Poetry News

But What Will You Do with that MFA, Son or Daughter?

By Harriet Staff

Elise Blackwell wrote a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education that weighs post MFA "success." Is it a tenure track job? Is it a book contract? Is it working on a fishing boat?

Here's a glimpse:

The M.F.A. program in which I teach is part of a large English department in the midst of self-study and external review. When I met with the external reviewers who visited campus, I was asked about placement. That's a word that educes defensiveness from many of us who teach in programs that grant art degrees.

Have not some of the greatest artists, musicians, and writers the world has ever known survived by working day jobs as insurance adjusters, clerks, or waiters? Have not many of them died unemployed and impoverished? Was James Joyce ever "placed" as a writer? Would I give up my car and my TIAA-CREF account in exchange for having my books read a hundred years from now? What would my students' range of answers be?

But that's not the conversation the reviewers thought they were starting, so I scratched at the larger issues before relaying some of our success stories: graduates of our program who hold tenure-track jobs after publishing books. And I reported on steps we are taking to help our students prepare for and find jobs, as well as to publish.

Graduates of M.F.A. programs have always followed a greater variety of career trajectories than their scholarly counterparts in humanities Ph.D. programs—both because they've wanted to and because they've had to. Many who enter M.F.A. programs do so because they want to take a few years out of their lives to read and write, and they have no desire to enter academe as a profession. Some want to write a best seller, land a movie deal, and put their feet up. Others plan to take assorted day jobs, to earn a living in publishing or professional writing, or to secure a patron through matrimony. One former student of mine took a job on a fishing boat because he wanted to. Another wants to bake professionally in the morning and spend the rest of the day writing. Another plans to be a stay-at-home mom who writes beautiful novels.

Others, of course, do want nice university positions. Typically their road there, if successful, is longer and contains more detours than those of their peers who write scholarly dissertations. One reason for this is that substantial publication is a prerequisite for a good teaching job in creative writing, and that almost always means a full-length book. Unlike young literature scholars, who need a book to keep the job they get, creative writers almost always need a book to get the job, plus another to win tenure. I know exactly two fiction writers who started tenure-track jobs without a book contract in hand. One has an honors-college position that includes a significant administrative component. The other, who had numerous impressive story publications, scored a 4/4 teaching load after the institution's first-choice candidate backed out at the last minute.

And, later, she looks at what probably triggered this article in the first place: the 2012 MFA Power Rankings:

The 2012 Poets & Writers ranking was controversial for several reasons, but its analysis of placement was not one of them. A couple hundred creative-writing faculty members around the country signed a letter of protest, and numerous critiques of its methodology popped up online. Ranging from knee-jerk to excellent, they mostly ignored placement. It was the silliest of the critical responses that contained a placement-related idea worth weighing: Define M.F.A. program success by counting graduates' book contracts. That the person who proffered the idea publishes "zombie-themed satires" with a publisher that offers to accelerate its submission-review process for a hundred-dollar "rush fee" both opened him to widespread Twitter ridicule and points to a problem with using publication as a placement measure. The relationship between writing quality and commercial success is irregular. And the commercial market for literary fiction is brutal.

Please understand, successful genre writers about to fire off angry comments, that I am not belittling publication and commercial success. If fame and cash are a writer's chief goals, then they are a good measure of accomplishment. Hats off to Stephanie Meyer, but what about a young Kafka? Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. Anyway, those who would emulate Meyer would spend their time much more profitably outside of an M.F.A. program. Most M.F.A. programs are foremost about nourishing writers who want to create literature, and few pretend otherwise. Of course literature and money can and do come hand in hand, but less rather than more often, even in prose and certainly in poetry.

Are you a success, reader?

Originally Published: November 8th, 2011