What people really mean when they ask, “Did your MFA help you to sell your book?”

This is either Frankenstein crossed with an octopus or Abraham Lincoln crossed with a spider.

Recently several people have asked me whether my MFA helped me get my book deal. Actually, the question is usually both more and less blatant than that. It’s “Would you still have your book deal if you hadn’t gone to your MFA program?”

I understand why people ask the question. My book went to auction on what was literally my last-ever day of classes, and that timing certainly does give rise to questions. However, I find the question difficult to answer. Not because the answer is complex, but because the question itself is subtly wrong.

For one thing, the question is really two questions: “Could you have written your book without your MFA program?” and “Could you have sold it without your MFA program?”

The answer to the first question is…maybe not. The book I sold, Enter Title Here, was written during the winter break of my first year at Hopkins, and it was the first serious work of realist fiction that I ever undertook. I think the only realist story I ever wrote before that was the one I wrote to include with my MFA applications (to prove I could ‘do’ realism). To me, it’s obvious that being around lots of other realist writers acted to change my writing. It’s not that it changed my tastes. I’d read and enjoyed plenty of realist writing up to them. But somehow it wasn’t what I did. I didn’t know how to sell work like that. I didn’t know people who wrote it. My imagination just shut down on realist story ideas before I let them go anywhere. But when I was in the MFA program, things changed. I had permission to write realist stories, so I did (although I did still write and workshop plenty of SF/F stories). So it seems obvious, to me, that my MFA program changed my writing significantly. If I hadn’t gone, I’m pretty sure I’d have kept writing near-future science fiction, and everything would probably be pretty different for me.

However, the answer to the second question is, “Yes, I could definitely have sold it if I hadn’t attended the program.” I feel bad about saying that. Hopkins has given me so much, and I wish I could give them credit for helping me to sell the book, but I can’t. I never showed it to anyone in or affiliated with my program. I don’t think any of my professors even knew I’d written a novel. And finding an agent was an exhaustive process that occurred through querying and contests and personal contacts that were all acquired entirely outside my program (in fact, my agent originally represented me on the strength of a manuscript that I’d written before even entering the program).

So on the one hand, the answer is simple. No. My MFA program did not help me sell my book.

But at this point in my answer, I  always feel like there’s too much that I’m allowing to remain unsaid. For one thing, most of the time, I’m asked this question by people who write genre fiction. And I always want to tell them that an MFA program is not going to help you to publish genre fiction. Mostly, that’s because–and it’s impossible to overstate the degree to which this is true–the genre writing world is completely invisible to the literary world. They are aware that the former exists, but they, generally speaking, have no idea how a person writes or sells commercial fiction. It’s not even that your program can’t give you any contacts…it’s that it can’t even give you any advice. So if you write genre fiction (and intend to publish it as genre fiction), then don’t expect your MFA program to help with that.

Secondly, I always wonder what people mean by “Did your program help you?” What form do they envision this help taking? Because if all it amounts to is helping you find an agent for your already-completed manuscript, well, then, that’s not very much help. That’s because: a) most agents–even very fairly important agents–can be queried online; and b) there are much easier ways to develop connections with agents. I met a number of agents at Sewanee, for instance. Befriending already-published writers is also a good way of developing connections to agents. An MFA program is actually a pretty inefficient way to make connections, because you’re usually trapped out in the middle of nowhere, where the only people that you meet are those who are either just starting out or who are almost finished. Whereas if you want to make connections, the best thing to do is to go to places where you’ll meet a lot of people who are in their early- or mid-career: people who are just a few steps ahead of you.

Okay, so going to an MFA program isn’t a good way to get an agent for your already-completed manuscript. However, I kind of understand that many of the people who ask me this question aren’t saying, “Will this program help me publish my novel after I finish it?”

What they’re saying, I think, is, “If I go to this MFA program, will I be able to skip some steps? Can I get a good agent without completing a manuscript? Can I sell a book without finishing it? Can I place stories in journals without submitting?”

They’re asking, in sum, whether going to an MFA program will help them to be anointed.

And to that I’d say…yes. That is a possibility. However, if that’s what you want. Or if that’s what you want a shot at, then you should be clear about what you’re asking. In order to be anointed, your talent has to appear self-evident. It can’t seem like people are doing you a favor. It needs to seem like you are doing them a favor by letting them help you. As such, it’s not realistic to expect that you’re going to get anointed if you’re at a less-selective MFA program. It’s not realistic to expect anointing if you only got in off the waitlist or if the school doesn’t seem extremely excited about you. For instance, if you don’t get a school’s top fellowship…then they’re probably not going to anoint you…

I think that my feelings about anointment are pretty clear. I think it’s great for those whom it happens to, but I think that there are too many literary writers who are chasing anointment, and I think that in many ways the pursuit of anointment can cripple a career.

And finally, finally, finally, finally, I should say that if you want to publish genre fiction as genre fiction (i.e. if you want to publish it with genre imprints and have it be shelved in the genre sections of the bookstore), then getting an MFA is not going to help you publish. And that’s because most authors, editors, and agents in the genre world (or at least in the YA and SF/F worlds) don’t really understand the difference between the various programs, and even when they do understand, they don’t really care. Because so many acclaimed genre writers didn’t go to school for writing, it’s just not part of the culture of the genre world. I’m not saying that some genre writer here or there can’t find some way to benefit from having an MFA, but it hardly seems like a sufficient reason to get one.

(The main reason to get one is, of course, because these schools will give you money!)