Some Unvarnished Thoughts on MFA Programs and the “Literary-Industrial Complex”
MFA programs promise training and mentoring that will improve your writing, but often don’t deliver. Tim Tomlinson, in the introduction to The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, writes, “Many people find it hard to believe that I passed through two years of an MFA program, four separate workshops, and received not so much as a comma back on a manuscript. But it’s true, and my case was not exceptional.”
I can believe it, because I’ve heard many stories of absent MFA teachers, and neglected MFA students. One MFA graduate told me, in a typical comment, that, “Though the faculty were great, most were over-committed writer-teachers and only quasi-present. My peer group did most of the teaching.” She attended one of the most highly regarded programs, by the way.
And when teachers aren’t absent, they’re often inept or negligent. Tomlinson offers ten types of ineptness, including teachers who believe writing can’t be taught (“enables lazy teaching”); those with a “Moses complex” (“Anything that doesn’t fit into their narrow definition [of good writing] is treated as an abomination.”); and those who fail to “establish any critical vocabulary with which to assess manuscripts” (“…the critiques are almost guaranteed to be either dull or chaotic or both.”). Teachers with these failings will inevitably leave a trail of damaged and discouraged – not to mention, financially cheated – students.
Gross negligence and ineptness are far from the worst you hear about MFA programs, however. In my classes and elsewhere, I regularly hear about teachers who were hostile or belittling; who encouraged vicious criticism within groups; who marginalized students because of who they were or what they wanted to write; or who committed sexual discrimination, harassment or exploitation. (See the section on teacher malpractice in Chapter 2.8.)
And then there’s the hero worship and favoritism, which are present in many educational settings but often taken to an extreme in MFA programs. Favoritism is not just demoralizing (and, sometimes, devastating) for the students who aren’t favorites, but often a mixed blessing for those who are. Here’s Jane Smiley, from her essay “Iowa City, 1974,” in Mentors, Muses & Monsters (Elizabeth Benedict, ed.):
…there was a story going around that one of the instructors had taken a particular shine to the work of one of our fellow students. He expressed his admiration for her potential by devoting himself to trashing her work. He would have her into his office, and then subject her to brutal line-by-line criticism, making her defend every word, every phrase. He “held her to a very high standard” and only praised her when she met it….Thank God, I thought, that I was not this teacher’s pet.
I’ve already mentioned the unhealthy mentor-protege relationship at the center of Tom Grimes’ memoir Mentor (Chapter 3.9). Here’s Grimes on what it was like to be the favorite of Frank Conroy, director of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop:
Frank had defended, praised, and, in a way, isolated me from my classmates. With the exception of Charlie, I existed apart from everyone. I had Frank’s approval, friendship, and affection. When it came to most of the other students, he barely knew their names. And I imagined my classmates thinking, Tom Grimes was published by Frank Conroy’s publisher. He didn’t write a good book; he received an undeserved gift. I didn’t want to feel ashamed, disgraced, or haunted by second guesses.
So he went with the publisher who hadn’t published his mentor – but that didn’t save him from being haunted. Later that evening, he told Conroy, during their celebratory drink, “I’ve made a terrible mistake…I went with the wrong house.” Which turned out to be true.
This brings us to one of the root problems with graduate writing programs: that most of the teachers teach primarily to make money – which means, inevitably, that many will have little or no aptitude for teaching, or interest in it, or even respect for it. Grimes quotes Conroy about accepting the Iowa directorship: “Forty, broke, unemployed and in debt, I accepted an offer to come to Iowa…more from a sense of desperation than any deep conviction that I’d know what to do when faced with a roomful of young writers.” I commend him for his honesty – and, to be clear, I believe his lack of preparedness is the rule, not the exception, for MFA teachers.
And so these broke and desperate, but not necessarily skilled or committed, teachers wing it, which means that, even when their intentions are good, they can leave a trail of woe.
Finally, to top it all off, MFA faculty are also notoriously unhelpful with, and often openly disdainful of, problems with procrastination and blocks. So, good luck handling any disempowerment you may be experiencing – and that the program itself might be causing.
About Those Career Advantages…
What about the supposed career advantages of MFA programs? Mostly illusory. First of all, even if MFAs did confer a huge advantage on graduates, there simply aren’t that many opportunities for writers or writing teachers to start with. Here’s Jane Smiley, again: “Every so often, a tall, big-shouldered editorial power would swoop into Iowa City and…court one or two [students], then return to New York.” That’s one or two students out of dozens. And Tom Grimes, discussing a reunion with three other Iowa graduates, “We represented a typical workshop graduating class: three out of four hadn’t survived as writers.”
To survive as a writer, you need to make the leap from the literary magazines to writing that pays real money – usually, books, screenplays and feature magazine articles. Unfortunately, that’s the point where the value of an MFA shrinks to near-zero. Despite pervasive propaganda to the contrary, many agents and editors, when being candid, will admit that an MFA degree confers at best a slight edge.
What about teaching? An article entitled “What Becomes of an MFA?” by Daniel Grant in the February 26, 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education1 cited a University of Florida at Gainesville survey of its MFA graduates that found that:
60% were teaching on the college level (although more than half of them were adjunct faculty), 10 per cent were working in publishing or actual writing (technical writing, for the most part), another 10 per cent were employed in fields unrelated to writing, and the remaining 20 per cent were pursuing another degree.
So, fewer than 30% of graduates got a permanent teaching gig – and it’s safe to assume that many of those were part-time. It’s probably also safe to assume that many of the approximately 5% who wound up doing technical writing initially had another career in mind, since technical writing is not what people enroll in an MFA to learn.
Finally, it’s also safe to assume that the percentage of successful careers among the 40% who didn’t respond to the survey is even lower than among those who did. (Kudos to the University of Florida / Gainesville for at least surveying its students and publicizing the results – most schools don’t.)
Tomlinson, in The Portable MFA, says literary agent Noah Lukeman always answers those who ask him what he thinks of MFA programs thusly:
Take the $35,000 – $50,000 you’re going to spend on the degree, buy yourself a good laptop and printer and a bundle of paper, and go off to a cabin and write. At the end of two years, the worse that can happen is you have nothing. Less than nothing is what you’ll almost certainly have at the end of your MFA program, because, besides nothing, you’ll also have a mountain of debt.
Some will probably claim that I – and Tomlinson, Lukeman, and Anis Shivani, author of an essay entitled, “The MFA Creative Writing System is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing” – are biased against MFA programs, writing programs or even literature in general. What I really have a bias against is obfuscation in the service of exploitation: the kind of thing that confuses smart and dedicated people into thinking that teachers who are only “quasi-present” are “great.”