An Open Letter to MFA Writing Programs (and Their Students)
Dear MFA writing programs (and their students):
Recently New York magazine published a story, in which Columbia University’s graduate writing program invited James Frey to come chat with its students on the subject of “Can Truth Be Told?” during which Frey mentioned a book packaging scheme that he had cooked up. The contractual terms of that book packaging scheme are now famously known to be egregious — it’s the sort of contract, in fact, that you would sign only if you were as ignorant as a chicken, and with about as much common sense — and yet it seems that Frey did not have any problem getting people to sign on, most, it appears, students of MFA programs. Frey is clearly selecting for his scheme writers who should know better, but don’t — and there’s apparently a high correlation between being ignorant that his contract is horrible and being an MFA writing student.
I don’t blame Columbia University’s graduate writing program for inviting James Frey over to talk to its students about “truth.” If there’s anyone who knows about the word truth contained between ironic quotation marks, it’d be James Frey, and it’s probably not a bad idea for the kids to see a prevaricating hustler up close to observe how one of his kind can rationalize bad actions and even poorer ethics as transgressive attempts at literature. It’s always a joy to see how a master of bullshit spins himself up; publishing and literature being what they are, the students should probably learn to recognize this species sooner than later, all the better to move their wallets to their front pockets when such a creature stands before them.
What does bother me, however, is that Frey apparently quite intentionally was working his way through MFA programs recruiting writers for his book packaging scheme. You could say there’s an obvious reason for this, which is that MFA writing students are likely more competent at writing than your average schmoe writer on the street (this is a highly arguable contention, but never mind that now), and they’re all in one place, which makes for easier recruiting. But I suspect there’s another reason as well, which is that in general it appears MFA writing programs don’t go out of their way educate their students on the publishing industry, or contracts, or much about the actual business of writing.
And so when someone like James Frey breezes in and starts blowing smoke about collaborations, the response is this —
We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade. Do a little commercial work under a pseudonym, sell the movie rights, and never have to suffer as a writer in New York. We wouldn’t even need day jobs.
— followed by a number of students receiving and then signing a contract that pays them next to nothing, and offers a deal so constrictive that by the terms of the contract Frey could publish works under their names and keep them from publishing again (via a gloriously vague “non-compete” clause). Frey was no doubt counting on the students being starry-eyed at the presence of a real-live bestselling author (even a disgraced one) who was waving a movie deal in their faces, but one reason he could count on it was because he was speaking to an audience whose formal educations did not include learning how to spot a crappy deal.
So, MFA writing programs, allow me to make a suggestion. Sometime before you hand over that sheepskin with the words “Master of Fine Arts” on it, for which your students may have just paid tens of thousands of dollars (or more), offer them a class on the business of the publishing industry, including an intensive look at contracts. Why? Because, Holy God, they will need it.
Now, perhaps you are saying, “We focus on the art of writing, not the business.” My answer to that is, please, pull your head out. Your students are not paying as much money as they do for your program strictly for the theoretical joys of writing. They are paying so they can publish, and it’s a pretty good bet, considering how many of those Columbia folks scrambled to pitch to Frey, that they actually want to be published commercially, not just in university presses, in which (sorry) low advances and small print runs don’t matter since it’s just another line on the CV. Yes, you are teaching an art, but whether you like it or not you’re also teaching a trade — or at the very least many of your students are coming to learn a trade, and put up with the art portion of it as part of the deal. Teaching them something about the trade will not hurt your program.
And then you might say, “there’s no point in teaching them about the business because if they go the commercial publishing route they’ll have agents.” To which I would say, wow, really? “Other people will handle the dirty money part” is a response that a) shows a certain amount of snobbery, b) sets up a writer to be dependent on others because she is ignorant of the particulars of her own business. You know how every year you hear about an actor or musician who has been screwed by his accountant or business manager? That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention — or more relevantly don’t have the knowledge to pay attention.
To be clear, I don’t want to paint literary agents, et al as suspicious and shady characters; I have two literary agents (one for fiction and one for non-fiction) and they are super-smart and do a great job for me, and I’m glad they do their job and leave me to do mine, which is writing. But you know what? Part of the reason I know they’re doing a good job is because I know my own business, which makes it easier for me to know what they are doing. It also means they know that they can discuss business with me on a realistic and sensible level. Beyond that, not everyone has an agent, or (alas) a good one if they have one.
Finally, you may say “We don’t have anyone on our faculty who can/wants to teach that course.” Well, presuming that your university doesn’t have a business or law school on campus, from whom you might borrow an appropriate professor every now and again, I can’t help but notice that adjunct professors are very popular in academia these days, and I’m guessing that maybe you could find someone. Try a working agent, maybe. Point is, if you wanted to offer this class, you could.
There is no reason not to offer a class on this stuff. And maybe students will choose not to take that class. But if that’s the case, at least then it’s all on them. Your students are all presumably adults and are responsible for their own actions, to be sure. But if you’re not giving them the tools to know when a huckster is hucking in their direction, if they get hulled, some of that’s on you.
Speaking of which, let me know turn my attention away from the MFA writing programs and to the writing grad students themselves:
Dudes. Learn about the industry, already, before you sign a contract. Otherwise you’re going to get shaved by the first jackass who waves a publishing deal in your face. Yes, I know, you’re smart and clever and you write really well. You know what, your belief in your intelligence and your cleverness and your writing ability as a proxy for knowing everything you need to know about the world is exactly what’s going to get you screwed. Because being smart and clever and writing well has nothing to do with the backend business of the publishing industry or reading a contract knowledgeably and dispassionately. Think about those MFA students who are now slaving away for Frey on the worst contract just about anyone in publishing has ever seen. I’m pretty sure they all think they are smart and clever and write well, too.
If your MFA program doesn’t have a class on contracts and the publishing industry, ask for one. Because, Jesus, you’re spending enough for your education. You might want to get some practical knowledge out of it as well. If it can’t or won’t offer that class to you, a) complain and b) seek out that information. The writers’ organization to which I belong, SFWA, sponsors Writer Beware, which offers some of the basics about avoiding scams and bad practices, and has an informational area which includes sample contracts. Other writers’ organizations also have information for you, and most bookstores will have sections on writing and the business of writing. Find that information, learn it, and use it before you have anything to do with anyone trying to make a deal with you.
But why you should have to pay extra for this essential bit of education, or search for it outside your writing program, mind you, positively baffles me.
Update, 11/17: Those of you coming here from The Chronicle of Higher Education, I offer a rebuttal to Ms. Blackwell’s article here.