When I was in graduate school, we had a grad student reading series. And in this grad student reading series, we had to introduce our fellow students. And in these introductions, we were required to say nice things about their work. However, you didn’t get to choose who you would introduce: it was semi-randomly assigned to you by the readings coordinator. Which meant that not infrequently someone had to introduce a person whose work they didn’t really care for. I’m not putting that out there in a hostile way. It’s not as if people didn’t like each other and weren’t able to critique each other. It’s just that in any group of ten writers, there are people whose work you really like and people whose work you don’t really like. And, what’s more, since writers tend to sit around talking about each other, we all tended to know exactly what our classmates thought of each others’ work. Which is why, after listening to a few dozen of these introductions, I realized that there are two handy things people do whenever they want to give insincere praise.
1. They don’t praise the work. Instead, they just describe several of its key features. For instance, if you hate how ornate someone’s writing is, you might say, “Beverly has such a lush, ornate writing style.” Or if you hate that they’re always writing these tedious domestic dramas, you might say, “Jonathan writes such careful, quiet domestic dramas.” You’re not actually praising the work, but no one notices.
2. The funnier thing people would do, though, was say exactly the opposite of what they really thought. For instance, if you thought that someone’s work was trivial and aimless. You might say, “Jonathan writes careful, domestic stories that manage to avoid being trivial and aimless.”
The lesson I took from this is that if you’re going to lie to someone about their work, you should just commit to it, because lots of writers have tremendous social anxiety and if there’s one thing that people with social anxiety are good at, it’s picking out the hidden subtext of what you’re trying to say. So instead of attempting to have your cake and eat to it too, you should just say something like, “I was on the edge of my seat. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. And I cried at the end. Oh my god, I can’t believe you did that! This is a work of genius!”
(This blog post was prompted not by anything I did or said, but by a review I just read of Amanda Filipacchi’s novel, where the reviewer said, “Amanda Filipacchi is the funniest novelist you’ve never heard of… Few comic novelists get characters talking so naturally, and amusingly… ” And I was like, umm, no. There are many good things to be said about this novel, but its dialogue is not natural.)
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.
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?”
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…
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!)
Usually, the suggested fixes that you’re given by a writing workshop are pretty mechanical and, oftentimes, not very coherent. The thing that workshop does well, though, is diagnose the problems that need to be fixed. Because stories are so complicated and need to work on so many levels, it’s very possible to create a story that’s all tone or all setting or all language or all concept and neglect the other elements.
Which is exactly when your workshop comes in and says something like ,”What are the stakes here? Why should the main character care about this? And why should I care” or “What does this main character want?”
I’ve heard those complaints so many times in so many different critique groups and workshops. These sentiments are the definition of workshop cliche: a generic thing that you say about a piece of writing that you don’t really like. And it’s very easy for a writer to dismiss these criticisms with some glib tossed-off answer: “They’re interested in seeing whether their philosophy works” or “They want to be alone.”
Sometimes, though, these phrases come back to you when you’re stuck. And questions that seem like cliches can become very powerful when you take them seriously and use them to interrogate your text. When you use them to cut through the easy, glib answers and really examine, “Why does this matter?” and “What does the character want?”
Writing this book, in particular, has meant abandoning two dozen different paths that were very defensible and plausible ways to go, except that they just weren’t the right thing to do. But if I didn’t have the sense of the basics that I got from workshop, then I don’t know that I would’ve been able to recognize or articulate what was wrong with what I was writing.
Already some of the other people I’ve spent the last two years with are figuring out their next steps. And I’m working on my final story for workshop. There is a bittersweetness to it, just as there is to all endings. For the last 20 or so months, our MFA workshop has been a constant presence in our life. Even when we’re not actively in workshop (i.e. during the winter breaks or the summer), I’m still very aware that I am going to have to produce work which is going to need to be subjected to workshop.
I don’t believe that I’ve been harmed by workshop (though I do think that it’s possible for a person to be harmed by it). However, it (and this whole environment) has changed me more than I thought it would. The very first story that I turned into workshop was this one, but I also don’t think I could write a story like that today. It has too much exterior and not enough interior. Nowadays, I prefer to write stories that are a bit quieter, and it’d be hard to say that the MFA environment didn’t have an influence on that. It didn’t operate by making me afraid to turn in certain kinds of stories. It operated by changing my value system: my sense of what kinds of stories were good.
I don’t know, maybe that was a certain kind of harm.
All I can say is that I don’t think the stories I was writing before I came here were particularly great, and I’m happy with my creative evolution.
However, I do wonder what it will be like to write without the influence of workshop. I think there’ll be something about it that’s very freeing. Probably I’ll slide into some bad habits. My practice is to make sure that everything I turn into workshop is as perfect as I can make it. And that makes it very difficult for me to ignore the problems that the workshop finds. These aren’t things I haven’t yet gotten around to fixing; they’re things that I never even noticed. However, when I’m writing on my own, I’m never gonna notice those things.
Still, I’ve written and sold plenty of stories (like…almost every story I’ve ever sold) that didn’t go through a critique process, and I have confidence that I can navigate the world on my own.
The truth is that, on a creative level, every year is very different. I am constantly writing this story or that story and saying, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.” But even in the moment when I write it, I know that I’ll someday have to write something better. Sometimes I can’t even believe it. Sometimes I look on stories or novels I’ve written, and I don’t even understand how they came out of me: they just don’t seem like things that I could have produced. But what’s even stranger is to know that if I’m ever going to get anywhere, then someday in the future, I’ll need to sit down and produce something that’s even better.
Wider dissemination–your dissertation will be freely available to the world soon after you graduate
This makes sense for all academic disciplines, because they have a fundamentally different view of what it means to publish a work. There’s a sense that the academic paper is not, in itself, a valuable object. When you place one, you receive no payment. Furthermore, you assign all copyright to the journal that publishes it (to the degree that you actually need to request their permission if you want to republish your own article). In this sense, it makes sense that schools would think nothing of flinging theses willy-nilly onto the internet. Furthermore, there’s a value to academic transparency: it’s worthwhile to know exactly what constitutes a thesis in a discipline and to disseminate any potentially worthwhile work. For some very obscure subject areas, sometimes a masters thesis or PhD thesis can be the only extant work on that topic.
However, in creative writing, there is no such value to completeness. It’s rather the opposite. We value selectivity. Few authors would be happy to be, essentially, forced to self-publish their student work. Furthermore, when we place a story in a journal or a magazine, they place a premium on being the first place to have brought out the work. The whole thing, as in the case with plagiarism policies, is a result of a misalignment of both aim and culture.
Just finished reading at the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s quarterly Dangerous Voices reading. There were lots of people there, and I really had a fun time talking to everyone. I love how wonderful and democratic the science fiction world is, and I like how the people are genuinely bound by their love of media. The night’s other reader, Myke Cole, spoke in an extremely moving (and hilarious) fashion about how much he loved D&D and what it had meant to him, growing up.
But I also wonder how long I’ll be able to keep reading at events like that. I came home to a short story rejection where the slush reader said that she didn’t think my story had a sufficient speculative element. Leaving aside the fact that I think she was pretty wrong (the story takes place in the future and includes the planet’s slow deterioration due to and then recovery from global warming), I think this is indicative of a way that my speculative stories are falling further and further out of sync with the current fashion in the SF/F field.
Not only that, but I’m writing fewer and fewer SF/F stories. In the last year, I’ve written twelve stories. Of those, only five could even sort of be classified as SF/F.
Nor am I likely to put out an SF/F novel any time soon. My current agent only reps young adult and middle grade fiction. In those fields, all the genres are sort of jumbled together: you’re not a science fiction writer, you’re a young adult writer. Furthermore, although he’s representing a dystopian young adult novel that I’d consider to be science fiction, I wrote it three years ago, in May of 2011. Since then, I’ve only written one SF/F novel, and it was awful. I trunked it, and it shall never be seen by the book-buying public.
The other two YA novels that I’m going to try shopping around are both contemporary. And while my recently-completed crime novel could be thought of as speculative (it takes place in a world where sociopathy can be detected by brain scan), there’s really no place for it on the SF/F shelves.
I don’t even read that much science fiction or fantasy anymore. Those ten novels that I recently made a concerted effort to read were more exposure to the genre than I’ve had in years. And my imagination doesn’t really work that way anymore, either. Science fiction and fantasy are great at evoking a sense of wonder, but that’s not what I hunger for nowadays. I want something that’s real. Nowadays, whenever I read something that’s set in the far future or in a made-up fantasy world, I start to get antsy: everything feels too constructed. That’s not a criticism of the genre. Realism is sloppy, because certain stuff just gets lobbed in there in order to create a feeling of verisimilitude. Fantasy and science fiction are more careful and more precise: since everything in the story is constructed, then you know that everything has meaning. That’s what allows SF/F to provide those soaring emotions and that sense of higher meaning that you don’t often get in realism. But, at the same time, my imagination doesn’t work that way anymore: I am tired of sitting in a room and trying to juxtapose concepts in a way that creates a startling and strange image; I’d prefer to go out into the world and see all the startling and strange things that already exist.
Given all of this, I’m not sure there’s any real path that leads to success as an SF/F writer for me. When I do happen to write SF/F stories, I’ll still submit them to SF/F magazines, but it’s hard to imagine a future in which I’m primarily considered a science fiction writer.
Every time I write anything about the world of academic creative writing, people will post comments that are all like, “Yeah, right on, Rahul! Those guys only write awful books about old white male professors who want to fuck their students!* You need to stick it to all that boringness!”
Whereas, I’m like…ehh…that’s not really what I was talking about. What I object to with regards to the world of literary fiction is the careerism of it all. Being a literary writer is a profession: it has education requirements and career rungs and entry-level positions and all those other professional accouterments. And none of that really feels like it has anything to do with writing good fiction.
However, I do think that plenty of literary fiction is pretty good. For instance, I’ve enjoyed books by Aimee Bender, David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, Meg Wolitzer, Michael Chabon, Claire Messud, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, T.C. Boyle, Adelle Waldman, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and plenty of other products of the MFA system. If you write a certain kind of fiction in the United States, then you’re probably going to end up getting an MFA. Most literary fiction is bad, of course, but I just don’t read the bad stuff.
And, on the other hand, it’s not like the genre shelves are chock-a-block with original and exciting work. If you went to Barnes and Noble and pulled a random volume off the shelf, it’d be pretty depressing. Most genre novels consist of an extremely tiny variation on some other successful novel: “Instead of making kids fight to the death in an arena, my book makes them have spellcasting duels to the death” or “Instead of being torn between a vampire boyfriend and a werewolf boyfriend, my protagonist is torn between a mermaid boyfriend and a wereshark boyfriend” or “Instead of having to fight against an evil, tyrannical empire of space-Communists, my heroic space-captain has to fight off a caliphate of space-Islamicists!”**
I mean, this stuff is hardly the promised land.
Also, if you don’t like literary fiction, then what are you saying? That you don’t like realist narratives that are about peoples’ ordinary lives? That seems odd. I feel like I shouldn’t even need to say this, but…there are things that realism can do that non-realism cannot do. And if you never read any realism, then you will never encounter those very awesome things. (For instance, no secondary-world setting is ever going to be as detailed or evocative as the Burma in Orwell’s Burmese Days, because secondary world settings always feel so…constructed. There’s nothing in a secondary world setting that doesn’t mean something.)
Actually, I’ve recently had a revelation with regards to genre fiction. About five years ago, I made a purposeful decision to mostly read non-SFF work. I reasoned that I was already very well-versed in the genre and that I needed to catch up with everything else. But I’ve always sort of wondered if I was maybe forcing myself to like literary fiction. I mean, I liked Proust, but isn’t it possible that I’d like the newest Neal Stephenson even more? In that case, my whole reading life would be a lie!
But then I read ten highly-acclaimed recently-published genre novels over the break over the Christmas break. And half of them were pretty mediocre. Of the ones that were good, only three (The Magicians, Drowning Girl, and Redemption In Indigo) really hit what I’d call my quality threshold: the minimum level of awesomeness that I am looking for in fiction.
Immediately after finishing this project, I started reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, which is super ‘literary’***: it’s a family epic about four sisters in 1930s Japan. And I’m liking it at least as much as I enjoyed any of the genre novels (well, okay, not as much as I liked The Magicians).
So there, my preferences are at least somewhat real.
*One of my favorite novels of all time, Stoner, is a sad-professor-sleeps-with-student story.
**Actually, if “Horatio Hornblower fights Islamic fundamentalists in space” has not been written yet, then someone needs to write it and pitch it to Baen immediately!
***I will say one thing. I do feel bad about saying that classic or foreign work is part of “literary fiction.” It’s extremely unfair how modern writers of “literary fiction” have positioned themselves as the inheritors of Chekhov and Tolstoy and Hemingway and Cervantes and everybody else who wrote fiction that we still read. Because those authors didn’t really have anything to do with modern academic creative writing. Tolstoy did not go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And it’s also a bit insulting to assume that genre writers haven’t read Tolstoy. Still, I sometimes think that critics of literary fiction do also mean to criticize Tolstoy, because a lot of the criticisms that they make of literary fiction (it is self-indulgent, overwritten, meandering) are criticisms that unsophisticated readers might make of Tolstoy. If, however, you are only criticizing the modern genre of literary fiction and not the entire canon of classic fiction, then you have my apologies. Because I do think that literary fiction (the modern genre) is no more likely to be good than genre fiction.
I used to hear it said that, demographically speaking, science fiction readers skewed working class and literary fiction readers skewed middle class. And I never believed it. After all, reading is a pretty effete, high-brow activity, no matter what book you’re holding. And, furthermore, SF seems very closely associated with engineering and coding and other middle-class technical professions.
But then I came to the Writing Seminars and realized that there is a substantial class divide between the two. I’ve been to both an MFA program and to the Clarion Writer’s workshop*, and met very different types of people. At my MFA, most of us are very young–rare is the person who is over 30–and most of us didn’t have careers before coming here. And almost all of us went to an elite college: Stanford and Yale are overrepresented; most others either went to a top 10 public university or top 10 liberal arts college. Almost all of us have degrees in English.
Furthermore, despite our actual class background, everyone I’ve met in the creative writing world has had that upper-class polish. It’s something I noticed at Stanford: no matter your class, race, or country, within a few semesters we all started sounding the same and acting the same and operating according to the same values and principles. Top colleges whitewash you by teaching you how to ape the mannerisms of the managerial (note, I didn’t say ruling) class—it’s pretty much the main thing you’re buying with your $50k a year.
Additionally, the people in the creative writing world tend to be very good-looking (also a class marker!).
Whereas if you meet science fiction writers who are at the same level of their careers as us, there’s something very different about them. They always have jobs: often career-track jobs. Their degrees are generally not in English. They tend to be older. Oftentimes, they didn’t pursue writing seriously when they were in college. They’re not as polished and don’t seem to be from as affluent of a background.
Interestingly, the literary world (to my eyes) seems to have many more women and people of color than the SF world. But even this has something of a class-based tinge to it. In America, there’s a long history of working-class whites-only populist movements (i.e. the Progressive Party, the Tea Party), and I feel that the SF world draws heavily from the same populations that fed movements like those. Furthermore, there are, of course, commercial genres (YA, romance, women’s fiction, chick-lit, and [I believe] mystery) that are composed almost entirely of women.
Doesn’t this sound awful to you guys? A major university—the recipient of tons of federal research dollars—is paying very privileged people (including me) tens of thousands of dollars to do work that is of little value (since we’re not yet that good) to mankind or society. And beyond that, there’s a whole system of grants, fellowships, professorships, etc, that only go to people who exist within the creative writing industry (i.e. not science fiction writers).
Obviously, those things are very hard to get. I will probably never get any of them. But that’s not the point. The point is that the people who DO get them tend to be people like me: very privileged, very upper-class people. Which is absurd. And it seems like exactly the wrong way to design a system that’s meant to support art which isn’t commercially successful.
Because, beyond even the genre / literary distinction, the creative writing industry systematically shuts out would-be literary writers who are from less-wealthy backgrounds.
For instance, the fact that MFAs are used as such a gatekeeper in the literary world adds several major biases into the whole pool of literary writers. It excludes all kinds of people can’t really afford to leave their lives for two years to get even a very well-funded MFA: people who have kids, people who have careers, people who discover writing late in life, people with disabilities.
And those people are shut out of the other goodies, too! They can’t go to summer conferences or take off two months for Yaddo or move to Wisconsin to take up a Creative Arts Fellowship. And without those markers of distinction, it’s much harder for them to publish in journals and get professorships.
And if that wasn’t sickening enough, there are also so many other hate-worthy aspects of this system. Like, literary writers pretend that their lives are so difficult and that they’re so underappreciated. But it’s actually not as emotionally difficult to be a literary writer, because you get praised at every step of the way. Your undergrad professors say you’re good, so you go to grad school. Then your grad school professors say you’re good, so you send out your stuff. The journals start accepting it, so you apply to fellowships. There are so many tiny little ways to be validated.
In genre fiction, it’s not like that. People usually begin their careers by having their writing rejected by their undergrad creative writing professors. Then (since they don’t get paid by MFA programs), they must write in silence and obscurity—choosing to write even when it means taking time away from their jobs and their families—for years! Since genre workshops tend to be self-organized, even if the writer does go to a regular workshop, their validation usually only comes from their peers (rather than from authority figures). Oftentimes their first real validation is when they sell a story: something that often comes after five or more years of constant rejection, with only extremely infrequent pats on the back (as opposed to the creative writing student who gets some praise at least three times a semester, when they turn in their stories for workshop.)
Like…if we gave even a moment of thought to it, we’d realize that the insurance claims adjuster who finally hits it big with their novel where Bigfoot falls in love with Dracula is a much more—one hundred times more—heroic figure than the Stegner Fellow who uses $43,000 a year from Stanford University to pen a sensitive novel about what it was like to be a sensitive kid who grew up in insensitive surroundings. For the latter person, their travails were substantially decreased once they got to college. Whereas the insurance adjuster’s struggles increased day by day—as everything in their life conspired to pull them away from their writing—and it was only through major force of will that they persevered and kept going.
But here’s the worst part!
No one is even willing to admit that the claims adjuster has it harder.
The claims adjuster will get mocked and denigrated, not just by the creative writing establishment, but also by the sort of higher-toned SF writer (like me) who has spent a little time within the creative writing world.
And then, to make matters even worse, a tenured professor of creative writing will get up and give an interview where they publicly complain about the tragedy of their lives: no one wants to read them, literature is dying, etc.
Which, alright, fine, the publishing industry is obviously not the healthiest thing in the world right now. What I just want to point out though is…the complainant is often a person whose writing won them a job that pays $60-100k for life. Whereas even extremely successful genre writers will, most probably, fall out of fashion and eventually die in poverty. Like…if anyone should get to go off on those stupid rants, it should be someone like Michael Cisco. Unfortunately, the really obscure writers are too obscure to be able to spout off in major newspapers and magazines. There’s a glaring contradiction built into the whole “woe is me” literary fiction pose…which is that you’re obviously powerful enough to still be able to broadcast to the world about how awful your lives are.
Whether you are rich or poor or black or white or Democrat or Republican, this whole set-up is probably, on a visceral level, quite repulsive to you.
The creative writing industry is so colossally unfair that it’s staggering. And I don’t just mean how privileged kids don’t need to work as hard or suffer as much in order to become writers. If that was all this was, then it wouldn’t even be worth writing about: privileged people always suffer less…that’s what it means to be privileged. What I’m talking about is how the privileged kids are then celebrated more. Like, if we’re gonna shove down and ignore the whole crowd of aspiring Bigfoot <3′s Dracula writers, then we should at least have the decency to be impressed when one of them breaks out and succeeds.
But we don’t.
While there are many parts of the SF world that I don’t like, I have to say that it continues to hold my emotional sympathies. Siding with literary fiction is like watching The Might Ducks 2 and rooting for Iceland.
*Re-reading this entry, I realized that the comparison between an MFA program and Clarion might not be exactly correct (although there’s no real MFA analogue for commercial writers–the closest might be certain low-res programs like Stonecoast), and that the better comparison might be between the Sewanee Workshop and Clarion. Still, when I went to Sewanee, the demographics were still pretty similar to what I described here, with the exception being that it skewed slightly older than the MFA.
I’ve now reached the end of my 3rd semester as an MFA student. Only one more to go, and then I’ll have a degree! I’ve enjoyed it a lot, actually. The people are fun and interesting (I’ve never been around people who were so interested in books before). The workload is unbelievably light (this day I was free five days a week; next semester I’m going to be free four days a week). The workshop holds me to a high standard and keeps me honest—I’ve produced some of my best work for the MFA workshop. I don’t always follow their specific critiques, but it is always interesting to me to see how real readers respond to my stories.
And it’s been fascinating to see how the literary world works. I’ve found that I’ve picked up tons of information just from osmosis. Unlike the genre fiction world, the literary world is very closed-off: you really only learn things by word of mouth. Being in the MFA program has given me access to writers who’re at later stages of their careers, and, by observing them, I’ve been able to see some of the ways in which it’s possible for things to go down.
All of those things are very true. And yet…I am not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend an MFA to people who ask me about it…
Before I start, I just wanted to issue a disclaimer: I know that tons of people who read this are going to interpret it as being part of the literary vs. genre divide, but that’s not how I intend it at all. First of all, the Writing Seminars have been unbelievably receptive to non-realist work: even professors who only write realism have engaged with my work on its own terms and have provided valuable comments. And, secondly, all of these things also apply to genre workshops.
My problem is that, as interesting as the MFA is and as much as I enjoy it, there’s something about it that feels fundamentally orthogonal to the project of writing fiction. Writing fiction is something that you do primarily inside your own head: it’s a certain sort of thought process. Everything that takes place outside your head can only impinge on the writing of fiction insofar as it changes the nature of that thought process.
I don’t see workshop as being about tinkering with stories and trying to make stories better. I see it as being a process of artistic education. The workshop is attempting to guide each artist towards a better understanding of beauty.
In some ways, that almost seems unnecessary. Beauty feels like it should be something that we see and perceive on an automatic level. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. If it was, there’d be no divide between high and low art. Instead, the ability to perceive beauty is something that requires extensive education. Usually, this education is a self-education. By reading a lot, you come to perceive finer and finer effects. You cannot appreciate something that you cannot see. When you first start reading, you can’t see anything: you’re overawed by the existence of these living pictures in your mind. But as you read more and more (and read more widely), you’re able to compare new books to books that you’ve read before. And through this process of comparison, you start to notice things. And when you start to compare the effect of those things on your soul, you begin to appreciate which things have beauty and which things do not.
But I’m not convinced that formal education is a good way of training someone to perceive beauty. Accepting another person’s instruction re: beauty seems, to me, to require an immense amount of trust and faith. When someone points at something and says, “I feel this way about this thing,” then you need to do your best to follow their eye and look deeply at the thing to which they’re referring and try your best to see that thing too, and to feel that thing too.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to happen very often. I find that usually people (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) will just say, “No. I don’t see that. No. I don’t feel that. My tastes must be different from yours.”
Aesthetic judgments are tied up with too much ego and pride. It’s humbling to admit (even to yourself) that there’s something you are missing. And it sucks to be humbled.
And you know when it’s even harder to admit that you’re blind? When the thing someone is pointing to is something that you created.
In every aspect of creative writing education, from my intro classroom right up to grad-level workshops, I see a lack of communication. We’re pointing and we’re saying words, but very little meaning is being transmitted.
And if a person just says, “Oh, whatever, the workshop is wrong,” then that’s fine. That person isn’t benefitting from workshop, but they’re also not being harmed by it. Their artistic development will proceed just as if they were working alone (although hopefully the workshop will still provide some kind of positive reinforcement—whenever their work does appeal to other people, they will receive praise. In this way, they’ll slowly be trained to move towards what is more beautiful).
But people aren’t stupid. They know they’re not perfect. They know their work isn’t perfect. And they know that their workshop is full of smart readers. So often they’ll come out of workshop saying, “Oh god, the workshop must be right!”
The problem is, they’ll accept the workshop’s judgment without understanding the things that led to the formation of that judgment. So they’ll go back to the story and start changing things in a more or less blind fashion, “Oh, they said the character is unsympathetic. I better have him save a cat in the first act. And they said this conflict is unclear. I’ll explain it over here.”
And then they come back to the workshop and are all like, “Welp, I fixed all the stuff you said was wrong!”
And they’re extremely disheartened when the workshop says that the story is worse than ever.
That’s the worst of all possible worlds. You cannot give up your aesthetic judgment. The only way to use workshop critique is to go back, stare at your story, and learn how to see the same things that your workshop saw. A story can’t come together except by an act of singular vision. If your mode of perception changes, then you can go back and re-envision the story. But what you can’t do is take a singular vision and just throw in a bunch of other peoples’ opinions. If you do that too much, then you’ll eventually learn to distrust your own aesthetic impulses, and you’ll end up destroying your ability to write.
That’s because there does come a moment at which you need to ignore everyone’s opinion. There comes a moment at which you’re doing something new, and it is you who are educating your audience and teaching them (through your work) to perceive a new kind of beauty. If you lose the confidence to recognize and trust in this moment, then you’ll never be a good writer.
It takes a very confident and perceptive person to be just permeable enough to accept guidance right up until the point where they need to start ignoring it. And I don’t think that most artists have those qualities (I certainly don’t).
Luckily, I am way too egotistical and stubborn to put much stock in other peoples’ opinions, so this whole problem is an academic one for me.
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.