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Wednesday, December 1, 2010


So many books, articles, and screeds have been written about the perils of MFA creative writing programs that, any day now, someone is going to pen an attack piece called “The Decline of the Anti-MFA Jeremiad.” Chad Harbach’s article in N+1 magazine, excerpted in Slate, starts by discussing Mark McGurl’s new book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing and then changes the terms of the standard indictment of the MFA mentality--the academic-based system of literary professionalization that critics claim has marginalized and enervated contemporary literary fiction. He gives the back of his hand to just about all kinds of writers out there, whether MFAer’s or not—except his heroes Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. But the essence of his article is his distinction between fiction from what I'll call MFA World and fiction from Literary Commerce World (i.e., the realm of New York publishers).

I’d argue with much in Harbach’s premise, but I do confess that in my own editing and teaching I’ve seen a difference between writers with an MFA mindset and those more fiercely ambitious for mainstream Manhattan publication. Writers from MFA World, whether they are teaching in it or have graduated from it, tend to focus on short stories because that is what can easily be taught and published in literary magazines; Harbach makes much of this. I find that when they venture into novel-writing, their fiction can be diffuse, admirably subtle yet underpowered. They are writing for a default audience of other writers. As a result, their fiction can be hermetic, derivative, domestic, polite. Novelists aiming for the Literary Commerce World see their audience as readers, not writers. While this is admirable of them, it also means that they can pander to those readers (and to their publishers) with easy effects. Too early in the writing process, they can envision their novels via the 10-word tagline by which all books are pitched today and end up with predictable fiction. (As Frost said, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.) They gain readers at the risk of resonance, of art.

Whether you’re a flyover-country MFAer or a Manhattan boldfaced name—or neither--somewhere in here is happy balance between writerliness and readability, texture and suspense, craft and commerce.

Chad Harbach himself may have found that happy balance. An unpaid editor at N+1, he had been laid off from his job as a copy editor when his agent sold his novel to David Foster Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch at Little Brown for $650,000. No word on whether he has an MFA.


  1. Some of my clients out of MFA programs are so concerned with literary device, novelistic structure and craft that they never get to move inside their characters.

    I see a clique that begins with the professors/published writers who either approve or don't approve of students and send them on or not to agents who then send them on to the same editors who now have received the heads up from the agent and the professor/published writer, then the book is endorsed by other graduates out of the same food chain. What I see happening, except for the cream which rises to the top (the cream always rises to the top and always will, I beleive)is that readers are fed through a tunnel with one way in and one way out.
    The programs remind me of a franchise, like Dunkin Donuts where the students are sent off to donut school.
    Once we had a guest at our meeting who was talking about his writing program and everyone thought it sounded great. When I asked him if he didn't think it was actually true that people either had it naturally or they didn't the room got really quiet. But that is what I believe. You can discipline talent and perception of how characters really work, but you can't conjure it up. We do the reader a disservice when we promote mediocre writers as awesome, talented, gorgeous, elegant and so on. Readers know better here and I think it is an insult to their intuition and a turn off to avid readership.

  2. Donut school! I love that, Sandi. ideally what you call a food chain, teachers and their students would call mentoring. I do feel that mentoring is the default way to make it past the literary border guards who will stamp your passport and admit you into Valhalla, or at least Limbo (to mash up my otherworld references). But that mentoring process can indeed suffocate other voices that might be more original, thus rewarding only those who play by the rules. It also encourages writers who have sleek social skills--skills that can be antithetical to the lonely and cranky work of making good writing.