June 7, 2009

Literary Impressions: MFA Programming

One of my co-group bloggers, poet and teacher, Alison Moncrief has offered a very thoughtful response to Louis Menand's New Yorker review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era, in which Menand offers, among other things, his understanding--apparently limited--of what students who enter writing MFA programs are expected to have accomplished.

I won't rehash Alison's response, except to note that she focuses rightly on the fact that criticism of MFA writing programs ought be leavened by the recognition that they are essentially apprenticeship programs. There is no more reason to disparage these than those that instruct painters how to paint, cooks to cook, lawyers to lawyer, and doctors to doctor.

Interestingly, McGurl's book itself bypasses jaundiced criticisms about the poverty of what is produced from these programs, as noted here:

However, McGurl doesn’t back away from the question of the aesthetic consequences of the rise of the program; in fact, he uses the two main charges against creative writing, “that it is self-involved, that it is unoriginal,” as his main analytical categories—in what ways, he asks, are the works produced by writers associated with programs not so much self-involved as reflexive—interested in expressing ideas about the nature and grounds of their creation—and in what ways are they systematic—that is, how do they bear the traces of a common (but changing) set of ideas about what counts as good writing?

According to Alison, however, Menand still manages to slip one of those sly questionings of the MFA program's purpose. As I pointed out in my comment on her piece, which I reproduce here, what often irks about this species of criticism is not its rightness--I'm agnostic on the matter actually--but the motivations that underlie it. Here is an abridged version of that comment:

The problem with most criticisms of MFA programs is the insistence on mystifying the writing process and a general beholden-ness to "great" writers--Melville, Dickinson, et. al.--who did not reap the benefits of any such organized program of instruction. The irony, of course, is that there are today many, many more writers of quality today than there were then. This is in part the result of sheer numbers--more people, greater literacy, more time to write, more venues to have one's writing distributed (publishers, websites, etc.), and, yes, more instructional programs focused on the art of writing.

Images of MFA degree programs as group therapy sessions or a mistaken byway for those seeking to be the next Philip Roth or Margaret Atwood completely misapprehend them for what they are: structured attempts to refine the practice of a craft, which may or may not become one's vocation. Too often criticism of MFA programs feels like academics looking from the outside in with little respect (and a touch of envy) for the motivating force of the participants, who simply want to write finer essays, better stories, stronger poems--and not more literary criticism!

I could go on and on in this vein, noting, among other things, that there really are many fine writers today, any number of whom graduated from an MFA program; that during any "great" period in American writing--the American Renaissance, the American naturalist period--there were swarms of utterly crappy writers who would have benefited from the training an MFA program would have delivered, even a bad one.

In fact, the problems afflicting most MFA programs stem not from the programs themselves, but the publishing industry, where works of literary merit have enormous difficulty finding a purchase outside the world of the small press, a world I have come to respect more as I dive further into it. Thus the biggest problem affecting MFA graduates is not the quality of their work but how much they must modify it for the purpose of commercialization, something some of their professors, with their professor salaries, do not have to sweat as hard. The best example of this are the well-known challenges facing poets, who must depend on the constellation of university-subsidized literary journals as well as chapbook and self-publishing operations for their works to see light of day. Any publisher in the business for the money is not their best friend. With brute realities of this nature confronting would-be writers, is it any surprise that the "best" work of MFA graduates must often be buried or abandoned altogether? It's enough to suggest that if not for the MFA program--and the support it indirectly provides to literary journals and small presses, our literary culture might actually be in worse shape.

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