Wednesday, October 11, 2006

My Anti-MFA Rant

Your MFA class anecdote was very interesting - and also tends to weaken your contention to some extent, as I'm guessing some of these MFA students will end up in the publishing side of the business.
So I'm in my second year as an MFA student and people ask me all the time, "What do you guys do with your degree when you graduate?" Well, I'm halfway through the program and I haven't figured that out. Some go on to be college professors of creative writing, which is what the degree qualifies you for. Some had their fun and go on with their normal lives. Some actually write.

In general, high level and mid-level MFA programs, not lesser ones from an online school,
promote a type of writing known as "literary fiction." In the publishing world, this is known as "unsellable." Most of my professors have written books I've never heard of and went out of print years ago on whatever small press they were printed on. You've got the occasional Pulitzer Prize winner, but chances are you've only got a few of those in the entire history of the program and yet these programs are churning out more and more writers each year, most of whom will not go on to any real commercial success.

There is a significant difference from what most people read and what is supposedly "great literature." Most of the fiction that has been successful in the last 30 years falls rather neatly into a genre. There is high-end fiction available on the front shelves at Barnes and Noble - Lovely Bones and The Color of Water and the like - but there's also a lot of Dan Brown. This isn't because people are stupid. This is because people want to enjoy the books they read and for the most part, people don't want to read heavily-worded 400 page rants about how miserable the author's life is.

When I was an undergrad at Brown taking creative writing workshops, I was usually one of two people who wasn't writing about a college student who was gay and smoked and described their house a lot. There'd usually be one other person in the class who would try something different, but that was about it. The main comments I got were, "Well, I actually enjoyed reading this, but it's not, like, really good stuff." I don't know. If you enjoyed it, I think I succeeded as a writer.

Once, just to piss off a professor, I wrote a story about gay vampires who smoked and had a torrid love affair beyond the other vampires' backs. I wrote this thing as a joke, but the professor got really into it, and so did the class. I couldn't figure it out, but it was really funny. Oh man, I'm still laughing about that.

What I'm getting at after rambling for a while is that the "literary world" - populated by unpublished MFA students and professors who were published once in the 1970's - is a different world from the publishing one. When the two meet and you get something that's high end and you want to read, you get a Pulitzer Prize winner. They like that sort of thing. One of my MFA professors is on the Pulitzer board. But the two do not meet very often.

(I'm a little temperamental about this because my professors often yell at me for writing stuff that's "too commercial" or "too genre-y" and then I have to take time away from my actual manuscript to write a rambling story about myself. Unfortunately I don't smoke nor am I gay or even having regular sex, so it's really hard)

18 comments:

C. said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You hit the nail on the cliched head. On similar lines, I got a question for you: I'm looking for a place to publish my short stories. I keep looking at various lit mags, but the vast majority of them seem to be for/by/about this boring creative writing/MFA lit types. My stories, on the other hand, while not low-brow pulp fiction, definitely seem too... "alive" if you will. To add to the frustration, the types of mags that I think are appropriate for my stories -Playboy, GQ, Esquire, etc- reportedly only print established writers. Any advice on how to avoid these CW/MFA oriented lit mags?

Thomma Lyn said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thomma Lyn said...

Just wanted to say thanks for this informative, nifty new blog! I'm enjoying it a great deal.

James Aach said...

Interesting. My impression has been that the hi-end fiction and general fiction publishing worlds were closer in attitude than you describe. (But my impression didn't explain genre fiction, which you have.) So you've cleared that up a bit for me. Thanks.

While my comments at the previous post do take issue with how broad the actual range of topics are in published fiction, I can certainly agree that there's much less navel-gazing angst and more entertainment value in popular literature than in the literary high-end stuff.

Thanks again for more insight from the front lines.

(BTW, your whole MFA description put me in mind of the recent movie "The Squid and The Whale", as well as some time I've spent at U. of Iowa writing workshops.)

Sustenance Scout said...

Terrific blog! Glad I found you by way of POD-dy Mouth. I did try to e-mail you a question and received an error message on your address. Any chance it's listed incorrectly?

Maria said...

the email address seems to be spelled with an "or" instead of "er" You might try changing that in the email (the.rejector versus the.rejecter)

The Rejecter said...

That was the problem. Email should work now.

Maria said...

c:

Try www.ralan.com it's one of the best listings out there. Yes, it caters to sci/fi, but the truth is, there are more mags for that kind of thing. He does list the 3 main mystery magazines also. I'm afraid there's aren't many paying mystery magazines so there just aren't that many listings. He does have the address for Playboy out there.

The Rejecter said...

Ralan.com is an excellent resource.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, rejecter, the problem with so many agents and publishers is that you're interested in selling self-consuming artifacts (you went to Brown, you'll recognize that expression) with a brief shelf-life. You equate sales with success. Stephen King had good commercial success with his early novels -- does anyone read them now? Buy them now? How about John Grisham? How about Wallerstein and Bridges Over Madison County (god what an awful book).

I read an interview that Andrew Wylie gave with La Monde where he described his method as trying to bring literature to the fore. He said that he pretty much despised Dan Brown and didn't care that 70% of the publishing world wanted more Dan Browns. There's an agent I'd give my left nut to have represent me, someone actually interested in literature and the contribution it can make to the culture, not only now but years from now.

Neil Plakcy said...

Though I'm one of those MFA graduates who went on to teach (albeit 10 years after graduating) my MFA program was very accepting of genre fiction, and the two lead faculty members (Les Standiford and James W. Hall) were publishing quite successfully in the field. I was lucky to be interested in genre fiction and in the right place at the right time. I suggest you keep writing what you want to write and wish you success in publishing when you're ready.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I just ignored that literary attitude in my MFA program and did my own thing. *shrug*

I was there to write, not suck up to the profs and they all knew it. The other students hated me for it, the profs admired me for it and me, I found I had more time to play ice hockey.

Anonymous said...

"Stephen King had good commercial success with his early novels -- does anyone read them now? Buy them now?"

Actually, yes. "The Shining", "Salem's Lot", and "The Stand" actually enjoy pretty good ongoing sales, and I don't believe they've ever been out of print.

You probably couldn't have picked a poorer example to prove your point. Early King probably has more legs than later King. I suspect that, like Dickens (another author widely read by reviled by the critical establishment of the time), King's best work will outlive his time and be considered a touchstone of its period.

Anonymous said...

In general, high level and mid-level MFA programs promote a type of writing known as "literary fiction." In the publishing world, this is known as "unsellable."

The funniest example of this in my experience was a small-press shared-universe fanzine whose editor was a fanatic about "Literary Fiction" and "Deep Character Interaction".

The genre of the 'zine?

Furry Space Opera, i.e. space opera SF where all the Deep Literary Characters (TM) are upright talking animals.

Anonymous said...

"What I'm getting at after rambling for a while is that the "literary world" - populated by unpublished MFA students and professors who were published once in the 1970's - is a different world from the publishing one. When the two meet and you get something that's high end and you want to read, you get a Pulitzer Prize winner. They like that sort of thing. One of my MFA professors is on the Pulitzer board. But the two do not meet very often."

This is a fantastic explanation. I've never heard it put so succinctly. Really hits the nail on the head. The 2 just don't meet very often, and when they do...it's Award time. Bingo, there it is.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like sour grapes to me. Firstly, did you actually research the schools you applied at? Perhaps your teachers challenge you to write literature because they a.) don't write genre and are b.) not qualified to teach it. Secondly,

"Once, just to piss off a professor, I wrote a story about gay vampires who smoked and had a torrid love affair beyond the other vampires' backs. I wrote this thing as a joke, but the professor got really into it, and so did the class. I couldn't figure it out, but it was really funny. Oh man, I'm still laughing about that."

Let me see, you're bragging about this? Are you really a second year MFA student? You're actually graduating soon? Are you sure you aren't an undergraduate?

Thirdly,

"What I'm getting at after rambling for a while..."

Exactly. Rambling. Not to mention mis-characterizing.

"...is that the "literary world" - populated by unpublished MFA students and professors who were published once in the 1970's - is a different world from the publishing one."

And what exactly were you expecting? Did your program offer you instant success? Is this why you're resentful? Not because you haven't grown as a writer, but because a career is starting to look like a real challenge? Come on. There isn't an MFA program out there that isn't upfront about the realities of the degree. Besides, I've seem many "genre" stories come through workshop, and a lot of times they work. They're simply good stories. They're written in an interesting way, have heart, strive for complex characters and situations. For example: Kelly Link. Perhaps the problem isn't writing "in genre," but writing poor work.

"When I was an undergrad at Brown taking creative writing workshops, I was usually one of two people who wasn't writing about a college student who was gay and smoked and described their house a lot."

That's a pretty bold generalization right there. Evidence of poor writing dully noted.

"If you enjoyed it, I think I succeeded as a writer."

That's assuming a lot about your reader. Not to mention an underestimation.

I'm surprised more people haven't responded to this post negatively. Do the research yourself folks. Email professors and ask questions. Don't rely on this obviously biased source.

P.S. To the person who complains about a vast majority of "lit mags" that are only about "boring creative writing/MFA lit types," have you ever thought about your potential audience? Perhaps the "boring creative writing/MFA lit types" don't care to read the type of short stories you write. I'm glad people write genre, I really am. People need to read more, no matter what it is. But you shouldn't be threatened by the "literary world," whatever that even is. There is plenty of room at the table for genre too, believe me.

ashley said...

"When I was an undergrad at Brown taking creative writing workshops, I was usually one of two people who wasn't writing about a college student who was gay and smoked and described their house a lot."

HA! Love that sentence. I know exactly what you mean.

Sally said...

I just came across your blog - I am looking into MFA programs, but i'm not really interested in literary fiction. I want to write mysteries, but good ones with maybe more of a literary bent. I'm mainly looking into the MFA to give me time to write (a full time job as a copywriter does not leave a lot of free time or energy) and to learn more about crafting a good story.

Do you know of any MFA programs that might be more friendly to this type of writer? I'm willing to do a little intellectual masturbation to get the degree, but ultimately, I just want to write fun, cream puff stories.