DOWN WITH MFAs
a MobyLives guest column
by Elizabeth Clementson
20 JUNE 2005 During my junior year of college, I locked myself in my apartment during spring break and wrote a short story about my father and my glory days on the swim team. I submitted the story to the Seventeen Magazine Fiction Contest and won second place. I had always wanted to be a writer, but now it was official. My plans to do graduate work in cultural studies were quickly forgotten as I decided pull a Sylvia Plathmove to New York and get a job in publishing.
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. Unlike most aspiring writers, I didn't need to enroll in an MFA program in order to find an agent or a publisher, as I had already made numerous contacts inside the publishing community. What I wanted was to develop some discipline in my writing habits and perhaps, bond with fellow writers in a likeminded literary community. An MFA degree seemed like a good method to achieve these goals.
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 was dismayed. My experience in publishing had taught me that writing literary fiction did not lead to great financial wealth. While there are a few literary fiction writers who are rewarded with huge book deals, most are lucky if they receive a small advance and are able supplement their income teaching. The odds are extremely slim that you will get a big book deal, and if you are one of the lucky few to win that large advance, your book better sell real well, or you will be dropped by your publisher.
In addition to being disheartened by my fellow writers' "show me the money" attitude, over time it became increasingly clear to me that the core of the MFA experience, the workshop, was distorting the creative process.
In the workshop, the students critique each other's writing and as the comments are bandied about, a "consensus" develops about what does and doesn't "work" in a story. The writer then meshes the "popular" opinions of the group into his or her work, slowly removing the unpopular parts, until the work is readable and accessible to all. More often than not, this process destroys the writer's initial vision, leaving behind a work that is void of passion and anything that is different, new, or creative.
Many of world's greatest novels would have never made it through the workshop process. Picture James Joyce being told that Ulysses is "too ambitious." Or Harper Lee being told that that Boo Radley character needs further development. Or Gertrude Stein being told, "Gertrude, The Making of Americans, is inaccessible. You need to cut the fat out and rework these sentences."
However, workshop fiction is encouraged by the big publishing world and the academic institutions that support it.
Since the University of Iowa started the first MFA program in 1936, more than 250 programs certified by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs have sprung up. With tuition costing as much as $70,000 for a twoyear program, the schools have every reason to foster the attitude that students can pay off their bigtime debt with their forthcoming book deal. In turn, the big publishing world relies on MFA programs to produce "accredited" writers. Desperate for literary plot lines that will sell, editors are on an eternal quest to find the next big young thing. This is big business and like any corporate job, editors are pushed for time and pressured to find books that sell. Just like authors, they too are judged on their book's sales figures.
As a result of this relationship, students in MFA programs are henpecked and criticized until they deliver the "sellable" plot line that publishers want. And, instead of rejecting the forces that corrupt them, many young writers turn on each other, reinforcing the rules learned in workshop, rejecting anythingor anyonethat challenges the status quo and threatens their carefully crafted world. Thus, anything created outside of the workshop environment is treated with contempt, and outsider voices are ignored.
Despite what they try and tell you in MFA programs, there isn't an established career path for writers. It isn't something you can learn in a classroom.
So here's my adviceif have any aspirations for a place in literary history, don't attend an MFA program. It won't inspire you to great literature and you won't be able to pay back that enormous tuition bill unless you write the carefully crafted plot line that everyone wants, but nobody wants to read.
Perhaps that is enough these days for many writers. But, in the end, literature created by committee usually does not find the audience that it is calculated to find, and is quickly forgotten.
Elizabeth Clementson is an MFA dropout and the coowner of Ig Publishing, an independent press dedicated to publishing outsider voices.
Link to this column.
©2005 Elizabeth Clementson
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 postmodernism 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.
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Tuesday, 27 July 2005
Kadare, dissidence, and vulgarity . . .
A couple of points merit response in Mr. Miller's letter.
Firstly, Kadare left Albania a mere two months before the fall of communism, hardly a "protest against the invasive practices of the secret police". Those practices were with him through the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's and only when communism was collapsing all over Eastern Europe did they elicit such a dramatic "protest" from this man who, remember, had international travel privileges at various times and could have defected at leisure. It's more likely he felt a distasteful political change was coming and did not wish to stick around to witness the collapse of a political system with which he had had such a close association.
Secondly, Hoxha was not more dangerous than Stalin or Ceausescu? I wouldn't rush to cut any slack to their delegates to Parliament. There is no mystery to being a protege of a murderous dictator the key is kissing major ass and having flexible scrupules. There was never any shortage of writer groupies for any of these dictators. Why don't we call them all dissidents because internally they may have been disgusted with themselves and their (now) lurid association?
I'll tell you why. Because while musings, thoughts and dreams are the fodder of the writer, action and activism are what distinguish a dissident from the pack. When Solzhenitsyn got out of forced labor camp, he could have proposed to himself to lay low, enjoy the comforts of anonymity, get on with an ordinary, safe life, but instead he chose to take on the bastards all by his lonesome, to call out their crimes in astonishing detail, regardless of the mortal danger he knew so well. That's inspiring.
Looking out for your own safety and personal career advancement by befriending the dictator, like Kadare did, is not inspiring, it's ordinary, anybody can do that. Nothing to celebrate there. Award him as a writer? Fine. Everyone is entitled to their own literary tastes. But hold him out as a symbol of dissidence? That is a grave insult to the truth, to true dissidents of repressive regimes, especially Albanian dissidents. Remember that the headlines are still full of Cuban dissidents, for example, including writers who are jailed and persecuted how blundering it would be to pluck out buddies of Castro for international awards and mislabel them dissidents! How unfair to the true dissidents! Or to try to sell to the Chinese a socalled dissident who was in Parliament and was a protégé of Mao during the Cultural Revolution. It's revolting when you think of a certain young man who, on a fierce morning, poignantly stopped a line of tanks with his raw dignity. That man did not live to write a book, serve in Parliament and collect a prize. There is a categorical difference between the slickness of a power honcho and the tender seedling of courage nurtured in secret by a person acting on their conscience against all odds; to hold them as interchangeable is pure vulgarity."
Thursday, 21 July 2005
The literary genre . . .
In most bookstores, fiction is divided into genre sections such as romance, adventure, science fiction, mystery. In the same way, the literary world tends to divide fiction into the two categories literary fiction and genre writing. But the truth is that "literary fiction" has become both in its repetitiveness and its homogenized blandness a genre unto itself that is not literature, and yet the distinction is not made, or not admitted, but rather every new literary fictionist trotted out each year by the Major Houses is hyped up (understandably so because they have to sell books) as the next literary giant.
I do not know anymore if writers or readers or critics can tell the difference between being a writer and being "literary." But I hope people will be more cognizant that the literary genre exists separate from literature regardless of the disagreement about who belongs there, and that young writers will be more wary of falling into it.
Wednesday, 20 July 2005
Wildness about Harry . . .
In what I consider a truly fine fashion, I have read neither Harry Potter nor A. S. Byatt's bits and pieces about him but I still think it's important to talk about that sense of wonder we adults often miss out on. Some find that wonder in Harry Potter, others find it in the dubious folklore in The Golden Bough or the dry works of Jeffrey Burton Russell, others in the lost linguistic play of Shakespeare's finest moments or in the Dictionary of IndoEuropean Roots. When reading things such as these, I find myself transported and of course I want to share this feeling with everyone around me who will listen but I have had to learn how to talk about these things. Simply saying "This made me happy when I read it" is not enough. Neither is it useful for me to scorn those who haven't read what I have read. Do we so identify ourselves with what we like that we can't handle it when this surrogateself in paper is criticized? Is A. S. Byatt really to be bitchslapped because she just doesn't appreciate the tastes of everybody else and sincerely questions it?
Seeking an explanation for why adults find Harry Potter so maddeningly enjoyable is a valid pursuit, one which no one should object to especially when references to Dickens and Chesterton are thrown in the mix. The former was the brilliant wordsrman of the poor and the latter was the Pesky Questioner of the early 20th century middle class I'm willing to be he would have gleefully pursued a little persiflage with regards to J. K. Rowling and she would have liked it. What A. S. Byatt speaks of is nothing new (although her diction is much duller): the phenomenon which she says we lack as an urbanwhole might better be described by another set of initials as Joy (C. S. Lewis), which he first discovered in George MacDonald's Phantastes; or by the obscenely complex geometric consistency of Georges Batailles' metaphors & images in The Story of the Eye (and its later, more precise incarnations as the Heterology or the Accursed Share); or by Henry Miller in every damn text he wrote as Living Life Strongly and with the eyes wide open.†
Ms. Byatt cannot be speculating about Harry Potter out of sheer jealousy, and it's bad manners to accuse her of doing so maybe she is just amazed that Big People read Little People books so ravenously. I too marvel at a society that desires so strongly to be like their children that they devour Harry Potter and video games and edit their films like teen music television and rush through everything as if they are afflicted by their child's ADHD. Regardless of their literary merit, the Harry Potter books are kids books I rarely pull out my beloved Chronicles of Narnia anymore, and I'm not pissing myself to see the movie when it comes out. When I was a child, I spake as a child, and I read childish things. Now that I'm an adult, I drink& screw and read & write for a mature audience. I just don't think that mature audience exists anymore.
Brian Robert Hischier
Kadare and the Communists . . .
It's interesting to hear that Ismail Kadare was the head the Union of Albanian Writers and Artists during Albania's communist period, as Renata Dumitrascu asserts in her column on Kadare, since Dritero Agolli in 1973 succeeded Fadil Pacrami and Todi Lubonja to the post, which Agolli then held until 1992. In fact, Kadare had a contentious relationship with the Union, beginning with its attack on him in 1961 for publishing the "unAlbanian" book, My Century. (A number of other poets of Kadare's generation were attacked for producing similarly personal, unrhymed verse which at least in part refused the tenets of socialist realism.) In this instance, [[President Enver]] Hoxha came down on the side of the experimentalists, against the Union. Why? Perhaps because he was planning a huge expansion of culture and the arts, which he undertook in the late 60's and early 70's, more or less corresponding with his official proscription of religion in 1967.
The truth is that Hoxha was an unpredictable and dangerous dictator, who mysteriously tended to allow Kadare more leeway than many other Albanian writers. (It has been argued that this is because they grew up in the same small town.) And while Kadare philosophically was a Marxist, it's hard to read The Palace of Dreams (which was written in 1981 and immediately banned in Albania) and not see how Kadare was critical of Hoxha's dictatorship.
Indeed, when Kadare defected to France, he did so in protest of the invasive practices of the secret police, which were continuing under Ramiz Alia. And while it can surely be argued that Kadare has played up his dissident moments for literary gain in the West, Ms. Dumitrascu really should check her facts and offer a more nuanced discussion of Kadare, rather than the cartoonish vision of life in Communist Albania she offers (replete with patroling black Mercedes and bowls of fish parts). I assume her bio is meant to boost her ethos, as she lived under the Romanian communist system, but, at least in my understanding, it's problematic to assert that Eastern Europe during the Communist period was monolithic. And Albania was an especially unique case because it severed all ties to Europe and the Soviet Union in 1961, after which it only communicated with China.
While Hoxha's regime was terribly oppressive, it's ultimately not surprising that many Albanian writers (not just Kadare) had an ambiguous relationship with Albanian Communism. After all, before the Communist period, Albania had only a very brief literary history, and less than 20% of the population was literate.
Tuesday, 19 July 2005
A.S. Byatt: Consider yourself bitchslapped . . .
Just as Kurt Vonnegut's son once wrote a piece titled "Why I Would Like to Bite R.D.Laing," I would love to write one called "Why I Would Like to Bitchslap A.S. Byatt." Here she comes again with a second disquistion on Rowling's sins. (Rowling's insufficiently brace yourself numinous.)
It's obvious, though, that the real sin Rowlings has committed is that she's popular. Well, Dickens was popular, too (and Rowling knows her Dickens allusions abound, from Harry's uncontrollable hair, which is from David Copperfield's Tommy Traddles, to the Hogwarts school song being sung to whatever tune you like best, which is Pickwick, to a locket in the current book which is straight out of Oliver Twist...) Chesterton in a similar situation describes the kind of night where each of your friends is "a glorious caricature of himself" and concludes "Those who have known such nights will understand the exaggerations of Pickwick. Those who have not known such nights will not enjoy Pickwick, nor, I imagine, heaven." Nor yet H.P.
Ach, she makes me tired they all do. People whine about the death of the book, our illiterate young, and when our young (and old and, thank you, not entirely uneducated, though no doubt falling short of Ms. Byatt's pinnacle of erudition) trip over themselves to read sevenhundred page books we're treated to all the reasons they're no good and generally from people who haven't read 'em.
Ptui. The punishment's inherent in the crime. They don't get to read Harry. You shall know them by the noses they have cut off to spite their faces.
Athena Book Shop
The language of Kadare . . .
"...the fashion now in the former communist countries of the exSoviet Bloc for people to say 'I could have been a writer but I wasn't allowed.' The people entitled to speak about that period are the people who did something and not the people who kept silent and have retrospective nostalgia."
When I first read the above quote from Kadare on MobyLives and then read the linked article, I became so angry at Kadare, I almost wrote in to you with a nice rant. In the quote and article, it seemed to me that someone decrying oppression on the one hand was on the other hand blanketly declaring that a specific group of people are not entitled to speak their feelings about being oppressed. Kadare apparently learned from the best of the oppressors. As much as I can't stand people who don't speak out against injustices, I also realize that understanding why people don't speak out is probably very important if human societies want to prevent enabling silences from repeatedly happening. If silent enablers do someday speak up about why they remained silent, probably the last thing others should do is silence those voices. To me, "freedom of speech" doesn't only mean freedom to say great things; it also means freedom to say terrible things. And freedom of speech means that sometimes people will say nasty, painful, stupid, illogical, ridiculous, dishonest, unfair, cowardly, terrible things, but then others also have the freedom to call those creeps, idiots, liars and cowards on their creepiness, idiocy, dishonesty and cowardice. If society stays aware, freedom of speech often becomes selfcorrecting. Don't think I'd want things any other way. Freedom of thought and speech are the two freedoms that I feel no one should ideally "control," toward others or even toward themselves . . . .
It's probably a good thing I didn't immediately rant about this to you, but instead read more on Kadare. I found an article by David Bellos at The Complete Review, which discusses the difficulties involved in translating Albanian. The article says: "Kadare's low profile in the Englishspeaking world is partly due to the fact that he speaks no English . . . .
Coupling Kadare's inability to speak English with the difficulties of translating Albanianand maybe any language, franklycan people be sure Kadare was quoted correctly in that AP article? What language did he comment in? Did he speak those actual words in the quote above, or were his comments translated from Albanian; or possibly Frenchwhich isn't Kadare's first language. Whatever translation was involved, was it an accurate one? I think these questions should probably be answered before making any definitive judgments on Kadare and on what he said at least for my peace of mind, I'd like to see them answered!
There are dissidents, and there are dissidents . . .
I'm a writer in a country whose government is an order of magnitude more powerful than any of the former Soviet countries. I'm watching as both my religion and my government goes to hell and is in the process of taking other parts of the world with it. I'm listening to my president claim to answer to a Higher Father (i.e., he thinks he's the son of God).
I have total freedom to write about anything. What will I write about today? My failed relationships? My dysfunctional childhood? My dingleberries?
I mean, outside of a handful of journalists, most of us are pretty much off the radar screen of the US government right now. OK, I hate to say this, but literary writers are off pretty much everyone's radar screen right now.
But, who knows? Maybe that's an advantage. As a writer in America, I consider myself unworthy to lick the boot of a dissident writer.
Monday, 18 July 2005
PABBIS: a joke? . . .
Regarding PABBIS and "bad books", it's ironic that the Mobylives news item is more revealing of what PABBIS is about than the organization's introductory web page. As their introduction states, "Bad is not for us to determine...The main purpose of this webpage is to identify some books that might be considered bad and why someone might consider them bad." This implies that they're simply doing a public service by saving parents and students from the "Fidel Castro loving, internet porn loving, anythinggoesatanyage ALA's [American Library Association] website." Before being allowed to enter the web site itself users are given a warning that says, "The content you are about to view contains adult material that may not be appropriate for all users." Having been a kid myself once, I wonder whether the PABBIS site isn't going to be used by students as a reading guide to find "inappropriate" books. Actually it saves them the trouble since the site's author(s) went to the trouble of compiling such offensive quotes as, "Maybe [my brother] was gay!", from Alice On The Outside by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.
The blatant warnings are such a tempting advertisement to come in that I almost thought the site had been created as a joke by someone like Lemony Snicketbut that would imply that whoever's behind PABBIS has a sense of humor.
Christopher Allen Waldrop
Serials Coordinator, Vanderbilt University Library
Reporting Kadare . . .
The guest column today regarding Ismail Kadare was engrossing, and shocking. All the more evidence that such awards are nonsense, of course. But an interesting insight on reporting literary news. For all the wire stories about Kadare and the Man Booker International, why is it that the first mention of this information is on MobyLives? This is why MobyLives is my homepage. Thanks for paying attention to dissident writers.
Friday, 8 July 2005
The Final MFA report? . . .
Over the holiday weekend I had a chance to reunion with a few MFA friends out in the wilderness of Idaho. Since graduation some of my classmates have begun interbreeding with nonMFA people, so both groups were on hand for the weekend. Cognitive of the debate raging back at MobyLives, I decided to study the behavior of these distinct groups.
After 48 hours of intense and close contact with these groups, I've concluded that there are difference between the nonMFA and MFA races, but there are also many similarities. I haven't gotten these data points into an analyzable format, but here are my immediate notes. I'll send some charts over once I get this stuff into a database.
Notes: on the July 4th weekend at a campsite outside Stanley, ID with MFA and nonMFA people.
Environment: No computers. A few paperbacks, but no real time to read, because we drank and swam for most of the day. 3 days of sun. Nighttime temperatures dropped into 40s.
Notes: Among the nonMFA, both men and women were peaceful in temperament and neither men nor women made war, except one nonMFA guy who was kind of a shittalker. Among the MFA people, the opposite was true: Both men and women were warlike in temperament and shittalkers and could be defined as "catty motherfuckers". Both the MFA and nonMFA races enjoy beer, even if a little warm. One nonMFA (the shittalker) could funnel tequila. NonMFA people have coarser features but beer can help. MFA people aren't good at lighting fires, but appreciate fireworks. MFA people have bad hair. Two of the three nonMFA females could crap in the woods. Both groups can swim without swimming gear.
NonMFA, as a race, are better suited for manual labor. They take direction better than give it. But if you give them too many tasks in too short a time period, they will respond with expletives, and later shove the directiongiver off a rock into the Salmon River. NonMFA people seem to need more food than MFA people and were often superconcerned with who is in charge of the grill. The MFA grads were more suited for tubefloating and complaining about the food. Both groups suck at fishing, but MFA people have the capacity to catch small frogs. If drunk and offered 5 dollars, one nonMFA person will smoke an el Roncho (i.e., cigarette made from toilet paper and pine needles). Neither race will eat small poops from unknown mammal species for any amount of money. MFA people can eat a lemon in under a minute for 3 dollars. Both groups love ecstasy and 10 pm sunsets and think everyone should take ecstasy and watch 10 pm sunsets at least once in their lives.
Finally, interbreeding between the MFA and nonMFA races does not seem to result in messedup uncuteashell little kids.
Michael A. FitzGerald
Friday, 1 July 2005
Hail Mailer . . .
Re: Mailer, unaware of Eggers' dictum, pisses in the very small and fragile ecosystem that is the literary world . . .
Could it be? Do I really feel a glimmer of hope rise up in my gall when I read the remarks of Norman Mailer against Michiko Kakutani? Barely, but yes I do. Sure his remarks were brutal, but my god they felt good to read. And did you notice he said them in this country? The land where free speech is encouraged only if it doesn't hurt other people's feelings?
If Norman Mailer thinks Michiko Kakutani is bitter and that she takes it out in the literate ways he says, why shouldn't he say so? It strikes me as rank that a society which lovingly welcomes the stupidest opinions from the stupidest of people on the widest range of topics imaginable can be the slightest bit uxorious towards Mailer ("Shame on you, Mr. Mailer"). One almost imagines that people actually believe in the bullshit that selfhelp gurus and university liberal arts programs teach them that they have a voice worth listening to, that their words are precious because they were formed by a human tongue, that nothing is unsacred except that which offends your undeveloped sensibilities. Well, the literary world can paint itself yellow and read in stentorian accents while drowning in a vat of 2% milk for all I care let us write and write well let us also criticize and criticize well let us do both with a healthy mixture of love and hate. I may not enjoy Mailer's writing, but I admire the power and decisiveness with which he pursues his craft.
Even more than that I admire his ability to have an opinion that his personality informs; that he has dislikes and feelings that move him to speech; that he isn't afraid of being called foolish names like "chauvinist" or "racist" names which lose their power the more we generalize with them. I don't encourage everyone to mimic his speech because that would be unproductive and as brutish as parrottalk a pointless fight club for litterateurs; but I do wish more people would actually speak their real thoughts nay, I wish more people would have real thoughts.
Brian Robert Hischier
MFAs and political novels: Not . . .
To my knowledge the most thoughtful exploration of whether or not the university setting is appropriate for artists and art (and vice versa) may be found in painter Ben Shahn's book The Shape of Content. It cuts to the heart of the issue even though it was published in 1957 long before the explosive growth of MFA programs in literature.
In my opinion, of much greater concern for producing quality literature is the depoliticization of novelists in particular. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, years into the criminal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, where is the flood of antiwar novels that a decent society would produce? And Iraq is but one realm of public crisis profoundly related to the private and personal lives of ourselves and others that novelists especially, both inside and outside of MFA programs, have almost wholly avoided.
The Political Novel
Thursday, 30 June 2005
'Nuff said . . .
There's one good answer to this entire debate: It all depends. The factors that contribute towards harvesting a good writer, an honest writer, are so numerous, various, and unpredictable there is little use trying to pinpoint one strong force that produces a successful (or phony) writer. The only surefire way to mature into a genuine writer is to, as one famous short story writer put it, "write like all hell."
Whatever keeps people interested in the pleasures of creating/reading literature is worth preserving and defending, whether it be a great book, a certain graduate program, the encouragment of friends and family, or perhaps something entirely different. The possibilites are endless, numerous, everywhere. That's what makes writing, and living, worthwhile.
So let's just stop worrying about this, please? All of you guys Almond, Clementson, fellow letter writers seem to be more than capable of writing some eloquent sentences, therefore why don't we move on and invest those sentences into some great fiction?
Recipe for a writer . . .
Recipe for a good writer:
Books (preferably 100 or more per year)
Feedback (any consistant exposure to skill and experience)
Take one motivated and talented individual. Allow individual to read hundreds of wellwritten books and articles per year. Steal or copy good writing technique from these books and articles and blend this technique into the talented individual's writing. Receive feedback. Repeat, until refined. Preperation time: 510 years.
Note: The MFA is one possible substitute for ingrediant #4.
Go where the greats went: To the attic . . .
Regardless of which side of the tiresome MFA argument one stands, I believe everybody can agree on one thing: John Ryan's claim that he writes "all night, by candlelight, in [his] attic room here in Christiania," is one of the more marvelous statements in the discourse, and splendidly supports the rest of his original and well*#150;thoughtout thesis, i.e. famous writers didn't attend graduate school.
Did Flaubert or Voltaire attend MFA programs? No! Did they write by candlelight? Undoubtedly! With inkstained fingers besides!
MFA programs donít make great writers. Quill pens and drafty garrets do.
NonMFA testimonial . . .
I enjoyed Elizabeth Clementson's piece on Mobylives and I'm with her. I'm outside the publishing world, outside NYC, and I don't have a MFA. In the year 2000, after trying for about 13 years to have my novel, Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam published, I gave up. I had published three historicals with Putnam/Berkley, so I was no novice. But this Vietnam book (a fictionalized memoir of my own experiences over there)... couldn't sell it. So I said, the hell with this, and "published" it as an ebook with a small internet ebook publisher. It was named one of six finalists in the 2001 Frankfurt eBook Awards. So I went to Germany in Oct of 2001. I did not win, but I had a nice time. When I came back I figured finding a publisher would be easy. No way. Took me another four years, and it was only due to the efforts of one man, Colonel David Hackworth (Steel My Soldiers' Hearts). Hack forwarded my request to provide a blurb, to his agent, who asked for the book and sold it in about a month.
The point of all this: Yes, Yes, Yes, it seems to be a closed system, incestuous and doomed if nothing is done. How much of this is due to the clubby nature of Big Publishing and how much due to the MFA/University writing program mafia, I don't know. What I do know is that a lot of what is published is formulaic and chasing the latest 'trend.' And much of what is 'chosen' and hawked by the big paper promotional machine is in the same vein. I've been writing all my life and for the past ten years I've seen the light. If you manage to get something that is different and insightful and good in there, it's almost an anomaly and it may not ever happen again. I've thought about an MFA program, but the money is prohibitive now, so I'm embarking on my own program, with mentors like O'Connor, Chekhov, John Gardner, Hemmingway, Bloom, etc. And I'm older now, and I don't think I could sit in a chair and have some 29 year old tell me about a story I'd written that he was too young to understand. And, sadly, so much of academia is politicized, with an insistance on group-think. I can't go there; I'd rather go off to the woods in the middle of a howling snow storm and drink a bottle of whiskey and go to sleep.
I intend to write one more book, something mainstream, aspiring to literary. And I'll be damned if I will change anything substantial to sell it. Editing yes, vision, voice, intent, no. So it may not ever find a home. Well, I'll just have to live with that.
One further thing, Clementson is on point about many of the writing programs and workshops. I've attended several workshops and met people who had been in some for years, writing and rearranging the same novel every six months, depending on what the folks in the new class wanted. And I've seen good writers run off, because they were good. But, of course, the reasons stated were different... poor dresser, too emotional, whatever. I realized that if I was ever going to FINISH a book I would have to get out and I did.
Writers have to internalize the good criticism and techniques, and flush the rest. Then just shut the door and write.
San Francisco, CA
Proof . . .
Everything Steve Almond says is correct.
I am proof: I have a degree from the Univ. of Iowa and I can't get The Shit Stain Quarterly to publish one of my stories.
Wednesday, 29 June 2005
MFAs "quicken gentrification" . . .
I've done well at keeping my jealous mouth shut through all of this, but I finally have to say something. Jealous?, you ask? Yeah. Look, it's not that an MFA degree will get a bad author published, but it can be, and often is, particularly in journals, the way "in" for a good author. Other good authors dont get in, they sit in the slush pile (it's true). Sometimes, those other good authors are actually better.
Most published writers are pretty good. A lot of them, however, show signs of gentrification, which can be quickened by MFA workshops, or any other workshops for that matter. But there are lots of writers who have honed their craft through years of difficult and often solitary work, and they come away with, just like many MFA students, a very good story. Only, they dont know anyone.
Often, it seems, prestigious writing programs do more for a writer's network of friends than for his or her writing. Clementson's view that MFA writing programs kill new genius seemed obvious and not worth mentioning, much less basing an essay on. All writers everywhere have to have a certain amount of trust in their work and a certain amount of faith in feedback from others. The argument itself seems elementary.
So what is everyone arguing about? Whether or not simply attending some classes will get you published? Of course not. Is Clementson crazy? I dont think so, but her argument doesnt seem worthy of publication. Is Almond getting a bit hyper? Probably, but he obviously feels attacked (as an MFA grad), and Clementson offered some easy targets.
No one's saying that MFA grads cant write. But it does take some extra effort on the part of the boss's daughter to prove herself after her great big promotion, so it seems reasonable to point out that many MFA grads have a leg up on their worthy competition solely because of the education. That reeks of elitism, and that's REALLY why some people get upset about MFAs.
Sean M. Hogan
MFAs "weed out the whiners" . . .
Kudos to Steve Almond for taking apart Elizabeth Clementson's illogical rant against MFA programs. Good citizens of the literary community whether they be MFA, preMFA, post-MFA, or nonMFA do not need to be subjected to yet another mewling, weak, selfpitying, excusemaking tirade such as Ms. Clementson's. A good dustandhellfire MFA program will teach two of the indispensible writerly attributes toughness and persistence by weeding out all of the whiners. The MFA program that Clementson quit is no doubt able to maintain its "prestigious" ranking because it does such an excellent job at running people like Clementson off the campus.
While attending the UC Davis MFA program in the mid1980s, I was fortunate that the knives came out every Wednesday afternoon. The three of us who could wake up the next morning and crank another blank page into the SmithCorona had acquired the persistence that it takes to be a real writer. We three have gone on to publish novels, while the other nine cried and complained and dropped out of sight forever.
Having attended a workshop at the Sewanee Writers' Conference with Steve Almond, I know that he is a tough and ballsy writer that is, the only kind who succeeds. People can be jealous of him and attack him in this forum all they like; he will shake it off and write another thousand words today, publish another dozen short stories in respected journals in the next few months, publish even more books in the years to come. Nobody can stop him. That is what a good MFA program will impart to the few dreamers who are wise enough and honest enough and willing enough to undergo the pain of learning.
Robert Clark Young
MFA UCDavis, 1988
Tuesday, 28 June 2005
What means "literary"? . . .
I won't bother to engage the arguments of Steve Almond in defense of the MFA in creative writing. I guess if people want to do it, and Almond and all his friends want to get paid to teach writing, well fine, let 'em. The latest issue of Harper's magazine (July 2005) has a piece with an alternative point of view; Lynn Freed writes at length on her years in the creative writing "gulag." "Gulag" enough said.
I would, however, express my general disappointment with fiction written by teachers of creative writing. I have read Steve Almond's books, and enjoyed them, but I tend to be repelled emotionally by such work. Here, I'll get to the point. In Mr. Almond's recent volume of stories, he recommends a list of his cronies, most of whom teach creative writing. Steve writes, "find their works, they will cure you."
Um, I don't read fiction to be cured, nor do I wish to watch Oprah to be cured. Almond's notion here is vomitmaking. Is this what Almond teaches, fiction as therapy? So, anyway, I just this month read five books by five authors recommended in Almond's list. The books were not bad, but I can't say I plan to read more books by those five in the future. Too therapeutic, I guess. Yeah, I'm somewhat allergic to MFA fiction.
Almond's latest book, by the way, contains a little manifesto about what literature is about. Just so you know, literature is about loss. It's not about style. I think I disagree. Oprah's book club and MFA fiction may be about loss. But, I think style is a big part of what makes a work "literary".
Time for a Kit Kat, Steve . . .
Wow, I'm a little surprised that the author of 'Candy Freak' could be such a meanie! Must be low blood sugar. Somebody give Almond a Hershey bar before he ends up in a bell tower with a deer rifle!
Cranky Steve is right about at least one thing, however: this ol' "to MFA or not to MFA" argument is a dead horse. It makes for a fun way to blow off work, though thanks, Moby!
The best advice on the subject came from Frank O'Hara over fifty years ago: "Go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.'"
Senior Editor, The Southeast Review
MFA war casualties . . .
You know, Steve Almond is basically right, but Elizabeth Clementson made some good points. Does she really deserve to die, Steve?
Monday, 27 June 2005
Almond's a genius . . .
Great column by Steve Almond today. I expected you to get a lot of responses to the Clementson whine, and although I only have a limited workshop experience, neither pleasant nor productive, there was something about her piece that rang false. And Almond nailed it. Her first day confrontation with the other students' shallow aspirations I don't believe it either. She's writing fiction.
He's also right to nail her on the exaggerated commercial value she places on the MFA. A more plausible response would be that an MFA is just as likely to be an initial hindrance to commercial success. No savvy editor is going to be impressed by an MFA if the writing does not rattle his or her bones. More likely, an editor will think along the proverbial lines of, "Yeh, an MFA and four dollars will get you a good mocha down at Starbucks, so what else you got for me?"
The real commercial value of an MFA is that it means you've been around other writers, probably had visiting agents and editors come to your program, and might thus benefit from the nebulous world of "connections." It might move you up in the line forming at the editor's door, but you still need a good book to deliver.
Larry Baker Iowa City, IA
Almond's nuts . . .
After reading all the letters and now, Mr. Almond's essay responding to Elizabeth Clementson's MFA article, I must say I'm more confused than ever. First, who knew MFA programs were free? Not me! Sign me up! After ten years as a raging freestyle writer by night, pixelpushing officle jockey by day, I could use a break!
Second, who knew writing programs admitted so many bad writers? Not me! I thought they were extremely competitive and only the best were chosen. So you can understand my shock that Mr. Almond discovered that his stories "sucked." I thought the reason MFA programs were attacked in general was because they graduated so many mediocretopoor writers. I was wrong it's because they're admitting them! What you put in is what you get out, just like Mr. Almond says.
Lastly, I couldn't help but be struck by the moving turn Mr. Almond's essay took at the end: "Seriously now," he writes, "our species has staggered to the brink of selfannihilation specifically because we're too vain and aggrieved to keep our moral priorities straight."
You mean, like attending MFA programs instead of doing something worthwhile with our lives?
Jersey City, NJ
MFAs and selfwill . . .
Talk about peer pressure! Now I feel I have to weigh in.
I think it's pretty impossible to generalize about MFA programs, based either on Ms. Clementson's unfortunate experience with the most expensive program in the world or others' in more genteel environments in the Midwest or Deep South. As a graduate of a northeastern MFA program that I realized somewhat belatedly was pretty mediocre, I still feel that there are benefits to be gained from even negative experiences.
To wit: my school wanted to be a breeding ground for lots of writers, but as a result of that (and chasing after tuition checks) they admitted maybe four times as many candidates as deserved. (I probably wouldn't have been accepted at a more prestigious school.) Tuitions were high, but as a result of the 80+ students in the MFA program, there weren't enough teaching assistantships going around. In addition, the program was poorly managed (I heard the chair was later removed in a departmental coup), seemed to focus on glorifying the faculty at the expense of the students (I myself and a friend launched the first reading series for MFA students) and by and large seemed designed to squeeze us through the thesis mill, standards be damned.
But I managed to get someting out it, because I made it happen myself: experience with the readings and a literary mag, a chance to live somewhere cool that I wouldn't have ordinarily gone to, a chance to explore this thing called real life from a safe distance, a cure to many bad writing habits I didn't know I had, lots of drinking and most of all, time to write.
I may have gone into other career directions postdegree, with my fiction output never approaching the level of what I did in that program, but I don't regret going down that road.
If I had to do it again... I'd apply to Iowa. But I can't travel through time, so I'll just be happy with what I have, lumps and all.
MFA as scapegaot . . .
The MFA is a convenient scapegoat for all that is wrong with American publishing and current dark age of American literature. Each person goes into to an MFA program for different reasons. For me, I contemplated an MFA only after I discovered my writing voice and realized that I needed to learn the sitonyourass discipline needed to do anything with it.
My only choice for an MFA program was University of North CarolinaGreensboro and I would have entered in 1996, which would have made me one of Steve Almond's classmates. At that particular time, I chose to put my personal life ahead of my professional and not get an MFA. It's a decision I don't regret but one I realize may have put my writing career back a decade or more.
Both sides are biased. I am an "outsider" in that I don't have an MFA. Frankly, I'm sick of reading backcover bios of an author's literary pedigree. Because my husband is in academia in another discipline, the role of school and mentor play a crucial role in establishing pedigree. In whatever field, pedigree is not always a reflection of merit or talent. However, pedigree can buy connections and connections can lead to better jobs, or in the case of writing, more access to prestigious awards and publications.
If an MFA were a literary litmus test, the process that all writers had to go through in order to earn their place in literature in the same way that graduate school and postdoctoral appointments are the required background for research positions in the sciences, most "outsiders" would probably shut up about it. However, the MFA in Creative Writing is almost solely the product of American academia. There are only a handful of these programs in other countries combined.
What is the cause and effect relationship, if any, between the U.S.'s MFA machine and the lackluster literature we have available from American writers in 2005? I honestly don't know, but allowing dialogue between all aspects of the issue, even between "outsiders" and MFA recipients, is something I welcome.
What I do not welcome is personal attacks when someone states their opinion about their experience in or out of such a program. While I enjoy what I have read of Steve Almond's body of work, foul on him for such a pithy response to Elizabeth Clementson's essay.
Sometimes a cliché is appropriate . . .
It is all perfectly clear now! How could I have missed it for so long? People get MFA degrees to become writing teachers; so therefore the fact that the program cannot do anything to improve their writing doesn't matter, they're going to be teachers of writing, not writers.
Perhaps this business of teaching people who can't write, how to teach writing to others, is part of the reason there's so much bad writing out there? It's a bit like those late night infomercials, in which a huckster pushes his $39.99 program to teach you how to become a millionaire. If he knows how to do it, why doesn't HE become a millionaire instead of selling the training program?
The cliché is as true now as it ever was: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.
I see a direct connection between too many poor writers graduating with MFA degrees, and too many books that nobody wants, being published every year.
Friday, 24 June 2005
There's studying writing, and then there's studying writing . . .
The responses so far have focused on the content of Ms. Clementson's column, which makes sense. However, I'm surprised nobody has pointed out how poorly written it is. It's full of laughable exaggerations (nobody actually said "Where's my million dollars" or anything remotely like that in her program, and $70,000 debt is the oneinamillion exception to the MFA rule). From the awkward and solipsistic collegeyears story opening, to the unintended irony of her admission that most writers support themselves by teaching (which you generally can't do without an MFA), to simply bad lines such as "Despite what they try and tell you...", it's just a lame, hastily written screed. Try AND tell you? She might not like workshops, but she could have used a proofreader.
Reader John Ryan also manages to miss an important point in the midst of his selfcongratulatory letter (or lecture). Most writers I know who enter MFA programs do so in order to get a teaching position someday, not to become literary stars and starlets. It's a career decision, and although of course not every MFA graduate gets a position teaching creative writing, almost nobody who DOESN'T have the degree gets that job. Perhaps Mr. Ryan should consider that motive before condescendingly dismissing every MFA writer he comes across as a glory hunter.
Key West, FL
He stopped telling people about his MFA and bingo! . . .
I'd like to second C. Bauman's position on MFA's not helping you get published. I'd argue they even work against you my little publishing success resulted when I stopped mentioning the MFA in my cover letters. Also no one I know has ever paid for an MFA. Even the crappy ones like Syracuse, Columbia, Iowa, NYU, John Hopkins, etc. generally hand out TAs. But man do you have to drink a lot.
Michael A. FitzGerald
MFA, U. of Montana
Don't confuse an MFA program with the Famous Writers School . . .
I first heard about MFA writing programs when I encountered graduates of these programs reading from their books at readings in cafes, bars and bookstores in New York City. I used to tell these people that I liked their writing, just to be kind. Their typical reaction was to ask if I'd bought their book.... I have NEVER given in to the temptation to say "I don't buy books by people who don't write as well as I do", nor to inform them that their work is actually awful, I was trying to be nice. I've since stopped giving insincere compliments to graduates of MFA programs, which means I don't say anything to them at all.
I don't believe that ANYONE with real talent will benefit from the workshop process as I've seen it, and heard it described. None of the MFA writers I've met seem to have had any talent when they started out, just the desire to be a writer. Unless of course they lost their talent as part of the MFA process.
Other students in an MFA program have absolutely NO qualifications to give you useful feedback on your work, since they are students as well, not successful authors. They have no motive to help you improve; if anything, their desire is to attack any work which is better than their own, and steer the author away from any approach which looks as if it may lead to genuinely good work.
Criticize your own work, yourself! You're the only one with motives that can be trusted.
The way to get better is to write a lot, and read what you've written, and then try to make it better, developing your own voice in the process. That's what I do all night, by candlelight, in my attic room here in Christiania. And in the morning I throw all the writing away, so I can start over fresh the following night unless I think I may be able to get a few kroner for what I've written, from the local paper.
If you feel that it is absolutely essential to get an advanced degree to get published, win prizes, and be 'recognized', consider the MFA programs attended by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Edna Ferber and Edward Albee. If you can afford to study abroad, the one attended by Knut Hamsun has an excellent reputation, though the winters there can be harsh.
Thursday, 23 June 2005
That writerly filter . . .
I'm pretty sure there's only one MFA program in the country that will cost you $70,000 for two years of schooling, and it also happens to be a "prestigious program in the Northeast." But since Elizabeth Clementson doesn't feel like naming names, I won't either. I happen to attend a "prestigious program in the Midwest" which is costing me zero dollars. Well, that's not exactly true: there's the opportunity cost of not working a fulltime job for two years and instead living on a pretty paltry assistantship.
In other ways, too, my workshop experience couldn't be more different than Clementson's. Nobody here seems interested in writing as a getrichquick venture, certainly least of all the faculty. And sure, people in workshop sometimes give lousy advice. That's the nature of the beast. But at the end of the day, it's up to the writer to decide which of these voices to listen to and which to ignore. If that's not a filter the writer has, or can learn to acquire, he or she will likely have problems that extend beyond the walls of any workshop.
Iowa City, IA
MFA program programming . . .
I had a friend who entered an MFA program in her late thirties. The insipid, thinlydisguised snide comments she learned to mimic after just one semester made me shudder. She was such a nice woman before that ... I guess MFAs are not for the impressionable.
Sartre: So smartre he didn't need a master of fine artre . . .
I am from Youngstown Ohio, a place who could call "A Third-World-Pocket" in America. There are many areas like Youngstown in America, where industry just dried, a lot of people left, but some never could afford to. And now their children have grown up into a world with no money. In Youngstown people have three main dreams. 1. To make at least 9$ an hour, which is considered good money here. 2. To go a whole year without getting a DUI. 3. To move to Las Vegas if they can get through YSU and become a school teacher.
I live in a world where most of my friends grew up to become crack heads and drunks. Everyone of my friend's parents who had good jobs that paid over forty thousand a year have lost them since Bush became president. Our public schools are shutting down one after another, or having their arts programs taken and if that don't work their sports. Or their sports programs become so expensive only the rich can play. Our jails are so full the federal government came and made Youngstown and Warren let out like six hundred prisoners. If are you into public after 12 at night there is a 1 in 8 you will engage or see violence. And I live very close to the projects and can hear go outside on my porch and hear guns shots come from them. That is just the tip of the iceberg. And personally I do not have much money, no health insurance, and can not afford an education even at the state school level. I'm not separate from what I have described, this is not anthropology.
Like Argentina to Serbia-Montenegro life is very hard here in Youngstown and Sartre has a certain amount of popularity in Youngstown, also Dostoevsky does also. Sartre taught and showed that history, circumstances creates makes it possible for certain choices to be made. When a person is in a extreme state of poverty, their government's main concern isn't them but attacking faraway nations, and they see an 80 thousand dollar Hummer drive down the street and know a single man in their own country has 48 billion dollars in the bank. The question arises in their mind, "Why does life suck so much and why are humans so fucked up?" Religion, behaviorism, and Fruedism doesn't answer that. And if the person is actually seeking the answers to that question and aren't trying to be cool or finf escape, you will notice the answers of religion, Behaviorism, and Freudism aren't sufficient.
Sartre and De Beauvoir went where no human had ever gone before concerning human behavior. They spent their lives destroying bourgeois notions. They never talked out their ass and sometimes they changed their minds, but as we have learned in the past four years the danger of people who don't change their minds.
Currently I'm reading De Beauvoir's "Force of Circumstance", there is a section in it on the Algerian war. It resembles America perfectly currently with its war on Iraq. De Beauvoir and Sartre has taught me personally a great lesson, all people are condemned to live in history, there will be horrible periods of history, some good ones too, but the important thing is, don't ever give up!
What about community? . . .
OK. Some MFA programs are good, some bad. MFA debt is always bad. Is workshop always a shark tank? Well, what variables are in play? As Elizabeth Clementson and other letter writers have established: sometimes workshop's good, sometimes horrifyingly bad.
Why, though, hasn't anyone pointed out that MFAs give you the advantage which, for me, ranks right up there with buying time to work of connecting with other serious writers? Unless you live somewhere along the East Coast corridor, or in certain other places with writers thick on the ground, no one you see on a daily basis does what you do, and that induces not just unhealthy selfpity but also (and far more destructive in the long run) intellectual and creative isolation. All artists need stimulation and most get it through community. And I'm not talking about partying yourself into a stupor among other writers or learning how to develop and maintain a writerly persona. I'm certainly not talking about a classroom setting in which all the students are vying to impress the workshop leader (rather than offer feedback that might actually help their fellow and sister writers). I'm talking about developing a trustworthy group of friends who share your tastes and creative interests and who'll be honest with you, and who are in this for the long haul. I guess it must be said, again, that writers need to publish in order to keep writing. But and in order to keep this letter under a million words, I'm oversimplifying drastically most writers who produce work that's wonderful and startling and lifechanging and brainchanging have a group of honest readers who know and practice the craft and who have a stake in moving literature into new, better, more interesting places. Obviously, these new, more interesting places do not always fit the needs of commercial publishers or big portions of the reading public or of the workshop. That's why these serious readers are more important than any others. They're not a workshop group, brought together by circumstance, but an oldfashioned intellectual/artistic cohort who shares your aims and interests.
This isn't to say you can't find good readers outside MFA programs. However, like it or not, MFA programs are where writers reliably tend to gather, for all the practical reasons people have pointed out. My sheepskin means something to me (though most days I'm not sure just what). My friends who write and who keep me honest mean much more.
Wednesday, 22 June 2005
Iowa may have regrets about at least one of those writers . . .
Oh mama! This argument that says look at all these famous writers who didn't go to Iowa! That no famous writer went to Iowa! That going to Iowa makes you a robot insider!
Hey, to everyone who says any of that, I say two things: Kurt Vonnegut and -- ha! -- Moby himself!
That about covers it.
Los Angeles, CA
MFAs: At an advantage in New York? . . .
I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Clementson's recent contribution on MFA programs, had a few laughs, found a few points of agreement. One sentence of hers, though, caused me difficulty, and I feel it should be addressed:
"[it is impossible to] be classified as a literary writer unless I had an MFA in creative writing."
I have found this not to be the case, and I think anyone who has spent ten minutes even remotely connected to the professional NY world of publishing would agree. Oh, upon publication you may win some points with a reviewer, possibly, maybe, if you went to Iowa or some such (less then five of the 250 MFA programs, I'd say, might get you this point). And true enough, the swankier programs (like Iowa) have close, close ties to agents and editors, which might get you in their faces and noticed more easily than others (again, less than five of the 250 programs in the country will provide this kind of access).
But as far as getting classified as a literary writer and getting published as such...let's face facts: no one in NY is searching through a slush pile and pulling out the MFA people for special consideration. 99.9% of agents and editors could give a hoot where you went to school or if you went to school at all. They care about your writing, from an artistic and business standpoint. Your MFA has nothing to do with that.
MFA programs are a great place to hone your born-with talents as a writer, and a great place to learn to teach writing, but they mean absolutely nothing to your submitted manuscript and chances of publication. With writers graduating from 250 programs each year, having an MFA is hardly unique, anyway. MFAs are good, perhaps very good, for certain things, but getting published as a literary writer or any kind of writer is not one of them.
I feel it's important to say this, because spreading this kind of misinformation can cause undue discouragement to many, many beginning writers out there, who come to believe that it's all a system and they have no chance. I teach at a number of workshops and writer groups and I ALWAYS tell my students this: don't believe the cynicism. Getting published is hard, but not impossible. And it all comes down to the writing and the story. If you have it, you have it. If you don't, you don't. Holding any kind of degree will have nothing to do with it.
MFA programs help some become better writers, hinder the writing of others, and some people manage to write just fine without any education at all.
One side note: When teaching at writer's groups and conferences etc. I am frequently asked afterward where I "teach for real." I guess teaching writing has somehow become equated with being a novelist. Anyway, I answer that, as much as I thoroughly enjoy teaching, I don't teach "for real" anywhere. No one would have me: Two published novels don't cut it; I don't have an MFA.
New Hope, PA
One writer who couldn't have done it without an MFA . . .
I am endlessly amazed and increasingly annoyed by the furor expressed by so many over the MFA in creative writing. Your columnist makes assertions about MFAs and life in an MFA program that are so absurd and untrue, that I must respond. First, there is the fact it that it came to Ms. Clementson's attention that it is impossible to "be classified as a literary writer unless I had an MFA in creative writing." Huh? Just because some knucklehead told her that back when she was twentythree, it doesn't mean it's true. Any serious writer, editor, reader, librarian or creative writing teacher could have explained to her that a literary writer is someone who writes literary writing, not someone who happens to hold an MFA.
So. Moving along, we get to Ms. Clementson's real gripes about her program. That her peers want big book deals, that they are spending a fortune getting their MFAs, and that workshop is really just a big piss party in which consensus rules and the story up for discussion is quashed in the process. These things, I cannot dispute. I was not enrolled in her "prestigious program in the Northeast," thank god. Ms. Clementson's MFA program sounds awful, to be frank. And I utterly agree that one should not go into debt in order to obtain in MFA in creative writing. But why, I wonder, is she holding up her dumbass MFA program as representative of MFA programs in general? If she had done her homework before applying for school, she'd have learned that dozens of MFA programs offer full tuition remission in addition to fellowship and teaching opportunities to all students, and in many cases, even health insurance.
I know. I applied to ten such schools, after having spent my twenties working a range of jobs and writing when I could, trying in vain to piece together the time to finish a novel. Nearing thirty, I was surprised to see that my novel had still not managed to write itself, so I decided to apply to grad school like Ms. Clementson, not because I needed it to find an agent or publisher (I'd begun publishing already), but because it was the only way I could secure the time to write a novel. I do not have a trust fund, an inheritance, a rich spouse, or parents able to support me (or parents at all, for that matter but that is another story). An MFA program in creative writing was my temporary ticket out of the world in which I had to do things other than write fiction in order to pay the bills. After much consideration, I landed at my own "prestigious program in the Northeast" Syracuse University, where I was not expected to pay a dime for my degree, where the school issued me a generous check every month (for writing!), and where I had health insurance for the first time since I left home at eighteen.
In my program there was not one teacher who stood before us and promised us big book deals. Instead George Saunders wrote the exact amount of money he was paid for his first two books on a chalkboard and proceeded to explain how quickly that modest amount of money was spent, and how many years it had taken him to earn it. As for my fellow students, our ambitions varied, but no one I knew was deluded into thinking that they should expect a bidding war for their literary novel. No teacher "henpecked" or "criticized" us until we delivered "sellable" plot lines and none of my friends, who have attended MFA programs around the country, have reported such scenarios. In fact, I cannot recall the word "sellable" being uttered even once in the entire three years I spent at SU. Again, I can only observe that Ms. Clementson must have attended a ridiculous program and again I can only ask why on earth she thinks her experience is the universal one.
As for her comments on the nature of workshop, I wish that Ms. Clementson had learned what most who make it through an MFA program do: that you need to follow your own heart and mind, that, when all is said and done, both praise and criticism should be equally disregarded, and that literature is not written by committee. It's true that by the time I finished my MFA I couldn't wait to be out of there. I didn't want to hear another word about what others thought of my novel in progress. And yet, that novel, which I finished and which will be published by Houghton Mifflin early next year, would not have been written if I hadn't had the financial shelter and time that my MFA program provided. If I had taken Ms. Clementson's advice I'd still be a waitress without a novel. It's as plain and simple as that.
Tuesday, 21 June 2005
A different kind of MFA experience? . . .
Elizabeth Clementson's MFA experience sounds disheartening to say the least, so I thought your readers may like to hear about a different MFA experience, namely mine. I did not go to a "prestigious program in the Northeast." Instead, I attended a small program in the heel of Louisiana that no one has ever heard of, McNeese St. University (class of '97). Perhaps this fact explains the differences listed below.
1. "Where's my book deal?"
It's been awhile, so it's possible that my memory has faded, but I don't remember anyone openly lusting for a fat publishing contract or expecting that one was in the offing. In fact, the fiction faculty person at the time, Robert Olen Butler explicitly and repeatedly cautioned us against this kind of thinking. Bob had written several wellreviewed but lowselling novels prior to winning the Pulitzer Prize (for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain) just before I enrolled. Despite having won the prize, he stressed the importance of simply writing what compels you, rather than gunning for attention and riches.
I do remember many many conversations about books and writing and our freshman composition students and whether or not the owner of the local watering hole, Billy Wayne's, really was the bastard son of John Wayne. In short, we found ourselves bonding with fellow writers in a like-minded literary community.
2. Workshop, Baaaaaad!
I'm certain just about every writer has experienced their story being eviscerated before their very eyes as the (usually) wellintentioned comments of classmates strip the life from their work. I can almost feel the pain all over again just thinking about it.
There's no doubt in my mind that workshop sessions themselves do very little to improve the particular story that is being workshopped.
Here's the thing, though. You don't have to listen to everything other people say. Ulysses may have been torn to pieces in a workshop, but Joyce could've (and would've) said screw it and done what he wanted. The workshop is a chance to try different things, to figure out where your personal vision converges with and diverges from those of your classmates and mentors and come out the other side with your own view of things. The workshop teaches one to ultimately resist the criticism and "henpecking" of those who don't share one's vision, an invaluable lesson for any writer to my way of thinking.
I'd never felt so creatively free in my life when I realized that ultimately it did not matter what Bob Butler (or any other single person) thought of my stories. As much as I admired his work and may have wished for his approval, if I saw things differently, I had no choice but to do what I thought best. He wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Any teacher of creative writing should hope that all of their students experience this kind of epiphany. If students feel creatively oppressed in their MFA programs, it's only because they're failing to liberate themselves. Leaving, as Ms. Clementson did, is just one of the options.
3. $70,000 tuition
I don't remember what my tuition was, but it wasn't $15,000 a semester and all of us had waivers for being teaching assistants anyway. Our stipends weren't much and some had to take out additional loans, but most of us scraped by and no one wound up with high five figure debt. Though we could also get boiled crawfish for $1.99 a pound and $4.50 pitchers of beer, so that might've had something to do with it.
As I learned from that episode of The Brady Bunch where Greg buys that crappy used car, caveat emptor. If someone honestly thinks that their $70,000 tuition investment in an MFA degree is going to pay off in the monetary sense, they're loony. If graduate programs are making that kind of promise either explicitly or implicitly, it's borderline criminal. That said, I've never heard of any program doing such a thing.
It sounds to me like Ms. Clementson was a bad match for her particular school, but it's just so very tired and lazy to tar all MFA programs with such broad generalizations.
Most of us who went to McNeese St. during my time are not famous nor have we received massive advances on two book deals, which puts us in exactly the same boat as just about every other group of writers. However, just about everyone publishes, and/or wins grants and awards, and finds fulfillment in writing and reading books. Many of us teach, having been inspired by the passion for teaching we found there, and as Martha Stewart would say, that's a good thing.
It's only a guess, but my hunch is that the student experience at most of the 250 graduate writing programs are closer to mine than Ms.Clementson's, but perhaps I'm wrong and I just got lucky.
Either way, no regrets from this particular holder of an MFA degree.
Monday, 20 June 2005
The real costs of MFAs . . .
I beg to differ. Though, yes, the large tuition at some MFA programs can make it a near necessity to cough up some sellable literary manuscript, there are plenty of MFA programs out there that a) don't cost anywhere near $70,000 and b) don't operate on this mustmakemoney aesthetic model.
In fact, the MFA program I went to at the University Alabama did not cost me anything. Everyone accepted into the program has their tuition waived, receives a stipend, and then earns their keep by teaching undergrads or working on the lit mag or what have you. (And the financial support is for 3 to 4 years).
So, I went to get an MFA degree up there with underwater basketweaving in terms of profitability, utility, spousal understandability and essentially broke even. The worst part, financially, was finding something to fill the stipendhole in the summer. Did I make money? No. Did I get to buy a new car and start filling my pad with cool antiques like my friends that went into advertising? No. Did I come out of school with a manuscript and blessed time away from the typical 20something production line of respectable adulthood? Yes. (And aesthetically speaking, not once did I encounter the famed Workshop Automaton of MFAbashing myth, whose nonsoul can be articulated as "Must show not tell, must show not tell . . .")
And another thing: I don't know what preMFAer thinks going to get one of these degrees is actually going to catapult them into literary history. Anyone who thinks getting a credential an incredibly small, nichey credential is going to make them into a literary lion is deluded at best. The MFA provides you with two things: the credential to teach creative writing at the college level (a negligible benefit) and time away from work. (In fact, the sole reason for graduate school in any endeavor is, arguably, to avoid work that dreaded "real world" everyone keeps burping about and which makes me want to fly off the nearest, tallest building.)
The one thing an MFA cannot give you and will never give you is experience. It will not teach you what it feels like to snort cocaine out of the buttcrack of a Creole stripper, for instance. (For that, there's New Orleans.) The MFA and its economic partner, the Creative Writing Establishment, exist for one reason: patronage, albeit patronage dressed up in the credentialized, nonelitist drag of Capitalism. It is the most efficient way to cover up an endeavor that will never be efficient.
Anyone who is actually considering getting an MFA should consider three things: 1) don't go unless it's free (or unless prestige outweighs economic reality); 2) like any worthwhile education, the MFA must end, you must graduate, you must go back outside and mingle with people who do not care that you are a wannabe writer; and 3) realize that you will have to explain what exactly an MFA is and why you shed your precious youth trying to get one to everyone you meet, especially your future employers.
One theory on the persistence of MFA programs . . .
Elizabeth Clementson's column is right on the money, and she's also correct when she states that "literature created by committee usually does not find the audience that it is calculated to find, and is quickly forgotten."
However, all the money spent on getting an MFA is not really wasted ("you won't be able to pay back that enormous tuition bill unless you write the carefully crafted plot line that everyone wants, but nobody wants to read," she wrote) . With over 250 MFA programs in the USA now certified by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, there is obviously an annual need to recruit and hire new teachers for these everexpanding MFA programs and guess who they are? Graduates of said MFA programs who can now pay back their student loans with nice, lucrative jobs as "creative writing teachers" at these MFA programs.
So as more and more graduates get their masters degrees, more and more MFA schools need more and more qualified "teachers" to teach. Where to get them? From graduates of previous MFA programs. It sounds incestuous.
Soon there will be 500 MFA programs nationwide. Not to worry: new graduates from 2006 and 2007 and 2008 will find jobs and pay off their huge debts. It's a never ending cycle. MFA programs were never about writing, or publishing, or even teaching. They are part of a makework program, and it works.
Taipei City, Taiwan
MFA programs: Alternative scenarios . . .
This may seem like common sense, but not every MFA program is what Clementson describes, nor is the MFA right for every person. Perhaps part of the problem is that she attended a cottagehouse school in New York, I don't know. There are programs in this country (I attended a Florida school) where the intense influence of the publishing illuminati is barely felt, primarily because the teachers do not emphasize it (and why should they when most of us are no older than 26?), and where students are relatively realistic about their chances of finding fame and fortune, meaning they are not expecting to find either.
Also, a good workshop teacher will tell you not to listen to ninetyeight percent of what you hear in workshop. Part of submitting to the workshop process, and perhaps the most important part, is recognizing that the process is flawed, and that you must believe in your work and learn to act upon what you believe is important to you and your piece. Never have I been told to make sure a story conformed to classroom consensus, and, while the pressure to do this can be built in to the workshop process, a writer should be capable of discerning what works for a story without first gauging how the finished product might fit into the next issue of the New Yorker. Sometimes, when it comes to your story, everyone in workshop is wrong, and knowing that can be especially helpful.
In the end, my advice would be to attend a school where you're fully funded, even if that means teaching for two or three years, and to avoid going to a program whose costs you cannot afford. If you cannot afford it, then don't go. Do not take out costly loans to attend an MFA program unless you're planning on getting an MD or MBA soon afterward. And for god's sake, do your research and visit a workshop and speak to the teachers and students before you decide to attend any program, however prominent the name might be. It may take putting your plan on hold for a bit to get things right I waited another year after my BA before attending an MFA program so that I made it to a place that was right for me, and I ended up being quite pleased with my experience. There do exist a number of alternatives to the big boys where, away from the distractions of New York, one might learn something.
Bryan Robert Smith
Friday, 17 June 2005
Books from a "manufacturer's" angle . . .
If you look at publishers as manufacturers of books, you can understand the situation.
It's not uncommon for manufacturers of products such as automobiles, low carb 'foods', or computers, to misjudge the market for their product, and produce too much.
This is what publishers have done. Unwanted books are like the $50 million worth of low carb cookies and breads sitting in warehouses spoiling, and destined for the dump. The difference is that the low carb craze was an unhealthy and unsustainable fad, whereas publishing books no one wants is an unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyle.
And then there's the question of quality.
A lot of bad writing is being published these days, and there's no good reason for anyone to buy it. Not in book form, not as short stories in a magazine, not anywhere.
A closer look at the "republic" of China . . .
The news report in the statecontrolled "People's Daily" in communist China about the "firstever dictionary of the ChineseManchu language" that you linked to the other day was very interesting. However, that newspaper forgot to mention that while "Manchu was the official language until the Qing Dynasty was deposed and replaced by a republic," the republic in question was in fact the Republic of China (the ROC, now the free, democratic government that rules Taiwan) and not the socalled People's Republic of China (PRC), which is hardly a "republic" at all. As everyone around the world can see, even our friends inside China, it is a dictatorship pure and simple. Love the PRC propaganda spinners spin the "republic" angle.
Taipei City, Taiwan
Wednesday, 15 June 2005
Remember, they could have been knocking on your door . . .
Re: "My God is better read than your God" . . .
That sort of thing is not as unusual as it might sound. When I worked as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, we would frequently find, and be amused by, religious tracts stuffed into the new age and occult section shelves; pornography torn from our magazines and shoved inside Tim LaHaye or James Dobson books; and gay and lesbian fiction crammed between random DoItYourself Carpentry books.
Whether or not the instances are "unfortunate", as librarian Ray Lignovich calls it, is up for debate. Idiots express themselves in the only way they know how, and apparently their vocabulary includes acts of destructive communication we see this type of thing in graffiti and in the wifebeater's swing. Much of this "product placement" appears to be mischief rather than proselytization, but I suppose it might be a little vexing for people who take such things too seriously.
My recommendation is just to sigh, collect the refuse, and thank whatever maker you thank that at least these people were in a library. You never know, one of them might just even browse through a book.
Brian Robert Hischier
Friday, 10 June 2005
The WalMart syndrome . . .
Peter Kanelos left WalMart because he was high enough to blame and low enough to dump. Corporate SOP is simple: "How far down the line is there a scapegoat?"
That's why, for instance, pictures from Abu Ghraib actually helped the Presidense. Whose fault was it? Look at the pictures; that's who done it. No need to risk the career of a commissioned officer, unless it's a woman. Not that the tar would ever have hit a lawyer, or a West Point grad, or a cabinet secretary anyway.
it also predicts the odds (currently astronomical) against anyone taking a fall for pre9/11 incompetence. (The word "intelligence" refuses to fit in that sentence.) Who is there out of the upper echelons that it can be blamed on? Nobody.
Also helps explain why it's hard to prosecute corporate malfeasance. The bigger the fish, the better the lawyers.
Michael Jackson, anyone?
Wednesday, 8 June 2005
Publishers should "punish" chains for returns, says an indy . . .
Michael has hit it on the head. Publishers have too much filler in their frontlists and that handicaps their support of more deserving work. Our returns are in the low twenties, mostly because we have an idea of who our readership is. Chicago Review Press offerings are rarely returned because we have individuals in mind upon opening the catalog. Most independents have to run a tight operation just to keep the lights on. Publishers, god love 'em, can do the same by tightening up and dare I say it; turn their attention to punitive measures against the chains, where the returns are coming from.
Words Worth Books
An independent bookseller on returns . . .
I'd like to point out a fact of the book business that underlies the assumption of returns: the dangerously thin margin that serves as a basis for all trade in this industry. The standard trade discount is 40% (this is off the suggested, and, in most cases, printed retail price) and anything above that is usually advertised as a boon to the retailer. In some cases, better than forty is the general rule (Random House, Harper Collins and Penguin all ship trade items at around 46% with some minor exceptions) and in others it is the starting point for intermittent benefits, like BEA Specials that offer deeper discounts once a year (anywhere from 42% up to 50% with, maybe, free freight sprinkled in around there). The point is 40% is the operating standard. Below 40% was once the province of university presses' specialty items, single title orders and art publishers with truly unique merchandise. Many publishers who live between the trade and academic world (and some who are just plain looking for another way to generate more money) are experimenting with short discounts (below 40%) that leave retailers little choice but to stop selling a title or to mark it up, over the suggested price.
Compare this to the music retail industry: discounts are much deeper there, and this allows retailers the freedom to mark down slow moving items without starving themselves to death. Ever notice the mark down bins in, say, a Virgin Megastore or a Tower Records? Those items are not being sold at a loss, just at less of a profit, and this is an educated choice being made by the retailer. The initial margin is much higher and allows the retailer flexibility since returns are not allowed: it's seen as a reasonable tradeoff. At least, it is my understanding that returns are not allowed in that and many other retail lines. We do a very brisk business in remainders (publishers' marked down overstock) but I tend to see it more as evidence of publishers' miscalculations than the fault of stores returning books. The real outcry over returns began when the chains started to order huge quantities of books and returned them ON THEIR OWN TERMS, expecting their clout would allow them to negotiate as they went.
Being able to return books (within certain guidelines) has allowed a store like St. Mark's to experiment, to order enough copies of a title to feature it and to take a chance that it will do well. Occasionally, and more often than I'd like, that experiment fails and we have to return eighty or ninety percent of the copies ordered. But the successes make it worth it and make our store better, by improving not only selection in the broadest sense of the word (the book is in stock) but by allowing us to put the book in a prominent position, to bring it to the attention of readers who might not otherwise know that it exists.
I hope the above does not come off as angry (it's hot, I'm tired...) but I am defensive, especially anytime Steve Riggio is offered as the voice of sanity in my business, and I think the problem is not absolute, but rather a question of balance. Publishers who want to stop having to remainder so many books should stop publishing so many. If they want ideas on what to publish or how well a book might do, maybe they should ask a bookseller.
Manager, St. Mark's Bookstore
New York, NY
Wednesday, 18 May 2005
It's the readers, stupid . . .
In regard to your news item "THEY'RE PUBLISHING TOO MANY DAMN BOOKS" that quotes a Book Industry Study Group report as stating: "The publishing industry continues to put out more books than the public is prepared to buy," there is even more startling (and for the most part unspoken) news to chew on.
According to a major player in the publishing field in New York, who has worked in the industry for many years (and who I cannot name at the moment): "The sad fact is that we do not have enough readers for the number of books we are publishing to all do well. We do not have enough readers for even one quarter of all the books we are publishing to do well."
As a friend of mine, a writer, said the other day on her blog: "I think that the larger issue of static/declining readership is the real heart of the matter. It's pathetic that, as an industry, we refuse to really deal with what afflicts us. The obvious way to sell more copies of books is to raise the level of the water. Right now we're battling over a little pond, and instead of noticing that the water is draining and doing something about it, we just keep talking about how each of our little pieces of the pond could be better managed."
The water is draining out of the book pond. What are we going to do? I have created a website to gather global comments on this important issue: NotEnoughReaders.
Taipei City, Taiwan
Reply to a poet . . .
You're not an idiot, Moby. You're not, you're just not.
A poet speaks . . .
You're an idiot.
Tuesday, 17 May 2005
Bloom's letter "reckless"? . . .
It seems reckless for Dan Bloom to speculate on a public relations effort which he speculates may have had something to do with Egolf's suicide. Does Mr. Bloom have specific evidence for calling out two details (70 and France, yeah, we get it) in Egolf's backstory?
Even with said evidence, it's still reckless to then create an implied state of mind to Egolf. I just dont get it what's the point of Mr. Bloom's letter? That a pr story was invented and Egolf had such guilt about it that he killed himself?
Writers are often stricken with depression and tortuous thoughts. I'm pretty sure that a pr spin (even if that's what is was) ranks very low on the demons that haunt creative people.
Such a personal attack following one man's personal decision to end his life warrants more information, or at least a more well presented argument.
P.S. Despite my living in the vicinity of Egolf's Lancaster, PA, before news of his death I had, with regret, not heard of him this is not an argument skewed by friendship or familiarity.
Sean M. Hogan
Novels looking in, not out . . .
Here's another vision of the future of the novel, one with more emphasis on the collective, the public:
Seems to me a more complex and more compelling vision for the future of the novelone that expands upon the lines put forth by David Barringer, that goes beyond the inner epic elucidation of "a character [that] mulls over a single decision for an entire novel"is a group of characters, a network of characters, or a community of characters that "mulls" over a single decision, fate, or other phenomena in such a way that produces a single decision, effect, or essential shift in much of collective or public consciousness, behaviour, or reality of the groupthat peculiar organism of sorts, infinitely more complex and weighty, potentially, than any individuala future social and political novel of some part of the public, yet one that no doubt must be heavily imbued with both the individual, the private, the psychological as well.
Political Novel.org, Imaginative Literature and Social Change
Morgantown, West Virginia
Tristan Egolf: Done in by hype? . . .
Regarding the Tristan Egolf story:
1. How was he really discovered?
2. Was the book really rejected by 70 USA publishers first as the PR hype claimed and did this PR hype in any way play into the author's depressive states? Like he knew he was living a lie?
3. There might be a bit of PR hype going on here. The French website [for Gallimard, Egolf's first publisher] says that Patrick Modiano's daughter by complete chance saw Egolf busking in the streets of Paris on a cold and rainy day and she later invited him to have coffee with her. One thing led to another, presumbably, and he showed her....his......manuscript.......which he just by coincidence had with him in his busking bag....and she at once fell in love with......it.....and went home and showed the manuscript to her dad the famous novelist Patrick Modiano who exclaimed, wow, this is some find, we must get the guy published before 70 other publishers in the USA who already rejected it give it a second thought...so he showed .....it..... to the editorial board at his publisher....who immediately read it in English, had it translated into French and voila, the novel appeared first in French in Paris, after the sad dumb stupid USA rejected this genius 70 times, repeat, 70 times.....and then with partner Picador in the UK, an English edition was born, and them the dumb stupid innocent childish USA which had rejected said manuscript 70 times, repeat, 70 times, finally Grove Atlantic, which is a cut above the rest, picked it up for US readers. But it all began on a cold and rainy November day in Paris when Marie Modiano by pure chance saw Tristan playing his guitar on the street and invited him home for coffee. Now does anyone really believe this PR hype that might have even contributed in some way to the writer's early death ? Why ? Because playing fast and loose with the facts just for PR hype and marketing hype the new Americaine genius! might have played into Tristan's battles with living an honest life....
Taipei City, Taiwan