As I moved within New York literary circles while working in publishing, it came to my attention that I couldn't be classified as a literary writer unless I had an MFA in Creative Writing. Unlike most aspiring writers, I didn't need to enroll in an MFA program in order to find an agent or a publisher, as I had already made numerous contacts inside the publishing community. What I wanted was to develop some discipline in my writing habits and perhaps, bond with fellow writers in a like–minded literary community. An MFA degree seemed like a good method to achieve these goals.
I have long suspected that talent alone is not sufficient coin to purchase membership in the literary writers' club. From what I've gathered, there's a password: MFA degree. But I also assumed that "literary" writers were motivated chiefly by love of art rather than financial concerns. For all their criticial acclaim, even the best of that bunch don't rake in the dough like the big names in popular fiction do. So if money is a writer's primary goal (and I am making absolutely no judgment on that) why would she hang out with starving artists?
Ms. Clementson expresses dismay that her classmates seemed far less concerned about participating in a "like-minded community" than in learning the secret to making big money off their writing. She continues:
In addition to being disheartened by my fellow writers' "show me the money" attitude, over time it became increasingly clear to me that the core of the MFA experience, the workshop, was distorting the creative process.
In the workshop, the students critique each other's writing and as the comments are bandied about, a "consensus" develops about what does and doesn't "work" in a story. The writer then meshes the "popular" opinions of the group into his or her work, slowly removing the unpopular parts, until the work is readable and accessible to all. More often than not, this process destroys the writer's initial vision, leaving behind a work that is void of passion and anything that is different, new, or creative.
Although that is precisely the image I've been holding in my mind, I've often wondered if I might be judging the programs and the participants too harshly. But Ms. Clementson was there. She continues:
...students in MFA programs are hen–pecked and criticized until they deliver the "sellable" plot line that publishers want. And, instead of rejecting the forces that corrupt them, many young writers turn on each other, reinforcing the rules learned in workshop, rejecting anything—or anyone—that challenges the status quo and threatens their carefully crafted world. Thus, anything created outside of the workshop environment is treated with contempt, and outsider voices are ignored.
By the way, that has always been my concern about the ubiquitous critique groups within the romance community. At one point my editor suggested that I join one, but I just couldn't stomach the idea of allowing outsiders to interfere with my vision for a story. Although some authors say they couldn't have made it without their critique partners, I've always wondered whether the quality and originality of an author's work isn't diluted by so much input. But back to Ms. Clementson:
So here's my advice—if have any aspirations for a place in literary history, don't attend an MFA program. It won't inspire you to great literature and you won't be able to pay back that enormous tuition bill unless you write the carefully crafted plot line that everyone wants, but nobody wants to read.
I think she may have a point, but it still seems a little harsh to me. Give the whole article a read and then let me know what you think.