Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is the MFA programs

First, Tim Parks’s translation of Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is unspeakably brilliant and remains for me, nearly twenty years after its publication, as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had.

Second, Mr. Parks’s latest piece in The New York Review of Books, “The Writer’s Job,” is dead-on right, except when it isn’t.  And when it isn’t, it’s dead-on off the charts wrong.

Mr. Parks begins by asking,“[s]ince when did being a writer become a career choice?”  This is a damn good question, actually.  Parks approaches it by briefly reminding us of two traditional opposing visions of the writer as artist.   There’s the classical position, that the writer is a skilled craftsman serving the community.  Examples include Sophocles and Pope.  There’s also the Romantic position, that the writer stands apart from society, transgressing its rules.  Examples include Byron and Shelley. Although history, including literary history, is never that neat, Parks is more interested in what gets taught and what gets “stuck in our heads.”   It’s the collective image that matters.

So far, so interesting.  But now, “[i]t’s rather as if the spontaneous Romanticism of the nineteenth-century poets had become a job description . . . .”  Parks describes the dismal context of contemporary literature perfectly:

It became clear that the task of the writer was not just to deliver a book, but to promote himself in every possible way. He launches a website, a Facebook page (I’m no exception), perhaps hires his own publicist. He attends literary festivals all over the world, for no payment. He sits on the jury for literary prizes for very little money, writes articles in return for a one-line mention of his recent publication, completes dozens of internet interviews, offers endorsements for the books of fellow writers in the hope that the compliment will be returned. It would not be hard to add to this list.

One of the many problems with this dreary situation is that:

 [A] would-be anti-conventional public enjoys the notion of the rebel, or at least admirably independent, writer, but more and more to achieve success that same writer has to tune in to the logic of an industrial machine, which in turn encourages him to cultivate an anti-conventional image. This is an incitement to hypocrisy.

So far Parks is dead-on right.  Literature, meaning the stuff made out of words that exposes the hidden disconnects and oddness and awful heaving guts of society’s inevitable hypocrisies, the stuff that makes you shout This! This! This! cannot live in this pseudo-literary “industrial machine.”  Real literature is always in opposition to that machine, which is why there is so little of it around nowadays.

But having said that, I must add that Parks’s refusal to blame creative writing programs for the dirty business of professionalizing writing is dead wrong.  He writes:

Creative writing schools are frequently blamed for a growing standardization and flattening in contemporary narrative. This is unfair. It is the anxiety of the writers about being excluded from their chosen career, together with a shared belief that we know what literature is and can learn how to produce it that encourages people to write similar books.

OK, maybe Mr. Parks is only half dead-on wrong, but he’s still wrong.  It absolutely is the MFA programs.  And the attendant expectations of publishers and university hiring committees regarding same.

Here’s how it works.

Young people who “want to be writers,” many of whom are undergraduate English majors, have anxiety.  Why wouldn’t they? They have no idea how to go about this business of becoming writers, but they pick up the notion from their professors that if they can get into an MFA program, they will learn writing.  They will pick up some kind of credential, some kind of legitimacy – because god knows their literary ambitions are not generally accorded any sort of legitimacy now.   So not knowing what else to do, they submit their writing portfolios and, in every sense of the phrase, “get with the program.”

Parks is correct about the “anxiety of writers” but he is also completely wrong.  You see, Mr. Parks, some of us do opt out of MFA programs and leave the machine to go grinding along in its own way.  I remember turning in a creative piece as an undergraduate, receiving encouragement to go the MFA route, and deciding to pursue a PhD instead because even at that point I was underwhelmed by the idea of spending years being prodded into writing like everybody else.  I used to be acquainted with a very fine poet who chose to get an MA instead of an MFA, because she saw more value in actually studying literature than playing beggar-thy-neighbor – I mean sharing critiques – in some hotbed creative writing program.  I could mention others.

But here’s the deal.  Despite her obvious talent as a poet and a teacher, she came to the realization, after several years of struggling post MA, that without that MFA credential, attendance at workshops, obeying the dictates of the machine, nobody would read her stuff.   So she wasted years getting an MFA that – to my trained critic’s eye – did nothing but flatten her poetry and destroy her enthusiasm.  But once she proved she could “get with the program” she got the prize. Meaning, she got to, wait for it – teach part time!  Just like before! At the same colleges even!  You see, it wasn’t the right MFA program.  There’s a hierarchy to these things.  Unless you write your first literary pieces at the University of Iowa – well, you’re screwed, but we might let you hang out shuffling desperately around the edges of the machine as long as you can stand it.  By the way, anyone who ends up in the wrong MFA program is supposed to be properly grateful to be allowed to pay all that tuition to get that close to the literary life. Not everyone can, you know.

You see, some people hear stories like that and do opt out of creative writing programs. It happens.  But they pay a price.

My own decision to not buy a ticket for the MFA bus illustrates why so many anxious writers, like the poet I mentioned above, camp out to get a seat.

My very first job, post-PhD, was a tenure-track position at a major northeastern university.  I made the mistake of letting a few senior colleagues know that I was writing fiction. (I know, writing fiction in an English department – the horrors!).  This culminated in being pulled aside and lectured to by several “concerned” colleagues who were outraged (not too strong a word) that someone like myself, who had not gone through an MFA program, and had not started with short pieces in acceptable literary journals, and had spent her time studying literary criticism, could possibly dare to write fiction.  Who did I think I was?  It was like an ongoing intervention.

This culminated in a full department star chamber-like meeting about this delicate issue, in which I was told I couldn’t possibly have anything to say as a writer yet (I was thirty years old!).  One senior colleague announced ostentatiously that he never even considered writing his play until at least seven years (!) after he achieved tenure, out of respect for the undertaking or something.  Again, how dare I even think of writing a novel out of the gate.  It didn’t help that I claimed to be writing fantasies that are really literary fiction, because everyone knows literary fiction must restrict itself to works of domestic realism, which is what they teach in MFA programs.  And of course, since so many great novels have already been written, how dare I assume anybody would want to read my novels?  And if I were serious about writing why didn’t I get an MFA degree?  You see, there were literary writers in this department who had MFAs and had spent their lives in abject obedience to the machine, so how dare I just show up, PhD in hand, and write like I had any idea how to write fiction.  It simply wasn’t done.

When I offered to show the department my work, someone at the meeting remarked that I was arrogant for actually expecting them to read it.   When I pointed out that in my literary training it was understood that one should not assess a work without having read it, people got pissed.

I chose to leave the department and make everybody happy.

My point is that even though the “anxiety of writers” drives them into the MFA/literary festival/this-is-how-you-do-literature machine, god help those writers who choose to remain outside of it.  There are consequences, often life-long, for literary writers who mark their own paths.  And it starts with the decision not to pursue an MFA.

Mr. Parks, somebody or something, I have no idea what, has created a situation in which publishers care far more about which MFA program you come from, who endorses your work, and what your Internet marketing plan looks like, than how well you write.   Writing quality is often the least of it.   I can’t blame “anxiety-ridden writers” for this state of affairs.   That’s blaming the victim.

I do blame a literary establishment that is so terrified of making its own judgment call on any given writer’s actual work that the peripherals are now all that matter.   It’s easier to check boxes. Right MFA program? Appropriate number and kind of Facebook friends?  Will Sally blurb the book? If you end up wrong you can’t be blamed.  But if you actually read and go with your gut and then end up wrong, you might get blamed.  You should have known that Jane NewWriter doesn’t have an MFA or the right connections, never mind how beautiful her prose.  So the whole sorry situation is one huge cover-your-ass.

Real literature never covers ass – it takes a load of buckshot and aims straight where it matters.  That is the problem. MFA programs are terrified of anything that matters.  And now what passes for literature is, too.  Is anyone surprised?

One last story.  When I was in my PhD program, I knew several MFA students who all had the same complaints about conformity.  As one poet put it, nobody was allowed to actually write about anything.  If you were writing about your kitchen floor you had to justify why you had “authority” to say anything about that floor. What did you really know about that floor?  Was it really yours?  Were you just renting it? Who made the floor?  And then everyone was taught that you can only establish personal provenance over part of the floor – maybe a square of it that you spilled something on, maybe a dust mote – although you still must ask, are you really worthy to write about that spill? Have you really understood that single spill enough to transform it into language?   They had to waste precious life energy writing justifications of all this malarkey before they could even begin to write the damn poem.

Do bright, well-read young people need this kind of psychic destruction disguised as training before they are allowed to call themselves writers?

How the fuck do you “do literature” – that is, stand outside society and critique it – with that kind of annoying infantilizing going on?  That you are required to pay for?  For years?  For the privilege of getting a very slender chance of maybe seeing your literary work published and read (or at least bought) by maybe seven people?  Who benefits from this?   Why is the machine still running? Isn’t 40 years of bullshit enough?

MFA students at my university used to drop their poems in a box for other students to offer anonymous critiques on.  You know what?  The poems really did all sound the same, and really were on tiresome trivial subjects that were calculated not to offend certain sensibilities.  I remember one about a shard of glass. The poem managed brilliantly to say nothing, but it was a technically flawless villanelle.  Folks complained that the form was oppressive, and questioned the political implications of writing a villanelle. The strict rules are redolent of male logic or something, which is understood to be oppressive or something, until the poor beleaguered writing student pointed out that Elizabeth Bishop wrote a villanelle.  And then it was tolerated, but only as semi-excusable naivety on the student’s part.  But mostly students wanted recommendations and teaching jobs so they wrote what they had to in the way they were supposed to.  Multiply this across the country.  The results are predictable.

The upshot is safe, conformist literary “products” that all sound and read alike, and an almost nonexistent readership for contemporary serious literature.  But don’t blame the “anxiety of writers” for that.  Blame whoever’s afraid to unplug the machine.


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2 Responses to Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is the MFA programs

  1. Hello Karen,

    There was a few hours about one week ago when I seriously reflected on enemy glory. The time to try and have constructive conversation about some of my favorite literature has finally arrived. I want to inform you that I created a fan page for you on the facebook so you can do something about the site if you have concerns. I have been mostly quiet about personal studies until this recent january when I published the introduction to my novel on amazon.com, i started distributing 200 printed copies by hand in november. The reason I am mentioning I write is because I recently purchased your album darkly blessed and am excited to cut the plastic wrap and put it in. The cdbaby website was mysterious and i have been anticipating this cd’s arrival, ive been excited about it. I am a fan and would be thrilled if you decided to watch a video I just made today at http://youtu.be/2FS-VcjqR0U. This is a genuine video, the second book reading from rehtona raey , find out why i wrote the bill on the tape i created in 2009 through references to the following great literature and poems in my novel.
    – the secret language of stone by don robbins ,
    – irelands treasures by peter harbison ,
    – the path through the forest by julie white and graeme k talboys ,
    – electricity for the farm light, heat and power by inexpensive methods from the water wheel or farm … frederick irving anderson ,
    rehtona raey articles
    – the power in leaves, land will once again be returned to the trees july 11 2009
    – the bill 9/26/09
    – email policy 5/17/2010
    – easter island olympic games november 14 2007,
    – destination may 10 2008,
    I saw that you also published a very academic title on this same subject and am hoping that it could be closely related. It is listed at over one hundred dollars on the amazon website so i can’t see for myself just yet what could be in there.
    Your great,

  2. Rachel says:

    Hello! I have been a fan of yours for a long time – I read Enemy Glory in college, sometime around 2004, and loved it. Sadly, I lent my copy away and haven’t seen it in a long time. I’m thrilled to know it’s coming out in epub format soon!

    Anyway, I just wanted to say hi and let you know that I’m glad I found your blog.

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