Sunday, 22 May 2011


'Are MFA Programs Ruining American Fiction?'--- and by extension, are all writing progs ruining fiction in general? That is the title of an article I read recently. My reply? Nah of course they are not - on the contrary, they are encouraging, and helping, and honing.. aren't they - anything that brings new writers to publishers is good, if you ask me. But it is an interesting debate, isn't it? How do you mark manuscripts without imposing some criteria? I'm sure, if a student is clever, and wants to get good marks, they submit work they know fits the criteria, whether or not they intend to write like that in future. I'd love to reproduce an email from a fab young writer of my acquaintance, frustrated but amused at having to send in work they would 'not write off my own bat in a million years, and never will again' - However - I digress. That's the system, and if you want the qualification, you play the game. And you learn, despite yourself, probably, on the way. And my fab young writer may well be taking in all sorts of things that will feed the communication of all her amazing creations at a later date. But the article underlines a truth - you can be taught all sorts of craft - how to make your prose fine and dandy - but no one can teach your brain to come up with interesting and original stuff. Can they?
Article is in full, HERE
Here are some quotes....

“MFA grads with nothing to say are now able to say it more skillfully, (HA!! love it!) but authors were pretty good at being boring before university writing programs came along and would surely go on being boring if every MFA program were wiped off the face of the earth. The programs don't make them dull, even if they also can't make them interesting.”
“Lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, does not necessarily lead to more interesting or appealing books.”
“Anything that helps good writers publish more good books is fine by me, and the programs at the very least provide teaching jobs for talented authors who might otherwise have difficulty making a living because their work is insufficiently commercial..”

Really interesting article – very thought provoking, and I enjoyed the read because it does not come down heavily one way or the other but gives a good overview of arguments for and against.
Read, inwardly digest and discuss away then. But here are my own views...
I am slightly interested in the assertions in author bios that they have a degree, masters, M Phil, PhD, or something else, in Writing – mentioned as if it gives weight to the work that would otherwise not be there. Maybe all it is saying is ‘My work has been found worthy by others, not just my Mum’, a bit like listing publications and other successes. Or maybe I am jealous – but I don’t think so. I AM however, very jealous of the company they kept for a few years. I AM jealous of the space they had - both actual and metaphorical - to write, the permission to create, the synergy that builds up in a group of writers, the tussle, the buzz, ideas flying, the challenges thrown out from their peers and betters. The opportunities and permission to discover and try new things. I AM also jealous of the network opportunities missed, because as we all know, in this game one helluva lot depends on contacts. And to teach at a university, one needs to have a university qualification - and so the circle tightens...However.
I know many writers who teach at the highest level, have worked with some and found them extremely exciting and inspirational teachers- and would love to spend regular time with them, chewing over craft issues, discussing a piece of contentious work – published or not - and I almost did just that, once, some years back. But it didn’t go as planned.
The truth is, that had I stayed on a well-respected course, I would not have written ‘The Coward’s Tale’, as I was told not to, and for me, not writing it and doing something more acceptable for the course, wasn't an option.

But I am therefore completely unqualified in Creative Writing. But please note, I am not unqualified to write. Or to create.



  1. My experience of an MA in creative writing was that the programme was flawed in three respects.

    Firstly, it didn't encourage the students to write enough work. The only way to learn is write, write, write, fresh material all the time, not constantly revising the same tired pieces. My course had almost no focus on regular writing.

    Secondly, it was insufficiently critical. It had too much of the feel of mutual support network, as opposed to a forum for learning.

    Thirdly, there was no emphasis on the students discovering their voice. The whole thing felt artificial to me. Students could come out of the course with a better technical understanding of the writing process, perhaps, but to what end?

    And that's the bit that I think MAs and MFAs will never be able to teach. It comes through writing, reading, thinking.

  2. There is a reason I did not pursue writing beyond the odd required course here and there. :)

    Let's face it -- if MA/MFAs are truly ruining fiction as some insist they are, they serve the best purpose of all -- to provide an obstacle that can better prove a writer's mettle in whether or not they will submit to the teaching or defy it.

    Tom makes a cogent argument, though; I don't think higher education serves any practical purpose in advancing true mastery or skill, but instead feeds a primal desire to construct social pecking orders and engage in lab rat behavior. We are herded like cattle and forget that with the brand new technology of the frontal lobe (OMG! Forward thinking, anyone?), we can do better than this.

  3. Hi Tom, thanks for commenting. The revision issue is one that has been/is being aired in several places, notably Tania Hershman's blog (three-part discussion, very interesting) and Thresholds forum, hosted by Chichester Uni. I wonder if it must be very difficult to place as an academic issue, given the varieties of approach and depth of redrafting needed according to each writer and each individual work. 'Proving you have revised your work' by handing in the different drafts to your tutor was the process adhered to at one establishment cited. I can't comment, other than to say that would drain the life-blood out of the work for many. Who is to say when a piece of work is 'done'? Its the most difficult thing to 'teach' if indeed you can ever do that - but the necessity for in-depth revision is often sidelined, from experience. Too much insistence on a first draft being perfect, when sometimes, the first draft stage never appeared on paper, but was part of the internal creative process...and not recognised as such.
    It must be a bloody hard job, providing the right level of input and/or support to a whole year-group on a masters level course. Some writers will be way ahead of others, technically, be well- published - and need/want more rigorous feedback on their work. Others will still be relative newbies - with perhaps a lower-level course or two under their belts, but little else, who need gentler handling. How do you nurture both spirits? A tough call.
    The question of discovering a voice... what is that? I've never understood, or found mine - and voice was the Holy Grail when I started in 2002! Speaking as a writer who writes in as many voices as there are days in the year... at least, if I write in a recognisable voice across all the different things I've done, I don't hear it!
    Question: you say "Students could come out of the course with a better technical understanding of the writing process, perhaps, but to what end"... and I wonder what 'end' they were working towards? Learning to write well/better for the sake of it - for the pleasure of creating something good? Or because they thought publication was a dead cert at the end?

  4. This is something I often ask people who have an MFA and who I get the chance to interview on my blog - I've got another one coming up next week. And they all say the same thing, namely that it was good for the time to write and for the connections. In think the key, though, may be to remember that there are other ways of achieving those, too, without getting a degree. And I love the recognition of the fact that The Coward'sTale wouldn't have been written if you had stayed on that course. I can't get wait to get a load of their reaction when they realise just how wrong they were!!!

  5. Hello Martin - look forward to reading you in 'Art from Art' when it finally appears - it's had a long and difficult birth, this baby! I love the idea that MA/MFAs serve a purpose in making writers capitulate or not - and all submitted to voluntarily as well! And the lab rat behaviour thing - I guess that's what we do, us humans - we do like to herd, and like being led. Well, some do... Im sure there's a story there!

  6. Hi Sue - indeed, we can all find space and connections in other ways... I guess the opportunity to drool at the feet of the great doesn't often come along to the masses though! As for giving up on The Coward - well, I just have to remember that it was an opinion, and an opinion only - and the tutor who voiced it was only one person. I am keeping fingers crossed that he was marching in an army of one, or a few at most.

  7. I can't answer the main question, have no idea, although thought the article was interesting.

    Obviously the article addresses the question of MFAs or MAs but what about all the other years of education and how it has changed in different places.

    Before all these qualifications existed I personally suspect that school or college leavers, or mature students were better skilled in reading and writing to start with.

    What about other influences on creativity such as modern media and internet?

    What about age? How old are the majority of these MFA or MA students? I don't know but think having lived a little helps a writer. Financial circumstances? Family background?

    I'd sit in one of these classes myself but would they make me a better writer? I think they probably would.

    Does it matter? I think not. I had good teachers at school and parents who took me to the library. I honestly think they mattered more.

  8. Wendus, that is a really interesting observation. Maybe school-leavers were indeed better prepared for all sorts of things a few decades back - (with the rider that only the ones who studied Arts subjects would have been so prepared...). Maybe the rise in courses of all sorts is in response to a gap in people's education? Who is to say. I lived in a bleedin' library, too. My mother was a librarian...
    The course I didn't go on in the end had a range of ages, straight out of first degree (ie 20 ish) up to more elderly. (ahem...). Its not for me to comment on what people chose to write - but sure, age brings a wealth of 'stuff' to call upon. We all have imaginations though - I can imagine being 3. Can't a 20 year old imagine being 60? Course they can... but why bother? The constant bombardment of media, internet, the fame-game, X factor, appearance-obsession - etc etc thats a grand feeding trough for commercial authorship...?!

  9. Added - re school-leavers in the dark ages... I mean the Arts students were relatively well prepared for creative ventures, perhaps?

  10. Something really struck me in the documentary about the Pitmen Painters.

    They were offered a variety of classes to take but the reason many of these took art was because they were already very well read men. Unlike so many people today they didn't need literacy classes and probably debated themes or discussed the classics, and religion in the pub. Or working mens clubs.

    Their preparation for creative ventures? Maybe working in the dark made them appreciate form and colour.

    As said, I don't know if MFAs are ruining fiction but if anything is then I suspect that these courses are just one small part of a problem.