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Business of Writing, Craft of Writing, Fiction, The Writer's Life

MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction—A Book Review and Some Musings, Part 2

Part 1 here


Q: Am I a better writer because of my MFA?

A: No doubt about it.

Q: Did I thoroughly enjoy the experience of those two years?

A: I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

So then what’s the problem?


The writers published in MFA vs NYC who went through MFA programs feel pretty much the same as I when it comes to their experiences. If nothing else, attending an MFA in creative writing gives a student a reason, and an opportunity to write. This may not sound like much, but in a culture that values family, work, leisure, commerce, sports, movies, TV, shopping, et al before writing, it means everything. It provides the raw materials from which a person can create a writing life, if that is her/his desire.

The critics of the MFA don’t question that result. But they do take exception to the kind of writing that seems to come from MFA graduates as being largely uninspired—dulled by its immersion in a program subculture that has, by opening itself to almost anyone who wishes to write (in order to fill rosters and turn profits), allowed the mediocrity of this mass of beginners to dictate style and substance. With so many programs across the country, and the institutional need to make money from them, the emphasis, these critics imply, is to keep students happy (i.e. enrolled and paying) by focusing the programs on technique and encouragement, rather than the content and criticism necessary to mold writers.

The twin pillars of the MFA in writing are the short story (which I mentioned last week) and the workshop. In those workshops, students critique each other’s work. But critique may be too strong a word for what goes on there.

In two of the final essays in the book, by Diana Wagman and Elif Batuman, MFA programs are cast as touchy-feely enclaves that ignore what writing’s really about—content and impact, the forgotten aspects of writing designed to make readers think, and occasionally to make them uncomfortable. The emphasis, as Wagman’s hilarious yet sad report of her semester as an instructor in one of the best-regarded programs makes clear, is on self-actualization—the program serves more like group therapy than education for its students. She wrote about how the established teachers at her program believed in a philosophy of passivity—in workshops the students, all inexperienced and usually unpublished, commented on submissions, with only the gentlest guidance from the instructors, who themselves were instructed not to provide specific advice on how to improve a story, but only to foster the workshop process. Wagman writes, “That kind of leading—don’t call it instruction—is exactly the problem. Some stories aren’t uplifting. Sometimes endings really are awful. But after being workshopped again and again, even the stories of neglect and abuse become appropriate, each word slipping noiselessly into the next. The messy narrator is scorned, coarse or uneven language discouraged, and the disturbing image should always be beautifully rendered. Toward the end of the residency, a student brought in a tale of rape she had rewritten many times. ‘So well written,’ hummed the workshop. ‘The rainbow metaphor is lovely.’ Then why was I fighting to stay awake? How could the rape of an eleven-year-old girl be so boring?”

That comfort level bothers me. A story about the rape of a child shouldn’t allow a reader to get cozy for a second. When I was reviewing books for LA Review I encountered such stories—novels and anthologies—gentle tales of sympathetic angst as exhilarating as a dose of ZzzQuil. Crowd-sourced literature, so much of which seems based on disappointing personal experience, in which every setback in life is fodder for sympathy. The wound culture, as Mark McGurl called it in his oft-quoted The Program Era. Writers working out their childhood traumas, their bad marriages—claiming victimhood, assigning blame. If there’s a grievance, there’s a story.

Is it possible to agree with both sides of this debate? That’s the position I find myself in as an MFA grad who recognizes that those two years of intense reading and writing changed who he was as a writer, and as a person, but who also understands (or so he thinks) that his two years in writing heaven, and his career since, have been cheapened by these criticisms. Maybe that’s the price one pays for selling his soul to the writing devil—knowledge of reality destroys the dream, even while one is living it. The loss of innocence.

Perhaps it’s best not to look back after reading this book, or writing this blog, but to keep moving forward, keep writing, oblivious to the ills that plague the system, and focus on the page that fills the screen.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


16 thoughts on “MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction—A Book Review and Some Musings, Part 2

  1. I keep rereading your first paragraph, Joe, and trying to reconcile it with some of your other observations of writing. I know you believe as I do that writing takes discipline and requires choices about how the writer will spend his time. Maybe the MFA validates the writer’s standing in the community and in his head, which isn’t nothing if it makes those choices easier. But can’t we also arrive at that by simply deciding to write?

    Posted by Averil Dean | April 5, 2014, 4:24 PM
    • Yes, yes and yes. The discipline and choices I believe in apply to writers both within and outside the MFA environment. I wasn’t so much talking about me, personally, in that paragraph as about MFA students in general, although I will admit getting the MFA really helped validate my decision to write. Not everyone needs that. But where I was at the time, I sure did. And it is fun to have a group of people with whom one can talk writing and books.

      No doubt since then I have changed. I’m much more self-reliant as a writer than I was during the program years. I think (hope) in the long run that will be a good thing.

      Posted by jpon | April 5, 2014, 5:31 PM
  2. This post strikes another chord with me, Joe, particularly your paragraph that centers on the watered-down rape story. A few years ago I wrote an awful flash fiction piece — awful, that is, in the sense of theme. The protagonist was a young girl who’d grown up in a physically abusive household, and on her 18th birthday, she summons the courage to escape. I wanted the story to pack an emotional punch, so I started in medias res, right in the middle of a beating. Why? because this is the reality many children face, every day of their lives. Working in public schools most of my adult life, I’ve seen it far too often. Despite my submission attempts, I’ve been unable to find a publisher for this piece, and I’ve often wondered if it’s because the story is “too real.” There is no happy ending. Failure to place the story led me to revise again and again, believing that’s what the market required, until a critique partner called me on it. I’d revised until the story was no longer mine, she admonished. I’d lost the essence of the story in my desire to meet market demands. I now believe she was right, and reading your opinion here has only reinforced that belief. Thank you.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | April 5, 2014, 4:35 PM
    • I found that passage by Diana Wagman astonishing for its unabashed honesty. Who dares admit she found a story about the rape of child boring? But that’s the power of the MFA community in fiction these days. Stories must be written a certain way to please the crowd. And then those MFA grads go on to become journal readers, who pass on stories they wouldn’t have dared write—I’d bet that’s what happened to your story.

      If have a few minutes, here’s a blog you might find interesting. It’s by a YA author who has the same issues with what’s marketable as you and I.

      Posted by jpon | April 5, 2014, 5:40 PM
  3. Finding a voice is inherently about bringing to the page a silenced story. To somehow write what can not be easily said. That has always included family implosions—hello Agamemnon—and the quest for social justice. The finishing school mentality of MFA programs may provide space and time, professional contacts, and some short cuts to craft acquisition, but they will never create power where power doesn’t exist.

    Posted by joplingirl | April 5, 2014, 4:39 PM
    • I can’t improve on your comment, so I may have to steal it. I would like to send it as TLR’s rejection letter to some of the submissions we receive. Oh, for a few more silenced stories.

      Posted by jpon | April 5, 2014, 5:44 PM
  4. Hi, Joe. As a writer, I chose to keep my eyes on the critics and scholars a little more closely, by taking a doctorate in literature rather than an M.F.A. and then a D.F.A. And I have to say that for my purposes, having a Ph.D. has had its ups and downs both, the ups because I felt I was a little better able to understand where some of the literary issues were generated and coming from, the downs because it’s hard enough to write, simply to write, never mind to be also engaged in research about what someone else is writing or wrote. There were times when I had to neglect my doctorate to get the writing I wasn’t “supposed” to be centering on done, and times when I had to skimp on so-called creative writing to finish up my doctoral requirements. But I did find that at the best of times, the two efforts fed each other, so that I felt that I didn’t miss the M.F.A. a bit. I know that as a writer I still have far to go and could write much better and more, and having finished the doctorate in 2012, I’ve been able to concentrate on my comedies and satires a little more, though I find that (was it Parkinson’s law which said?) “the work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, the inverse also being true, I don’t get as much done now that there’s no longer as much to do! I guess one kind of creativity leads into another sometimes. But as to the NYC part of your equation, I’ve never had much patience with it, and think it leads to worse things than having a few “too many” M.F.A.s around.

    Posted by shadowoperator | April 5, 2014, 7:59 PM
    • Victoria, what you say reminds me a lot of David Foster Wallace’s essay in MFAvNYC. One of his strongest criticisms of MFA students and programs is that there is no emphasis on tying modern creative writing to its history. The students in current MFA programs, he said, are writing in a vacuum, with no understanding of what brought the field to its current point. They are taught that creative writing began with people like Carver, not Cervantes and his contemporaries, and the loss of tradition translates into exactly what we have today, stories about petty, personal interests that are of interest only to the writers. Sounds like you made a great choice by pursuing the PhD, although your fiction may be beyond the reach of some readers.

      Posted by jpon | April 6, 2014, 1:09 AM
      • Hi again. Thanks for the vote of confidence about my writing, though I don’t know how deserving I am of it. You’re right about one thing to do with knowing where Carver and Cervantes are tied in together, though: even though the friend I used to have with whom I exchanged the most writings for mutual criticism wasn’t in an M.F.A. program, she was basing all her efforts on things she’d heard from those who were. Her heroes to imitate were Marquez and some of the other Latino and Hispanic authors, which was fine, but that was all she knew. And I used to get very frustrated, because after I’d devoted much helpful and concise criticism to her manuscripts, with both praise and constructive suggestions, she’d just look at something of mine and say, “I don’t know, I don’t like it.” And I would say “Why?” And she would repeat, “I don’t know, I just don’t like it.” No help at all! Everything got compared to a very few authors whom she’d read, and she had not read (or at least not valued) much back of the moderns! On the other hand, from her point of view I think I was just a budding critic or scholar and not a “real” writer at all, because I was just the opposite. It’s a good thing we were friends, or I don’t know what we might’ve said to each other! This is why I think your blog is of such value, it’s a welcoming site for all who happen to be interested in writing and publishing to come and chat, and there’s a lot of give and take when the topics really get going. The attitude is one of tolerance and openmindedness, and a lot of good can happen in such an atmosphere. I don’t know if my online novels will ever attract much attention, but I know that I can always drop in for a natter at your blog and hear the latest thing that’s happening, and find out what others think about it, and what the pros and cons are. That’s an important thing to make happen, and I’m so glad you do it.

        Posted by shadowoperator | April 7, 2014, 1:26 AM
      • I know how tough it is to find good critiques. The openness and accessibility of the writing game turns many people with little or no experience into “experts” on writing. My approach has always been to back up what I claim with the words of people far more well known than I’ll ever be. And still usually it takes a long time before those “experts” pay attention.

        As for the blog, I wish more people took part in these discussions. I understand how tough it is, with the writing business controlled by sales and marketing types, who have somehow gotten writers to believe we have to spend more time doing our own marketing than writing. So when notice of a new blog post comes via email, most writers think, “I’ll take a look at that… later.” And then rarely do. I am guilty of that myself.

        Posted by jpon | April 7, 2014, 8:24 PM
  5. Hey Joe, these two posts have been fascinating. Can you explain a bit more what you mean here, in these two sentences : “…have been cheapened by these criticisms. Maybe that’s the price one pays for selling his soul to the writing devil…” I just want to make sense of what you mean by the “devil.”

    Posted by Daniel | April 5, 2014, 11:31 PM
    • Thanks, Daniel. You have a keen eye. I didn’t want these blogs to go on forever (which was a possibility as I was writing), and I needed to form some kind of conclusion. It occurred to me that I’ve been extremely fortunate to have partaken in the MFA experience, but at least in my case that education has given me the desire to go further, even to learn of the shortcomings of the program that took me to this point.

      I find it something of a Faustian bargain that I’ve been able to abandon the 9 to 5 life I once had for the opportunity to write. I get to do what I’ve always wanted, to pursue the dream of writing success, but I am also in thrall to it. And like Faust, I know the hell that beckons: it demands unwavering loyalty, forces me to—ugh—market myself, keeps me poor, showers me with rejection… and yet I can’t give it up.

      Posted by jpon | April 6, 2014, 1:01 AM
  6. Thanks Joe. I admire N+1 very much and I guess I’ll have to break down and buy the darned book. I’m wondering — as I always do — if the MFA “problem” isn’t tied to the larger problem of graduate education in this country (and to a certain extent internationally). As the BA had gotten relegated to mean what a high-school diploma meant 30 years ago, and as the job market in higher education (and everywhere else) shrinks, so does it appear that MA programs and Ph.D. programs even have to move towards “higher relevancy” in order to attract students, and keep deans and administrators supporting the programs. I may be wrong but I think that most MFA programs at most colleges and universities bring IN substantial amounts of dough to their schools and that’s why they are allowed to run. That means they MUST bring in students. But — there are no jobs for mfa graduates, and there are certainly fewer fewer publication venues that pay. So what’s left? Self-actualization.

    The wound culture idea is interesting — but that’s another comment box.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | April 7, 2014, 4:17 PM
    • I think one of the essayists in MvN talked a little about just what you mentioned, that what colleges teach today is what high schools taught then. Just like virtually every other field, even education has become a marketing game. We are starting to understand the fallout from this practice as we watch the US standing in the world erode. But I don’t know if we’ll be able to stop it.

      Anyway, you really should check out this book. Very thought provoking.

      Posted by jpon | April 7, 2014, 8:45 PM
  7. sorry — it’s “has” not “had.”

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | April 7, 2014, 4:18 PM

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