Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.

The proliferation and power of M.F.A.s in creative writing have created heated scholarly debate. Aspiring novelists, take note.

BY CECILIA CAPUZZI SIMON, The New York Times, April 11, 2015 >>

     It was peak reading season, and Lan Samantha Chang, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was gamely juggling a call from a reporter, interruptions from her 7-year-old as well as a 10 percent surge in applications to the University of Iowa’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. Ms. Chang was in the thick of decisions about who would fill 50 spots evenly divided between the fall fiction and poetry workshops.

“I’m deluged,” she said, surprised by the number of applications she was sorting through — 1,380 — especially in a year with a stronger economy, a condition that typically causes graduate school applications, never mind those to fine arts programs, to drop. “I have a tub of manuscripts,” she said. “It’s weird!”

Perhaps, she speculates, the surge is a result of the juggernaut HBO series called “Girls,” the one where the neurotic aspiring novelist Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham, takes off to the Iowa cornfields and shines a bright light on the venerated program.
More likely, the swell in applications is not so weird.

“Explosive” is the word routinely used to describe the growth of M.F.A. programs in creative writing. Iowa was the first, established in 1936. By 1994, there were 64. By last year, that number had more than tripled, to 229 (and another 152 M.A. programs in creative writing), according to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Between 3,000 and 4,000 students a year graduate with the degree; this year, about 20,000 applications were sent out.

A graduate writing degree, unsurprisingly, turns out a lot of opinionated writing. Sample manifestoes from blogs and chat rooms: “Why you should hate the creative writing establishment (…as if you needed any more reasons)” and “14 Reasons (Not) to Get an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (and Two Reasons It Might Actually Be Worth It).” In scholarly circles, the boom and its implications have been a subject of heated debate since at least 2009, with the publication of Mark McGurl’s “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing.” In it, Dr. McGurl, a Stanford English professor, describes the M.F.A. as the single biggest influence on American literature since World War II, noting that most serious writers since then have come out of graduate-school incubators.
Chad Harbach followed with a 2010 essay, “MFA vs. NYC,” in the journal n+1. Last year, he edited a book of essays, with the same title, on the credential’s influence. Mr. Harbach describes two centers of American fiction: New York City, the traditional hub, and M.F.A., the encroaching university writing program, or “the M.F.A. beast,” as he calls it. Even writers without the degree, writes Mr. Harbach, who earned his from the University of Virginia, have “imbibed the general idea and aesthetic. We are all M.F.A.s now.”
That’s not necessarily a negative notion, according to Dr. McGurl and Mr. Harbach (who received a $650,000 advance for his first novel, “The Art of Fielding”). But it seems to trouble many others, especially aspiring novelists and poets. With so many highly tutored creative writers already out there, is success possible without the instruction and literary connections that are cultivated in M.F.A. programs and that a volatile publishing industry — now evolved around program graduates and sensibilities — has come to look for and expect?
To M.F.A. or not to M.F.A.?
“It is a deadly question,” says the literary critic Anis Shivani, author of the 2011 book “Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies.” “Everyone who wants to be a writer in this country has to confront it, even if you rebel against the M.F.A.,” he says. “If you do the degree, opportunities open up.” Without it, he warns, you may be able to publish in small presses but are more likely to be “condemned to obscurity,” particularly if you write literary fiction and poetry. And your writing will change, he says, and not necessarily for the better.
Detractors like Mr. Shivani say the degree is responsible for so-called program fiction — homogenized, over-worskshopped writing void of literary tradition and overly influenced by the mostly upper- and middle-class values and experiences of its students. Others describe an inherently unfair system that all but requires aspiring writers to attend schools many cannot afford or otherwise access. They see a self-generating track to the literary establishment, on which the most fortunate jump to fellowships, writing colonies, agents, publishing deals and professorships, where they are indoctrinated into the status quo.
Of course, one doesn’t need an M.F.A. to write. “Just ask Samuel Delany, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, Colson Whitehead, Hilton Als and Emily St. John Mandel, who is not only M.F.A.-less, she’s B.A.-less,” says Junot Díaz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and M.F.A.-holder who has been a vocal critic of the degree.
With so much seemingly working against it, it is astounding the degree has gained traction at all. But there is another argument, and another list — prominent literary writers and poets with M.F.A.s and a diverse pool of work: Jhumpa Lahiri (Boston University), Phil Klay and Gary Shteyngart (Hunter College), Michael Chabon (University of California, Irvine), Ayana Mathis (Iowa), Jay McInerney (Syracuse University), Saeed Jones (Rutgers) Manuel Muñoz (Cornell), Ocean Vuong (New York University), David Foster Wallace (University of Arizona). The list could go on. And on.
In an essay in the book “MFA vs. NYC,” George Saunders, a professor in Syracuse’s program, writes that there are so many negative myths about the M.F.A. that they have become clichés. “Most critiques I read of creative writing programs or writing in the academy are kicking entities that don’t actually (in my experience) exist.”
Karen Russell, whose book “Swamplandia!” was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize when she was 29, is similarly inured to the critics. What did Columbia’s M.F.A. program do for her? “Basically everything,” she says. “I’m not even sure what I’d be writing now if I hadn’t gone.”
Success stories like Ms. Russell’s or Mr. Harbach’s fuel the fantasy. “It’s no surprise that the promise of the M.F.A. — to make you, if you’re lucky, a famous, well-paid author — strikes so many people with even the smallest literary dream as utterly irresistible,” Mr. Díaz says.
Other realities conspire to make the M.F.A. one of the fastest growing graduate degrees. Among them: the pervasiveness of digital media and celebrity culture, where anyone with a blog feels like a best-selling novelist-in-waiting; the rise of memoirs, a natural extension of the online selfie writing culture; the popularity of magical realism and noir fiction novels, which have turned many 20-somethings on to literature; and changes in generational attitudes, aspirations and culture.
“The younger generation is making career choices determined by quality of life,” says Jeannine Blackwell, dean-in-residence at the Council of Graduate Schools and a professor at the University of Kentucky. That, she says, goes hand in hand with a focus on reinvigorating urban communities through theater, art installations, food culture and centers for literature and writing.
Jean McGarry, a chairwoman of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, says that the teaching of creative writing has taken on even more significance because the way we learn has changed. Evolution in the Hopkins program reflects that. The program started as a one-year Master of Arts and attracted students older than the average 26-year-old in today’s full-residency programs. They were mainly writers with material in need of guidance and derailed by career or family, says Ms. McGarry, who earned an M.A. at the school under John Barth in 1983. Mr. Barth, a National Book Award winner in 1973, called his students “advanced apprentices.”
M.F.A. students today, Ms. McGarry says, are less developed writers; faculty “are doing more of the work of writing” for them. She sees that as a reflection of undergraduate education that emphasizes specialization and pre-professionalism, with little room for the arts, reading or writing. Students have come to expect education to be prescriptive, she says. In 2006, Hopkins changed the program to an M.F.A., adding a year because students needed more time to develop.
“Our understanding of what it takes to be an artist is geared to an era’s myths,” Ms. McGarry says. What the rise of the M.F.A. tells us about our era’s myths, she says, is that “the arts are more inculcated than they were before. It’s no longer the genius coming out of the ground fully fledged.”
Every program has its own character. Hopkins is known to be cerebral; Brown, experimental; Boston University, at one year, intense; University of Arkansas, at four years, academic. The best provide a temporary respite from a fast-paced culture unsympathetic to the pursuit of art for art’s sake, and an opportunity to find a community of like-minded people who validate your work and motivations. They allow students to test their stamina (and talent) for what Timothy Donnelly, chairman of the Writing Program at Columbia, calls a “radical lifestyle choice.”
The best also hone technique and train students to read analytically. Ideally, as Mr. Donnelly puts it, students develop an appreciation for the “sensuous aspect of language” and the ability to translate their experience of life onto the page. “I look at this very idealistically,” he says. “And then I think, ‘Well, let’s roll up our sleeves.’”
Creative writing programs are designed as studio or academic models. Often, programs combine aspects of both. They typically offer fiction and poetry tracks, though “creative nonfiction” is gaining ground, as are screenwriting and playwriting. Some distinguish themselves by focusing on thematic writing. Antioch University, Los Angeles, has a social justice emphasis; Chatham University in Pittsburgh emphasizes environmental writing; Pratt Institute in New York has social justice and environmental tracks.
About a fifth of M.F.A. programs are low-residency — they meet for about two weeks on campus or some other on-ground spot (New York University, for example, gathers low-residency students in Paris); the rest of the semester is conducted online.
Studio programs mimic conservatories and focus exclusively on the writing craft. Academic programs require other coursework, sometimes literature, foreign language or translation courses.
At the core of every program is the writing workshop, the so-called Iowa model because it originated there. In its strictest form, it works like this: Classmates evaluate and write detailed comments about students’ work, then sit around a table and “workshop” the piece. The writer sits silently while classmates comment first on what is working, then go back around to comment on what is not. The instructor weighs in. Only then can the author respond.
In the workshop, writing is deconstructed and put back together. Relationships are formed. A skilled instructor can point out flaws and suggest techniques it might otherwise take years to figure out. “You develop a keener sense of your readers,” Ms. Russell says. “When 14 people tell you something isn’t working, you listen.”
The workshop is so central to the experience that programs often screen out applicants who could be problematic. “We read the personal statement closely,” says Ellen Tremper, chairwoman of Brooklyn College’s English department. “We try to see if a person seems rational and, frankly, unneurotic, because if you get someone with a screw loose, it can be disruptive to the group.”
Achieving workshop harmony can be a challenge. John McNally, an Iowa graduate who based a satirical novel, “After the Workshop,” on a washed-up graduate of the Iowa program, has described his own experience there as affected by “bitter jealousies, competition” and writing to please instructors and classmates.
Writing can get “workshopped to death,” Mr. Shivani says. He also points out that criticism is coming primarily from peers who “are people who don’t know anything about writing, which is why they are in the program.”
The workshop can take getting used to. David Wingrave, a New York University student, says that at first the camaraderie, the attention on his work and the mounds of feedback were “thrilling.” But it was easy to lose focus and feel frustrated, and he learned to rely on only a few trusted readers.
Most famously, Junot Díaz wrote in a New Yorker essay last year about racial and ethnic insensitivity during his time in Cornell’s program in 1992. “Too white,” he wrote, “as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc.).”
Cornell’s current director, J. Robert Lennon, says that while the program lacked a diverse faculty 23 years ago, half of today’s tenure-track faculty members are “writers of color” and split evenly between men and women. And, Mr. Lennon notes, Mr. Díaz’s student cohort was “100 percent writers of color,” which Mr. Díaz did not report.
“I don’t doubt that Junot had a hard time here; some students do,” Mr. Lennon says. “The workshop can be a contentious and at times hurtful environment, and I’d imagine that it can be particularly vexing for students who experience discrimination every day outside of class.”
One equalizer has been the availability of more financial aid. Some elite, smaller programs waive tuition and provide a stipend (Hopkins pays $30,000 a year, Cornell $26,000) for every student, typically requiring work in a related position, such as being a teaching assistant. Iowa, Syracuse University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan also have fully funded programs.
With tuition high for a degree not known for its marketplace potential — on average $27,600 for a two-year program at a public university, $72,600 at a private — funding is often the deciding factor in program choice.
Financial aid at most M.F.A. programs is likely to be partial, if available at all. Low-residency programs typically offer no grants or T.A. slots. Brooklyn College may seem a bargain at $14,580 in tuition for its two-year program ($20,700, out of state) but the program loses talent to schools that provide full tuition remission and stipends, Ms. Tremper says.
The class entering Boston University’s one-year creative writing program this fall will be the first in which all students receive a full tuition waiver and a $12,800 stipend. Before that, says Leslie Epstein, who was the director for 36 years before stepping down last year, it too lost students to schools with better aid packages, prompting it to up its game.
But Mr. Epstein and some others in the M.F.A. community get impatient with the discussion of whether it’s worth taking on debt for an M.F.A. Debt is important to consider, he says, but so is passion. “It’s art! It’s not so bad to make a sacrifice.”
Still, there is reality. Few will write the great American novel or, let’s face it, even publish work. In fact, the surge in M.F.A.s has intensified the competition.
The monthly magazine Poetry receives 100,000 submissions a year and publishes 300 poems. “The number of writers has increased, but the number of readers has not,” says Joseph Harrison, senior American editor for Waywiser Press. Mr. Harrison is coordinator of Waywiser’s Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. This year, the competition drew 33 percent more submissions.
“We can only publish so much,” Mr. Harrison says. “I have to sound a cautionary note: M.F.A. programs make money off of people’s dreams. Everyone in the system is implicated. Writers, too. It’s a bit of a house of cards. One hopes people at least understand the odds and how difficult it can be.”
Including the odds of teaching at college, which many hope to do with the terminal degree. Last year, there were just 112 tenure-track creative writing positions.
Rahul Kanakia, who graduated from Hopkins’s M.F.A. program last May, says that once out of the cocoon, degree holders face a tough adjustment to the unstructured writing life, and the grind of sending work to multiple journals and receiving multiple rejections, if they hear back at all. “It’s like, is anybody out there even reading this stuff?” he says. “Often it doesn’t feel very productive.” (Mr. Kanakia is more fortunate than most, with pending publication of a young adult novel begun at Hopkins.)
Chris Brecheen, who blogs on the M.F.A. and is contemplating pursuing the degree, says: “What writers don’t understand is that there is little pragmatic about the M.F.A.” Of a dozen writer friends who went on to earn M.F.A.s, most, he says, are now doing “whatever they might have done before getting the degree,” including restaurant management, real estate and writing Web content. One person “leveraged” the M.F.A. to work as an organizer of literary open-mike events.
Perhaps the definition of post-M.F.A. success needs to include work like that of Dr. Ronald H. Lands, a professor at the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine in Knoxville. He earned an M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte, in North Carolina, at 53; publishes stories and poems about patient experiences in JAMA and other journals; and created a course in narrative medicine for medical students. Or Jane Monteagle, an Antioch graduate, who pioneered creative writing programs in Los Angeles correctional facilities.
Many graduates, Ms. Tremper says, are likely to return to “normal jobs.” If highly motivated, they will try to squeeze in writing in hopes of the big break, and they will struggle. Prospective M.F.A. candidates, she says, need to ask: “Am I prepared for that kind of life?”
David Wingrave is willing to roll the dice to find out. He is finishing his first novel, will graduate from N.Y.U. in May and will then look for an agent.
“Before,” he says, “I had no contacts in the literary world, no sense of the process a book must go through, no ability to discuss the craft of literature, and on a day-to-day basis, no time to dedicate myself to it. At N.Y.U., I got those things.”
At the same time, he harbors no illusions about the road ahead. “I definitely need employment very soon,” he says. “Do you know of anything?”

'M.F.A. programs make money off of people's dreams,' says one editor. 'One hopes people at least understand the odds.'