Thursday, June 23, 2005

More on "literary" writing

Over at Moby Lives, guest columnist Elizabeth Clementson comes down pretty hard on MFA writing programs. I've wondered about such things, but have no experience with writing classes or programs of any kind. Ms. Clementson, an MFA dropout, writes:
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.


kstar said...

I read this column with particular interest as I have dabbled in literary fiction and even had a couple of flash fiction pieces published.
This mfa dropout's opinion sounds like sour grapes to me even as I acknowledge that there is probably at least a grain of truth in what she says.
I contend that literary fiction writers are no different than any other group of writers with as many "types" as writers in the group and each with his or her own individual style. Some of those styles are more commercial than others though imo there is very little commercial appeal in any literary fiction.
As anyone who has participated in a workshop knows, there will always be that contingent who are determined to "write to the market" rather than writing from the heart. Often this supposedly marketable fiction comes out flat and uninspired because no inspiration went into its genesis but rather it is modeled after an expectation which is, for good or ill, the writer's own choice.
On the other side of the argument sit the "book of the heart" writers who, though they may write from love rather than avorice, may not have the ability to tell a captivating story. An mfa program is not going to inject talent into someone who has no aptitude for storytelling.
I guess my point is that each of us chooses what to write and the reasons that go into that choice are many and varied. But to gripe about a choice that was clearly the wrong one for your writing seems to me to be little more than an attempt to justify or excuse your failure by sticking your nose in the air and saying, I didn't want to write like that anyway.

Anonymous said...

The MFA does seem to be a necessary hurdle for literary fiction authors, but as a group, they don't seem like a group of people who would be so willing to sacrifice their 'art' and 'vision' for mere money. The ones I've met are usually working at a university or a library, reminiscing about the days when they wrote Silhouette Special Editions under a pseudonym and had more time and/or money.

What I think the MFA buys you is the opportunity to rub elbows with people who might one day be Big Writers, and then you'll get to go to those parties where Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers hang out (25 years ago it would have been Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney), and maybe every once in a while you'll have a story published in an anthology that one of your classmates is editing. Your story will be much the same as all the rest of the stories in the anthology, because they were all written by people who were in your MFA program at the same time you were and learned all the same stuff, but nobody will really notice, because the people who read anthologies of literary fiction have come to expect a certain homogeneity in their reading. But then, so has everyone else.

J. Mark Bertrand said...

The idea that you need an MFA to be a literary writer would have come as a shock to the professors who sat on my MFA committee, who were rather proud of the fact that they'd never gone to school to learn how to write. Still, the "horrors of the MFA program" tale is one of my favorite genres. I feel like I've earned the right to enjoy every word.

Brenda Coulter said...

Indeed, Mark. ;-)

Friends, thanks for taking the time to comment on this. I've been reading with great interest.