Monday, November 22, 2010

The Frey about the Flaw in the MFA Today

The writing community has been lighting up with sarcasm over the news that James Frey has been going to MFA classrooms, trying to sign up innocent young writers to his new get rich scheme in which they do their writing as work for hire, and get paid $250, plus the promise of "maybe some more dollars later if I sell it to the movies." James Frey, of course, is the writer who is most famous for the revelation that his lurid best-selling "memoir" A Million Little Pieces was shown to be mostly made up. Not a problem if he were a fiction writer, of course-- but the book was sold as an amazing true story.

John Scalzi is amazed that any considers this at all, and suggests that it's a deadly flaw in the MFA program-- the MFA programs pretend to concentrate on art, and doesn't suggest that students give a moment's attention to business. So, basically, in terms of their business accumen, MFA students are all sheep ready to be sheered by the first hustler to come along.
Scalzi's suggestion-- in An Open Letter to MFA Writing Programs (and Their Students) is pretty simple: look, guys, teach your students a little bit about the business of writing.

Elise Blackwell, of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, makes a pretty weak defense of the MFA program, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her proposition is that the goal of MFA programs is “not to grow hothouse flowers, but to protect writers for two or three short years so that they [can] write a book without distraction.” (Yow. So, basically, the point of a MFA program is that you spend a bunch of money primarily so you have a good excuse for why you don't have a job?)

Scalzi responds here.

Mark Tiedemann comments further in Digital Muse.


John B. Burroughs said...

"So, basically, the point of a MFA program is that you spend a bunch of money primarily so you have a good excuse for why you don't have a job?"

This made me chuckle.

I've actually considered pursuing an MFA - not because I need to justify not having a job (I've not worked in that sense since 2007) but because I sometimes think the credential (just the adding of a graduate degree of any sort) will improve the looks of my resume and help me land some sort of job, not necessarily even in the writing or teaching fields. Maybe an MA would serve me better. But so far I don't pursue either, partly because I think simply writing a great book will serve me best - and because, whether or not I'd choose for this to be so, I lack a 40-hour "day job" to prevent me from writing that book.

Alas, a plethora of non-paying day and night jobs supporting the arts are playing that preventative role instead. Which brings me back to considering the MFA - maybe it'll help me score a grant so I can continue doing what I love and avoid a "real" job. ;)

pottygok said...

I'm wondering if the reason the MFA programs don't teach about the business of writing is that too few of them KNOW about the business of writing. The general formula seems to be "spend money to get a degree" followed by "spend money to publish" (submission fees, contest fees, etc.). Ideally, the poet sooner or later "breaks even" (as Eliot Khalil Wilson claimed to with the publication of The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go) but with enough publishing credits to his name to land a university job and help others work their way through the process.

However, this is a really crappy business model, especially considering that many of the books that get published, be they chapbooks or full length collections, largely go ignored by the reading public. Promotion of one's books is ignored by these programs, if not looked down upon, and I'm wondering if this is solely because Universities don't know how to advertise, or aren't creative enough with their advertising to promote a book beyond other universities of MFA publications. For presses that are university subsidized and rake in $10,000-20,000 a year in entry fees, you'd think they'd have decent advertising beyond ads in the AWP Chronicle or similar publications.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau