MFA programs

I gather you're not too hot on MFA programs. Why so? Do you think other agents share your opinion? I'm actually in the process of applying to some programs right now, and am eager to hear what you have to say.

Depends on what you want to do with your MFA degree. (For those who aren't familiar with the lingo, MFA is a master of Fine Arts graduate degree, and in this case, refers to students in graduate writing programs.)

MFA programs turn out newly minted graduates like Willie Wonka turns out choccie bars. Too bad the supply doesn't get eaten up so demand remains the same. Out here in the real world, there aren't enough jobs for all those MFA holders. You spend two years and enough money to buy an apartment in Queens, and you're unemployable. Yum.

I also get a lot of query letters from said newly minted graduates. Treacle is the kindest word I can use to describe it. It's self involved, pretentious, and usually imitative. My view is that it takes quite some time to get over your influences and your teachers to find your own voice. Fresh out of graduate school is too soon. And those MFA programs tend to beat down the truly original voices.

What MFA programs DO provide is time to read, at least according to Jennifer Egan and Abraham Verghese, both Iowa graduates. Both have said that to me personally, and probably publicly as well.

So, if you're going to get an MFA so you can teach, think again.
If you just need time to read, there are cheaper ways to do it.
And if you're doing it to learn how to write, don't.

Other opinions welcomed.

From the comments column, a link to a much better explanation


Anonymous said...

Miss Snark, I am curious if you think the MFA prgrams in kids' lit are also a waste of time.

As a working illustrator, I would never dream of wasting my time on an MFA in art. Blech. I couldn't care less what some tightass professor thinks of my drawing and painting. I advise aspiring illustrators all the time that art school may NOT be worth it, certainly isn't a prerequisite and often robs one of his own sensibility.

I have only just sold my first ms. I feel like I could learn much as a writer, but I also fear losing my own voice. I see it happen al the time in art schools. But how about an MFA in writing for children? Waste of time and money?

Thanks much for your snarky advice and great blog!

Anonymous said...

Other thoughts on MFA programs: http://www.newyorkpress.com/18/48/books/SamSacks.cfm

Anonymous said...

What if I have an MA in English, but not an MFA? Is that okay to mention in a cover letter or does that lump me in with the voiceless literary snobs (with whom I wage battle weekly in class)?

Anonymous said...

A lot of mfa programs actually pay people to go, or at least make it possible for them to break even. Very few places are going to pay a young writer to work on a book he or she knows isn't ready yet. I don't really think it's fair to blame mfa programs for writers being slef-involved-- they are writers, after all.

Mindy Tarquini said...

I met one of my writing buds at a 5 week workshop held at a local book store. The workshop was hosted by an MFA. I did not know what an MFA was, and the instructor seemed formidable enough, that I feared asking. It was course for critique and feedback of our writing. We were not allowed to list any negatives about a participant's writing, neither were we to make suggestions to the author. We were not allowed to comment while others gave us our feedback, neither were we allowed to ask questions after. Voicing any opinions whatsoever might be enough to rob a participant of his/her voice, thus opinions were discouraged. Every week, she made us read long mournful passages from James Joyce and James Baldwin. It was a very quiet workshop that gave me lots of opportunity to muse on the meaning of the initials MFA. I regret to inform that Masters of Fine Art was not the first possibility I assigned the acronym.

Neither was it the second.

Juan Gabriel Llorca said...

Snark, this is a very nicely articulated point. I especially like "...it takes some time to get over your influences...". I was 36 years old before I had spent more time out of school than in, and it has taken me ten years more to get rid of the stink of it. I respect this urge of yours to keep us all real, grounded and practical when it comes to writing. I would have been so much further ahead if I had simply put pen to paper, when I wanted to,than to beg others to teach me how it is done,and struggle to gain their approval. Thanks again.

The Gambino Crime Family said...

I think it really depends upon which MFA program you enter. A lot of them aren't that expensive, throw you a TA job and give you a teaching qualification at the end (which means you can at least earn a pretty good living afterwards).

On the other hand, there are some which leave you with business-school type debt without the MBA to go with it. In that case, it would be better to go off to Prague if you want time to read and write...

archer said...

Grumpy Old Bookman has posted a rant on the subject (if that genteel Brit can ever be said to rant):


Anonymous said...

If the work in the literary journals is any indication (many of the mags are published and edited by these writing program students), yes, an MFA is probably the route to lousy writing. The short stories in these mags are almost always self-obsessed, dull, and have no more originality than your brother's diary entries.

Anonymous said...

How funny these stereotypes. Doubt many of these folks have been in an MFA program -- clearly they don't know much about them. First, as has been pointed out, many good programs are free, or at least heavily funded, just like any good graduate program in the humanities. Second, the most inventive lit. fic. writers in recent memory went to MFA programs (David Foster Wallace for example). I went to a good MFA program and was never expected to conform to anybody's idea of a "story." Third, if you think literary journals publish self-involved stories, don't read them. Some people think literature can serve humanity in greater ways than simply providing something to do at the beach. If you don't think so, fine, but why be so derogatory toward those who devote themselves to that end? Just because it's not your sensibility? I don't like fantasy novels, but I'm aware it's a result of my sensibility, not the inherent "badness" of fantasy. Finally, it is true there are some programs that exist as little more than cash cows -- these are bad programs. But basing your argument on these programs is like saying all publishers are awful and then proving it by pointing to Publish America as the typical example. This constant MFA-bashing is as tiresome and unoriginal as the bashing of romance novels or thrillers or anything else. C'mon, people.

Bernita said...

Some writers have a good "ear" - for every other voice but their own.
The problem with some workshops/creative writing courses/MFA programs is the natural tendency to promote absolute "rules" and an incestuous chorus.
So a number of editors have said.
Sometimes one can recognize a product of a particular school/program years and years later.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a former English Lit. professor and currently published author, I have two observations on this subject: First, no academic program will guarantee that you can become a successful writer. You need talent for that. However, it should give you English language skills that will mean selling a novel to a house that no longer pays for editing, and it will make sure that you know how to research your material properly.
Secondly, the critique group described made me shudder. Critique groups are very helpful, provided the members are honest about your writing and have suggestions for improvement.

Anonymous said...

I'm an MFA grad and I'll echo Miss Snark on one point: please don't go into major debt for an MFA program! It may not be quite as bad as paying an agent, but it's unnecessary considering that all the top programs (with the exception, I think, of Columbia which is ridiculously expensive) pay YOU through scholarships, fellowships and/or teaching. Sure, it's not a lot of money, but learning to live on little is a good skill for a writer, and I can't imagine anything better than getting paid for two years to focus on my writing and meet tons of other writers.

Was my MFA program a utopia? No. Some people were wildly creative; others were more interested in pleasing the teacher. Some teachers were amazingly helpful; others were helpful only to the students whose work they liked. But I learned to take what advice was helpful to me and move on, and I met, in my peers, my critique partners for life.

Sam Sacks's article contains all the usual criticisms against MFA programs. He says no "major writer" has come out of Iowa in decades. This is almost impossible to argue with because, well, how many "major writers" can you name? How do you define this? And aren't people recognized as such in the autumn of their careers (Flannery O'Connor) or sometimes (Melville's "Moby Dick") after their death? It's no wonder that no one who has graduated since 1985 has earned this distinction. Plenty of varied and interesting work comes out of MFA programs, and lots of middling work, too - just like the general population of published writers! Curtis Sittenfeld's "Prep," Tony Swofford's "Jarhead," and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's "Madeleine is Sleeping" came out of Iowa at practically the same time, and they are hardly cut from the same cloth. I also have friends from my program who are writing romance, mystery, and children's fiction, along with literary stuff.

An MFA program isn't for everyone, but it can be wonderful. And if a teacher tells you to follow some so-called rule of writing, you can practice your reaction to bad advice, and ignore it.

Mindy Tarquini said...

Secondly, the critique group described made me shudder. Critique groups are very helpful, provided the members are honest about your writing and have suggestions for improvement.

The critique group was not a complete waste. I met a fellow humorist there who is now a friend and one of my writing circle.

The MFA herself proved useful. I put her in a novel.

Ballpoint Wren said...

Regarding the Sam Sacks' article: Michael Chabon, himself a graduate of the UCI graduate writing program, had a similar criticism of modern storytelling:

Okay, I confess. I am that bored reader, in that circumscribed world, laying aside his book with a sigh; only the book is my own, and it is filled with my own short stories, plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew.

I very much dislike those "plotless" stories. I think they're awfully pretentious.

Don Tate II said...

So interesting. I've been considering throwing my hat into the field of writing YA. The thing that scared me is thinking that now, in addition to needing an out of reach agent, I'd have to have an out of reach MFA. Thanks for the hopeful post.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I should ask my favorite professor Melissa Pritchard what she thinks of an MFA.


Sal said...

A link to the Grumpy Old Bookman post that Archer mentioned. Took me a while to find it because the URL had been snipped off in my version of the comments.

Should anyone else have had the same problem and to spare that anyone else the time spent searching ...

tcastleb said...

Actually, my latest concern is how some of the MFA teachers get their jobs. I'm taking a class from a teacher who has a doctorate in some science or another, has published three books (it takes him 10 years to write one) but has never taken a creative writing class or read a creative writing book. I managed to get a couple useful things out of him, but his florid critiques make me wish for an interpreter. The class, at least, is intelligent and useful at critiquing.

I was a music major, and I think there's a similar approach to finding a good MFA: do your research, find a teacher you can bond with and who understands you. My current school is full of the self-serving teacher types, and at this point you couldn't pay me to get an MFA there. Another teacher who'd been through the program made a good point, that in her class there were the handful of people who actually wrote, and the majority that told everyone they were writers.

Maybe a lot of these folks are going about it backwards, going to school to learn to write. I've learned a lot on my own how to write, and I've found my own voice; I want to go to school both so I can teach later and to refine my work and make connections. I can use the tools the teachers will give me, but I know enough now not to go along with everything they say. I'd say find yourself in your writing first,and then go when you can control what you get out of the program and not the other way around.

Bernita said...

I agree, Wren. Fadista is better in a bar.

Mindy Tarquini said...

The MFA who taught my critique workshop was also an ASU grad. Alas, she was not the esteemed Dr. Pritchard.

Allison Landa said...

I'm finishing up my MFA right now, and I read your words with interest.

You say: "MFA programs turn out newly minted graduates like Willie Wonka turns out choccie bars." Can't the same be said for every graduate program?

MFA students need to be judicious about their programs. They need to know how to pick and choose amongst everything they hear. They need to balance an open mind with independent thought. You can't possibly bow to everyone's critique, or amend your writing style to match a writer your professor loves.

It's a buffet. You need to know the way you like to eat before pulling up to the table.

I've read and heard plenty of treacle while in grad school -- but I've learned to filter out what's not helpful. And after nearly two years, I'm leaving a far better writer than when I first came in.

Anonymous said...

As a writer who doesn’t have, has never had, and never will have an interest in pursuing an MFA, I found this blog to be extremely encouraging. I essentially went through two undergraduate creative writing programs (I transferred schools), both supposedly among “the best in the country,” whatever that means. I didn’t learn anything. Not that it wasn’t an enjoyable experience; it was fine. What I did get was support from a few key figures who, essentially, patted me on the back and said, “Yes, you’re good, keep going,” which is one of the main reasons I’m writing today. But, by and large, workshopping is a complete waste of time. I know several successful fiction writers who have attended MFA programs and, with the exception of one, they have all privately made comments to me that these programs are good for networking, good for getting an agent, good for padding your resume—the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that you don’t learn a thing in them. In my opinion, they’re just another way for people who don’t have a clue what they’re doing to give themselves credibility and differentiate themselves, and for lazy agents to look at a cover letter and say, “Well, he does have his MFA.” Fiction writing should be wild and free. Maybe that sounds corny, but it really should be. The more elitist and bureaucratic fiction publishing becomes, the worse the books get. Can you imagine Keith Richards getting an MFA in pop music writing? It’s absurd! Why should you have to take a test to publish fiction? Seriously—they determine if you’re a good candidate from your scores on a standardized test. I wonder what Langston Hughes’ score was before he wrote The Big Sea. But it’s like Joan Jett said about rock: “It’s over; the posers have won.” With so many lemmings enrolling in MFA programs, despite the fact that everyone knows they’re a complete waste of time, and so many schools offering them, they are an institution that is here to stay and that is becoming entrenched deeper and deeper every year. Nice job. You have successfully taken one of the beautiful, free things that belonged to all people, the gift to express themselves through stories, and turned it into a low-level bureaucracy where the most hammered-out, lifeless, timid writing is praised as “fine.” As for me, I will go to the same MFA program that Joyce, Hemingway, Kerouac, Chandler, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Gogol, Flaubert, Proust, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald and everyone else worth reading went to.