This post is a little late and very long, so most of it is below the jump.
Per my previous post, I do not believe that MFA programs are killing US literature, or that they do more harm than good. I do believe though that they do some things much better than others, and we should be able to have an open and critical conversation about that.
1) We should be clear about what MFA programs can and can’t do
Some people react to the concept of an MFA program by saying you can’t be taught to write. This is substantially true. In fact, most MFA program faculty are aware of this, which is why every spring they spend hours a day reviewing application files in an attempt to only admit students who they think can write in the first place.
An MFA program also can’t teach you to have interesting things to say, though, as before, I am of the opinion that deciding to go to graduate school does not make you fundamentally less interesting, and does not negate the things that happen to you before, during, and after your decision to attend.
The purpose of an MFA program is not to teach you to write, or to teach you to be interesting, but to teach you to edit, which, if you are anything like most writers, is how you will spend most of your “writing” time. On my first day of graduate workshop, the instructor said that if 15% of the advice you got was useful, you were in a very good workshop. That number often seems about right to me, and while there have been days when I’ve been exceedingly grateful for that useful advice, what I really got from workshop was the ability to filter useless advice from useful advice—to be able to articulate to myself what I was trying to do, to dismiss the criticisms that were completely off base, to look at some criticisms that felt wrong and use them to identify what was going on with the work that the reader wasn’t getting it, and to listen to the criticism that seemed right, even if it meant doing work that was difficult, even if it meant ignoring the people who loved the story the way it was, because I knew it could be better. Developing this kind of filter is critical, not just for writers in MFA programs, but for all writers. Whether or not you ever set foot in a workshop, if you are successful as a writer, the world will be full of people who have things to say about your writing, and what it should be doing differently: agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, critics, your mom. Ideally, the skill set one develops in an MFA program helps you to cut through all of that noise faster. I have to say, I’ve been lucky enough to have never witnessed outright cruelty in an MFA workshop, though I’ve heard enough stories to believe that it happens with some regularity. I am not a person who believes you learn from cruelty (which, even if it’s based in honest criticism, is distinct from honesty). But, if as a writer your faith in your work can’t withstand mean criticism from one instructor, or from some person across the table, what’s going to happen to it when you get a dismissive rejection from the New Yorker, or a mean review? Your faith in your work, and your editorial instincts have to come from within, but sometimes nothing teaches you that faster than trying to listen to other people.
2) We should aim for better and more precise criticism as readers, and pick the hard fix over the lazy fix as writers
Having said that, there are things we could work on in the workshop process to bring that 15% number up a bit. The problem with anything that becomes institutionalized is that the vocabulary built around it runs the risk of being flattened, of lending itself to empty sentences or people saying rehearsed things because they kind of make you sound smart. My personal pet peeves are “show don’t tell” and “point of view.” Show don’t tell I don’t like because it’s very lazy shorthand for what it actually means. What it means is don’t bore me, and don’t tell me things you’ve given me no reason to believe. But I’ve seen it morph into a criticism of any direct exposition, of any statement of fact or feeling on the part of a narrator or fictional character. Stories aren’t just about what happens, they’re about the way we tell them, often about the way that the telling becomes part of the resolution, a documentation of a character’s recovery or ongoing damage. We can tell people to cut the exposition or we can tell them to make it sing. Point of view is one of those critiques that’s often valid, but not in the way we talk about. Often the problem is not that a character has information or a perspective that the text hasn’t explained how they could possess, but that the narrative voice is unconvincing, at so at every moment that’s not explicitly justified on the page, we question it. The danger here is that the writer will substitute the easy fix for the better fix—delete the lines where people wrote “point of view?” in the margins, instead of starting from page one and tweaking the voice until we’d believe anything it tells us, remove the exposition altogether instead of sharpening the sentences, or give us flat filler scenes to show that a character is, say sad, instead of finding the sentence that makes us really feel that.
3) We should find a way to stop treating the short story as a training ground for the novel
I do believe that the flooding of the short story market can be directly traced to the proliferation of MFA programs. Let me be clear: I love the short story. I love reading them, I love writing them, and I’m always a bit flummoxed by the reading public’s supposed reluctance to embrace them. But the short story deserves better than to be your practice date. It is its own form of prose, and requires a skill set that’s related to, but ultimately distinct from, the skill set required to write novels. In moving from the short stories in the collection to the novel I’m working on now, I’ve had to unlearn as much as learn. I’ve had to retrain myself to stop cutting what I think of as digressive threads, to let exposition go on for longer than I would allow it in short fiction, and to think about the overall form of the novel sooner in the process. There are many writers who work well in both forms, and writers who sincerely like both forms, but I also think there are people who come into MFA programs as novelists, or with the potential to be better novelists than they will ever be short story writers, and we shouldn’t force them to cut their teeth on work they’re not as excited about. It does a disservice to short stories, by flooding the market with subpar work that’s subpar not because of the author’s lack of talent but because the author only cares about the stories as a means to the end. It leads to jumpy, cobbled-together-out-of- short-stories novels, which I rarely find effective or satisfying.
Certainly a lot of sentence level skills, or overall conversations about form and narrative are transferable. I don’t think proto-novelists come out of workshop worse off than they went in, and certainly there are people who do workshop novel chapters and nothing else during their MFA years. But while it may get you in overall better shape, I don’t know that training as a sprinter is the best preparation for a marathon, and while you may get a lot out of one night stands, they’re not necessarily preparing you for marriage. (I have no idea if those comparisons make sense, as I lack familiarity with ¾ of those activities, but I think the overall point stands.)
Novel workshops pose major logistical challenges. If you require students to come into the course with a complete novel draft, you interfere with the idea that an MFA program should ideally give you time to write new work, and also risk having students rush the first draft of the novel, to the point that the chapter by chapter analysis you’re aiming for is ineffectual because most of the book needs to deleted or rethought. Since courses have to be on the calendar up to a year in advance, it’s very hard to create a course where enrollments might wildly shift from semester to semester. The means the easiest way to workshop a novel is still piecemeal. Some instructors are understandably wary of novel excerpts, since “novel excerpt” can be workshopease for “I got to page 30 of my short story, and realized I had no idea how it ended and it was due the next day.” Sometimes it can be frustrating for student readers to be handed chapter 5 of a novel, and be expected to critique it, when they haven’t seen chapters 1-4. I know a lot of MFA programs have offered novel or novella workshops, so I’d be curious to hear general suggestions about how to workshop novels in the comments.
4) We should be able to have real conversations about privilege
We should be able to talk about both privilege within MFA programs and privilege that MFA programs grant attendants in the world at large. In workshop, I have seen women get talked over by men with louder voices, people of color pegged as militant for fairly pointing out a racist element in a story, even if they are echoing a critique made by white students, men praised for their empathy and ability to channel women’s voices in stories that would be dismissed as chick lit if they were turned in by female writers. More often though, I’ve seen a sort of benign neglect of work that gets pegged as “exotic,” – because of the author or characters’ class or ethnic background. I’ve seen people be very hands off on stories that needed a lot of work, because they weren’t quite sure what to do with them. It can be hard to get critical feedback from people who lack familiarity with the world you’re writing about. On the one hand, one wants to believe that if the work is good enough, it carries its own authority and explanation, and people who lack familiarity with its context will gain some sense of it through reading. The problem is at the workshop level often the work isn’t quite good enough yet, and for writers from marginalized groups, the question of audience can become consuming quite early in the process. Novelist Tayari Jones wrote an interesting piece about the way her interpretation of the word freak differed from her editor’s. I’ve had to define the word pressed to most of the people who’ve reviewd my story Virgins, from workshop to publication. I’ve also seen people argue with native speakers about words and phrases in other languages. Someone who had taken a few years of Spanish once insisted the word mija did not exist. For problems that are literally issues of the writer and the critic not speaking the same language, there might not be much we can do beyond acknowledge it. However, at the level of character motivation, we can be more insistent that workshop readers not assume the character’s race/class/sexuality explains why they make decisions the reader would never make, and not let demographic details stand in for actual characterization. MFA programs didn’t invent hegemony, but that doesn’t mean they’re not an important place to look for ways to stop reproducing it.
We also need to be able to talk about the privilege we have by virtue of attending an MFA program. It can be hard to convince people with MFAs that they have any sort of advantage—after all most MFA students have files of rejections from agents, rejections from magazines, and rejections from editors. Every year there are at least five articles and a dozen agent blogs decrying “soulless” MFA fiction. But I know that because of my MFA program, my (awesome!) agent, came to me, and I got to sit across the table from her and hand her my manuscript in person, which meant I got to skip the query letter process. I know this happens at conferences too, but those also take time and money to attend, and I worry about the people who get left out. At various points in the process of trying to finish and sell the story collection, I got to sit down and talk to friends and mentors who’d already been through the process, and were able to talk me through it at the moments when I felt most clueless. There’s something to be said for having people to talk to about what can be a confusing and emotionally draining process. I do notice that when I go through the author index of an anthology or magazine, I often know an astoundingly high percentage of the writers listed, considering that I’m very young and not especially important. As many amazing, brilliant writers as I know, I can’t possibly know, say, twenty percent of them. I don’t think this is because there’s a secret Iowa cabal—if there is, they don’t invite me to their parties– but because we trust people we know to recommend books and writers, and if MFA programs (and their extensions—AWP conferences, friends of friends) become the mechanism through which we know each other, then they play a role in limiting who is part of the conversation.
It’s terrifying to talk about privilege. It’s especially terrifying in an industry where everyone at every level often seems precariously situated. But we have to do it not just because we all ought to care about inequities, but because we all ought to care about writing—not just our own writing, not just the fact of bring writers, but the overall state of the art form. If we’re not invested in the idea that words still really matter, that books still really matter, and that accordingly we ought to have the best books and the best words, wherever they come from, then we deserve to be irrelevant.
5) We should discourage people from conflating wanting to be a writer with wanting to write
A large group of writers can be a supportive community, or it can be a series of endless distractions. Sometimes MFA programs appeal to people who want the distraction more than they want the community, or the distractions become too tempting. It is much more fun to drink a lot and say inappropriate things and sleep with the wrong people because dammit you are reckless! And interesting! And a writer! than it is to put your butt in the chair and fix your lousy sentences. And it’s not even like virtue and responsibility have inevitable rewards here– you can walk away from years of diligent work on a book with a splitting headache and a broken heart, and if you’d spent those years drinking and making bad decisions, at least you’d have some interesting photos to show for it. Certainly, the social aspects of an MFA program are important— misery is not actually the effective writing tool that people make it out to be— but if your vision of an MFA program involves more bar scenes than completed work, there’s probably something better you could be doing with your time.