Monday, May 19, 2008

The Great MFA Debate

It's been raging for years. Maybe raging is too strong a word. More like people have been muttering and sputtering about it for years. One camp pushing for the academic legitimacy of a writing degree and another camp tossing around phrases like might as well spend two years and sixty thousand dollars on a cabin in the woods if you want to write.

Poets&Writers Magazine runs their Nov./Dec. with this headline every year. They print pretty much the same thing every year but lord only knows how many copies they sell to basically say do it if you want to teach. And then some midpoint people who say do it if you can do it without going into debt. And then they print one grumpy guy defending his grumpiness as a state of mind not affected by all students to strive for personal strength instead of group acceptance.


What I find more ludicrous (yes there is something even more pointless when discussion MFA programs) are the attempts at ranking schools. Since there are no numbers to crunch here the best any one can do is peer evaluation. So this list from USBC is of how good people think programs are. They are subjectively ranking programs they haven't attended or worked at and programs they might not know anyone at. Yes, they might have attended one program and teach at one other but the rest of the programs they're ranking...?

Then there was this interesting blog entry from Paper Cuts on the NYTimes site, stating that he was looking for "Cinderella Schools," writers out of one program making more money and fame than Iowa graduates. And, in the end, he couldn't get enough data to figure out anything.

Interesting experiment though. I always assumed that MFA graduates never really achieved any sort of monetary success. They taught. They published small. But unless they became the next Ron Carlson, usually the types of writing that MFA programs champion isn't popular fiction (read: limited, if any, commercial value.)

Despite this, there's all sorts of pressure, desperation and struggling, along with sleepless questing through internet forums to get whatever information possible to make a better application to MFA programs. To which end I'll publish my Statement of Purpose here in the next couple days.

I know why I wanted to get an MFA (I want to teach) but the writing world seems to just keep tearing at the subject of whether MFAs are good for writing. I've known people to say they promote sameness. That they focus on short stories and no one wants short stories. Then the next person says that MFAs are the last defense of the short story (this is the same person that claims big publishers are trying to eradicate the short story form from the literary landscape). Then there are published writers lamenting the fact that they'll have to get an MFA if they want to go any further (she told me she needs "the connections that come with an MFA"). Commercial writers are often vehemently opposed to the thought of more schooling. Probably because academic programs try to beat the genre writing out of a person if they find it lurking there. Then again have you noticed how many commercial writers used to be lawyers? That alone tells you two things: 1) education itself isn't a bad thing and 2) most people are inherently unhappy being lawyers.

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