The reason that MFA programs do not encourage their students to publish.

gatekeepersEveryone who writes about MFA programs will, at some point, note that programs tend to not pay much attention to publication. This will then be used as evidence of the program’s airy-fairyness and lack of practicality. But after a year in the academic creative writing world, I’m starting to understand the reason why students are not encouraged to publish.

The thing that commercial writers don’t understand about the creative writing academy is that in addition to the traditional publication route, there is a different–and in many ways more highly esteemed–method of succeeding as a writer of literary fiction: a method that I call the “institutional route.”

In commercial writing, the accepted way of advancing is to write a novel, query an agent (or find one through a referral), and then have the agent sell the novel. And that is also something that can be done within literary fiction.

But if one examines the careers of many successful writers of literary fiction, one sees that many of them did not follow this path. For instance, I recently spoke to a published writer of literary fiction who had never sent out a single agent query or submitted a single short story. Instead, while this person was a student, they submitted some chapters from their (unfinished) novel manuscript to a fellowship contest and the judge of the contest sent these chapters to their agent, who signed the writer. The writer then completed the novel and the agent sold it.

I also spoke to another writer–again, the recipient of a prestigious fellowship–who started getting offers from agents after one of their stories won a contest. This person’s agent then began to place their short stories in nationally-distributed magazines, which culminated in a six-figure collection + novel deal (for an as-yet-uncompleted novel).

I think that all aspiring writers of literary fiction sense that, at some level, it’s not strictly necessary to hustle for publication. A significant fraction of literary fiction writers achieve their position through a process that–at least from the outside–appears to resemble an anointing. You get into the top MFA program, then you get into a top fellowship, you publish in a top journal, then the agent knows it’s okay to sign you, and only THEN–secure in the knowledge that someone actually wants your novel–do you go ahead and write it.

In some cases (although it’s not clear the extent to which this is the case) short story publication also comes through the anointing process: your teacher passes your story to the right editor; your agent places the story; or maybe you meet editors at summer conferences and are able to bypass the slush.

Now I am not proposing anything nefarious here. The people who rise through anointing are talented and hard-working writers and they usually deserve their accolades.

But the anointing is a much more centralized process than the publication-oriented route to success. Publishing a novel is a very decentralized process. All you need is one editor to like the novel and one acquisitions committee to enjoy it, and you’re good. The novel will get published.

Anointing is different. In order to have the best chance of being anointed, you should attend one of a small number of MFA programs (Iowa, Michigan, the Michener Center, Syracuse, Cornell, Irvine, and Brown [in that order]). Then you should get one of a tiny number of fellowships (the Stegner Fellowship and the Wisconsin Creative Writing Fellowship, most notably) and/or be published in one of a very few journals (The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney’s, One Story, Glimmer Train, Plougshares, Harpers, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, and a few [though not many] others). It’s not just that all of these are very difficult and unlikely selection processes–it’s probably equally difficult to get an agent by querying. It’s that the institutional route has a comparatively small number of gate-keepers.

If you go the publication route, then you just need to impress one of hundreds of possible editors and/or agents. But in order to be anointed, you need to impress two or more of a tiny number (thirty or forty, max) of admissions committees and editorial boards.

Getting the Stegner Fellowship is huge. It instantly boosts your chances of getting a good novel deal and/or agent. But it’s also a really simple thing: if Tobias Woolf likes your writing, then you’ll get it. If he doesn’t then you probably won’t. And that means that your chances of being anointed are significantly reduces. And if, consciously or unconsciously, you’re relying on being anointed in order to be published, then you will just never get the things that you want–some people are never going to get a Stegner Fellowship.

I think the key thing to be remembered is that it’s actually a lot easier to publish a novel–even a literary novel–than it is to get a Stegner Fellowship or get into the New Yorker. Most people would have a much shorter and smoother path to publication if they eschewed short stories, wrote a novel, and just tried to get it published.

However, I understand why people don’t do that.

In the genre world, getting a novel published is the point.

But that’s not entirely the end goal in the academic creative writing world.

Here, the end goal is to get a professorship.

I don’t think that this is for careerist reasons. I think that, to a certain extent, literary writers are socialized to believe that writing is something which only happens within the academy, and that it is extremely difficult to produce work that is of literary worth when you’re in the working world. Thus, the academic job is seen as a precondition for achieving one’s artistic ambitions.

However, in academic hiring, having a book is a necessary but not sufficient qualification for a job. You cannot (except in a few cases) get an academic job unless you have a book. But most people who have books will not be able to get academic jobs. You need the right type of book and you need the right type of reception.

Academic hiring committees are also reputedly, to a certain extent, reluctant to hire people who have published too many books. For one thing, when someone has too many books, then it’s hard to hire them without giving them tenure (or at least a shorter path to tenure), which means that you don’t get the benefit of having an additional six years to see whether they’ll produce anything of further worth before you commit to hiring them on permanently. And also, for better or for worse, people with long publication records are a bit less sexy than relative unknowns. An unknown is a person who hasn’t yet proven that they’re not a super-star. An unknown’s next book could blow up huge and win the Pullitzer. But when a person has already published five books, it’s felt that–however good they might be–they’ve already shown that they are not going to be huge.

Thus, it’s much better to make a splash with one’s first book. That means building up buzz. It means publishing stories in the right places. It means having the right agent and the right publisher and the right reviews in the right places. And those are all things that are more likely to come through anointing than through publication.

Deciding whether to go through the anointing route or the publication route is not an easy one. To a certain extent, they militate against each other. If you go the publication route, then you will probably be published sooner, but you might not publish in the right way, and, thus, you’d end up shooting yourself in the foot.

On the other hand, if you try to go for an anointing and you don’t get anointed, then you’re up shit’s creek. You’re just another unpublished writer who applies for fellowships year after year and gets form rejection after form rejection from literary journals.

What I would say to the aspiring writer is to look with open eyes at the signs that the literary world is giving you. Have you gotten into a top MFA program? Are you getting encouraging rejections from literary journals? Are you getting into summer conferences? Are you getting the signs that your work is the kind that can be anointed?

If the answer to these questions is “No” (as they have been for me) then I think it makes way more sense to go the publication route.

If you decide to go the anointing route, then I don’t have good advice for you. However, I will say that my sense is that you should:

A) apply for every honor that you possibly can [including short story contests; even though they feel a bit like a scam, I think they can get you noticed];

B) polish up a really killer 30-page writing sample to send out to all the things you’re gonna be applying to.

C) Network like crazy (although I think networking is important for those going the publication route as well)

P.S. If you go the publication route, I am not saying that you need to write commercial fiction. All I’m saying is that you need to do what commercial fiction writers do: write the damn novel; make a list of agents who represent the kind of literary fiction you’re writing; write your query; then query them (and also scam up some way to get referred to agents, because–let’s face it–the best way to get an agent is through some kind of personal connection).

2 thoughts on “The reason that MFA programs do not encourage their students to publish.

  1. jrfrontera

    Love this post too! I decided to go with a BS in Animal Science in college, and many years later struggled with whether or not I should go back and redo my schooling with the intent of getting an MFA in creative writing. I went so far as to meet with advisors and professors and discuss my options and everything. Your post, however, is making me glad I decided what I did – to not pursue the MFA, after all. While I would love to teach writing, I would prefer to teach workshop-style vs. academic-style (and for that you do not need an MFA, just a few novels under your belt), although it took some time for me to realize this. Also, my main goal as a writer is not professorship, but novel publication. Therefore, it really didn’t make sense for me to spend the time and money on an MFA, not to mention I would have had to take a lot more undergrad classes to even be able to apply to the MFA in the first place! So I’m happy with my decision. I’m glad you laid out some of these differences though. I had no idea, and I really like seeing an “inside” perspective from the MFA world! 😉

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I’m glad you liked it. Actually, I’ve realized that even the assumptions of academia are sometimes false. Like look at this guy who just proved the twin primes conjecture. He is our fifty and got his PHD twenty years ago and has never been able to find a tenure track job. But he ended up doing extremely significant and original work.

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