists, basically.

Are there workshops that turn mean and judgmental? Sure. I was in one of them back in grad school. I absorbed a lot of criticism. And you know what? I deserved most of it. My stories sucked.

This criticism had nothing to do with the mandates of delivering a "Œsellable' plotline that publishers want." It had to do with my writing being amateurish and false.

In any event, I didn't learn much from working on my stories. That's not how most people actually learn in MFAs. They learn by critiquing the work of others.

A sustained critique forces the reader to articulate how and why a piece of writing succeeds and fails. It helps us move past the easy biases of sensibility and envy, to the intended function of actual words and sentences. The point of a workshop, in other words, isn't to produce manuscripts, but to help the members of the workshop develop a critical faculty.

The best thing I did in grad school was to help edit the literary magazine. I read 1500 stories in a single year, most of them nowhere near ready for publication. I saw the same mistakes over and over again: the muddled plots, the garbled sentences, the unnecessary adverbs, the clichés. And I began to recognize (gradually, reluctantly) the same mistakes in my work. I was just as insecure, after all, just as desperate to dazzle the reader, and to avoid telling the truth.

I'm not sure that Clementson would understand any of this. She seems deeply invested in the notion that her failure to learn was a function of her brave iconoclasm. Whatever. That's her thing to work out.

As for the rest of us, howsabout we try to stop whining about MFAs and book deals and who has what and who doesn't and focus on the highest aim of art, which is to awaken mercy.

Seriously now: our species has staggered to the brink of self–annihilation specifically because we're too vain and aggrieved to keep our moral priorities straight.

Literature should be addressing this crisis, not aping it.

Steve Almond is the author of The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories. Excerpts are available at

©2005 Steve Almond

Previous columns:

DOWN WITH MFAs . . . In a guest column, MFA dropout and publisher Elizabeth Clementson say MFA programs are ruining literature and the publishing buisness.

TELEVISION WITHOUT PITY . . . Tired of the short story writer's life, guest columnist Steve Almond explains why he's now writing television shows such as "Blog and Order."

READING TO CHAIRS . . . When Quinn Dalton showed up at a bookstore to read from her new book, she was greeted by . . . empty chairs. In a guest column, she asks herself, "Why bother?"

THE KILLER POET . . . When a big haired poet asks the literary gumshoe to whack a librarian, he feels the weight of the whole world of poetry on his shoulder. Will he do the right thing?

WHERE THE NOVEL'S HEADED . . . Jonathan Safran Foer's new book has a lot of people talking about post–modernism and the novel. But David Barringer thinks the novel is going in another direction — inside.

BOOKS IN GROCERY STORES: A TESTIMONIAL . . . After his mainstream publisher didn't want his second novel, Larry Baker got an idea about how to sell his second book himself when a flash of inspiration came to him in the local grocery store.


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.