The primary negative outcome of the existence of the ‘institutional method’ for succeeding as a writer

Life would be way easier if there was just a sorting hat that could divide us into 'Gonna be a writer' and 'Never gonna be a writer'.
Life would be way easier if there was just a sorting hat that could divide us into ‘Gonna be a writer’ and ‘Never gonna be a writer’.

Yesterday, I talked about the institutional route and the anointing process. And I don’t think there’s anything per se wrong with anointing. However, I do think that it has a few perverse and unexpected consequences.

I think that there is a belief within the creative writing academy–a belief that is sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious–that the writers who deserve a place in the literary world will get anointed and that the rest will give up or, at best, lurk on the fringes of the literary world.

This is, in some ways, a spillover effect from the academic world. In academia, it’s often pretty clear, by the end of grad school, that some students are going to get the good fellowships and go on to be professors and the rest are just going to be adjuncts. Actually, that’s often clear even before the end of grad school. In most fields, the lower-ranked PhD programs tend to produce very few professors. At every stage in academia, there’s a sorting process.

And no one thinks that’s particularly unfair. If anything, people often feel that there should be even more sorting and that more people should be discouraged from getting PhDs. The sorting is simply seen as evidence of talent finding its own level.

And I think there’s a sense–albeit a largely unspoken one–that this is how the world of literary fiction works. Within a few years of the MFA, some people have demonstrated that they can get the residencies and the fellowships and the journal publications…they might not quite be where they need to be yet, but they’re at least on an upwards trajectory…

But if you can’t get those things then, well…it’s good that you tried to be a writer and hopefully it’ll (somehow) prove helpful to you later in life, but maybe it’s time to start applying to law school…

Now, this winnowing-out process is certainly one way of organizing the field…but it’s not the way I’m used to thinking about art, and it’s not the way that the literary world has historically functioned. In the world of commercial fiction, this kind of tiering doesn’t exist. There, you’re nobody…until one day, suddenly, you’re somebody. In the commercial fiction world, you don’t get points for having potential: you’re either producing worthwhile work or you’re not.

There, there’s less of a focus on “being a good writer” and more of a focus on “producing a good book.” For instance, in literary fiction, it seems less uncommon to get an agent when you don’t have a finished manuscript. This is much rarer in commercial fiction (though, in SFF, it does sometimes happen in cases where a writer has won serious awards for their short fiction–we do have our own little version of the anointing process =)

There’s something to be said for the winnowing-out method. It’s certainly more efficient in terms of wasting fewer lifetimes. But it also makes me sad. What I most enjoy about art is that no one can ever stop you and no one can ever tell you to quit.

Of course, that remains true even in literary fiction. It really is possible to go away and work on your own for ten years and come back and sell a novel and stun everyone. You don’t even need an MFA. People often come in from totally outside the literary world and write fantastic literary fiction.

But, I do think that when people (sometimes unconsciously) accept the winnowing-out model, then it results in harm. It makes people think that they’re supposed to get encouragement at every step of the way. And if the encouragement stops, then they’re a failure. And it encourages people to accept the academy’s judgment of them. Since fellowships and conference slots and MFA admissions are awarded based on potential, then being rejected for them can often feel like the committee is rejecting your potential to ever produce worthwhile fiction (and, in some cases, I think this is what the committee actually thinks it is doing).

However, this is false. No one knows who’s going to be good and who’s going to be bad. You can’t tell. Someone could produce a horrible story today and then produce an amazing one in ten years. Someone could produce a story that’s almost-good-enough today and then produce steadily more terrible ones for the next year. I think it behooves us to remember that this is all just a crazy mystery.

2 thoughts on “The primary negative outcome of the existence of the ‘institutional method’ for succeeding as a writer

  1. jrfrontera

    Wow, loved this post soooo much! I JUST finished my own post with a very similar topic that I was coming online to post but got distracted by this one, lol. So I’m going to go post mine now, but I completely agree, it’s all just a big mystery, a big gamble, and I don’t think anyone should ever give up if they really have the drive to write, and I also don’t think any artist should depend or expect encouragement in order to produce. Because we all know (or at least, those of us living in the real world know) that won’t be happening all the time. We need to learn to work without it, and to push through our own self-sabotage, as well. Excellent post, thanks for sharing! 🙂

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Okay, my comment on your other comment was meant to be the comment for this comment so I’ll comment on this comment in the way I’d have commented on the other comment.

      I am glad you enjoyed the post! I do feel like I’m kind of revealing secrets–stuff that not many people know. People in the MFA world don’t think consciously about this stuff. To them/us, it’s just the status quo.

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