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.