Reflections on how the MFA program ushered me into class-consciousness

Sometimes, when I’m in the shower, I think about what I’ll tell interviewers after I’m famous. (Whatever, don’t pretend you aren’t guilty of equally ridiculous things).

One thing I know is that my interviewers will probably ask me at some point about my MFA and about MFA programs in general. I’ve already had this experience, actually, when a New York Times reporter, after digging up an old blog post of mine, contacted me to try to get some juicy quotes where I talked trash on the MFA. Unluckily for her, I’d recently read Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, about the exploitative relationship journalists have with their subjects, and I was very much thinking: What’s in it for me?

My feelings about the MFA haven’t changed much in the last six years. It’s essentially a tool of the upper classes (in my second year, three members of my Stanford class were in my ten-person MFA program, and when I entered the program had were five graduates of Yale). But then, literary fiction, like all ‘high’ art (documentary film, visual art, classical music, etc) is a tool of the upper classes. It cannot support itself on a purely economic basis, but the upper classes have structured society in such a way as to direct disproportionate wealth and attention towards ‘high’ art.

Literary writers complain that their sales are low, but a professorship is a powerful reward. Very few commercial writers are earning fifty or sixty thousand (or at Hopkins, up to 120,000) dollars a year for their writing. And despite all the complaining about the teaching load, many literary writers wouldn’t be able to make ends meet without this societal support. Nor does the patronage end there. From honoraria to awards, society is structured in such a way as to direct money to literary writers. Not much money, but more than they’d get purely from sales.

(The same thing, on a smaller level, exists in YA, where writers of upmarket YA are kept afloat by librarians and schools).

So yeah MFAs are part of a system of class privilege that includes the symphony and the art school complex and all the self-funding documentary film-makers.

On the other hand, I like literary fiction. Not all of it. Not even most of it, but the sad thing is that I find the ambitions and methods of literary fiction to be more up my alley than those of commercial fiction. The losers, in my opinion, are the ambitious writers who’re trapped in commercial genres. If Ted Chiang wrote literary fiction, he’d have a Pulitzer. If Maureen McHugh wrote literary fiction, she’d be a professor. It’s really not fair that these fascinating, sparkling writers aren’t getting their just merits.

On the other hand, when people complain about the MFA, they’re often not complaining that the Ted Chiangs and Maureen McHughs of the world aren’t getting their due. They’re instead operating from a purely populist standpoint. They’re complaining that the Orson Scott Cards and the Anne McCaffrey’s aren’t able to sweep the board clean and claim all the literary prizes in addition to having immense commercial sales. To be honest, I have little sympathy for this view.

What’s bad about academic creative writing is that many of the writers it has rewarded are careerist and lacking in ambition. This is true of commercial fiction too, but at least there it’s nobody’s fault. Vox populi, vox dei; if the people are buying crap, then what can be done? But when the guardians of culture are using public money (and I consider nonprofit money, because of their tax-exempt status, to be somewhat public) to reward artists, then they have a duty not to reward small-minded writers.

Obviously there exist differences of opinion about what constitutes a mediocre writer. I don’t think it’s entirely a matter of personal opinion, though. For instance, I did not enjoy Wolf Hall, but its acclaim didn’t befuddle me. The work was ambitious and well-executed. But if you look at the creative writing professoriate, you’ll find few Hillary Mantels, and many writers who ape her sort of lyricism not out of any genuine sense of beauty or rhythm, but simply because that’s what gets applause. There’s a whole system of rewarding work simply because it’s the sort of work that gets rewarded. This is what occurs when rewards are distributed by committee.

And yet I do think a system needs to be in place to encourage the writing of ambitious stories. Because the market by itself does not reward ambition.

Writers of science fiction and fantasy love to hate on literary writers who get critical acclaim for writing novels with SFnal tropes (think Oryx and Crake or The Road), but I often ask them, “What SF imprint would’ve published The Road? Would The Road have come out from Orbit? Or from Baen? If The Road had been released as an SF novel, in the SF section of bookstores, would it have won a Hugo (or even a Nebula)? Would it have sold enough copies to support its author?”

The Road came out in 2006, and the science fiction field had the ability to nominate it for awards. Instead, a novel by Jack McDevitt won the Nebula and one of Vernor Vinge’s lesser novels one the Hugo. But that’s no surprise. Oftentimes science fiction writers don’t even like The Road (which is a truly beautiful and haunting novel), because its ecological underpinnings are nonsense (nothing grows in this world, everybody survives by cannibalism).

And maybe science fiction felt snubbed by The Road, so they ignored it, but plenty of really smart, well-written science fiction gets ignored. I’m thinking, for instance, of Brian Francis Slattery’s Spaceman Blues and Liberation (both published by Tor, which is the only major SF imprint that makes room in its list for really high-quality writing). These books got ignored. They won no awards. They didn’t even make many year-end lists.

So while I dislike the snobbery of the academic creative writing field, in some ways that’s also the thing that I value about it. Because as much as I hate on the Pulitzer, I’m far more likely to enjoy a Pulitzer-winner than I am to enjoy a Hugo winner. And I’m far more likely to enjoy the work by a randomly-selected creative writing professor than I am the work by a randomly-selected New York Times bestseller.

I don’t know the way out of this dilemma. I recognize that there’s an element of violence to this system. The upper classes are imposing their aesthetic values onto the lower. Millions of people who enjoy commercial fiction are told, by the society in which they live, that their tastes are no good. It’s quite anti-democratic.

And yet the prospect of giving up the power to be an arbiter of culture is terrifying. When I see the reading taste of the people who complain about the MFA and the creative writing establishment, I realize that I don’t want to live in the world these people would create. I don’t know, perhaps this is simply class solidarity on my part. The only solution is probably a classless post-scarcity society, where all affinity groups can practice their own tastes peacefully. But in the current world, where it requires money to live and work, I am a little bit glad that: 1) there’s some mechanism besides the market for directing money to ambitious work; and 2) this mechanism is in the hands of people whose tastes are closer to my own than they are to, for instance, the average Hugo voter.

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The thing is, the writer who interviewed me didn’t care about any of the above. What she cared about were the personal consequences of the MFA. Is it a good idea for students to get an MFA? Does it help you career-wise? And does it improve your writing?

The answer to these questions is: yes, if you don’t need to pay for it; yes, but not as much as you’d want it to; and not really.

Being paid twenty-two thousand dollars a year to do minimal work is amazing. It’s so good. Especially in Baltimore, where twenty-two thousand goes a loooooooong way. I would recommend this to anyone. Also, it’s a well-known fact of academia that the more prestigious your institution, the lower their academic standards. At my MFA we had no papers or grades. My good friends who’re paying twenty thousand a year to do the Vermont College of the Fine Arts children’s literature MFA have to do so much work! They have to write critical essays! It’s absurd! It’s like they think the point of the MFA is to learn how to write!

It’s not. The point is for society to pay you to write.

Now will it help you career-wise? Ummm, yes, sort of, but in two ways. One, there is almost no online community for literary fiction. All the networking happens in-person. The MFA is your entree into this community. Being in that world gives you a clue as to the values of the community, it introduces you to people, and it teaches (if you’re alert) how to apply for things and how to get them. Nor is the credential itself entirely meaningless, although its value rapidly decreases once you start moving down the list from the top program (Iowa). If you want maximum career advantage, go to Iowa.

As for whether it helps your writing? Here there are also two answers.IUf you’re a purely or mostly careerist writer, and you use the MFA to consciously or unconsciously imbibe the formulas that the literary establishment is particularly vulnerable to, then the MFA will help you a great deal. But most writers aren’t looking for this. They want to realize their own unique aesthetic aims. In this, the MFA won’t help or hurt. It’s true that the workshop does impose a conformity pressure: writers in the workshop will tend to criticize anything that’s different in the work, simply because that’s the thing that tends to be most noteworthy (and perhaps, at least in the journeyman writer, the thing that is the least well-realized). But the workshop also encourages you to set a higher standard for yourself: you can’t get away with lazy bullshit if your peers are gonna be reading these stories. And while you have to be unique to really succeed as a writer, your uniqueness also needs to provoke a genuine response in the reader. Testing out your work on ten writers who broadly resemble your intended readership isn’t an entirely valueless exercise.

But I don’t think my professors would disagree with me if I said that the value of the instruction is minimal. It’s really hard to teach someone to write short stories, because a short story can succeed in so many different ways. It’s a lot easier to teach them to write novels, because novels live or die based upon their structure, but MFA programs don’t really do that.

You can also potentially find one-on-one mentorship in an MFA, but this is rare. Professors don’t have time to mentor writers who are often very early in their careers and many years from writing publishable work. They also know that most of their class will stop writing shortly after graduating, so there’s an incentive to step back. Furthermore, when professors show any sort of favoritism, it creates a competitive dynamic in the workshop that just leads to an unpleasant and unhealthy social experience for everybody. For these reasons, I don’t think the professors in my MFA were unique in being rather austere and remote from their students.

When it comes to practical advice on publishing, you’ll find almost none in an MFA, but when it comes down to it, what do you really need? Fiction is the most open out of all the arts. Journals take open submissions. Most agents take unsolicited queries. Just send your shit out and see what sticks.

The worst thing about the MFA (and this is what I noted in the interview with the New York Times reporter) is that it makes life too easy. Students are often only a few years out of undergrad. Many times they haven’t written a word since undergrad, or they’ve written only sporadically (they got into the MFA using stories they wrote as part of their undergrad creative writing major). During the two years of the MFA, they will often only produce the minimum amount necessary (three stories a semester). Furthermore the praise you get in workshop, while rare, is easier to come by than validation from editors, so upon graduation students go from an environment where somebody is waiting for their next story to one in which they’re getting form rejection after form rejection, and they’re unprepared to take the rejection. The MFA is a waste of time if after graduation, you’re not able to: 1) manage your time and motivation effectively so as to write even though nobody is asking you to; and 2) tolerate the years of rejection that will come before publication.

The primary attribute of a successful writer, whether in commercial or literary fiction, is determination, and MFAs don’t select their cohorts with determination in mind. For this reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if some low-res programs produce successful writers at a rate equal to or greater than more prestigious ones, because it takes grit to carry on an MFA while holding down a full-time job.

But that’s not an argument against getting an MFA; it’s just an argument against letting the MFA rule your life. Take an MFA, but treat it as a gift, rather than as a degree. For me, the MFA was entirely about money and freedom. I wrote Enter Title Here during the winter break of my first year in my MFA program. People often ask if it went through the MFA, and I’m, like, uhh, no way. For one thing, the book didn’t need it–for another, the MFA is not the place to workshop a novel or even part of a novel.

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These reflections were prompted, in part, by my thought that it’s six years since I finished that first draft of Enter Title Here. It was probably the third or fourth work of realist fiction I’d written in my entire life (I wrote one realist story, entirely cynically, just to put it in my MFA applications and prove to them that I could do it). I don’t know if I’d have written the book if I hadn’t done the MFA.

What I do know is that in the past ten years I’ve moved farther and farther from my first love, science fiction. (At this point, let me note, for the haters in the audience, that I’m not some outsider: I am in fact a bona fide Clarion graduate with stories appearing or forthcoming in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, F&SF, Nature, Apex, IGMS, Interzone, Daily SF, BCS, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and many other journals both living and dead). Not only do I not write much science fiction, I don’t read much of it either. Periodically I’ll pick up the hot new thing in the field and find that I simply don’t enjoy it very much (one notable exception was N.K. Jemisin’s fabulously realized The Fifth Season). Sometimes I wonder where it all went: the twelve years of reading and six years of writing science fiction.

(At this point, truly determined haters will note ‘science fiction’ and ‘non-realist fiction’ aren’t synonyms. And this is true, but we’re talking about my own writing life here. And for me, the primary form of non-realist fiction that I’ve written is science fiction within the broad tradition started by Hugo Gernsback, that carries a lineage all the way through to, for instance, Ken Liu and Ted Chiang and Maureen McHugh. I’ll read and sometimes enjoy and occasionally even write other forms of non-realist fiction, but they’ve never been a core part of my writing life the way that science fiction was for many years).

If I was to trace the influence of sci-fi on my current writing, it’d be extremely minor. I don’t even write about people who like science fiction. I’m not a chronicler, like Junot Diaz or Jonathan Lethem, of the inner life of nerds (although both of these writers contain much more than that, of course). If anything, I’m much more drawn to the opposite: people who dismiss, not just science fiction, but all literature.

I think all that really remains of that influence is a lingering preoccupation with heroism. I don’t believe in the science fiction version of heroism: a lone hero with exceptional abilities. But I do believe in the thing inside people that makes them want to be heroes, and I cannot commit to a protagonist until I discover their own peculiar heroism.

This is a long way of saying that one of my resolutions for 2019 is to leave non-realism behind. The struggle to write a science fiction or fantasy novel has become nothing more than a struggle to reclaim an older idea of myself. For me, the struggle to hold on to science fiction has been so painful and so confusing. Losing my ability to write sci-fi has felt like losing touch with deepest self. It’s a very odd thing to no longer be able to tap into the feelings that were once the very thing that impelled you to write.

I don’t really know what happened, but I do know that it occurred sometime during my MFA. I think, to be honest, that it was during the MFA that I came into class consciousness. To me, science fiction seems the literature of the middle-class: the lower middle class, I mean, of artisans and technicians. (This for instance explains why science fiction, like this part of the middle class, is often reactionary). There’s some bleed in values and ideals between this lower middle class and the upper middle class of professionals and managers (Silicon Valley has staked out a claim in this area of overlap, which is defined by an occupation, engineering, that has a curious position in both classes, in that engineering is both professional and a technical). I always considered myself an occupant of that middle ground, but I think in the MFA, I realized that those values and that identity didn’t entirely fit.

To most of my readers (and I’m thinking particularly of my wife), this will be an upsetting conclusion to my blog post. I think there’s an ideal that we all ought to transcend our class status, and that we all ought to embrace the art of the people, but I don’t know if I’m able to. While I believe, on a political level, in freedom, equality, and a class-less society, my personal values remain those of my class (which is exemplified by the difficulty I’m having with science fiction). And in an America with decreasing mobility and increasing stratification, I fear we’re only going to encounter more and more class identification as the century progresses.