Once, a while ago, I wrote a long post in response to claims that MFA programs are ruining American literature. It’s the kind of thing that seems to be revived on the internets every few months. I took down my post because I got bored just writing it. But wow, now there’s this weirdly rude and aggressive screed. I just always wonder–what do these people think MFA programs are like? Like, do they imagine adjective counters and Freytag-o-meters that calibrate grades based on some preset parameters (“The word count on your falling action is too low. B-“)?
When I was an MFA student, I learned how to write a sentence. Not a fancy, pretty sentence. Just a sentence. Like, “Hey, see where you use the progressive tense right there? Yeah, that’s grammatically incorrect and it sounds awkward.” I learned how to step back from my own work and observe it a bit more objectively. I learned what my own creative process feels like; when to give my brain some space and when to press hard on it. Most of all, I read more widely than I ever had before. In fact, when I entered my MFA program, I was certainly a much more conservative, traditional writer than I was when I left. If anything, I came in with a preconceived idea of what a story should be and left without a clue (in a good way).
So the popular common complaint that MFA programs produce writers who all write the same (generally in the realm of realism) rings false. In practice, getting an MFA should expand one’s understanding of the ways stories can work. If this is not the case, something’s wrong.
I suspect this anxiety about MFA programs is really a misplaced and complex anxiety about class and the publishing industry’s place in late capitalism. But it’s late, and the Matrix is on TV and I don’t really feel like thinking through it all right now.
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