Monday, November 19, 2007

Why Do People Love My MFA Discussions?

Dear Rejecter,

Alas, I have a dilemma I'd like to share. I'm currently studying public relations and creative writing at the University of Miami. To make a long story short, my writing professors hate commercial fiction, love literary fiction, and I have no idea why. I never thought it was a crime to try and be an entertaining writer. In fact, if studying PR has taught me anything, it's that you better be entertaining and likable as much as you possibly can. And yet, my instructor (who actually wrote a novel herself) seems to think that prose and language trumps all.

Is this pretty much commonplace within academia? Your experience in the MFA program seems to confirm my suspicions, and yet your day-to-day descriptions of your job paint a very different picture. Correct me if I'm wrong, but an easy-to-read commercial novel is more likely to get published than a literary novel, right? So why on earth do professors keep shoving literary fiction down our throats?

It certainly doesn't appear to be helping anybody; in fact I think it's actually irresponsible in a way. If it comes down to it, who would be more attractive to an agent and/or publisher: the kid with a business background who writes supernatural thrillers (read: me) or the kid with the traditional MFA training who writes about... whatever it is literary novelists write about? As of right now I'm taking what my professor says with a grain of salt. I know that might sound arrogant, but every bone in my body is telling me to keep going on my own track -- finish my novel, finish my degree in PR, and use the business acumen I've developed to help me land a deal.

Thoughts? Comments?

Many, many great literary masterpieces have come from writers who took MFA programs. Like ... all right, I can't think of any off the top of my head. Or at all. In fact, after 2 1/2 years in an MFA program, I've only read one piece by a fellow writer that was potentially publishable or even likable, but this is probably an anomaly. Some of the teachers were published once, like in 1976 and never went into a second printing and I've never heard of their work, but that's probably also an anomaly. Oh, and that was also true of the MFA program professors who taught my undergraduate writing programs at Brown, but again: anomaly. Every single encounter I've had with college or graduate level writing has to be one long line of coincidences that all the people I encountered wrote incomprehensible things or boring, pretentious, and plot-less stories. Man, imagine the odds of that?

Or it could be the other thing you mentioned, that MFA programs suck. Tough call there.

45 comments:

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

A number of alum from the MFA program I attended have been published and won awards. But are they household names? Nope (although some, like Dan O'Brien, should be).

I think MFAs are a mixed call. I went for mine because I wanted to spend two years writing and getting better. It was a studio program, so I had the time to do just that. Landed my first agent from something I wrote while there, too.

And yes, I was the ugly duckling with dreams of the New York Times Best-seller list, not the Whitbread prize.

wonderer said...

I had the same experience with my (undergrad) creative writing degree. Took me several years after graduation to really get back into writing what I loved instead of attempting to write the sort of thing my classmates and professors could critique. I'm never going to make that mistake again. (After all, I have newer and better mistakes to make!)

The Grump said...

Thanks for the chuckle ... and the memories.

When I was in college, I didn't major in English but hung around with some English majors who did the school literary magazine. I even wrote a couple pretentious pieces that they loved ... all adolescent angst and worse. -- Except the stuff I sold would now be called commercial fiction. Needless to say I was the only published "author".

Fast forward 30-some years when my college professor husband had an English major student ... She sold enough short stories to commercial publications that she didn't need student loans.

Guess what her reputation was among the English majors? My guess is the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sherri said...

The battle between genre/commercial and literary fiction makes my brain bleed. I am now over 40, have finally placed some of my writing (one genre piece, one literary piece) in places that may never see the light of either mass publication or the O.Henry Prize committee, and have been playing with the idea of trying for a place in an MFA program for a while. I have friends and acquaintance who have completed them, none of whom has done much with publication. Everyone talks about the networking opportunities, the horrible ego blows of academic critique, the ossified rules for writing, and the possible prestige. At this point, I'm not even sure why I WANT an MFA except, perhaps, some deep seated masochistic need for which therapy might be better suited.

Yet the stories come out as they will, sometimes litfic, sometimes fantasy, sometimes erotica, mystery, science fiction, historical romance or grammatical drek. What IS the use of an MFA? Are they only designed for the young and ruthlessly ambitious?

You'd think by now I'd know what I want to be when I grow up.

green ray said...

This is a discussion that is close to my heart. I've taken to calling my work "entertaining literary fiction," ie nice prose with an un-put-down-able plot. I've had a lot of close calls with my novel so far. I wonder if it's crossed your desk, Rejecter! By the way, one example of a terrific book that came out of Columbia's MFA program was Scott Heim's MYSTERIOUS SKIN. Frankly, I think that strict lit fiction is totally BOR-ING, while strict commercial fiction can be totally mindless. I'll take a nice synthesis of the two any day. (And I hope you guys will too!)

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. When I was doing my undergrad in Art Education in the late 60's there was a young man who put himself through university painting popular art pieces and selling them for one hundred dollars a piece. Many of us 'artsy' conceptualists looked down on him as commercializing himself. Now, looking back, I remember his paintings as being gutsy and risk-taking. He was in it as we were for the learning but he was willing to thumb his nose at our tight-rumped ideals. I remember feeling a touch envious that his paintings were both easy to interpret and highly marketable. He was willing to cut to the chase early on and not worry about being viewed as a commercialist. I only wish now I could have been that sure of myself back then.
Back then I accepted the hallowed belief that art/writing is an elitist undertaking. I wanted my Masters to provide myself with verification and knowledge. It was specific knowledge I needed to get myself a paying job and that job led me later in life to writing.
Safer? Yes. But hey, it put soup on the table while I was developing the craft of writing. Keep up the great posts, Rejector. Your blog is a pleasure to read. It helps us struggling genre writers keep going.

Jason G. said...

Hi everyone!

I was the one who sent in the question to the lovely Rejecter. I appreciate all your responses -- as well as the kindness of the Rejecter in posting my question to begin with!

Just out of curiosity, are there any other writers here in their early 20s? More often than not, I'm always one of the youngest readers on any blog/message board dedicated to writing.

A lot of times people say that's because you need to be a certain age before you "have anything to *really* write about" but I largely think that's bulls***. I've got an imagination and a decent grasp on the English language.

Hopefully that'll be enough to start.

Anonymous said...

Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Toby Litt, Tracy Chevalier, Helen Cross, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Rose Tremain all did MAs in Creative Writing and they've done pretty well out of it.

I think that what you get from doing an MA/MFA depends on where you're studying and what the aim of the course is. In the UK there are a lot of courses that are aimed at producing literary authors, so if you're going in there with the intention of writing commercial or genre fiction, then you know what sort of pressures you're going to face (and from personal experience, I can tell you that some of them won't admit you if you admit to wanting to write in certain genres in your application form).

I'm pretty lucky in that I'm doing an MA at an institution that's v. genre friendly and the focus is on writing the best novel that you can rather than something that conforms to a literary stereotype.

My advice to Jason G. is to smile and nod at your teachers when they rail against genre, but keep doing your thang. You've got to write about what you love and if you don't enjoy writing literary fiction then there's precious little point in conforming to your teacher's expectations.

- Britbeat.

Misses E. said...

Now, I majored in English, but I had a career in journalism in mind at the time. I realized the coming fate of newspapers too late, and I have nothing even approaching a face for television newscasting.

The professor teaching creative writing at the local college I attended didn't favor any one genre or writing style. The students didn't either. However, said professor made us read and critique a chapter of the novel he'd been trying to publish for years. It was excruciatingly painful. There was a plot, but it was slower than molasses and shaky at best. It was the clunky prose and patchwork appearance of it, scanned in typed letters written without the benefit of delete or at least whiteout "for effect", that made my eyes hurt.

Jason G.,
I'm probably a year or two older, but I'm in my mid-twenties.

Miri said...

Jason G.:

It was a good question, and I'm glad it got posted (thanks, Rejector!) becuase it cleared up something:

I would rather go into zookeeping with a night job as the bed-of-nails person at the circus than major in English. Especially MFA-style English.

That said, if I'm around, you'll never be the youngest writing reader. I'm 14. I hate the whole "You don't have enough life experience to write a book, or to even have something to write." Especially since the stuff I want to write generally isn't stuff I hope I get too much "life experience" in.

dancinghorse said...

Having taught graduate-level writing at an upper-tier university, I have been able to note that MFA programs, along with college creative-writing programs, are for the most part a self-perpetuating system, i.e. they produce graduates who go on to teach in MFA programs.

I never took a creative-writing course because I knew going in that what I wrote was nothing that would attract either interest or respect in such courses. I was an English major, majored in Latin (trust me, that was not an insane choice--if you want to learn grammar inside and out, and Really understand your own language, take Latin and/or Greek), moved on through Classics and various forms of history into a Medieval Studies PhD, all of which I mined and still mine continually for my writing. I put myself through the PhD writing genre novels, and was hired after that to teach writing. I was the only professor in the department who was known to be genre-friendly, and when I left to write full time, my replacement, sure enough, wrote literary short fiction and was extremely judgmental about genre and subject matter. I wish now that I had slapped her down for it. I was too nice, just said gently, "Everyone has something to say. A teacher should be willing to listen."

I was looked askance at in the department, as a real weird fish: major academic credentials in something other than writing, and unabashedly commercial writing credentials. Nobody knew whether to respect me in the morning. The students and administrators were wonderful but it was a strange experience. I took from it the belief that the MFA is only useful insofar as it qualifies a person to produce more MFA's. Want to get a degree or degrees that will actively help your writing? Major in just about anything else. You'll get the combat research skills, the depth and breadth of knowledge, and the academic chops that will help you convince an agent or an editor that you are the person to write this book. It's worked for me quite a few times over the years, starting with landing my first agent.

Anonymous said...

Oh, dear, the memories.

I got a undergraduate degree in English because I wanted to learn to write better for the genre stories I wanted to tell. I also recieved snobbery and denigration for my choices mostly because I think that "literary types" write thinly disguised biographies/autobiographies.

The only thing I've kept from those years was the ability take blunt and scathing criticism gracefully, analyse my work and edit myself extensively. It wasn't a total waste, it was just very frustrating.

Victoria

Carolyn said...

Loved the post. I got my MA, not MFA, and my profs were actually very supportive of my genre writing -- I entered the program as a published author, and sold, I think three more while finishing up (slooowly). Maybe two of my fellow students were writing publishable work of any sort. I think your observation simply means that most people who want to write can't, MFA, MA or no degree program. Your agency experience bears that out.

Thanks for the laughs, though.

Jael said...

Saying that MFA programs suck is like saying that law programs or medical schools suck. There's too much variation to make such a broad statement. You don't need to have an MFA to write wonderful, powerful, intelligent fiction -- either commercial or literary -- but getting one doesn't turn you into a myopic, pompous tool, either.

The best thing any writer can have is good readers. For some of us, MFA programs delivered a captive audience of good readers whose critiques helped us become better writers, hands-down. If you can get that another way, of course, more power to you.

For people who do want to pursue the MFA, do plenty of research on the programs beforehand. Some are pure studio, others blend writing workshops with literature and theory classes. (Mine required literary journalism and translation as well.) If you know what you want out of the program, and you know the program is reputable enough to deliver it to you, go for it. MFA programs that just take anybody off the street are more concerned with their revenue than your development as a writer, so watch out. And if you live in the same city, taking one workshop before committing to a whole program is a great idea.

Vanessa said...

On the age point, there is something to be said for getting at least a little older and having more life experience (and hopefully) perspective. But to be honest, having any life experiences and being able to draw from said life to connect with others via writing is altogether more valuable. I'm quite sure that a thoughtful 14 y/o or 20-something can have just as much to say as a less thoughtful person twice or three times his or her age.

Just keep at it.

Anonymous said...

Nino Ricci's Lives of the Saints (trilogy) was his MFA thesis but I think that's about all that comes to mind. (Sofia Loren was in the miniseries, so that counts as some commercial success to my mind).

I think it varies.

MFAs are good if you want to teach, though.

jjdebenedictis said...

Re: Young authors

A great book can make you think. A great book can also sear you with emotion.

Us old dogs might have more life experience, but the young have a potency of emotion we now lack.

Play to your strengths; write what you know. Age might affect what you write about, but talent is something you were born with. You're good to go at any age.

marsupialis said...

The great match up between genre fiction and literary fiction comes down to this question: Why write shit instead of trying to make art? Is it for the self-aggrandizement of publication? It doesn't last. Is it for the money? You can make a lot more selling screenplays or drugs for that matter.

These little self-consuming artifacts of genre that get published have the shelf-life of milk. They do nothing to advance the culture, nothing to find greater insight into humanity, nothing to explore the possibility of language. Genre fiction exists to provide a spot of mindless entertainment and generate some short-term cash. There are many many other pursuits which will do the same far more effectively. Besides, in 100 years will anyone read Stephen King? I think not. People aren't even reading his first books and those are only 30 years old.

I think you tell us you hate literary fiction because (i) you don't really know what it is despite your work for an agent and all the other study you've done; (ii) you, like so many others, are afraid of thinking; (iii) you're secretly afraid that you're not up to the intellectual challenge and by giving us the anti-intellectual -- I hate the stuff -- your good offense is the best defense; or (iv) you actually aren't up to it intellectually and therefore we should recognize you come solely from the position of marketer and salesperson and really have nothing to say about culture or art or anything of greater significance (but let's hope it's really not iv).

Writing teachers in an MFA program have an obligation to bring out the best in their students not pander to the lowest common denominator. Their mission is not to get people's books sold but to get people to write their greatest book. Of course they should piss on genre fiction. It deserves to be pissed on.

Andrew said...

I think it's pretty inevitable that university writing programs will value the kind of writing that reflects the priorities of academics. It wouldn't make sense otherwise. You could compare it to the academic study of music. If you get a degree in music theory, you'll study the kind of music that is written by people who have studied music theory in universities--not the kind of music that sells millions of copies. If you prefer popular music, and don't want to change that preference, then you don't need to study.

So if you prefer popular literature, and you're good at writing it, then an academic degree isn't going to help you all that much. Don't waste time in school taking out student loans and postponing your career. If, on the other hand, you want to be part of the world of academia, then learn from the experience. Be part of it. Read the works that academics assign to you, and look for the academic value in them. It's up to you.

The Rejecter said...

I think Stephen King will be read in a hundred years. Not his lesser stuff, but certainly his famous ones like It and The Stand, etc. Those all still appear on bookshelves because they all still sell. And they're still being adapted into movies (see: The Mist).

We're still reading bad science fiction from the 1800s and early 1900's. I never liked "War of the Worlds." Aliens invade, win, get sick, and die. The radio show was much better than the actual text.

Anonymous said...

The great match up between genre fiction and literary fiction comes down to this question: Why write shit instead of trying to make art?

Thanks for the link -- had a good browse and read some excerpts, and I guess I see your point.

Could you also provide a link to some art?

Janet said...

Marsupialis, you do realize that Shakespeare wrote for the masses, don't you? And he wrote *gasp* genre stuff, you know, like, comedies?

Don't be so quick to dismiss genre. Most of it has a short shelf life, you're absolutely right, but so does most literary fiction. The vast majority of it will sink into oblivion. The cream will rise to the top. And nobody will much care at that point whether it was considered literary or not.

Miri said...

Marsupialis,

"Is it for the self-aggrandizement of publication? It doesn't last."

Most genre fiction authors - people who love what they write and write it specifically because they love it - are never published. I think most of us are aware of this.

"Is it for the money? You can make a lot more selling screenplays or drugs for that matter."

Again, most genre authors (the less deluded ones, anyway, but I think it's safe to say that delusions of grandeur are not monopolized by genre authors?) are aware of this. Painfully so.

"These little self-consuming artifacts of genre that get published have the shelf-life of milk."

That's exactly why Lord of the Rings is still wildly popular some fifty years later. You can make an argument for LotR being written in a literary style, and I think that's legit, but with all the elves and orcs running around, it's undeniably genre. It's certainly the forerunner of a lot of modern fantasy.

"They do nothing to advance the culture, nothing to find greater insight into humanity, nothing to explore the possibility of language."

I'd say Harry Potter has at the very least impacted culture a great deal, with all the censorship arguments that have sprung up and all the millions of dollars made from the franchise. As for insight into humanity, any story that is about a person can dig deeper into the human psyche. My bookshelf is at the very least primarily genre fiction, and no two characters are the same as each other or as anyone I know. Corny as it sounds, I learned things about the people around me from Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, Peter and Edmund and the White Witch. The state of mind behind betrayal; the strength that comes from loyalty to people you love; the corruption of easy power; the importance of wealth weighed against family...those are the themes that crop up in the genre fiction I read. They drag me by the hair through a story, and they make a difference in the real world, too.

And the possibility of language? I'm by no means an authority on this, but I'd say there's more variety in language between authors of genre fiction than that of literary. Cornelia Funke, Eoin Colfer, Garth Nix, and D.J. MacHale all write within the same tiny subset of genre fiction; their use of words and figurative language, even their sentence structure and placement of punctuation, vary wildly. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the aim of literary fiction to be as "artistic" as possible? Isn't that kind of limiting? It seems to me that it would all start to sound the same.

"Genre fiction exists to provide a spot of mindless entertainment and generate some short-term cash."

Leaving aside the cash contradiction, I've read genre fiction that absolutely haunted me. Genre fiction is just as capable as any other king of dragging you by the hair through an intense story, leaving you breathless or crying or jumping up and down or throwing the book through the wall by the end. Timeless themes--betrayal and trust, love and hate and indifference, self-sacrifice and the callous sacrifice of others--are not exclusive to literary fiction.

"I think you tell us you hate literary fiction because (i) you don't really know what it is despite your work for an agent and all the other study you've done;"

You might have a point there; apart from the artistic use of language, I haven't got a clue what literary fiction is. I'm also not too clear on horror, mainstream, or memoir. That's because I don't write it. But I have to wonder about your phrasing: is "all the study we've done" something to be ashamed of? And is nobody knowing what you write something to be proud of?

"(ii) you, like so many others, are afraid of thinking;"

I do hope I've disproved this point by now.

"(iii) you're secretly afraid that you're not up to the intellectual challenge and by giving us the anti-intellectual -- I hate the stuff -- your good offense is the best defense;"

Intelligence isn't exclusive to writers of literary fiction, either. I can't speak for everyone, but I definitely don't let my brain go to waste, and if I thought I could gain both a good mental workout and enjoyment from reading literary fiction, I would do it more. For the moment I'll content myself with learning Japanese and reading dissertations on the wives of Henry VIII.

"(iv) you actually aren't up to it intellectually and therefore we should recognize you come solely from the position of marketer and salesperson and really have nothing to say about culture or art or anything of greater significance (but let's hope it's really not iv)."

I hate to even have to bring up this point, and in a way I hate to say this for the message itself, but it's marketing and sales, not culture and art, that put bread on the table. Not that I would know anything about that.

"Writing teachers in an MFA program have an obligation to bring out the best in their students not pander to the lowest common denominator."

What if the best in a student is genre fiction? There have got to be people out there who can write great fantasy or sci-fi or whatever but would absolutely suck at writing literary. Does this literary handicap write them off as a writer? I sure hope not, or else I might just be doing that zookeeping thing I mentioned in my previous comment.

"Their mission is not to get people's books sold but to get people to write their greatest book."

I think this largely depends on what these people want to do. If they want to write their greatest book, then I'm not going to stop them, and they're probably in the right program. And you, having more experience with MFA programs than I, are most probably right about their mission. But as a general goal, getting your book sold isn't a bad one. In fact, I think it's pretty decent. It definitely beats being a starving artist.

"Of course they should piss on genre fiction. It deserves to be pissed on."

I have to ask: how much genre fiction have you read? And does this judgment on genre fiction extend to its authors? What about its readers? Do all people who actually look to find enjoyment and action and well-loved archetypes mixed in with their intellectual enlightenment deserve to be pissed on?

And a question from over my shoulder: how much of today's literary fiction was the genre fiction of its day?

Please forgive my ranting; I'm afraid I'm quite protective of my choice of entertainment.

BuffySquirrel said...

There's no point arguing about genre fiction with someone who patently hasn't read any.

Lisa R. said...

Ah, what a tiresome topic.

Readers come in a huge assortment of intellects, tastes, abilities, likes, backgrounds, and with varying aspirations, interests and understanding of what they seek from literature, books and reading.

Why not something for everyone?
We need a country of readers, and that includes all levels and types of reading.

Write what you want to write, what you think of as art if you like, but let's not denigrate other forms and other writers, on either side of the literary aisle.

All of Jane Austen's novels would be shelved with romance or even chick lit in today's bookstores. Heaven knows where some of the other venerated writers of yesteryear would wind up.

I'm in the middle of an MFA program myself, and at this institution (which as far as I know, is rare) there are two fiction tracks - one for literary fiction, another for popular fiction. Everyone needs something to read on the airplane.

I'm a nonfiction writer myself and have always joked that there should be two tracks for that too -one for literary nonfiction (for all the serious memoirists and literary journal folks) and one for popular nonfiction (for the mainstream essayists, humorists, and writers of more accessible books).

When I started, I was firmly in the latter camp. But now, 18 months in, I see my writing expanding and moving back and forth between the literary (where I thought I'd never fit) and the more mainstream media (magazine essays, newspaper op-eds,e tc.) where I started out.

I think that eventually, with or without an MFA, each writer will, if he/she is wise, choose (or recognize) the kind of writing that comes naturally and in which his/her inherent talent lies.

Anonymous said...

Something similar happened during the "New Wave SF" period of the Seventies, when Science Fiction (heretofore a lowbrow ghetto) was recognized as Literature (TM) and ascended to the MFA High Literature plane. And in the process picked up all of MFA High Literature's bad habits.

"Put Science Fiction back in the ghetto where it belongs!"
-- common litfan slogan of the period

Anonymous said...

I think Stephen King will be read in a hundred years. Not his lesser stuff, but certainly his famous ones like It and The Stand, etc. Those all still appear on bookshelves because they all still sell. And they're still being adapted into movies (see: The Mist).

In his nonfiction On Writing, King described what it was like in college Creative Writing classes in his day -- all Sexual Awakening (TM) and Angsty Young Men Whose Parents Didn't UNDERSTAND Them About To Be Sent To VIETNAM!!!!! (TM).

He said the best thing about it was he met his future wife in one of them.

Anonymous said...

Marsuipialis (how do you read your monitor with your nose so high in the air?):

Go out on the street and ask the first dozen people you meet to name examples of High Literary Fiction of the 1930s.

Then ask them if they've heard of:
1) Conan the Barbarian
2) The Shadow
3) Zorro
4) Flash Gordon
5) Buck Rogers
You know, all those genre pulps of the Thirties?

Then explain to me the term "Staying Power". Since I'm only a stupid genre author (only 160 IQ), please use itty-bitty words.

iago said...

You know, the game of soccer does nothing for me. Put a match on the TV in front of me and I see 22 men kicking a bag of wind about. My eyes glaze over in seconds. I don't get it. A soccer fan can enthuse all he wants about "the beautiful game" and -- I. Don't. Get it. But millions of people do. Millions of people love the game, they're passionate about it, they go to matches, the buy the T-shirts.

And that's OK.

Anonymous said...

wow, Marsuipialis, defensive litfan alert...

Sorry that no one wants to read your garbage writing in modern times and most likely no one will read it in one hundred years from now in MFA circles either. This has made you embittered towards writers that *actual* people read.

Id rather be considered common and be in a ghetto by snobs, if that means people read my work and (as a bonus) I never have to encounter others like you.

Kim Stagliano said...

There are many roads to learning. Many roads to becoming published. I have a BA in Economics and a PhD in motherhood and autism. Seems to be working for me so far. For those who get an MFA? More power to you, for studying what you love.

Happy Thanksgiving Rejecter. I have a Kosher Glatt turkey, brined with Kosher salt to try out today. Hope it's good! The plucking leaves a little to be desired, I'll say that....

Anonymous said...

I have an MFA. I also hold a post grad from the country's most prestigious program - yeah, that one. I've won - at various times - a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award, and an NEA, among other national awards. And yes, I'm one of those evil "literary" writers. But even so, I wrote a book with a plot, and others have called it entertaining. That said, I never ever want to be forced to critique the vampire story of an 18 year old freshman again. So shoot me.

Mostly what you do in an MFA program, if it's a good one, is read. Hopefully, you read pre-1900 literature. Hopefully, you make reading and talking about reading important. I'm confused as to why this would be a BAD thing. I didn't pay for my program, I taught by the way. Paid to read? And that's bad - why?

People often have this funny idea that workshops are about critique of your own writing, and then you cry and curse everyone under your breath. I don't think that's the purpose. The purpose is to become a better reader, which is accomplished through reading other people's work. Again, not a bad thing.

Can they be pretentious places? Sure. Did it annoy me at times? Yes, definitely. Is it the only route? Nope. But going to an MFA program sharpened my skills. I'm grateful, frankly. To state across the board that the experience is worthless and sucks - I find that a bit myopic. It's just not a system that works for everyone.

Literary fiction isn't some single type of book that you can so readily dismiss with such puzzling disdain. It encompasses an enormous amount of literature, from Phillip Roth to Zadie Smith et al. Hey, I hate and despise Harry Potter, but I've been known to enjoy Chick Lit, so I don't dismiss genre fiction. It has its place, like everything else.

The thing is, I didn't study all those years to make money through my writing. MFAs have no logical link to careerism - if you examine them in that light, of course they fail. I studied to become a better writer, to have a voice in the world. I feel my MFA helped me get there, so no they don't "suck."

Anonymous said...

Go Miri,
You did a wonderful job. I'm in a book group that often selects "literary" novels. I actually like a few of them. After several though some one will say something like " I felt like slitting my wrists after that last one, lets read one for fun this time." We then pick some popular fiction and we all feel better. Will read 10 popular books to every literary one. My wife is a librarian. She feeds my "drug" habit. She reads everything and will bring books home for me to read that cover the range of what's published. The TBR pile is so high that I've learned not to force my self to finish a book if I don't like it after a few chapters. There's not enough time. Many literary books wind up in the discard pile, but also many very popular books also. Ultimately each of us has to decide for ourselves what's good. Each of us is different. Just because the pundits say this candidate is good or popular, doesn't mean that I have to vote for them. I only have to worry about opinion if I'm trying to write something for a particular audience.
Johnwrt1

Anonymous said...

A soccer fan can enthuse all he wants about "the beautiful game" and -- I. Don't. Get it. But millions of people do. Millions of people love the game, they're passionate about it, they go to matches, the buy the T-shirts.

And that's OK.
-- Iago

But soccer fans don't look down their noses at fans of other games and treat them as dung.

iago said...

But soccer fans don't look down their noses at fans of other games and treat them as dung.

And that is exactly the point. There's no need to be judgmental about other people's tastes.

Michelle said...

Why do people love MFA discussions? Because it's a really pretentious degree and it feeds directly into the whole genre debate. I have an MFA and I'm proud of it, however, I never expected great commercial success from such a rarefied program. What I did expect is to spend five years immersed in language and steeped in a community every bit as enamored and committed as I was. Self-indulgent? Most likely, but I also taught so I didn't need to pay tuition. I edited a literary magazine so I got paid for that as well. The thing with entering an MFA program is that you find yourself with a very small, very select, group of peers who are, for perhaps the fist time in your life, true peers. I had one professor I adored and one I hated. One was commercial and accessible - his work made him a poet laureate and he had wonderful contacts throughout the literary world. The other was a misogynistic bastard who made my life a living hell in many ways – he had far less commercial success and was more focused on his own narrow world view. I learned something valuable and important from each of them.

What do I write now? Romance novels. Yes, that’s right. For fun I put an article on my website, “Top Ten Reasons Why an MFA is Perfect for Commercial Fiction.” I think one of the best reasons I listed is that once you have sat through hour and hours, years and years, of peer critiques with people who eat steel wheaties for breakfast there isn’t much an editor or agent can say to upset you. I can take criticism. Without anger. Without ego. Without snide self-satisfaction. That one quality alone was worth getting an MFA.

Jason said...

If you go into an MFA program expecting it will make you money, you're an idiot. If you write because you want to sell a lot of books, you're an idiot.

Write if you have something to say. Write if you have a story to tell, whether it's a genre piece (exercising a form) or literary (experimenting). There are no good reasons to write, or to take an MFA--there are only compulsions.

My time in the MFA world made me a better writer. That's all I wanted out of it. I read some great material, and I read utter crap. I studied with interesting people and with pretentious idiots.

To write off an entire area of study due to personal experience in one little institution is pretty silly. To write it off for criteria unrelated to its aims is even sillier.

Massimo said...

Miri said:
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the aim of literary fiction to be as "artistic" as possible?"

I'm correcting you; you're wrong. The aim of literary fiction, or any fiction for that matter, is whatever the author has in mind. Plenty of exciting writers simply don't want to write about crime or romance or fantasy or horror, and hence their fiction is often automatically labeled "literary."

These classifications are for the sake of convenience. Trying to label all fiction as one thing or another is as ridiculous as trying to type all people into one of about seven kinds.... Get the know someone first, then decide if you like him/her or not. Same with a book.

I read both genre fiction and literary fiction. One can easily find examples of good and bad writing in both, examples of boring, plodding plotlessness in both.

I think the Rejecter is dismissing literary fiction unfairly, just as she accuses others of dismissing genre. Why dismiss either?

No matter what you want to write, the best advice is to READ WIDELY. Read everything you can, and don't judge a book by its cover, or where it's shelved in the bookstore.

Massimo said...

Jason G.--
Your blog lists among your favorite books LOLITA, MIDDLESEX, and CATCHER IN THE RYE.

Whoa, Dude! Literary fiction! You actually LIKE that stuff your profs are trying to shove down your throat?

See, some of it is actually good and even interesting and might even have a plot and might even be -- dare I say it? -- page-turning.

Don't be close-minded. It's not a good quality in a writer.

BuffySquirrel said...

Plenty of exciting writers simply don't want to write about crime or romance or fantasy or horror, and hence their fiction is often automatically labeled "literary."

Umm...no. Plenty of such writing is labelled "mainstream". To be literary it needs to meet some arbitrary standard described I believe as "you know it when you see it".

Further, lots of both mainstream and literary writing uses tropes from crime, romance, Fantasy, etc. Not that you'll ever get their authors to admit it.

Massimo said...

Buffy, go to Amazon.com. Click on books. Look at the selection bar to the left. There you will see the following categories, among others: "Mystery and Thrillers," "Science Fiction and Fantasy," "Romance," and "Literature and Fiction." Nothing called "mainstream."

"Mainstream" is subjective. Is "The Kite Runner" mainstream or literary? You decide. Just please don't jurge a book by whether someone else terms it "literary."

BuffySquirrel said...

True, "mainstream" is sometimes known by different names--in those categories it's clearly what Amazon are referring to as "Fiction", as opposed to "Literature". Also, it's sometimes called "General Fiction". I didn't wish to go into such tedious detail in my original post, altho' perhaps I should have.

Where exactly have I judged a book by whether or not it's been shoved into the "literary" category?

Anonymous said...

Basically, if you go to Iowa, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, or Stanford, it's worth it. Lots of great teachers, alumni, connections, etc. A group of second-tier schools (Pittsburgh, Sarah Lawrence, etc.) might be worth it too, if you know how to hustle. But other programs are just cash cows for universities (low tech, cheap faculty, high tuition).

But an MFA program is an excuse to work on your writing for a couple of years without everyone asking when you plan to get a job.

I'm baffled, though, by your questioner. Why on earth would a respectable university teach popular fiction? Or public relations, for that matter?

Jason G. said...

Say what you will about public relations (or advertising for that matter) but the School of Communication at UM has taught me more about writing than any English course ever could.

Write, revise, write again, polish. This work-horse mentality serves me well. Be it a news release, feature story, backgrounder or advertising copy, any type of "corporate writing" is great training for the novelist, IMO.

Writing might be an art, but publishing is a business. The same is true for advertising/PR. Sure, we "write," but at the end of the day it's about making your client money.

To many MFA types, that sounds harsh. To me, it's just a fact of life. And by having this mindset, I feel my chances of success have drastically improved.

Chris said...

Why on earth would a respectable university teach popular fiction?

There are plenty of universities in the UK that teach genre fiction as part of their writing courses.

I don't see why that would make them disreputable.