Friday, February 25, 2005

MFA -- many fools available?

A while back I thought about writing a post on creative-writing degrees in the UK. And I actually started to do a bit of research. But I soon gave up. You know why? Because it was too bloody depressing, that’s why. It was depressing even to think about doing the research, much less actually to do it.

Creative-writing degrees, like all degrees, are offered by universities, and the oldest and most famous such courses, in world terms, are those offered by American universities. These are usually postgraduate degrees, requiring (it seems) two years of full-time study (or even three) plus the expenditure of substantial sums of money on fees, accommodation, keeping yourself alive, et cetera. In the US the courses usually lead to the award of a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) qualification.

Now it so happens that I know a great deal about universities. I studied or worked in them for the best part of thirty years. I have three degrees myself (MA, MEd, and PhD). And I wrote a rather scholarly book, published by the Open University Press in 1988, and entitled The Goals of Universities; in its day it was modestly influential. There are, therefore, few people in this world who are more enthusiastic than I, in principle, about the benefits of higher education. But there are limits. And by God the creative-writing degrees of this world exceed them.

What I was going to do was draw up a checklist for anyone mad enough to be thinking of taking a creative-writing degree. (I say mad enough because, of course, as you may have gathered by now, I have absolutely no faith whatever in courses of this nature. More of why below.) This checklist would give the student a clear idea of what to look for when choosing a creative-writing course. And the list would include some of the following:

Does the course have clearly stated objectives?
Are the costs of the course clearly set out?
Who teaches the course, and what have they written?
Are the benefits of taking the course clearly identified?
What is the average increase in earnings among graduates of the course?

And so forth. All fairly basic stuff, but most of it questions that potential students fail to ask. Remember please that I have had a lot of experience with students who take postgraduate courses, particularly mature students. What tends to happen is that, after they have taken their first degree, students go out into the world and get a job. And then after three or four years they see other people making faster progress than they are; earning more money; getting promoted.

Success in employment tends to be linked with success of other kinds: the successful graduates have nice cars, comfortable apartments, and glamorous boy/girlfriends. And so those who are not doing quite so well, after earning their first degree, say to themselves, Gee, if only I had a Masters in Cooking the Books, or a PhD in Flattery of Bosses as Recommended by Machiavelli, then all my problems would be solved. So they sign up for second degree. Often at considerable cost in time and money and effort.

In order to take the higher degree they have to give up their existing job. This loses them a couple of years of valuable work experience. They cease to earn money, and begin to spend substantial amounts of it on fees and living expenses. And then they complete the course, after an enormous effort, and guess what. Nothing goes quite the way they expected.

It turns out that employers are not too impressed by a Masters degree in Cooking the Books from the University of Chipping Sodbury. They prefer someone with a track record of achievement in a real job. So it’s hard for the new graduate to get back in employment at all, much less in a job which pays more and leads to all those juicy benefits which were expected. And the debts mount up. And the boy/girlfriend bogs off and finds someone else.

So then the new graduate begins to sue the university which gave them the higher degree. But that’s another story.

All of this applies with nobs on to degrees in creative writing. Taking such a degree – even the most prestigious MFA at the top university in the world (whichever that may be) – is not going to guarantee that anyone will publish your novel. And if it’s published there is certainly no guarantee that the critics are going to like it, or that the public will buy it. So you may end up having spent a vast amount of money, two or three years of your time, and be effectively far worse off in many ways than you were when you started.

All those things are what I was going to point out in my original proposed post on creative-writing degrees in the UK, and I was going to demonstrate the truth of these propositions with evidence drawn from various quarters. Except, as I say, that I found the mere contemplation of the exercise so depressing that I abandoned the idea.

I was reminded of all this, however, by the storySouth web site, which I mentioned yesterday. Jason Sanford, the fiction editor of storySouth, has an article on the web site entitled ‘Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust’. I recommend that it should be read by anyone who is even remotely tempted to contemplate taking an MFA or the equivalent.

The word ‘disgust’ in the title tells you that Sanford has his reservations about the world of MFA, and with good reason. This essay is apparently a revised version of one which appeared earlier, and which aroused a certain amount of comment and ire. It was interpreted as an attack on anyone who has ever taken a college writing course. Well, attack is too strong a word, and it's not written in terms of individuals. The essay simply points out what is blindingly obvious, namely that the world of creative-writing teaching is incestuous, mediocre, bland, and in general something of a racket. Whether consciously so devised or otherwise, the MFA is essentially a machine for separating ambitious fools from their money, and it works very well.

Sanford ends his essay by saying that if anyone can write an essay countering his arguments, he will gladly publish it. We shall see.

Sanford also provides useful links to other articles and essays on the MFA fiasco. The most illuminating of these is perhaps the one by Briggs Seekins, 'The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents'. As the title indicates, this deals specifically with the world of poetry, as seen during his three-year course of studies at Syracuse University, and afterwards.

Seekins is alarmingly frank, and is not afraid to reveal his past self as distressingly naive. But he was, of course, no more foolish than any other applicant to such a course. Here is what he says about himself prior to becoming a student:
I wanted to become a successful poet.... I wanted to have poetry books with my photograph on the back. I wanted to be admired by pretty, bookish women. I wanted to give readings in bookstores and on campuses. I wanted to be a sophisticated, liberal intellectual who drank wine with other sophisticated, liberal intellectuals, while talking expansively about literature and life.
Today, fortunately for Seekins's mental health and general welfare, he realises that 'my "literary" aspirations were petty and mediocre and my ideas about high culture were naive and politically uninformed.'

Reading Briggs Seekins's article should, with luck, put anyone off the idea of trying to become a poet via the academic route.

There is more. Sanford also offers a link to an article in Salon by Sarah Gold. She too reveals the amazing naivety both of herself and her fellow students. Midway through the course, she and her friends suddenly realised that they were 'running up huge student loans' and for what?

What we'd realized, of course, was the trickiest thing about graduate arts programs: They can't promise anything. Unlike graduate degrees in law or medicine or business, completing a master's degree in writing wasn't going to guarantee us a higher level of income, a more highly esteemed professional position or even respect from our friends. In fact, it had dawned on us, we could all excel in our writing classes, graduate with honors and then find ourselves in exactly the same place we were when we started. Only poorer.
OK. Enough. Let us end this discussion so that we can think about something less depressing, such as the war in Iraq or the possibility of dying from Avian Flu.

I have read somewhere that there are 140 creative-writing degrees on offer in the UK. I don't know whether that's a correct estimate. What I do know is that 14, or even 1.4, would be too many. Taking such a course will teach you nothing that you can't find out for yourself from a dozen or so books, plus lots and lots of PRACTICE.

And if you think a degree course might help you with personal contacts, then forget the course and for goodness sake go to London and get a job in a publisher's office, or work for an agent.

Wake up. Get real. Stop dreaming useless dreams.

Later Note, 9 March 2013: If by any chance you were led here by Google or similar, you may like to know that there is now a web site which provides useful info on Masters degrees in Business Administration, and other subjects. The MBA, unlike the MFA, is a degree which normally inspires some respect in the human resources departments of major companies. Here's the link.

16 comments:

Peter L. Winkler said...

Great post. One could write a long essay on the high cost of being a wannabe writer, even if you don't take an MFA program. I think of all the courses, books, magazines and computer software that's available for aspiring writers of nonfiction, fiction, and screenplays. One can spend thousands and there's no end to it-it's an open-ended obsession.

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Michael,
I loved this post and even saw the dark humour in it. I've had no formal training in writng. Still, I do find myself being able to write a decent number of poems. I've always felt that if I was meant to be a published author, then when it's completed, someone may publish it. I think I preferred to hone my writing craft in other ways. So for years, I travelled to places like Jordan, Sri Lanka and East Africa - even the South Pacific and tried to live life as passionately as I could; soaking up each experience for my own. When I read good fiction I try to read it with a purpose and a view to improving my own. I like the whole experience of being a writer - sitting in cafes, observing people (very discreetly) and all that. Believe me, some of the deep insights I've received from this old world journey, Michael, no university course in creative writing, could have taught me. cheers and have a good weekend!

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Michael,
A correction to the post above:
I meant to say:
I always felt that if I was meant to be a published author, then when my book is completed, someone would publish it.
AND NOT TO SAY:
'...then when its completed, someone may publish it.'

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. I have not been MFA'd. I thought about it right after college, even applied, but at the last minute decided to try life instead and moved to NYC.After that I spent 20 years reading and raising kids and writing and living among non-writers and reading some more and rewriting and finally completing my FIRST novel in my 40's. Luckily, I did find an enthusiastic agent who is trying to sell my novel. But when I read about these 20 something writers who went straight from college into MFA programs I can't help but wonder if I made the right choice. I still don't know since a lot of them are getting book contracts while I still wait. But it was refreshing to read your take on the MFA.

Anonymous said...

an addendum to the above comment. It sounds as if I had kids right after college and that is not the case. I worked many odd jobs, too. Waitress, chamber maid, big and tall men's sales person, advertising exec, stand-up comic, teacher at a yeshiva and inner city high school among others.

pinch said...

This is my advise to young and old considering spending 20,000 and two years on an MFA- save yourself lots of time and money and learn more than you could ever imagine (also absent in MFA programs): read Faulkner, especially Light in August - and yes you will have to read it over and over and over; but what wonderment! then go to Marquez and then . . .

Kate Johns said...

Ever since Briggs Seekins did his expose of MFA or shall I say MAFIA programs, I have been hearing despicable rumors to the effect that he was accused (falsely) of plagiarism and making sexist statements. For example he is supposed to have made offensive comments about Carolyn Forche's looks sexual activity. I wonder whether they are out to get him now that he has revealed them for what they are.

Dan Schneider said...

As the person who originally posted Briggs Seekins' MFA piece I can tall you that many people have contected me to contact him.
The truth is that any contact information re: Briggs's locale or person is not verifiable.
A year or so ago I tried contacting him and thru a variety of sources found that he was, at last sighting, living in a shelter for homeless veterans in Maine. This I got from another place where some of his work appeared. Its validity I do not know, but the rumors of plagiarism are news to me. As for any comments re: Ms. Forche's looks or lack of writing talent is probably a confusion with other essays that I have done on her, exposing her literarily fellatric career, not Mr. Seekins. Dan Schneider

Victoria Yeager said...

"Fellatric career"? Are you serious? What did Carolyn Forche do to desevre such an ugly sexist disgraceful epithet from the ever-inventive Dan Snide Schmuck? Whoever you are, Schneider, you're a pompous ass, immune to irony, and able to convert self-delusion into self-righteousness. You'd do better in Italy circa 1935 (see Bertolucci's "Conformist").

Dan Schneider said...

Vidtoria,
You seem to have self-righteousness covered, as well being immune to honesty and intellect. Like Forche, you fit in well with the PC Blackshirts. DAN

Anonymous said...

he was working in a shelter for homeless youth, not living in a shelter for homeless veterans.

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