14 May 2006

To MFA or not to MFA?

Is that the question?

Aspiring writers in North America may not have a choice in answering that. Most magazines, literary agents and publishers ask for creative arts credentials. The glitzier the better. So just how good are these programs? A Columbia University professor criticizes the mediocrity of the faculty and of most of the students in the writing division in Columbia's School of the Arts. Sam Sacks in a review of Jane Smiley's collection of new writers' works, Best New American Voices 2006, thinks these professionalized MFA "products" are rule-bound and unoriginal. Here's what he says about the stories in the anthology.

"All but one of them are written in the first person; a similar percentage hinge upon the narrator's difficulties with dysfunctional or deceased members of his or her family, or with ex-lovers. The tone is always confessional and saturated with self-pity. The plot and action are always negligible: one story takes place on a road trip to a presidential birthplace, another while moving apartments, another at a wedding, another while opening presents in front of the Christmas tree."

Our Girl in Chicago agrees with Sacks about the soul-destroying character of writing workshops but wonders if he didn't overlook the quality of the teaching in criticising the programs. Writing practice to a deadline, receiving criticism and giving it surely benefit an author. Regardless of its value, we suspect the real currency of an MFA may lie in the marketplace, in the formation of a network of contacts who can further each other's careers. All of which makes one wonder what happens to new and emerging writers in countries where BFAs and MFAs don't exist. Soon it may not be enough just to read great books and write well. Sad, really, if it’s true.

1 comment:

Rebecca Jane said...

I've been having this very convesation with my writing buddy. She went through a program. I didn't. What amazes me is that, after graduating, she knows very little about marketplace trends and concerns. I'll have to encourage her to milk the benefits of her network. Thanks for your post. I appreciate your insight.