Tag Archives: MFAs

Literary Fiction–or–Wait, isn’t this supposed to be fun?

A new friend asked me over e-mail today, “What kind of novels do you write? Mystery? Romance? Sci-fi? All of the above?”

This is a question that makes me itchy all over.  The last book I wrote was set in Paris, 1928, so I guess that makes it historical fiction.  It’s got some lovin’ in it, so I guess it’s a romance.  With erotica thrown in.  But it’s also a war story with graphic battle scenes.  And there’s stuff about academia and translation and memory, and fuck, I don’t know.  It’s just a story, you know?  The book I just turned in to my editor has a lot of stuff about being foreign so I guess it’s an immigration narrative.  With crime.  And myth and folklore.  And a fair amount of sex.  And goddamn it, I hate this question.

The answer I gave my new friend was: “‘Literary fiction’ is what I’m categorized under.  Really, who knows what the fuck that means.  It means it takes forever for me to shit out one book but it has, like, substance.”

That’s the best explanation I could come up with, because “literary fiction” doesn’t mean anything.  It just means fiction.  But it’s a marketing category that’s meant to say, “this isn’t some Harlequin Romance or some space opera, this is a story for smart people. It’s written all pretty and has philosophical aspirations, unlike genre fiction.”  It’s a marketing category that pitches itself to its readers by trying to pretend it is not a marketing category.  It’s also the only answer I can give without launching into a long explanation of all the shit all my books are about.

One dude, after I told him I wrote literary fiction, said, “oh, so you write real books!”  I almost peed a little.  Clearly, my writing real books made me worth talking to.  This kind of snobbism is exhausting.  This kind of snobbism is a huge, major drawback to MFA programs.  The expectation was clearly that we were there to write “literary fiction.”  Never mind the fact that most of us couldn’t put a narrative arc together to save our lives, learning how to write something interesting to your average plebe was beneath us. This was especially stark when the poor unfortunates who were trying to write science fiction submitted their stuff in workshops.

When I was given a sci fi piece to review, I usually wrote a little disclosure at the top that stated that I don’t really read sci fi, so some of my feedback may be off-base.  I meant that since I wasn’t well-versed in sci fi, I might ask stupid questions or raise concerns that should be discarded, because I was not familiar with the conventions of the genre. One time, the teacher, a writer published in The New Yorker, the ultimate magazine for smart people, opened the workshop on a sci fi piece by saying he didn’t really read sci fi, so he didn’t know how to comment on the piece.  What he clearly meant was, this material is beneath me, why are you making me read this?

After that, I stopped putting in disclosures about my unfamiliarity with certain genres into my reviews because I realized that doing so made me sound like an asshole.  It doesn’t matter what marketing category a manuscript should be filed under.  The only question should be, is it a good story?  Is it–God forbid–fun to read?

I know!  FUN?!?!  Crazy.  Bring up the idea that a story is supposed to be fun in an MFA program and watch the practitioners of the writing craft present turn into writhing sacks full of angry badgers.  Fun is for children and the simple-minded.

The same writer who quite emphatically did not read sci fi, when confronted with a very early, very larval draft of In the Red, told me that I should take the crime part out.  I should just turn the whole thing into an immigration story, because that was a proper thing to write about.  Writing about guns and organized crime looked entirely too much like fun, it did not belong in a real book.

It must be I am a child.  It must be I am simple-minded.  I like it when stories are fun.

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Dudes. MFAs are not that bad.

Why are so many writers so angry at Creative Writing MFA programs?  Do artists of all stripes loathe academic departments where their craft is studied?  Are there a bunch of actors and musicians out there who are really pissed off at performing arts schools?  I am genuinely puzzled at all the vitriol that seems to surround the MFA question when you throw the topic at a bunch of writers.  I don’t understand why I so often run into columns discussing MFA programs as if (1) they are really important and/or (2) they shot the author’s dog.  Chill, dudes.  I went to one so I thought I’d attempt to reply to some of the most common criticisms of this much-reviled but ever-proliferating beast, the Creative Writing MFA Program:

Creativity can’t be taught:  Okay, sure, talent can’t be taught.  But craft can.  Just ask Bob Ross and his happy little trees.

Young writers shouldn’t coop themselves up in a graduate program; they should “go out and experience the world:”  This argument is always delivered with the assumption that graduate programs aren’t part of The World.  They cannot approach the realness of, say, working at an Alaskan fish processing plant.  Okay, lean in for a second while I tell you a secret: writing material comes from people, mostly the fucked up ones.  There are people everywhere, even in MFA programs, and a lot of them are fucked up.  Just watch them.  If you pay enough attention to people wherever you are, they can be used for any piece of writing you like. You could even write a novel set in an Alaskan fish processing plant based on the tortured rich kids in your writing workshop.  I promise.

MFA programs homogenize writers’ voices and worsen the general mediocrity of American letters: This argument always assumes that writing was just better in the good old days, neglecting the fact that the stuff we read now from one hundred years ago is the stuff from a hundred years ago that survived a hundred years.  So, presumably, the best stuff.  It’s been through the strainers of time.  The stuff that’s being published now looks generally crappy by comparison because it hasn’t been vetted by history yet.  (Can you imagine how much poetry must have fucking sucked in Restoration England if goddamn Alexander Pope is the best that came out of there?  Holy fuck.)  Also: if you have the kernel of a unique and compelling voice, an MFA program will not ruin you and make you sound like everybody else, I promise.  It will make you realize what you don’t want to sound like.

MFA programs allow shitty writers to delude themselves that they don’t suck and send them out all fluffed up into a world of disappointment: I think this is mostly false, because there is no way you can make it through an MFA program without thinking that you suck.  Your work will be spreadeagled and pecked over so thoroughly that you will be quite convinced that nobody sucks at writing more than you.  Yes, graduate study is a move towards validating yourself as an artist, but it is also intensely grueling, and may make you decide that you don’t want to do this after all, which is totally okay.  I would argue that the regular beatdowns you receive in MFA programs actually prepare you for the world of disappointment to follow, and that if you get your stuff published, you won’t even blink at being edited because you learned to take your punches like a man in graduate school.

All these domesticated writers in their dinky academic detention centers are ruining the romance of the Author, who should presumably be drinking and screwing a lot and shooting large animals somewhere: Plenty of drinking and screwing goes on in academic detention centers.  If you must shoot large animals, there are a couple of MFA programs up in Alaska.  You can get a huge husky and name him Frostbane, go out into the perpetual snowy night to blow away some bears, and even visit that fish processing plant if you like.

Please don't shoot me. Work on your paragraph transitions instead.

MFA programs are a pyramid scheme, fleecing stupid young people with dreams.  Yeah, kind of.  Honestly, I still feel like a bit of a dumbass having taken out a bunch of student loans to attend one.  So do careful research into MFA programs, and apply only to the ones that will fund you.  If you don’t, well, you will probably feel like a bit of a dumbass for having taken out a bunch of student loans for what is mostly a pretty useless credential.  But, you know, it’s just money.  There are worse decisions you could have made than plunking down a bunch of it to take a couple of years off to write.  If you have made that mistake, take comfort in this List of Life Decisions That Are Worse Than Taking Out Student Loans For An MFA:

  • dating a drug dealer
  • being a drug dealer
  • simmering your whole life in a shitty job you hate without ever trying to go after your dreams
  • tattooing the whites of your eyes
  • meth
  • wearing leggings as if they were pants
  • appearing on reality TV
  • loving someone who treats you badly
  • joining a cult
  • visiting England for the food
  • meth
  • taking out more student loans for two MFAs

You’re welcome.