In the last week, I’ve read two articles in two very different publications about MFA programs. As a student in Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program, I clearly carry a bias in favor of creative writing degree or else I wouldn’t be enrolled in one. But in reading both of these pieces—Liesl Schwabe’s, “BEA 2013: Factory Town: New York City’s MFA Industry” in Publishers Weekly and Jon Reiner’s “The Modern Writing-School Paradox: More Students, Fewer Jobs, More Glory” from The Atlantic—it seemed clear to me that both were ultimately missing the point of the MFA program.
Liesl Schwabe likened the proliferation of creative writing programs in New York City to factories churning out a product. And while she concedes that the verdict is out “whether or not creative writing can or should be taught—or if the explosion of M.F.A. programs is contributing to or depleting the originality of contemporary American literature” she goes on to assert that, “it’s safe to say that in New York City’s world of letters, business is booming.”
In a city like New York—arguably the home to the U.S. publishing industry and a city with a rich cultural and art scene—it seems unremarkable that there would be a plethora of writing programs. As an editor and a writer, I bristle here and always when people refer to the making of books as a business. Sure, you have to make money or you won’t be able to continue to make books. But I challenge you to find anyone in the “business” who’s in it for the filthy lucre. We all know that we’re there for the books—for the creation of literature—not to get rich. And that’s the honest truth of the situation.
In The Atlantic, Jon Reiner seems to take issue even with the idea of literature, asking, “Why are there so many student writers at a time when the death of literature has become accepted wisdom?” There has been, of course, a lot of doom and gloom over ebooks and digital reading and how the publishing industry is dying. But as someone who works in the publishing industry and is also excited about the possibilities that digital storytelling can hold, I am here to assert that while the publishing industry is certainly evolving, it’s just as certainly not dead. Storytelling—indeed literature of all stamps—is not dying, even if in certain tony circles that’s the sophisticated opinion to hold.
Jon Reiner bemoans the way the publishing industry—perhaps in a sign that we don’t publish real “literature” anymore?—is “privileging ‘story’ over the craft of writing” as part of his critique of MFA programs. He also claims that, “The sprouting of writing programs indicates that the lure of having people read and applaud your work still outweighs the fears student writers may have about the pain and aggravation of being called “witless” in a public forum.”
My personal experience as part of a creative writing program tells me that both of these statements are blatantly false. The very essence of the program I’m lucky enough to be a part of is the craft of writing. If the students in this program were only interested in the basest levels of storytelling, I’d argue that they wouldn’t be there at all. The entire program is about honing your craft—and not just on the sentence-by-sentence level (although as an editor, I know how important that is, too).
The idea that one would enter a creative writing program—and spend a whole lot of hard-earned cash on it—simply to get praise for one’s writing is not only misguided but just plain wrong. If you want to get your work blindly praised, share it with your friends and family. If you want to hear some hard truths about your writing and how to improve it, you can check your vanity at the door and enroll in an MFA program.
What both of these articles also miss is that a creative writing program is not an industry or a way to avoid ever being critiqued—it’s a rich community of fellow writers who are also honing their craft and who’s work and opinions help you grow as a writer with each passing day. And that’s a gift, not a factory.