MFA Programs and Commercial Publishing

Elise Blackwell, author and director of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, offers in The Chronicle of Higher Education a rebuttal to my suggestion that MFA writing programs offer a course on contracts and the publishing industry. Her position 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,” and notes that one real issue is MFA programs which charge large sums for tuition, thus adding additional pressure on their students to find a way to defray their debt load as soon as possible — and thus making them more susceptible to hucksters like James Frey. Her problem with the Columbia MFA program is not so much that it doesn’t offer a business/contracts course, but that it costs close to $50k a year to attend (the MFA program Blackwell attended, at UC Irvine, apparently funded its students).

I encourage you to read the article, which I think is an interesting and useful perspective from the other side of the MFA fence. That said, I (naturally) have some quibbles with the article, and here they are.

* Blackwell and I are certainly in agreement that $50k a year for an MFA is a ridiculous sum on its face, and I agree that staring at that debt load is bound to make a writer quiver. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, part of the reason one pays for a degree from an elite institution is not just for the degree but for everything else such a degree confers, including connections, a robust alumni/elite school network, and an (at least initial) economic leg up on other folks with an equal or comparable degree from schools perceived as less elite. I remember the editor who hired me for my first job telling me that my degree from the University of Chicago was “impressive”; I’m pretty sure that the same degree from Fresno State would not have elicited the same response. And I of course was happy to let that editor be impressed. I wanted the gig. But beyond that, that was one of the things a U of C degree was supposed to do for me, and did. That made it, both short and long term, worth the cost.

Let us stipulate that a writer who is accepted into Columbia’s graduate writing program very likely had her choice of other programs to attend, including ones substantially less expensive. One reason to choose Columbia despite the cost is for these ancillary benefits. This is not to defend the actual price tag of $50k, which I think is a silly amount. It is to suggest there is a rational reason to make that expensive choice.

It’s also worth noting that those students who make that choice for that reason are already looking beyond the classroom to their overall careers. So while the MFA program can offer a safe harbor to focus on writing and study, that’s not the only (and perhaps not even the primary) reason students are in the program. In which case, a little practical knowledge would not be a bad thing.

* Likewise, I suspect that Blackwell rather overadvantages the idea of the MFA writing program as a cloister for the life of the mind, with students inwardly turned to the program rather than outward facing into the world. She and I certainly do not disagree that there are advantages to the former, nor do I think it’s wrong for an MFA writing program to say to its students “your head should be here, now” and to tell editors and agents hovering by the door to piss off. That said, I think a program should be realistic about the latter at the same time, because, surprise, whether in theory an MFA writing program is about literature and the life of the mind, in practice people want to be publishing sooner than later — maybe not for good reasons and maybe before they should, but, well. That’s ambition for you, and that ambition will be there regardless of the cost of the program.

That being the case, the argument for a business/contracts class is as much about protecting the “hothouse flowers” who are anxious to jump the fence into commercial writing as it is preparing the people who have stuck with the program to make their first sales. A practical understanding of the traps and disadvantageous things writers both do and let slip past them in contracts can be a useful cautionary tale that feeds into the overall goal of the MFA program of keeping its student’s head in the program, not craning out to a hustler with a genuinely crappy contracts.

* Speaking of which, I think Blackwell is rather too dismissive that the awfulness of Frey’s Full Fathom Five contract. She writes:

Some suggest that Frey’s “victims” were made vulnerable by MFA programs that didn’t educate them about publishing, but it requires little training to identify Frey’s contracts as absurd. (Does anyone really think $250 is fair market value for a commercially viable novel or that letting someone else use your name as they please is smart?) The writers who signed those contracts weren’t acting out of ignorance but from some combination of desperation, hope, and a sense of exceptionalism that writers need to get out of bed. (“I know James Joyce died in poverty, Kafka worked a desk job, and Dan Brown can’t coax a sentence out of a bag, but I can be brilliant and rich.”) Some of them were just taking a flyer.

The issue with that awful, awful contract isn’t what’s obvious, but what’s not. Sure, anyone with a brain could see that $250 for a novel is terrible, but what those damnably ignorant MFA students were looking at wasn’t the $250; they were looking at the alleged 40% of backend, which includes (cue Klieg lights and orchestra) sweet, rich, movie option money!!!!!!!! And what they don’t know, or undervalue because reading contracts is difficult when you’ve not done it before and no one’s explained them to you, is that it’s not really 40% of everything, it’s 40% of whatever Frey decides to give you after he’s trimmed off his share, and, oh yeah, you have to take his word for it because you’re not allowed an audit. So yes, the $250 (or $500) for a book is awful and obvious. But it’s everything else about that contract which is truly rapacious, as it appears to promise so much more, and it all seems perfectly reasonable when you don’t have the experience to know what a horror it is.

Beyond this, of course: Has anyone told the MFA students holding those contracts the odds of a book making it through the production gauntlet, even when they’re from best selling authors? Has anyone told them how much the average film option is for (hint: Not a lot) or that it’s not paid all at once but often in installments that dribble out over years? Or that the real payday is not up front, but on the back end – if the property ever goes into production, which it probably won’t — and in the meantime they will still have to eat? Does anyone expect James Frey to be honest to them about all of this? No, what they can expect from James Frey is what he no doubt says: “I’m offering you not a lot now but there’s a huge potential later.” Which is perfectly accurate as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far.

So, yes: Blackwell is wrong, here. It doesn’t take training to see the parts that are obviously bad, but the obviously bad parts are easily rationalized away. It does take training and experience to see the parts that are genuinely egregious, and to know why they are so. If an MFA program is going to let a snake into the garden, as Columbia did when it dropped James Frey into that classroom, then it should damn well should have some antivenom on hand.

* Finally, I found this bit egregiously classist:

M.F.A. programs are about the creation and study of literature, and it’s worth reminding people that you don’t need any degree to be a writer. A young writer whose central goal is commercial success should skip graduate school. (You don’t apprentice at an opera company and expect to be introduced to Nashville music producers, which I say with no disrespect to either milieu.)

Opera companies aren’t interested in commercial success? Nashville music producers can’t or don’t create art? I have news for Ms. Blackwell on both counts. Overt and woefully uninformed personal musical snobbery aside, it appears she’s confusing how each of these musical genres currently generally acquires funding with whether they are concerned with commercial success. This is not a good comparison.

On the same token, I can very easily picture a writer who has commercial motivations going to graduate school for writing because he has adjudged his own personal success as a writer depending on honing his own skills in a setting of collaboration and instruction. To suggest such a writer deprive himself of these advantages simply because he also dreams of best seller lists seems a bit dismissive. I certainly agree one does not need a degree to be a writer (hello!), but if Blackwell’s classmate Mr. Chabon is any indication (or indeed Ms. Blackwell herself), neither must an MFA doom one to a life of academic publishing and/or obscurity.

A love of literature and the study thereof, and a desire for commercial success for one’s own writing and art, are not either/or propositions. Even for MFA writing students.

70 thoughts on “MFA Programs and Commercial Publishing

  1. Hey, back up off Fresno State. :P The city deserves its crappy reputation, but the school doesn’t. In fact, it has a pretty impressive group of poets attached to the writing program. It’s reputation might not have opened any doors for me, but the education I received there has never failed to impress *once applied*. And at a total cost of $8,000 of debt for 5 years of school (I was enjoying myself and stayed an extra year), I got (I dare say) a better value dollar for dollar than many big name schools. Talent can take me the rest of the way.

  2. For me the principle value of an MFA would be the guaranteed (and year-spanning) time with the professors involved. (The secondary value for me would be an economic drive of, “Sam, you’ve paid $XK for these classes, make the most of them and write” but that’s because I’m not sufficiently dedicated/motivated outside of such drive, not something which *should* play a part of it.) Example: John Kessel at NCSU; Jim Kelly and David Durham and Elizabeth Hand at Stonecoast. For a genre writer, and I am not one by any stretch of even the most imaginative of those who are, some of these values may be just as well met by workshop time, e.g. Clarion, Odyssey, Viable Paradise (Scalzi has to at least pretend to pay attention to me! I’ve paid!) and so on. Some of these can be met if you’re lucky enough to find a strong writers group to join either locally or virtually. Some of these, for some people, that is. It depends on what your goals are and what you want. I do agree that a blanket “an MFA program is not for commercial writers” is insulting.

  3. Ok, seriously: who here couldn’t write his ass off if he had $50K a year plus living expenses and no job — especially if he didn’t have to attend all those frustrating classes that get in the way of writing time? You can learn to write better by skipping school, reading critically, and talking to other writers over no-foam lattes. Whereas a centralized academic institution is in an ideal position to offer practical, implementable, real-world advice about career, contract, representation, methodology, etc., that students could not obtain without an awful lot of independent investigation and interview.

    Sadly, as Ms. Blackwell seems to proudly acknowledge, this is rarely the case. I worked for universities for years, and I think this attitude produces more harm than good. For every star produced by a writing program there is a vast majority never heard from again. The programs tout their stars and are perceived as successes ripe with connection (because no one talks to the losers, only the winners). But if they were to teach the above practical skills and information, I think they would find their success ratio actually higher, in terms of works sold or revenue earned.

    The funny thing to me in all of this is Ms. Blackwell’s sniffing disdain for commercialism coming anywhere near the hallowed halls of academe. It’s a self-reinforcing attitude, because the people who produce literary fiction generally can’t survive as writers — they survive as teachers of literary fiction in universities. These are essentially hemophiliac greyhounds produced by selective inbreeding. The fun for me is to look at the bios in the Year’s Best Short Fiction anthologies. Fully 90% of contributors are university teachers. Is that wrong? No. But arguing for limitations generally assures that you will have them. This seems unnecessarily self constraining. Do they think that learning practical aspects of a writing career is somehow going to harmtheir delicate esthetic constitutions? Well, without preparation, those constitutions are gonna seriously bruise when the baseball bat of a real writing career comes swinging upside their collective head.

    Sorry, John — I really should blog about this instead of venting on your comments. :)

  4. Margo:

    1. I mention Fresno State because my first gig out of school was as movie critic for the Fresno Bee.

    2. My degree is in Philosophy.

    3. I am 100% in agreement that it’s entirely possible to get an excellent education at Fresno State, and of course, a crappy one at any “elite” school one might name. A lot of that is down to the student him or herself. I am discussing specifically the fringe benefits of an “elite school” degree, not the education itself.

  5. Margo@1: I think what you said about Fresno State’s reputation was John’s point. When you pony up for a degree from U. of Chicago or Columbia you’re not just paying for the education, you’re paying for the right to use their name on your CV. And whether we like it or not, dropping the right name can be the deciding factor in who gets the chance to apply their knowledge.

  6. @Steve, #3

    Do they think that learning practical aspects of a writing career is somehow going to harmtheir delicate esthetic constitutions?

    I have to wonder if that might be the case. Ms. Blackwell makes the point that a person doesn’t need a degree to be a writer, so if that’s the case then maybe they’re concerned that if they teach their students that little tidbit the students may not want to be students anymore and then their tuition fees disappear.

  7. So, where does that leave people like me with no schooling, and no time for schooling who want to write? I miss the days when I could write for someone who asked for stories, poems or songs just to make them feel better.

  8. I’m not at all surprised that someone at an MFA program is a literary snob who sneers at the idea of writers making an actual living. Quite frankly, I suspect a program like Clarion is more bang for your buck than any MFA program, even in terms of writing lit-ehr-aah-tchure.

    As for the idiotic comment on opera versus Nashville music, the hell there wasn’t any disrespect intended.

    A better example would be a student coming out of Julliard who’s told by some snake invited by Julliard that a crappy contract is a really great idea. A neighbor of mine teaches music at NYU, and is a professional musician. I guarantee that he’s kick anyone trying to con his students hard in the gonads.

  9. Apparently Ms. Blackwell is unaware that Geoff Tate, lead singer of the heavy metal band Queensryche, trained as an opera singer before giving it up for “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll”.

    We all have to start somewhere. The problem, as Mr. Scalzi has so eloquently pointed out in this and previous posts, is that not every gifted writer who gets accepted into an MFA program wants to live “a life of the mind” forever. MFA (or better yet, undergrad) programs need to teach their students about the business end of writing. Better yet, offer both undergrad and advanced coursework in the business aspect of the field. Make the undergrad class mandatory for the BA, and make the advanced coursework mandatory for the advanced degree. That way, writers who are really serious about their academics have no choice but to become educated in the “boring” aspects of their chosen career, which will help them avoid bloodsuckers like Frey in the future.

  10. Not, by any means, to dismiss everything she says, but Blackwell’s argument is why so many thoughtful people have trouble taking academics—and particular MFA writing programs—seriously. Honestly, the cost involved in presenting a short class on the publishing business would not be very high. As people have said, you could get a decent agent to teach it for, I suspect, a very reasonable sum, and the basics could be covered in one daylong session near the end of each semester. I mean, these students don’t really need to learn how to write or negotiate a complex contract on their own—just how to parse one and recognize if it deviates wildly from the norm.

    The benefits would be: Students stand a better chance of not getting taken; and if they do get taken, they can’t complain that their expensive education didn’t prepare them for it. Granted, some might melt or swoon when the topic of filthy lucre intrudes on the sublime paradise of the mind they’ve constructed for themselves—but probably that wouldn’t happen. This is a no-brainer.

  11. I find it interesting to compare to other degree programs, and what kind of practicum or job shadowing or career planning they incorporate alongside the theory. The professional programs have the obvious ones, maybe: law students have mock trials, journalist have student papers; med schools and education departments have been criticized because the seeing patients/classrooms phase comes late, after people have already invested a great deal in the degree. But even the “artistic” programs–music students learn how to prepare for an audition from middle school on, for example. My pals in the theoretical sciences got a seminar in how to write a paper for publication and how to submit. Not semester-long coursework, to be sure, but the acknowledgment was there that if you want ponder the nature of the universe, you do need to pay the bills.

    And then the defense that the high-dollar schools are worth it for the status and networking and thus career benefit. One thing I’ve seen–and again, in other degree programs–is that these networks aren’t just named into being. People are doing something: there is organization and communication and transferral of knowledge. Otherwise it’s just happy hour at some pub with people who happened to be at the same school.

  12. I don’t know of many graduate programs that have courses available for the post-graduation careers of their students in the way you’re describing, John.

    On the other hand, grad students spend time in labs, spend time teaching (assuming there are slots open), spend time working in libraries (or wherever). They get work experience as part of the program. There aren’t classes available on how to teach, but programs make sure that as many grad students as possible get practical, work-oriented experience.

    There’s no reason MFA programs shouldn’t do this as well. I understand the desire to want to protect the students, but the academics in the MFA programs have a responsibility to the students that does not end with their graduation.

  13. My favorite part of the article is the quote below.

    Shortly before I entered the M.F.A. program at the University of California at Irvine, 23-year-old student Michael Chabon sold his first novel for a six-figure advance. One of our professors there had sent the manuscript to his agent, launching an enviable career that would have happened anyway.

    What a wonderful way to undermine your own argument. Michael Chabon didn’t need a MFA degree after all.

  14. My impression is that graduate-level programs in the humanities, generally speaking, don’t prepare their students (I don’t mean “prepare” in the trade-school sense—rather, in the “here are some clues on how not to get shafted” sense) for any kind of career outside of academia. (Which would be just fine if there were enough assistant-professor slots opening up to absorb all these fresh Ph.D.s.)

  15. This may be in the nature of a Public Service Announcement but here it is.

    I have worked with and within a certain very specialized contractual environment for many years (more than a score). Within this environment I teach the underlying theory and practical applications. Every day I work with contractual issues as well as regulatory issues associated with the contracts.

    But when I deal with a personal contract I always run it through a trusted business advisor, be it attorney or more experienced friend. I never, ever, assume I will catch everything. And you know what? I’ve missed some issues that my advisors have caught (e.g., unlimited indemnification, excessive required insurance, etc.).

    Checking with somebody knowledgeable before you sign a contract–any contract–is not a luxury. It’s just common sense. Or it should be.

    Also: Economics/Literature dual degree here. Go liberal arts!

  16. Seems to me there is no good counter-argument to having MFA students learning a bit about the publishing industry. Even if they’re in it only for their “art”, they’ll still need to know this at some point if they actually want to make a living at it.

    And blainesgirl, write whatever you want just for the sheer enjoyment of it. That’s the best part about being a writer, is telling a story that you enjoy in the hopes that someone else will enjoy it. That’s why I’m sill working at getting better, so I can tell the stories I have bubbling up inside me. :)

  17. #3 by Steve Boyett:

    Ok, seriously: who here couldn’t write his ass off if he had $50K a year plus living expenses and no job — especially if he didn’t have to attend all those frustrating classes that get in the way of writing time?

    Me. But I don’t think an MFA would help me either.

  18. I don’t see the issue here… if you’re intelligent and ambitious enough to write, you will, degree or not… if you’re stupid enough to fall for this scam, you probably aren’t in touch with reality enough to be able to write/sell a decent book, anyway… kind of a self regulating system: only the strong survive.

  19. This so hard, to everything you’ve said here, John. I’ve been wrestling in frustration with attitudes like Ms. Blackwell’s for years now, for another reason — I want to teach writing in an MFA program. I’m a career educator with an M. Ed., an experienced course instructor at the college level, and a successful professional writer with years of workshopping experience, but I can’t even get a return phone call for adjunct positions with programs in New York. On the occasions when I’ve sat down to discuss this with MFA course instructors, with an eye towards networking my way in or at least figuring out where the deficit lies, I realize the problem is mainly this attitude. This pervasive, poisonous, pedantic belief that one can be either commercially viable or an artist, never both at once. In the eyes of most people who think this way, the very fact that I’ve successfully done it on my own disqualifies me as a potential instructor. (But maybe I could at least get in to give a lecture, if I’m willing to pull a Frey.)

    And I… just… argh. I can’t even find the words to express how wrongheaded this is. It’s classist, yes, as you noted (“OMG the vulgar pursuit of money taints the pure intellectual process!” — which guarantees that only people who don’t need to worry about groceries or rent can be artists). It’s plain-vanilla false, because it assumes that successful works cannot be good works. But it’s also bad education, because it results in an incestuous circle-jerk teaching environment — people with only “artistically valuable” (and commercially non-viable) publications teaching students how to be valuable and non-viable too; people who know diddlysquat about the practical realities of publishing teaching people who know diddlysquat. And touting the idea that knowing diddlysquat is somehow a good thing.

    What these MFA programs are suffering from isn’t just elitism, but a lack of diversity — and I’m not speaking specifically to race or gender here, though that’s often lacking too; a reflection of the greater malaise. It’s a lack of diversity of perspective. Without that, even if the programs aren’t trying to turn their students into sheltered, helpless hothouse flowers, that’s what they’ll inevitably end up doing — because it simply doesn’t occur to them to do otherwise.

  20. All of this reminds me of one of best statements about writing that I ever read, from Robert Heinlein:

    Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of — but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.

    What people need to keep in mind is that publishing is a business, just like making movies is a business. They do it to make money, and if “art” gets made along the way, it is only a fortunate by-blow and not why the companies put money into it.

    That’s why I’ve been focusing on figuring out what will sell. I’ll do the self-indulgent art thing once I’ve finally established a name that sells books, if I ever do that….

  21. fmcola:

    I don’t think that’s accurate. It’s not a question of intelligence, it’s a question of knowledge, which is another thing entirely. And intelligent person with no knowledge of contracts or the general state of the publishing industry could very easily be convinced that this contract, while not great, offers long term advantages, especially when the person trying to push the contract is already successful in the field and appears to be a reasonable person. If you’re not aware how it’s a scam, you won’t recognize it as such, and intelligence has very little to do with that.

    Aside from that, attachment to reality is not required to write well. Trust me on that.

  22. But this is what I was talking about for the other entry — the goals of MFA programs traditionally are not to produce published writers. It’s to provide study for writers as scholars of the written world. I agree with you that it would be a good idea for MFA programs to provide practical publishing information, and some of them do, but that is not the purpose for which MFA programs were created.

    And the problem with the prestige issue is that fiction writing is not like a normal job. It’s the arts. If I get a law degree from Columbia law, then that is going to be very impressive to courts and law firms with jobs or clients if I open my own business. If I get a MBA from Columbia business, that is going to be very impressive to companies and investment firms. And if I have a masters in English lit from Columbia, that’s going to be very impressive to publishers for an editorial position. (I got my first job because I took the University of Denver’s graduate course The Publishing Institute.) Ditto computer science, engineering, academic positions, science, etc. But not if you’re making art. If I get a masters in ceramic sculpture from Columbia, it doesn’t mean that anyone will ever buy my pots. And if I get a MFA from Columbia instead of Fresno State, it means utterly buptkus when I market my novel. It might — heavy emphasis on the might — get me a reading of my novel, especially if Columbia is still willing to introduce me to some agents at a cocktail party. But only if the agent or editor has some interest in what my novel is about in the first place will they give me a reading. (And this is not a they don’t want “literary” fiction issue — they love “literary” fiction, it makes big money — it’s just a do they have any interest in the sound of the novel thing.) If I am applying for a job with a corporation, even as a consultant, and I have a degree from Columbia and my competition, one has a degree from Fresno State and the other has no degree — that matters, and I’ll likely get the job because of the institution I went to. It may give me an in with the executives who may be alums of Columbia, etc. But if I write a novel, get a reading, the agent or editor is not going to say, hey I have to go with the author who has a MFA from Columbia. Your degree is only from Fresno State or you don’t have an MFA, so even though I think your novel is totally dreamy, I have to turn it down. You know that’s how it works for an editing job, but that this is not how it works for a publishing contract. An MFA in the publishing industry essentially means nothing. It has only two potential advantages — 1) possible access to agents and editors to get a reading, but it’s the same access anyone could get signing up for a far less expensive writer’s conference where agents and editors attend; and 2) the chance to work really intensely with talented people who help you study writing and guide you in your own development for an extended period.

    So the prestige that Columbia has is entirely dependent on the quality of their faculty as writing teachers, not the program’s ability to connect to the publishing industry. And for the money they are asking, students are probably not getting top enough teaching talent, especially if they are bringing in James Frey. You could go to UC Irvine’s MFA program which has a long record of spitting out talent like Tim Powers and James Blaylock, who both then taught at UC Irvine. Is it worth it to improve your writing to pay to study for two years under Tim Powers and James Blaylock, or Margaret Atwood, Norman Mailer, etc., or really amazing critic-scholars who are faculty? Maybe. For some people who want to do it, who meet a program’s criteria and who can afford it or who get graduate student funding. But it will never, ever, get you a publishing contract. Whereas a Columbia MBA — pure gold in the business world.

    So maybe this is the problem — expectations, the search for the magic key of fiction success. And that’s another argument for teaching them about the publishing business, so that they understand that there is no magic key, that they are not actually in competition with someone from Fresno State and that they won’t win that imaginary competition for publication just because they have a Columbia degree. The reality is that an MFA program can teach you to write, but it can’t teach you to publish and it can’t get you published. It may be able to get you a teaching job, and MFA programs do place people in academia. But a contract from Random House? You’ve always been on your own. But still, I think a little bit of armament is the least that any MFA program, whether Columbia or not, could do. And stop bringing in hucksters who get in legal trouble.

  23. >A young writer whose central goal is commercial success should skip graduate school. (You don’t apprentice at an opera company and expect to be introduced to Nashville music producers, which I say with no disrespect to either milieu.)

    Reminds me of people who say, “With all due respect,” before they insult you.

  24. Like Steve, I’ve worked in academia for several years (still there, at least for the time being), and this reminds me a little bit of the assertion that one should pursue a doctorate without consideration for one’s employability afterward. Surely I’m not the only one who’s seen that “So You Want to be a College Professor” video floating around? I’m a bit of an idealist when it comes to education myself–I’m not sure I could be in academia without it, frankly–but the fact of the matter is that newly-minted MFAs, or PhDs, or MLISes (which is what I am) do not spring fully-formed from their programs knowing how to turn our training into careers. Even professional programs (such as the MLIS is) are not always good at this; in my program, a group of us took it upon ourselves to throw a career-planning and development conference that became an annual event.

    Seth has the right of it; what’s more, a lot of humanities faculty are very aware of this. There’s considerable debate over whether they should be doing more to discourage their students from pursuing graduate humanities work. It’s not that it makes you unemployable in other fields–far from it, as a matter of fact. But there are way fewer jobs available in academia than there are people pursuing them, and for most of those jobs, you’d make more doing almost anything else. (Google “adjunct hell” and you’ll get an idea.)

  25. @N.K. #22:

    (But maybe I could at least get in to give a lecture, if I’m willing to pull a Frey.)

    Of course, what’s astonishing is that it is apparently UNTHINKABLE to get the déclassé peanut butter of publishing-industry classes in the gourmet chocolate that is an MFA writing program…but inviting James Frey to do a presentation on his new YA imprint is just copacetic.

  26. I forgot to address the other point of the thing that Scalzi is talking about with Blackwell’s piece, and Boyett and Jemisin too: yes, I agree, the war between “commercial” and “literary” fiction is entirely imaginary. It does not exist in publishing. It is all in people’s minds as a system that they’ve been taught — an outdated system, a Straussian system, from the 1950’s and 1960’s — about how to look at art — the art of the nobles and the art of the peasants. It is unfortunately a view that many who work in the media hold, in academia and even in the publishing industry where they should know better, despite enormous evidence that these two categories are completely useless and that this sort of divvying up of fiction serves nothing. But even if it was real, “literary” authors still have to enter into publishing business contracts — and film contracts, anthology contracts, etc. So it’s smart to teach them, and I think MFA programs should do so, but I also understand why MFA programs don’t see that as their job. But no, I don’t agree with that argument of commercialism of Blackwell’s at all.

    Also I misspoke. I said UC Irvine re Tim Powers and James Blaylock, and it’s actually Cal State Fullerton. Powers also taught at the University of Redlands. California is a bit of a mess presently, but there are programs with some sense to them, so maybe Ms. Jemisin will find a program with that common sense that can make good use of her talents.

  27. Kat Goodwin:

    “But this is what I was talking about for the other entry — the goals of MFA programs traditionally are not to produce published writers.”

    But that’s not actually true, or at the very least not how they market themselves. For example, this verbiage on the Columbia site about the MFA writing program (in which I will bold some parts for emphasis):

    The MFA program in creative writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts offers concentrations in fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction, and features a curriculum driven by a rigorous approach to literary instruction, and a faculty that is deeply committed to the work of its students. We seek students looking to deepen their artistic practice, who want to participate in a thriving, diverse community of writers.

    Our workshops, master classes, seminars, and lectures are created for writers by writers who discuss student work and examine literature from a practitioner’s perspective. We draw fully on the cultural resources of Columbia University–its faculty, libraries, archives, scholarly centers, diverse students, and wealth of facilities, and our stunning and ever-growing list of accomplished alumni attests to the depth and seriousness of our program. The other Divisions of the School of the Arts–Film, Theatre, and Visual Arts–enrich the Division’s programs, and offer the possibility for fertile artistic collaboration. The 28 departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences offer courses that provide incomparable opportunities for a developing writer, and our own events and programs, including the Creative Writing Lectures, and the Nonfiction Dialogues, bring in world-class writers to talk with students about a provocative range of literary topics.

    So, Columbia at the very least is quite explicit about orienting its program toward practicing writers.

  28. Scalzi @24 “I don’t think that’s accurate. It’s not a question of intelligence, it’s a question of knowledge, which is another thing entirely….”

    While I agree that intelligence is not the same as knowledge, the former begets the latter…. In my attempts to navigate the perils of life, I found that gathering knowledge about any endeavor I wanted to profit from was the intelligent thing to do. Many people complain about the results they get when jumping into things from an uninformed position. IMHO, anyone entering into any new arena would be wise to inquire into the ground rules. I think it’s the same argument used by those who felt they were taken advantage of by the banks during recent mortgage scam fiasco. I mean, just because no one took them by the hand and explained how mortgages work, does that mean it’s OK to sign up for a loan they can’t possibly afford? Wouldn’t it have been intelligent of these people to gather the knowledge needed to make an informed decision? Who’s fault is it when someone doesn’t take the time and effort needed to understand all facets of any new enterprise.

    “a fool and his money are soon parted”

    AND… you’re right… my bad… familiarity with reality and success at writing are not , obviously, connected in any way… in fact, it may be a handicap!!

  29. By “non-commercial” does she mean “unpopular”? I don’t understand the point of sequestering yourself in the warm Snuggie of a (possibly expensive) MFA program so you can write for two years, and then… what? Stash your manuscript in the back of your junk drawer? Shred it for kitty litter? Construct a giant papier mache spleen for your one-man performance art piece? I assume that the hoped-for end result is for this manuscript to be published. Even the most academic, artistic, literary book in the bookstore still had money changing hands several times by the time it hits the shelf. Just because it’s not a best-seller doesn’t mean that you don’t need to know how not to get taken advantage of.

    I’m also not certain why she thinks Opera is “non-commercial”. Go to one classical or theatre performance and you’ll get mailings and phone calls from Opera companies (and Theatres and the Symphony) for life. Why? Because they need money – money to pay for the facility, for the costumes, to pay utilities, for the techies for the singers and actors, money to publicize their productions. While Suzy S. Countrysinger might not be best suited to the Opera, she and John Q. Tenor would both benefit immensely from some basic personal finance, business and contract law classes.

    Either this lady’s got no idea how the real world operates, or she’s got a piss-poor grasp of analogies that would make me think twice about getting an MFA.

  30. I paid about $25K for my MFA from Stonecoast and had the opportunity to study with writers who were making a living writing in my field. My one piece of advice for anyone thinking about getting an MFA is to know WHY you want an MFA. Do you want to teach? Do you want to learn to write more effectively? Do you want the social environment? Do you need to learn discipline? Or do you have a totally different reason?

    I’ve met more than a few people who received an MFA, but have never put it to use. They don’t teach. They don’t write. They don’t do anything with it. Some of them spent more than $25K.

    I’m completely satisfied with my MFA and what I paid to earn it. Not only did I enjoy the experience and meet some amazing contacts/friends, but I learned more about writing and more about myself in those two years that I would have been able to manage on my own. Plus, my “day job” boss LOVES that I know how to write well.

    That being said, I should admit that my job reimbursed me $5,250 per year x 3 fiscal years for my tuition expenses. The great thing was that I could plan it out so that my 2 years fell across 3 fiscal years. :-) So, really, how could I complain about a degree that cost a little over $10K?

  31. @22 N.K. Jemisin: As somebody who has spent the last six years working in academia (and not in one of the fun jobs – I edit books and articles for tenured faculty. *shudder*) as as a current law student in the evenings (*double shudder, throw salt over shoulder*), one small piece of advice. Run. Run as far away from academia as you can!

    This “bad” commercial success vs. “good” educational/artistic merit, is everywhere, not just in MFA programs. Simply put, it’s killing us. Commercial success has been so devalued in academia that nobody bothered to teach students how to actually put their knowledge to use to make money. Which we need to do in order to pay back our loans so that Sallie Mae doesn’t come repossess our kneecaps.

    My fellow law students, plus my friends pursuing graduate degrees in the social sciences (particularly political science, history, and economics), theology, philosophy, library science, and yes, even a few MFA’s are all reporting horrible job prospects. Name a degree program, and there’s a bitter yet truthful satire from XtraNormal making the rounds of Facebook with “It’s funny because it’s true” as the tagline. Our degrees are, for practical purposes, worthless. And since we can’t get jobs to pay back the student loans that fund the whole enterprise, schools are cutting back (starting with adjuncts and part-time programs, which makes no goddamn sense, but whatever). Academia is eating itself. It is everything you have described and more. We students are going from the hothouse to the compost heap. Save yourself!

  32. Scalzi @ 31 “But that’s not actually true, or at the very least not how they market themselves. ”

    At the risk of getting smacked in the head with the “loving mallet” or whatever you call that thing that makes others cringe in fear, I’m going to try to press my point. At the end of that post, you said: “Columbia at the very least is quite explicit about orienting its program toward practicing writers.”… hhhmmm, “practicing writers”… Well, “to practice” is not always “to do” nor “to produce” nor “to sell”….I know there are tat least two connotations to the word “practice” and you are referencing the one pertaining to actually being an accomplished writer, and that they imply they will teach all the skills needed to achieve that end, they don’t come out and actually say they include all those elements in the curriculum… Surely, it would be easy to read that into the statement and any wanna be writer will draw their own unrealistic conclusions from it, the truth remains they aren’t explicitly saying they will furnish ALL the tools needed to be successful. again, buyer beware!

  33. Guys,

    I think many of you misread what I said, or picked pieces out of context, or evaluated the piece using the comments and not the piece. My piece is much more balanced that some of the comments imply, though some of you do actually differ with me on substance and I take your points into consideration for my evolving views. But I do think some of the comments misrepresented what I said in the main. To make a few things clear: (1) I teach in a program that funds its students, (2) I teach in a program that bends over backwards to help students find jobs and get published (and I’m realistic with applicants who want to know what those odds are), (3) I spend a lot of time with undergrads who express interest in MFA programs going over the benefits (mostly intangible) and drawbacks–I generally advise against paying for the degree unless you are wealth, (4) I tell every young/new writer I meet (student or not) to beware schemes and deceivers (I wrote a book in part about it because it makes me so mad), (5) if a student had come to my with a Frey contract, I would have spent a lot of time with her and given her good advice and sent the contract to my agent, etc, and (6) I love a lot of Nashville music (and rock and punk and on and on–was a college dj) and was not ranking opera (which I actually don’t care for though I love classical music outside of opera) above it–just pointing out that the milieus are different and don’t cross a lot and have different conventions and expectations, (7) I will argue that you can’t ask MFA programs that are giving you a free ride and that make their literary specialization clear from the get go to train you to write movie-potential YA novels, though you are free to find or make a program that does that. If this last is what you want to do, you’re probably better working outside of an MFA program.

  34. Sorry, one more: when I talked about “protecting” students from editors and agents I was speaking of another program’s philosophy–not my own. We actually focus on publishing and professional education a good bit here. I have mixed feelings about it (for the nuanced reasons I try to explain in my Chronicle piece), but the students want it and we provide it. I fully understand the difficult world they’re preparing to enter and try to prepare them–a challenge because each student has different goals. But I think we serve them pretty well; we certainly work hard trying to.

  35. #32 by fmcola:

    Side topic, but related:

    The pink elephant in the living room when it comes to those mortgages is that multiple parties sign mortgage contracts, and at least one of those parties involved supposed financial professionals. Now that the market has imploded, which of the parties got massive bailouts and which gets morality lectures accompanied by music from the world’s tiniest violins?

  36. I finished an MBA a couple of years ago from a state school. It was not ranked in this program, but in many others. The professors were not the least bit interested in practically useful information. Many of them have never held jobs in the private sector. I had management classes from people who have never been managers. I have an entrepreneurship class where we did not even discuss how to write a business plan, how to meet payroll, what an entrepreneur really does, etc… We talked about other entepreneurs. It was utterly useless garbage. The guy who taught the class had NEVER held a job outside of academia.

    I have talked to others with MBAs. They are all the same thing. So if an MBA is loaded with useless garbage and it is intended for people who work in the private sector, imagine how utterly useless an MFA program is.

    College professors are often complete fools who do not even grasp the concept that people have jobs and bills to pay. One example is when professors want you to spend $100 on a book and you read one chapter. Or they require you to buy the newest version of the book and it just came out. So you can’t save money with a used version. Authors who write text books do not change anything of value in newer versions, they just move stuff around to stop students from buying used books. They do not even understand the concept of “this is our money”. They think that no matter how much money students spend they are getting a bargain.

    Has their ever been a study determine the writing career success of MFA students vs. those who do not get MFAs? It would be difficult to do well, because you have to define success (part of it would be if you sold anything, what you sold, how many copies you sold, etc…). Of course MFA professors would think this would be useless because you should not value an MFA program on whether it is actually useful to someone who wants to have a writing career.

  37. Elise Blackwell, here is the thing. I went to grad school in English lit. My husband went to grad school in linguistics. My sister-in-law went to grad school in sociology. My brother-in-law went to grad school in music. My BFF went to medical school.

    In each of our programs, there was a required seminar or proseminar on “How to get ahead in the profession” which included things like how to submit to refereed journals, how to evaluate job offers, etc.

    Why is an MFA program not able to provide this basic tool for its students, seeing as o many other graduate programs in other disciplines do that?

  38. To the point about intelligence and experience and knowledge. During a Coffeekltach at a Loscon a few years ago Larry niven informed us that there was RINGWORLD movie because he had signed a bad contract and could not get the film rights back. Mr. Niven is no slouch in the brains department, but working outside of his experience cost him and us. (apparently James Cameron wanted to make RINGWORLD and HE couldn’t get the rights back from whoever it is that has them.)
    Frankly not teaching the business end of any business and tossing your student into the cold uncaring world is immoral in my perosnal opinion.

  39. This statement: “not to grow hothouse flowers but to protect writers for two or three short years so that they [can] write a book without distraction,” has an implicit assumption that writers need to be protected from distractions so they can write. That’s inaccurate in many ways:

    1. Most writers have all sorts of distractions. They are dealing with Life and still manage to create word count. This was discussed thoroughly on Whatever several weeks ago.

    2. Writers need experiences to draw on in order to create. When they are sequestered away from the world at the tender age of 20-something (i.e., fresh out of undergrad), they often turn out books about being a 20-something MFA student. Some may have had a broader, richer life experience than others, and that surely helps, but I suspect those worldlier folks are less likely to feel sanguine about paying $50K (or even $10K) per year to do something they can do at home for free.

    There are reasons to gain an MFA degree, but as far as I can tell, “to become a writer” isn’t one of them.

  40. Dave H – I do agree that the reputation factor is the issue when comparing schools like Columbia and Cal State Univ. Fresno (sounds a little less bumpkin that way, no? maybe, maybe not). I just tend to chime in whenever my old school gets used as an example of the other end of the spectrum simply because it should have a better rep than it does. It will never be Columbia, of course. If you’re one of the CSUF poetry students, doors really *should* be opening, but they won’t so long as no one points out the talent working there and coming out of the program. Okay, horse dead. I promise not to beat it.

    Anyway, if we’re going to say that the main value of an MFA is connections, I’m going to point out that I’ve spent much less than $50K on workshops like Viable Paradise and conferences and opened more doors for myself this way than MFA programs seem to. However, I am a commericial writer. The only MFA programs I would consider are the low-residency programs at Seton Hill or Stonecoast, and it wouldn’t be for the purpose of making contacts. Odyssey is a heck of a lot higher on my To Do List, though.

  41. While I never went for an MFA, I was an art major, and I guess I got lucky with my not-famous church-run* school, since the fine arts side of the art department was just fine with the graphic design side of the art department and both of them ran projects together about the business side of art. Both of them were fine with the “you have to make money to survive and you have to survive to make art” message.

    Find it weird that Ms. Blackwell doesn’t recognise the contradiction between saying they aren’t meant to grow hothouse flowers, but we’ll protect them from distraction. Er, how are those two things different? Also, wondering why flashy hipster authors waving perfidious movie contracts around doesn’t count as a distraction.

    *Although because it was a church-run college, we weren’t allowed to have nude models, a fact that the art professors would pontificate on in Meant-To-Be-Overheard voices whenever the church authorities were touring the building. “How can you draw the landmarks of the body when they are covered up and smoothed out by this spandex swimsuit?!”

  42. As Guess alluded to in 42 I’m not sure we should be singling out the MFA program for their lack of imparting real-world knowledge.

    In the profession I’m familiar with, engineering, you could get a BS or an MS and not know the first thing about what work in Engineering really entails.

    Its true that in most if not all Universities that the first year of engineering is designed to weed out people who are not suited for the rigors of this particular field of study, but nowhere along the line does anyone prepare you for the day-to-day life as an engineer. And they certainly do not prepare you for what its like to be a software engineer in commercial aviation. I do not know of a single university that gives a course in how to get software certified for safety-critical environments under DO-178B for example.

    As a result, I have known people who have gone through school thinking that they will spend their days solving technical problems all day every day and the reality is quite disappointing. I knew one guy who was a PhD from MIT that was brilliant but completely useless because he simply could not work in a team, which is pretty much how all engineering is done. Smart as he was, he got canned.

    In the case of writing, it seems to me that real-world knowledge is quite important in the sense that in addition to knowing how to negotiate a contract, you also have to operate as a small business.

    Mostly we engineers go to work for some company and we get our W-2s and have taxes taken out every paycheck and all that worker-bee stuff. But you guys have to manage expenses, and pay taxes quarterly and keep track of what you got paid and when: all that small business stuff.

    It seems to me that colleges and universities in general need to do a better job of preparing people for the workplace.

    Hey, they charge enough.

  43. ah, i didn’t read the full post. she says people spend fifty large a year to be protected enogh to write a book. and then the school sends them off somewhere to shmooze with agents and editors.

    did you all catch that?

    she’s essentially saying that the only thing you need to know about the business end of writing is how to shmooze with the right people.

    years studying the art and craft of writing and then a handshake introduction should take care of the business aspect of things.

    my question is this. the person who wrote this, are they working in the real world of commercial publishing? or the make believe world of acedamia-talking-about-the-real-world world of publishing?

    i can’t imagine *anyone* who works as a professonal writer telling people to ignore the business end of writing. or to tell them the important skill they need for that is the skill of shmoozing.

    out of touch? tenured?

  44. This is a tangent but this kind of fits in with an article I read on Time.com about students opting out of the Ivy League and going to schools that have programs more tailored to their needs. The argument is that the Ivy League name doesn’t go as far as it used to in certain fields, and that other, smaller schools are more about teaching you how to do what you’re actually going to do. The idea of a more practical curriculum with a proven track record of results is really catching on. (And isn’t it scary that this is a new and startling trend?)

    TFA: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1226150,00.html

    I’d be very interested to see how smaller universities approach this vs. the Big Names. Maybe your Widget Design degree from BFE State will end up being more useful than one from Columbia if your Columbia degree only teaches you how to design widgets and your BFE State degree teaches you how to design, sell, market, and promote widgets. And BFE State is a third of the price, if that.

  45. “If an MFA program is going to let a snake into the garden, as Columbia did when it dropped James Frey into that classroom, then it should damn well should have some antivenom on hand.”

    Yes. I don’t believe this fact can be disputed, and those arguments which ignore it render themselves immaterial.

  46. A couple of things here.

    First, it might be worth noting that “creative writing” or its equivalent is by no means the only field in which one can earn an MFA. Music has been mentioned above; but acting is also a significant source of MFAs, and there are the visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) as well. [Note also that a graduate degree in the traditional academic discipline of "English" -- encompassing either the study of literature or the study of critical/ writing -- generally won't be an MFA, but an MA.]

    Second, I am intrigued by the references to writing-MFA programs that “fully fund” their students. This sounds like nice work if you can get it, because if that phrase means “covers all tuition and living expenses” (which is what I’d take it to mean), being an MFA student in creative writing clearly pays better than being a writer of any sort of fiction in the real world in better than 95% f cases. (Clearly, if one has been an MFA creative writing student in this sort of program, one’s ideal career path is to become an MFA creative writing professor, so that the university in question will keep fully funding you for as long as possible.)

    Third: So far, I think everyone’s missed the elephant in the room. It’s not the tension between literary and commercial fiction, nor is it the allegedly vicious infighting etc. inside academia. The thing is, what an MFA writing program does almost by definition, above all else, is to provide validation for its participants, students and faculty alike. It’s a multi-year exercise in constant, concentrated moral support…and one of the consequences is that the validation can become more important than the actual writing. This, I suspect, is what gives so many MFA creative writing programs a bad reputation among commercial writers, for whom the paycheck is the primary validation.

  47. The thing is, what an MFA writing program does almost by definition, above all else, is to provide validation for its participants, students and faculty alike. It’s a multi-year exercise in constant, concentrated moral support…

    –>If we assume that is true, I still don’t understand why anyone would pay for it. To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, “Haven’t they got any mates?”

    Validation is easy to find unless one comes from a particular socio-economic stratum (that is unlikely to encourage graduate school anyhow). Upper-middle-class white kids have no problem finding other upper-middle-class white kids to oooh and ah over the genius of their writing.

  48. MasterThief @#36, Oh, I’m already in academia, though as an administrator and adjunct in another field. I’m just trying to expand into teaching writing as well. I figure I’m already going to be paying student loans for the rest of my life; might as well do something I enjoy while I’m at it. :)

    I agree with you that the “practice vs. Ivory Tower” philosophy is pervasive throughout academia.

  49. John @#54,

    As I understand it, “full-funding” programs in graduate education used to be the norm, back when the goal of graduate programs was to train career academics. Most graduate students ended up supplementing the faculty as TAs and R(esearch)As, which freed up faculty to pursue grants, profitable research, etc. So the students got free educations and sometimes a little extra cash in compensation. This still happens in fields where there’s still a demand for academics — the sciences, the techs, education, etc. But in the humanities, where there’s a massive glut of people with PhDs (especially English) and teaching credentials already, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find programs that fund students fully, or at all. The few programs that still do, like Ms. Blackwell’s, are almost lost in a sea of for-profit MFAs that have become lucrative cash cows for their institutions. Those kinds of programs are the ones that can afford to take out full-page ads in Poets & Writers every month; the for-academia kind usually can’t.

    This is a relatively recent changeover, note. If you talk to older folks, many of them still assume the old model is in place. My father, who has an art MFA, was shocked to hear that I had to pay room and board for my M.Ed (I did get funded for tuition, in exchange for working) — when he was a grad student back in the early Seventies, they even gave the grad students free housing and a stipend. Ah, those were the days…

    Also, someone upthread mentioned this video, which is a brutal and hiliarious, and painfully true.

  50. I just wanted to touch on a side point: a lot of people engage in some commercial publishing without being professional writers. William Carlos Williams never stopped being a doctor, and if memory serves (it may not, and I’m too lazy to look it up) Wallace Stevens never stopped being an insurance lawyer. Some people only ever produce one or a few works that they think belong in any marketplace, and in lots of ways it’s those who most need to know what to expect and how to deal with it, so that their rare encounters won’t all be horrible.

  51. Scalzi: “I think you’re torturing the word usage there. It’s pretty clear what definition of “practice” they’re intending to have understood.”

    I’m not sure it is as I think you’ve interpreted the wrong definition of practice somewhat. What they mean is practical application, as in you will be writing, not just studying writing as a scholar. That’s what a MFA is supposed to do — the participants are supposed to create art as well as study it. That’s not the same thing as selling that art and being a working writer. There’s nothing in the description from Columbia that talks about getting published or helping students to become so. It’s all focused on the writing, learning writing:

    “We seek students looking to deepen their artistic practice,” — Artistic practice, not professional practice, the creation of art, not the sale of art.

    “are created for writers by writers who discuss student work and examine literature from a practitioner’s perspective” — the teachers are not just scholars who study and research written work academically, they are writers who create art and who study literature from a writer’s perspective. The teachers may not be particularly published, though at Columbia quite a few of them probably are. But they do write. It’s the distinction between academic scholarship (Ph.D. in English lit,) and academic scholarship with applied writing (MFA or equivalent,) not between unpublished and published writers. So again, practice only refers to actual writing, not publishing.

    “provide incomparable opportunities for a developing writer,” — Not publishing opportunities, opportunities to hone your craft, to get better at writing. This again refers to the teaching in writing that you’re going to get, not to help getting published.

    “to talk with students about a provocative range of literary topics.” — literary topics. Not publishing topics. Topics about writing art and about literature.

    Again, I totally agree with you that MFA programs should provide education about the publishing industry and assistance navigating its waters, as some programs do. But Columbia’s description is all about academia, not the big old world out there. The description is talking about the quality of their teachers to teach you writing, not the prestige of their faculty to get you sold to publishers. Now, someone brought up the point, why do all that writing if you’re then not trying to sell it? And logically they do know that a lot of their students will try to sell their work, especially the fiction writers. Others will become teachers or journalists. But their job, as they see it, is to teach writing for writing’s sake, for its artistic merit, to make writers artists, not successes. If they are successes, cool, have them back in to lecture and inspire the troops, but that will never be their stated goal. (It would also get them in trouble — take our program and we’re sure you’ll be a bestselling writer!)

    The idea of the MFA programs is rather like a writer getting a grant — it lets them concentrate on writing, in place of or in addition to a job, it gives them a space to write and teaching to help — a more extended version of the workshops Scalzi sometimes teaches. (Obviously, this can be done without a MFA program, but that’s the opportunity they offer.) Graduate students, like in my husband’s political science department, work for the university if possible as teaching assistants, graders, research assistants, learning the ropes of being a teacher and professor even though some of them won’t become professors but will instead go on to other careers. (And right now the academic market is really bad, so it’s being debated having Ph.D. programs at all in a lot of places.) Those TA jobs pay them, which helps covers their tuition and living expenses so they can get through graduate school. It sounds like Blackwell’s particular program tries to do something similar; Columbia obviously doesn’t, which is sad. Whether this is all worth the effort is a perennial debate. You worked on your thesis under Saul Bellow, Scalzi, was it worth it? Did Bellow teach you about publishing or just writing?

    Again, I’m totally with the view that MFA programs should teach the business stuff. But it is a shift in orientation for a lot of them. And there is the raging argument between those who cling to the insistence that commercial and literary are two separate species and those who understand that the valuation of artistic skill out in the market (or for that matter within academia,) has nothing to do with what plot elements you use and whether your book is in paperback or hardcover or what the cover looks like. And that argument probably does greatly effect how effective a MFA program is beyond simply having students write.

  52. N. K. @ #57:

    Interesting. And, I suspect, shot through with irony…because if one can write well enough to get into a fully-funded MFA program in creative writing in the highly competitive market you describe, one arguably already has enough native writing ability not to need the craft-development aspects of the program in the first place.

    Assuming, of course, that you’re in it to improve your craft rather than for networking, resume credentials, or to seek validation that yes, you really are that good.

    Which reminds me — I think E @ #55 severely underestimates the basic insecurity of the college-aged writer of the sort of work favored by graduate MFA programs in creative writing. Sure, you can get your parents and friends to praise your work — but that doesn’t count, because they’re your parents and friends and they love you and will tell you what you want to hear, and they Just Don’t Understand. It only counts if People Who Really Know acknowledge that you’re really good at this writing stuff, and everyone knows that the People Who Really Know only hang out at the best schools….

    No, this is not particularly logical. But it’s how many young and emotionally insecure writers think, and I think it’s what drives a scary number of them into MFA writing programs..

  53. I think it is worth mentioning that MFA candidates are just as prone to scams as any aspiring author. As evidence, I would like to point out the copious examples discovered when I google “MFA” at the publishameriduh website. It isn’t about the programs, per se. Anywhere anyone looks up real information about publishing contracts contains the warnings that one should make sure to get someone who knows what they’re doing to read the contract (agent, lawyer, etc.) before signing anything. This is pretty simple advice, too, that would seem to require no seminar. Don’t sign something without showing it to someone who knows what they’re doing with these sorts of contracts. Simple. People are people, and make mistakes. If there were a seminar, or a ten week course, in publishing business, it wouldn’t do much to mitigate the reality that people remain people, and make mistakes. It isn’t an MFA thing so much as it is a human thing.

  54. Given that it would take about 2 hours of class time to cover the “things to look out for in a contract” would there be any harm in offering this advice in a class? Who knows what the future brings? You may publish or you may teach. Or you might end up selling cupcakes. No one ever really knows what the degree program will really do for them. But chances are you may be asked to sign a contract for something you do.

    It’s not like a course in contract law is required. As one of the other respondents said, it’s always a good idea to have someone else review a contract before you sign it. If it’s important enough for a contract, it’s important enough to read it and understand what you are signing. Unfortunately, the world is full of people who benefit from those who do

  55. Some of thios is reminiscent of the Neal Stephenson interview on Slashdot with his distinction between two types of writing, at http://slashdot.org/04/10/20/1518217.shtml .

    It includes the classic anecdote of two writerly worlds meeting

    To set it up, a brief anecdote: a while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another “And which distro do you use?”

    I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.

    Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”

    “I’m…a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

    “Yes, but what do you do?”

    I couldn’t think of how to answer the question—I’d already answered it!

    “You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.

    “From…being a writer,” I stammered.

    At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

  56. Given that it would take about 2 hours of class time to cover the “things to look out for in a contract” would there be any harm in offering this advice in a class?

    Certainly not — and it’s not as if its only “commercial” publishers who treat authors with undisguised contempt.

  57. At #61. Joe, are you claiming writers are human? That’s just absurd! LOL! :-)

    At #62. Stonecoast offers rountables and extra sessions on special discussion topics like this at each residency. I’m not sure why other MFA programs don’t do the same thing.

  58. It’s going to be difficult to talk about MFA programs as a whole if one uses Columbia as a guide to what MFA programs are like. Columbia has a very large class—Syracuse or Brown might have half-a-dozen, Columbia lets dozens a year. The funded MFA programs work just like other grad programs; the students teach frosh comp or undergrad creative writing or do some other work for the school, like running the literary journal. Columbia is notorious for not funding their students; even scholarships are hard to come by.

    At the same time, unlike the other MFA programs that have large classes and don’t fund their students, Columbia is quite prestigious and rigorous. It does get fairly prominent agents and editors to show up and talk to the students and pitch manuscripts, etc. It also has the Ivy League sheen. Finally, its ethos is actually fairly commercial in that it isn’t really a place for experimental fiction, like, say Brown is. (Amusingly, MFA programs that appreciate experimental fiction also tend to be friendlier to the fantastic than the more commercial fiction programs—they champion psychological realism, which actually tends to sell fairly well.)

    You’re not going to figure out how mammals work in general by close analysis of the platypus.

    One other note: Nora, one issue with seeking an adjunct job in New York is that you’re in New York, alongside great bunches of writers with MFAs and with great publishing records. Check out Brooklyn College’s fiction faculty, for example. Heidi Julavits, Myla Goldberg, etc. It’s common genre counter-snobbery to sniff that nobody reads that literary junk, but Goldberg’s big novel Bee Season sold around 350,000 copies according to Bookscan. Amy Hempel’s collected stories sold around 60,000—more than most genre novels sell. And that’s just Brooklyn: NYU just gave tenure to Zadie Smith and got Junot Diaz as a writer in residence. I’m sure being a genre writer is doing you no favors, but in the local market you’re in, it’s not a matter of an Actually Successful Genre Writer being nudged out of the way by Snobby Literary Writers nobody reads.

  59. It will be interesting to see if in the wake of the Frey story, if Columbia decides that in addition to their Ivy League sheen and running students past the occasional agent, they might want to add a lecture or two about actual book contracts.

    “At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with. ” — How very sad that Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and countless other bestselling authors of repute who make their living from writing instead of teaching (though they may also still teach,) won’t associate with her. But the thousands of genre authors who don’t make their living from their writing and have day jobs I’m sure will do so. It’s easy to dismiss such people as Ivory Tower isolated snobs. But really they are perfectly nice authors, academics, reviewers, etc. who get told a lot of bull about types of fiction with which they aren’t terribly familiar and about how quality and sales success are exclusive opposites.

    But I don’t think that was really Columbia’s platypus problem (trust Mamatas to come up with a lovely analogy.) I just think it never occurred to them that there would be a contract problem they’d need to educate students about and that any such would come from their course guest speakers. I’m sure Columbia faculty were just as dazzled by Frey having a movie coming out with Steven Spielberg. And so some of their students got screwed. With luck, like Hughes, they’ll manage to sue successfully and come into some money. But it’s a big gamble and a bad bet.

  60. My BFA is actually in art, but a lot of the same things apply. I pondered an MFA at one point, but the only good seemed to be that it would enable me to be a professor. In retrospect, I see it would have also enabled me to put off the inevitable day job for another two years. Not once did someone offer advice or a class in setting up a studio, marketing, pricing works, getting into galleries, negotiating contracts, or the tax implications of being self-employed. I got an MS in something practical.

    I’ve heard from friends who have had similar experiences elsewhere. I’m not sure how much of that is the ivory tower notion of the mission of universities and how much of it is the old starving artist trope, where we are expected to suffer in poverty like Vincent Van Gogh, not actually run a successful business like Dale Chihuly.

  61. Data point of sorts: I went to a very litsy, high-falutin’ MFA program (U Montana, graduated 1988), with my eyes pretty much open; genre fiction was not much encouraged, and I knew that going in. I don’t workshop so I quite deliberately wrote six intentional trunk stories while there to fulfill the workshop requirements, never submitting them and tossing them afterwards, because I didn’t value the opinions of most of the people in the workshops. (Where and when I did, I often submitted stories that were already published, so as to get feedback without any danger of influence). I spent most of my time in my simultaneous MA in Drama, and took as few writing classes and as many lit classes as I could.

    I found it very worthwhile and some of the best years of my writing life; wrote and sold my first two novels (and started ORBITAL RESONANCE) while there. The atmosphere, having a place to be, knowing a lot of other would-be writers, the chance to do so many other things (I took courses in Classics, Economics, and of course tons of literature and theatre) … it was just a great stimulus all around. So my recommendation, based on a sample of one, is to go ahead and enjoy an MFA program, because with a bit of effort, you can keep it from affecting your writing directly, and the indirect effects are great.

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