Against the MFA Contrarians
By Joel CuthbertsonSeptember 2, 2023
The only problem with graduate writing programs, however, is that they’re not useless enough. Like many advanced degrees, the MFA exists at a crossroads of interests: the artistic, the professional, and the educational. All three stem from students’ hopes for their post-MFA life: a career as a great writer built on the stepping stones of institutional support. That’s fine as a dream, but as a reality, it’s about the same as making it on Broadway. The steps to success are simple in the abstract—sing, dance, shine!—but the actual life, as Stephen Sondheim put it, is “slaving at the five-and-ten” while “pounding 42nd Street.” Maybe going to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is like getting an audition, but it’s nothing like becoming a star.
Still, the ways in which the MFA has become embedded in the publishing industry mean that the hopes and frustrations of both graduates and opponents keep skewing the scope of its purpose. The very people running MFA programs are often guilty of letting their mission drift. What is an MFA for? Of the three options—artistic, professional, or educational—the obvious choice is dismissed. The MFA is a school program, and while it’s a creative program, it is not in the business of guaranteeing great art any more than it is meant to plop every alumnus into an acquiring editor’s good graces. MFA programs are about learning, and when they stay in their lane, they’re not only good but also exemplars of education’s aimless virtue.
Let’s begin with the art. Throw a stone into a room full of your favorite living authors—for fun, I guess—and you’re bound to hit an MFA alum. Probably several, given their collective reflexes. George Saunders, Kelly Link, Brandon Taylor—all MFA recipients, or the equivalent. Read too many “About the Author” blurbs, in fact, and it can feel like we’re churning out novelists the same as we do dentists, and with a similar variety of results.
In 2018, Jonathan Dee, Pulitzer finalist and all-around excellent writing teacher, went out of his way to note, in a lengthy rave, that novelist Sergio de la Pava “has no M.F.A., no teaching post.” Like a badge of honor, “[t]he academy hasn’t laid a finger on him.” In 2019, Mona Awad published an entire novel about the soul-crushing reality of MFA programs, and this after receiving not only an MFA but a PhD in creative writing too. She currently teaches at the same program as Dee, which happens to be the same MFA program I attended. No one wants an elitist assembly line, even those of us who are products and managers of the assembly line.
But here’s the catch: you can’t teach someone to be a great writer. That’s the bind all MFA programs find themselves in. The students can sense this unyielding truth in their own work. They can often see it plainly in their peers—talent is usually a potential that glows beneath the words rather than a polished or accomplished reality. You can get better at writing, and I think an MFA is capable of abetting such growth. All the same, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”
The criticism that stems from this basic conundrum is that MFA students are incentivized to write featureless prose. “[S]o many people can now write competent stories,” worried Flannery O’Connor, a 1947 Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, “that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence.” Laura Miller, premier book critic for Slate, has suggested that short stories have suffered from their use as “the basic unit of the writing workshop.” Passed through too many hands, like a memo in a subcommittee, “the ‘literary’ short story has become a rarefied form, overpolished and predictable.” Call it the master of fine arts “house style,” as The Huffington Post once did—“confessional, memoiristic, autobiographical, narcissistic, and plainly understood.”
As with most criticisms of the MFA, the supposed failing is simply a strength misunderstood, often misapplied. Workshops aren’t meant to teach you to write well in some one-to-one transfer of knowledge. Their first effect is to make you a better reader. Or, as with any educational or performance setting, they expose the ways in which you can’t read at all. Every time you give your fellow writers feedback, you must grapple with your own preferences and the language to express those instincts. Over the course of time, you might learn your classmates’ tics, but you also develop an evaluative vocabulary specific to your habits of mind. Workshops are much better at creating critics than they are at clearing the nits from a writer’s burgeoning art.
All the same, when your turn in the hot seat arrives, the benefit isn’t zero. Yes, many of your classmates don’t understand your work or didn’t put the time in to give helpful reactions. And sure, every teacher is shepherding you inside their own established aesthetic boundaries, even if unconsciously. But you are being read, and there is nothing that forces a reconsideration of your own work like exposure. The fact of the feedback, its mere existence, is almost always more important than its content. Sometimes you come to understand your strength by virtue of everyone hating a specific choice, and hating it every time you do it. What they’re drawn to, even negatively, is often what makes you unique. That is not necessarily a discovery of how to write well, but it is, once again, a boost to your evaluative sensitivity. The bullshit meter, specific to your voice, is refined and reset and refined again. You are learning to read your own work, which is related to, but more difficult than, reading a stranger’s.
As for “MFA writing” as a genre, the etiolated, novelistic memoir has become entrenched in the literary world for reasons that surpass whatever Marilynne Robinson is teaching in Iowa City. Blame the MFA, if you like, but YouTube and Netflix, and cable TV before them, are the more likely culprits. Painters are still living in a post-photographic world, and so are novelists. The incurious retreat inward is an understandable, if often regrettable, knee-jerk reaction.
But wait. I hear the thunder of a thousand keystrokes aimed in my direction. “Look, pal,” the comments burst as one, “an MFA is attempted for the sake of starting a career. It’s about networking.” They have a point. A writing program might not guarantee excellent output or a stable writing future, but it seems obviously attractive for more immediate career ambitions. You might not hit the bestseller list with your “wan little husk,” but a career within the MFA world should be doable. Bad MFA writing is thus rewarded by the MFA industry, runs the strongest argument, even when it’s not a driver of literary trends.
The primary MFA experience, however, just doesn’t support this narrative. Should you graduate with a creative writing master’s, your stern inner father will finally be justified. He’s always tut-tutted that an arts degree was useless, and he was right. You can get other credentials in less time if you want to teach, and you can’t typically work at another MFA program unless you have a book. Many MFA professors are no more credentialed in terms of higher education than their students because a book remains the ultimate marker of success. Literary trends may be warped by the MFA professorial catbird seat, but the degree itself is, again, no guarantee of any such luck.
As author and (yes! of course!) fellow master of fine arts Lincoln Michel puts it, “MFAs just aren’t that influential to the larger culture.” While the degree might be “useful to individual writers, […] [t]he truth is not that MFA programs steer publishing, but that trends in publishing steer the writing in MFA programs.” Since most MFA grads won’t get book deals, we have to stop pretending that either career path—teaching in an MFA program or becoming Imitation Rachel Cusk—is the central organizing principle of the program. A writing degree might open some doors, but what I’ve been told (and experienced) is that it mostly helps an agent open your email so they can say, “No, thanks,” personally rather than ignore you, and they still mostly ignore you. That’s the business.
The writing MFA’s uselessness, in fact, should make it a poster child of the learning-for-learning’s-sake crowd. Maybe “crowd” is too generous. Call it a cluster, an alliance of homeschoolers and hippies. Those of us in the alliance, or at least fellow travelers, see the practice of art as a vital axis of learning, and learning as an essential human good. At what level of education are we willing to say this approach to learning shouldn’t be given support? Well, we’ll come to that. But the job market for an MFA grad, as a writer or an educator, is so unforgiving that the degree is either defended as a good in and of itself or is incapable of being defended.
Of course, there are objections to this view of learning for learning’s sake, of writing programs as essentially about praxis and not careers. The two soundest, I think, are (1) that MFA programs don’t operate along such highfalutin grounds, and (2) that such highfalutin grounds are properly the aim of an undergraduate degree program, or even high school. I want to tackle the second objection first, which more or less says, “Yeah, we do learn for learning’s sake. It’s called grades one through 12.” In theory, I’m not sure this is wrong.
In reality, though, I’ve actually attended grades one through 12. Professionalization is an upstream toxin. As many universities throw away their charters for reasons both existential and avaricious, their feeder institutions shift further and further from education to skills. Going to university is the object of K–12 in a mirror image of the way getting a job is the object of a university education. A reform of how young people enter the workforce, and of how much higher education costs, would have to take place at a societal level first. And it should. Vive la community college! Long live paid apprenticeships! Even then, such a revolution might see arts programs cement their status within the university rather than otherwise. If a university education were a true choice, rather than the world’s most expensive (and least efficient) intern program, students might once again pursue what they love in larger droves.
That does not mean other graduate programs, or even undergraduate and vocational schools, shouldn’t serve as expert-level credentialing. I like that doctors exist. Everyone’s life eventually gives way to utility of some kind. I personally know at least two mechanics who deserve sainthood. The question is whether education should declare a universal fiat against learning for the sake of learning at any level of its institutional existence. I don’t see how we can accept that without seriously damaging the culture, even the virtues, of learning that universities are supposed to champion. Skills and work credentials and job training will always be a part of education, but they should never be the whole of it.
As to the objection that MFA programs don’t operate in an ideal manner of learning for learning’s sake, the answer is simply that I agree. Program culture matters, and a lot of writing departments need to address the ways they have been warped by instrumentalism. There have to be compromises with the money managers, maybe, but the hearts of these programs must be protected. If they aren’t, then faculty should either overhaul their curricula or they should drop out and redistribute their talents to libraries, civic centers, and wherever else learning thrives. They should become groundskeepers and post videos of their work on YouTube, or read it to family and friends, which is all most of us will do anyway. But the changes must be faculty-led. That the MFA isn’t irretrievably degraded at the level of conception doesn’t mean it needs to exist in its worst, most carnivorous forms. The same goes for all university degrees, undergraduate and graduate, humanities and sciences alike.
One simple step any program can take in this direction is to shirk, resist, and openly reject the overtures of publishing professionals. Give your students exactly one day of class on the business side of things in their last semester and bar agents (as a general rule) from using class visits to pluck the freshest buds. I’m not sure many students, much less the publishing professionals, would agree with this, but tying an arts program to the most potent source of careerism (however unlikely) necessarily encroaches on the education. Without these boundaries, MFA programs become just another overpriced apprenticeship in a field most graduates will never enter.
If there’s one reason to resurrect this dead horse of a discussion and beat it back into the ground, it’s because there are almost no out-and-out defenses of the MFA degree. Folks often resist the most over-the-top condemnations, but a writing MFA is laced with so many emotional land mines, and writers are such fragile creatures, that it’s hard not to nod along in despair. We all remember the day that workshop went wrong, and we all know some programs should be razed and forgotten.
The eternal airing of these frustrations has obscured the reasons why a healthy higher education system will always make room for an MFA in writing. Maybe not a lot of room. Maybe a sort of Northern Scottish islet scenario, but a place of its own, all the same. At its best, the MFA in writing is a sleeper agent within the university-industrial complex. Or that was the case for me, at least. After I was accepted into my program, the very problems of instrumentalism and prestige-ambition inculcated by higher education were dismantled by education.
An academic burnout of sorts, I was unfocused but high-striving. I’d aped and absorbed and performed academia, but once I finally hopped off the PhD train, I found myself totally at a loss. I had degrees, but I didn’t seem to possess much learning. I wanted to write, vaguely, but the modern literary world was foreign to the point of being almost extraterrestrial. Three months before I applied to Syracuse University, to drill the point home, I didn’t know who George Saunders was. (Please don’t tell him. Or me, actually.) Did the program give me contacts, change my prospects, or even make me a better writer? Yes. And no. But any gains of substance were the benefit of an environment that didn’t bankrupt students, didn’t pretend we were part-time scholars, and didn’t play lackey for the publishing giants.
Fully funded and writing-focused, our program told us repeatedly that we had one obligation: write, rewrite, and then write again. There were the usual art-school shenanigans, some of which seemed worthwhile and a lot of which now seem melodramatic. Stars shined and others envied, but the work was utmost. There was no confusion about our purpose or goals, even as most of us were distracted, timid, and probably a terror to our teachers.
Also, the writing wasn’t tepid. The writing was often bonkers and vivid, and most of it will never be published. People were funny, experimental, earnest, and more. There are stories I still think about, stories whose time in workshop, whose recitation at a reading, was their only moment in the sun. An MFA in writing guarantees no improvement, no book deal, no heady entrance into a life of staring at a wall for hours and thinking, “Why does this story suck so much?” What it’s supposed to enshrine is community and time. There are few places in this great market we call a country that are able to afford both.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this experience is limited to writing programs, much less that it should be. If anything, I’m advocating for an approach that should be easier, not harder, to replicate outside the university. I was first dragged out of my post-academy slump by community workshops, by other random nonprofessionals and nonstudents reading my bad chapters and even worse stories in a coffee shop. Some of my favorite readers came from that community, and some of my best instructors too. I hope we only see a further explosion of extra-institutional learning in the coming years, places safe from the all-consuming tuition machine.
But if we’re going to suffer higher education, to say nothing of supporting it, we should stop catering to prefab arguments that will only make universities, and the writing they harbor, more cynical. The writing MFA is first and foremost a tool of education, and the best way to save us all from the insipidities of its graduates, as well as the predatory instincts of its context, is to accept that the degree is a reprieve from one’s career and not a do-or-die beginning.
Joel Cuthbertson is a writer from Denver whose work has appeared in Literary Hub, The Millions, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.
Featured image: Odilon Redon. Flower Clouds, 1903. Art Institute of Chicago, through prior bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. artic.edu, CC0. Accessed August 31, 2023.
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