Writing about MFAs in creative writing, a round-up

Reading pieces on MFAs in creative writing is my new hobby. Whether for or against, the pieces are mostly absurd, fatally earnest, frequently myopic. There’s an endless well of it! This is the most beautiful, most harmless misery tourism, and I derive a lot of anthropological enjoyment from it – look at these strange … rituals! Look at their savage infighting and their idolatry of, I don’t know, naked white corpses at least a couple centuries old? Here are some of my favorites. Most of these are pretty old, but entertainment is evergreen.

ON BLOWING MY LOAD: THOUGHTS FROM INSIDE THE MFA PONZI SCHEME belongs absolutely to the category of fatally earnest, bordering on cultish, and very wishy-washy in the end. Read the comments; it’s funny.

In Get a Real Degree, Elif Batuman drops this amazing chunk of full-on, shame-free, undisguised xenophobia and racism and whatever this is.

I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world. At least that way I’d learn something about some less privileged culture – about a less privileged culture that some people were actually born into, as opposed to one that they opted into by enrolling in an MFA programme.

To which the author of the book she reviewed responded:

I’m impressed with Batuman’s willingness to speak so clearly as a cultural conservative, reanimating a whole herd of dead horses from the 1980s Culture Wars, when the right began a long, twilight struggle against the “tenured radicals” of the university. To reduce whole swaths of American literature to an expression of “sociopolitical grievance”; to condescend so witheringly, as Batuman does in her review, to the literature of “developing nations” — these sorts of rhetorical moves are strangely anachronistic, not to mention ill-informed, and would embarrass even the less than politically correct among us a little bit, were we called upon to justify them. It’s not that we believe that the airing of socio-political grievances is, in itself, likely to produce a good novel. It’s that, when you actually take the time to read a work like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, you find something a lot more complicated and compelling than Batuman’s snarky slurs would imply. One can be all for the deflation of liberal pieties without being a gleeful ignoramus about it, as though literary journalism needs its own Ann Coulter.

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One was the big one of 2015, it looks like. It includes gems that could have come out of Reddit, like:

Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more. One student, having finished his assigned books early, asked me to assign him three big novels for the period between semesters.Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow, I told him, almost as a joke. He read all three and submitted an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.

That isn’t the part that offended people though; I think it was this – ‘The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.’ One of his former students responds: I Was the MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry. It wasn’t Boudinot’s joke about child abuse that made him mad though, that part was fine and the more tasteless a joke the better; it was Boudinot disparaging the MFA industry, which is ‘the coolest tribe I’ve ever belonged to. And Ryan [Boudinot] was a part of that tribe. Now he has alienated himself from it’. You begin to see, I hope, what I mean as to ‘fatally earnest’.

(Another response piece has a creative writing instructor who says – I paraphrase – ‘I don’t assume I know what talent looks like. My students are better off for it.’ Okay, well, that’s certainly an approach!)

Back to more fatally earnest, You Are a Young Writer is a bit like – well, I would have said it was a parody, but I don’t think it is because I’ve seen people write about this sort of thing in exactly this tone, nearly in the same words – as I said, these things are evergreen.

You apply to a number of MFAs.

You are rejected by a number of MFAs, and waitlisted by one, and offered partial aid by another, and by another you are offered a full tuition fellowship in exchange for teaching and hot damn does this offer has you feeling on top of things you didn’t know had tops to feel on top of. You move to the state the school is in. Classes start: you read recklessly and you write ravenously, you write in forms and in modes that are new to you, and you’re astonished, and you for the first time teach, you’re a student with students, and you make friends with your fellow writers, friends from the East Coast and the West Coast and the Southwest and the South and the Midwest, you’re from the Midwest, with your Midwestern friends you disagree on what constitutes the Midwest, and with everyone else you altogether disagree on what constitutes writing and poetry and story and essay and art, and constitution, and you attend and give readings, and you work for a literary magazine, and on funding you travel to conferences, and you play pool and darts and poker and you drink beers and boozes and smoke cigarettes and cigars and you do some drugs maybe and you love, you love hard, you love the friends you share so much with, and yes, you make some rather wretched mistakes, some shameful blunders, and maybe there’s some rivalry and jealousy but you stay away from the circles of spite, the circles that spin on the talk that sinks community, and instead you write, and in your last year you write a book.

You are a young writer about to graduate with a graduate degree.


And maybe at PhD you try to get ahold of What’s Next, but What’s Next is busy, and a new professor, friend, or mentor says, I’ll put you two in touch, and it happens, you get a coffee in a crowded coffee shop with What’s Next, but What’s Next won’t look at you, What’s Next just stares over your shoulder, and you yell, Do I get my PhD and get a position somewhere or do I get my PhD and never get a position anywhere and get some other job somewhere or does a position open at one of the schools I adjuncted at and I get it and then it ends and it’s back to what I just said or do I get a book published and if I get a book published do I need my PhD!

No one in the coffee shop reacts to your yelling. Not even you.

You feel done, but you know you aren’t.

What’s Next? says What’s Next, not looking at you.

You drink your coffee. You don’t know.

You say, You don’t know.

What’s Next says, You are a young writer. Write.