Thursday, February 14, 2008
Why MFA in Writing Programs Suck
I feel like ranting today. I hope lots of people argue with me about this. (click here or read below)
Why MFA Programs Suck: A Partial List
Every year around this time, middle class college graduates who hate their terrible jobs start thinking of ways to escape them. Joining the circus requires coordination and years of training. Becoming a massage therapist means touching unattractive people. And a new incoming class packs up their boxes of crap and takes two years off work to drink, take or not take psychiatric medication, in short, live the lifestyle of decadence, sloth and (occasional) productiveness that the upper classes have enjoyed for centuries. So why does everyone hate MFA programs?
The MFA in writing sucks for the same reasons that it sucks that your great granddad squandered the family fortune on gambling debts and Wild Turkey or that your grandmother packed up her ten kids and moved to Spokane during the Depression: you aren’t rich. Because you aren’t rich, you have certain expectations about what education will do and you have certain financial realities that may or may not have anything to do with those expectations.
That the programs are administered by and for the middle class; that their (unspoken) claim is to remove graduates from the tediousness of said class, to provide Freedom; and that everyone involved knows this is impossible are a few of the many reasons the MFA machine sucks.
Yes, there are hobby-professors and a handful of students who can more than afford tuition. These are the same students who won’t mind that their future career, adjuncting at six different colleges, pays almost nothing. In fact, they can afford to adjunct at only the better crappy schools, to hold out for the best among crappy jobs. But most of the people in these programs are middle-class people writing various genres of middle-class literature to be published by (who knows) and read by (again who knows). If MFA programs, indeed any academic or artistic pursuit, really removed people from the social and economic classes into which they were born, then what are your professors still doing there?
It is easy to become embittered, just as it is easy to take out four credit cards and charge up $12,000 in six months. Virginia Woolf said one only needs a room. I must’ve missed the part about sitting in that room next to a space heater through a soul-crushing Chicago winter, pretending to be one’s own secretary when receiving calls from one’s collection agencies.
Part of the backlash against these programs is due to their accessibility. Anyone who can fill out a FAFSA form and write a few short stories or poems has a respectable chance of getting into some program, somewhere. And the success stories from the major programs: a handful of writers of predictable fiction (and it is always fiction) produce the types of predictable books that publishers think people want to read.
Workshop-y fiction is likened to Socialist Realism. If only! Writers in Stalinist Russia who didn’t end up in the gulag enjoyed a rather affluent lifestyle, while their neighbors fought for potatoes. Even Stalin had his literary pet-projects. Bulgakov did not care for his self-appointed guardian and wrote a letter attempting to free himself, but at least the threat of death was exciting; he never suffered the indignity of someone with absolutely no power sighing over his manuscript and saying, “this bit about Pontius Pilate has a bit of the baggy elephant to it.”
MFA programs suck. There’s no question. But only because the best of them offer a temporary social transformation, the worst, tedium. Thank God or the empty meaningless universe that we have the privilege of being born in a country where one can borrow $80,000 from the government for education, where one doesn’t have to work three factory jobs to provide herself with barely enough tortillas not to starve, to face political persecution or war or famine. Sure, get an MFA. Borrow tens of thousands of dollars. Write the most amazing fiction or poetry or whatever that you want. Be as marketable or unmarketable, as experimental or careerist as you feel like. Go crazy, literally or otherwise. But don’t expect never-ending freedom. If it’s not one factory, it’s another. And you are not Virginia Woolf.
Posted by potato at 12:44 PM