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Saturday, March 14, 2015

The MFA article that went viral on the internet


What are his main points:

Writers are born with talent.

If you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it.

If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.

If you aren't a serious reader, don't expect anyone to read what you write.

No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty writer.

You don't need my help to get published.

It's not important that people think you're smart.
We might consider a PhD version of this. It wouldn't be the same, because creative writing and critical scholarship in the humanities are not identical. Still, I honestly don't see the objections to this article, aside from a tasteless joke about child abuse.

My list would start like this:

You probably shouldn't get a PhD in literature (foreign language or English) if you only read the books assigned to you by your professors.

If you don't have serious interest both in literature of the past and in your own contemporaries...

From a follow up interview:
People think you're an asshole for saying some people have more talent than others.

In what part of life is this not true?


Anonymous said...

One of the comments in the piece, I liked: CW isn't just a fine art.

I looked up the FL program at Georgia Tech today because one of our really good students has an interview with them. It is not a literary program at all but it sure is serious and sure does fit the mission of the institution.

So I am not sure -- I tend to dislike CW programs and their products, but I would still like to enroll in one because it would be a program of study and would force regular, designated time to devote to this kind of writing, the way graduate school in literature does to the study of literature, and so on.

Andrew Shields said...

Excellent summary of the points.

First one: Talent. Sure, but so what? If you admit somebody to a grad program who turns out not to have the talent that it takes, then they don't do well in the program. A mistake made by the admissions people as much as anything.

Second: commitment as a teenager. While this may be true of other arts (hardly anybody becomes a professional musician who has not committed to music by the end of their teens at the very latest), it is not true of writing. There are plenty of examples of successful writers who commit to writing later in their lives (Louis Begley and Amy Clampitt being two recent American ones).

Third point: no time to write. I agree with RB here. What is an MFA program supposed to do but give you time to write?

Fourth point: serious reader. I agree here, too. But reading DFW and Bolzano is not the only way to be a serious reader. I know many serious readers who have read neither. Plus, RB's list of serious writers is strikingly white and male ...

Fifth point: memoirs and shitty writing. Well, duh. Again, if an MFA program admits someone who turns out to be a shitty writer, then it's the program's fault as much as anything.

Sixth point: publishing. Do you help your grad students get their scholarly work published? Do you provide tips about where to submit articles? Why shouldn't an MFA teacher provides such help?

Seventh point: so what?

In short, I think he has a few good points, but there's more to it than just "you suck, writing students."

Andrew Shields said...

Here's George Szirtes's response to the piece:


Thomas said...

Szirtes has the right attitude, I think. "People who complain that creative writing courses produce relatively few writers don't complain that history degrees produce few historians."

Even if the function of MFA writing programs is to show people the limits of their talent, they're serving a function. Instead spending thirty years thinking of yourself as an unsuccessful writer, you might spend a couple of years learning you should be trying to succeed at something else.

People like RB, of course, would probably be a good idea to have in the faculty mix. Until they can't stand themselves in that role any more. At which point they go viral, I guess.

Anonymous said...

I like the Szirtes piece too. What I object to in the original one is the idea that you have to be a certain way and the author knows what it is.

Of course there is talent, some people are good at some things, and so on, and some people are particularly interested and so do more work and are more independent, and so on, and so forth.

I just got a flash of insight about certain blog posts by professors, including but not limited to this one: is the advice on how to be a graduate student a reaction to having to deal with a lot of non good graduate, while also not really bad students? And to the fact that we are now supposed to mentor well enough that everyone gets the degree, instead of just letting some fail?