September 28, 2012

Stop punching me in my MFA

The Facebook page “Sentence Me” recently shared the following quote from the 2001 article “Sentenced to Death” by Salon book critic Laura Miller:

“Just as nuclear physicists strive to impress other nuclear physicists and dog breeders value the admiration of fellow dog breeders over that of the uninitiated masses, so people who write serious fiction seek the high opinion of other literary novelists, of creative writing teachers and of reviewers and critics. They want very badly to be ‘literary,’ and for many of them this means avoiding techniques associated with commercial and genre fiction — specifically too much emphasis on plot.”

While much of what Miller writes here is probably true (what literary writer wouldn’t want to be literary? who doesn’t value the praise or acknowledgement of his or her peers in any area of interest or study? and yes, literary writing can often focus less on a traditional plot structure than it does on character), the larger (and somewhat offensive) implication is that literary writers don’t care about “regular” readers and would rather be artsy than interesting.

It’s but one of many negative characterizations of literary writers editor Jim Thomsen, founder of Sentence Me and also a friend of mine, has posted on Facebook as part of what feels suspiciously like an anti-MFA campaign.

Thomsen’s beef isn’t with all literary writing, but what he calls “MFA writing.” Last year, when I first felt inspired by his MFA-slamming Facebook posts to defend my own degree (rather, the classes and workshops leading up to it and all of the writing it helped me produce), I asked him if he would explain for a blog post I intended to write why he was so vehemently against MFAs. He wrote,

I’ve read too many works by MFA writers to think it’s a coincidence: American MFA writing programs seem like Amway conventions, in which individual voices are bent and broken to a single unifying orthodoxy through instructor bullying, peer pressure, editor-pleasing anxiety-raising and belittlement in open workshop settings.

With a focus on “individual voices bent and broken to a single unifying orthodoxy,” and because an answer based on one isolated experience in the MFA program (mine), which lacked any such bullying or peer pressure (and which could too easily be brushed off as defensiveness and possible program-led brainwashing), I asked Charles Bauer-Gitter, an MFA classmate who at the time was writing a detective series, whether he felt any pressure to conform to “MFA writing.” His reply:

I never felt an instructor was trying to make me write like any other author. This is a weak writer indeed if they feel pressured into doing this. If the instructor in question is pressing this, the student in mind should take it as a challenge and continue writing in their own trend. If it’s bad writing the instructor might be trying to teach a tool to improve, I suppose, but if the student in an MFA program is that wobbly on their own writing, they probably should not be in an MFA program, anyway.

For another opinion, I emailed Alan Davis, long-time MFA instructor and author of Alone with the Owl and So Bravely Vegetative. My email to him:

Many argue that the MFA students’ writing is often heavily influenced by the workshop instructor, and/or by what’s currently considered “good” writing in literary circles (which, like any trend, is subject to change, and which often almost snobbishly excludes mystery/romance/science fiction or other genre writing). What is your response to this?

His emailed reply:

Certainly most programs rightfully emphasize literary fiction, not pop fiction, but much literary fiction these days includes fiction with genre elements. If somebody wants to write straight pop fiction without character development or depth, he or she doesn’t need a writing program, just a book to use as a model and a scene-by-scene outline of that book into which to insert original material. The arc is more formulaic. […] Anybody who’s read James Lee Burke or Kelly Link or Jo Walton or Henning Mankell, much less classics by Ursula K. Le Guin or Cormac McCarthy and their like, knows that good writing, however it’s classified, has a place at the literary feast.

But addressing all of Thomsen’s (and certainly others’) complaints about the MFA program means going beyond the writing.

In another offering of Facebook commentary on MFAs, Thomsen quoted William Giraldi’s “Letter to A Young Critic”:

“MFA programs are useful because they allow what every writer needs most: time. But they can be poisonous in their system of false approval—a completely truthful instructor, herself fresh from an MFA, won’t stay employed very long—and in the outsized expectations they foster in their flocks.”

Having spent three years in MFA workshops and after-class “debriefings” at the local Speakeasy (that’s what the restaurant/bar was called), I can honestly say I walked across the stage to receive my MFA with absolutely no expectations of being published.

At least, not as a result of having been assured that I would now that I had the magical MFA  or of everyone in class – following the merciless “Write exactly like Cormac McCarthy!” beat-down – having engaged in the standard weekly sucking-off.

In fact, publication rarely came up in those three years. Arguably the largest failing of the program was that, aside from advising each of us to have an updated copy of The Writer’s Market, it did little to prepare us for the business end of trying to get published, and it certainly didn’t lead us to believe we should expect to jump out of the program and straight into the enthusiastic embrace of Little, Brown.

Perhaps because, like Davis, the instructors didn’t think we should go out into writer-world with any delusions. In his email, Davis wrote,

A few of our peers are lucky as writers, but most of us, however talented and accomplished, labor in obscurity, or relative obscurity. The great thing about the MFA, though, is that it helps writers write and keeps them from wasting their time making money. You know the old saying, don’t you? If you’re so smart, why are you rich and not published?

Bauer-Gitter, too, had no delusions of fame and fortune (or, at the very least, fame among those in a very elite circle):

The program was a good way for me to spend 2.5 years focused on nothing but reading or writing. And adding to my student loans, of course. My daily routine was spent getting up, writing for a few hours, reading for a few hours, attending day classes if I had them (I didn’t always), coming back home, repeating. I wrote a lot of stuff during that time. In that regard it was good. I don’t perceive there being anything “bad” about the program for my writing. Other than the limited exposure to publication opportunities.

I don’t mean to attack Thomsen in this post. It just happens that he is the only person in my Facebook feed who somewhat regularly questions MFAs, MFA writers, and MFA writing, and is, frankly, the only reason I write this. He’s a smart man and a talented writer and a great editor, and it’s probably because his opinion matters to me that I feel slighted when he belittles one of my life choices and, often by accident and by association, my writing.

But he’s hardly alone in his disdain for the MFA/program. Not only do many of his Facebook friends pile on, but plenty more like him exist outside of his circle. Some time ago, Publishers Weekly put out a call for MFA candidates to meet in a section of Central Park for a photo, and all but one or two comments complained about not just the writing, but supposed elitism, one commenter writing that MFA stood for “Mother Fucking Asshole.”

(Can’t wait to read that guy’s book.)

If there is any elitism, it exists in the small crowd of writers and literary critics who are probably also wine and music snobs with highly sophisticated food palates and devastatingly fabulous fashion sense. So if there’s going to be a complaint about the MFA, why not direct it appropriately – to those few individuals who deem it worship-worthy?

If substandard, or boring (synonymous, no?), writing is lauded because it was written by someone who took some classes at the “right” school (Iowa Writers’ Workshop, anyone?) or got the “right” degree (MA, MFA), blame the person, publication, or publisher doing the lauding, not the writer.

Suggesting that all “MFA (literary) writing” is the same is not only inaccurate, it’s silly. It’s as much “the same” as writing in the romance, mystery, or sci-fi genres, which is to say that there is an element of sameness to it (they don’t let you into the genre without it), but that those with their own voices lend something unique to the genre, whatever it is.

2003

As someone who has worked very hard (and lovingly) for many years (I was writing long before I entered college at 21) to develop my own voice, to construct sentences I could be proud of, to create revealing dialogue that was as realistic and believable as I could possibly make it, and to write a story that would not only be interesting, but that would make people feel the way Kate Chopin’s Story of an Hour made me feel in freshman English, I’m quite happy to say my writing is in part the product of an MFA program.

Many people are motivated to write and to find workshop partners without paying the massive school bill. I admire them. I’m not one of those people, and I’m willing to bet a number of others aren’t, either. Many of us just love writing and want to study it the way art students love and want to study art, the way actors love and want to study acting, etc. We want to play with technique and learn from those who can introduce us to facets of the art we might not otherwise have discovered or grasped on our own, either due to ignorance, lack of motivation, or lack of time, and come together with others who love writing just as much as we do.

I’ll close with a final MFA thought from Davis, the writing instructor who was the first to encourage me to continue writing after I took his intro to creative writing class, who nudged me to intern with the university’s literary journal, and without whose nurturing I might not have ever thought I had any writing skill whatsoever:

The writers who might benefit least (from the program) are the ones who have convinced themselves that the workshop model is corrupt. If you feel that way, why kick against the pricks? Support yourself as you can and write as you must. Eventually, if you’re published but not financially independent, you might find yourself wanting to teach in the program you once disdained – that’s one reason some established writers decide to obtain a low-rez MFA. I also think that you might wait on an MFA program if you’re so impressionable or emotionally vulnerable that you tend to take seriously anybody who says anything about your writing. You need to discriminate in a workshop between what’s useful for your work and what’s superficial or slanted. As for instructors, avoid the ones who think they know it all. They don’t. If you’re a writer who wants to write and put your writing in front of peers, which is a species of publication, then get into a program and write. You’ll be doing what Hemingway and his ilk did on their own in a different era: find others who care about what you’re doing and can help you get better at it. Finally, whether you’re in a program or not, follow Hemingway’s two wisest precepts:  1) apply ass to writing chair and 2) use your shit-detector on a regular basis.

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About Kris Tsetsi

Kristen J. Tsetsi is the author of the novels "Pretty Much True..." and "The Year of Dan Palace" and the short fiction collection "20 Short Stories," all published under the name Chris Jane. Website: http://kristenjtsetsi.com

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