MythBusters: MFA Edition
While many spent December 26th sleeping off Christmas cookie hangovers, Seth Abramson was continuing his Creative Writing MFA myth-busting over at The Huffington Post. Each of Abramsons' six points debunk ideas that the MFA environment is overpopulated, immature, and diluted by a focus on money, a contradiction that becomes immediately apparent when the myths accuse both the students and the programs of only being hungry for each other's money. The big one for December is the sheer scale of what, at first glance, might look like the MFA mill of legend that churns out thousands of feebly literate puppies a year. They might write cute, but they're ill-equipped for the real world and only end up perpetuating the system that produced them. That's how it goes, right?
1. There are more than 800 MFA programs now in operation.
In fact, there are 198 low-residency and full-residency programs in the world, with over 95% of these located in the United States. The higher figure comes from a misreading of data released annually by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), which recently calculated the total number of creative writing "programs" of any type in North America and the United Kingdom: everything from non-degree-granting creative writing "tracks" within undergraduate English majors to non-terminal Master's degrees in English with the possibility of a creative thesis, from doctoral programs in English Literature with the possibility of a creative dissertation to the 198 low-residency and full-residency MFA programs referenced above (152 full-residency MFA programs offering study in fiction, poetry, and/or nonfiction, and 46 low-residency MFA programs offering study in these genres and others, such as screenwriting, children's literature, and dramaturgy).
The fact that Abramson has had to devote two posts (for a total of twelve myths) to refuting these commonly heard complaints points to an animosity toward the Creative Writing MFA that's difficult to pinpoint. Who's responsible for the myths in the first place and what are they intended to accomplish or critique? In his September post, Abrams highlights one myth in particular that stands out: "MFA programs produce "cookie-cutter" writing."
If the nation's bookshelves are filled with mediocre poetry and fiction, it's not the fault of the MFA, whose pedagogical setpiece (the workshop) lends itself not to consensus but dialogue and even argument. With the average age of a starting MFA student being twenty-six, most workshop participants already hold strong views on aesthetics they're not likely to sacrifice lightly. And professors' aesthetics are sure to be widely divergent. So if tepid "mainstream" work seems ubiquitous, consider that this phenomenon pre-dates the MFA—and that those responsible include editors, who flood stores with cookie-cutter dreck; readers of such dreck, who demand more of it; and critics, who reward dreck with ostentatious praise.