Monday, May 5, 2014

In Defense of MFA Programs

Seems it’s always in fashion to trash MFA programs.  So for a welcome change, here’s a DEFENSE of the MFA, written by Rick Mulkey, the director of the fabulous Converse College Low Residency MFA program, where I teach.

In Defense of MFA Programs
by Rick Mulkey

If you’ve read a couple of national newspapers and magazines lately you may have noticed that the season of MFA bashing is upon us once again. Since the inception of MFA writing programs, one author or another periodically bemoans how these programs are of no use to writers, or fail writers in one form or another. The arguments usually made include something about the ways writers graduating from MFA programs lack distinct voices, about the cruelty of workshops, about the pettiness and cliquishness of writing programs, about how the writing and literature taught in these programs doesn’t fit what agents are looking for in today’s commercial marketplace, and a myriad of other items. Let me be clear, these individuals have every right to make complaints and write and say what they want. But to be honest, I’ve never understood this handwringing about graduate writing programs.

While these concerns may exist in other artistic fields, I can’t recall a single article about the ways in which the academic study of music or visual art has led to the development of inferior musicians or sculptors. Great artists and musicians have studied with mentors and teachers for centuries, and the academic study of those artistic pursuits has existed in colleges and universities for generations. My son, a musician who wants to work as a studio bassist in the commercial music arena, is pursuing a degree in music. While his intentions aren’t to be a classical performer or even a jazz performer, I’m pleased that his training includes those areas of performance study. While he was uncertain how the study of Bach or Coltrane might translate to his commercial music pursuits, he recently expressed to me a gratitude for his training in those areas, believing that his studies in classical music and jazz music are making him a better commercial musician. Isn’t the same true for any writer of commercial fiction who really wants to improve his or her craft? Doesn’t the study of classic literature, contemporary literary fiction and poetry, and the craft techniques of those works make one a better mystery writer or science fiction writer? At the very least, I think it makes one a better reader.

In truth, I graduated with the MFA degree, and while my program was imperfect, as all academic programs are, it was an important, even life changing experience for me, and I am grateful for the writers I read, met, worked with and studied while in that program. I have no regrets. My failures as a writer are my own, but to this day, 25 years since I completed my degree, I’m happy to give my MFA program some of the credit for my few successes. This is why, in part, I’ve never given much credence to the anti-MFA crowd. In fact, I’ve never believed the arguments made by MFA detractors hold up to close scrutiny. For instance, the often made argument about MFA graduates all sounding the same with no distinct voice makes little sense when one considers the variety of writers publishing today. Some of my favorite authors hold MFA degrees, and I think any close reading of their books demonstrates that each has his or her own voice. Would anyone argue that Denise Duhamel, Sandra Cisneros, Albert Goldbarth, David Huddle or Ellen Bryant Voigt lack a distinct poetic voice? Or would anyone agree that Robert Olmstead, Alyson Hagy, T.C. Boyle, Janet Peery, Thomas E. Kennedy or Pam Durban are limited to writing the same story in the same prose sentence?  

As for the argument that there is something cruel or petty about MFA workshops, I can honestly say that I have never, either as a student or as a teacher, been in a workshop that was mean-spirited. I’ve certainly been in workshops that were tough, where the critiques were not always flattering, but the responses, even those I didn’t agree with, seemed to me honest reactions to the work. Besides, don’t we study the craft of writing in order to receive feedback that we hope will help us improve? Aren’t we looking for the kind of tough line edits that fewer and fewer editors take the time to do? Ultimately, good things often come out of these workshops. As Eric Olsen, co-author of We Wanted to Be Writers, a book about the Iowa MFA program, states concerning the experience of workshops:  “If you throw a lot of talented folks together in one place and give them the freedom to work and play together, not always nicely but nicely often enough, good things are going to happen.”

And, of course, there is the complaint that MFA programs don’t always produce writers who go on to have successful publishing careers. Do music schools and art schools always develop great musicians and artists? Does the Ph.D. Physics program at Princeton only produce Nobel Prize winning scientists? Most alumni of MFA programs don’t confuse their MFAs with a certificate to publish.  I’ve always thought that the pursuit of the MFA degree should be done to improve one’s writing and one’s appreciation for writing. Publishing is always going to be a matter of taste and, to some degree, talent. Of course luck plays a part too since we all know plenty of writers, with and without MFA degrees, who possess marginal talent or ability, yet manage to publish successfully.

Ultimately, I can’t help but think the unfortunate truth is we are living in a culture where anti-intellectualism reigns, and the bashing of MFA programs has more to do with the anti-intellectualism permeating our culture than it does with promoting serious art and thinking. There are few places to turn in the U.S. for serious engagement with artistic and intellectual ideas. Sure, we have book club blogs, we have Goodreads, Amazon and the like, but these, for the most part, like Top 40 radio, are designed to promote and praise the least offensive, least original, least demanding works. Unfortunately, book clubs for literary fiction barely exist. Likewise, there are few outlets for those wishing to meet and discuss their interests in contemporary poetry. No, if I’m going to wring my hands in worry, it is going to be over the state of publishing, the disappearance of independent bookstores, diminishing library budgets, and the interference by politicians and corporate types with academic freedom.

If I had my way, we’d live in a country where people gathered in bars, cafes and town squares to recite great verse and stories, where they would run out to buy the next Albert Goldbarth poetry collection as quickly as they do the latest George R.R. Martin novel. But the truth is, in the U.S., this kind of serious engagement with reading and writing happens primarily in the classrooms and living rooms of MFA faculty, students, and alumni—and you can count me as grateful for the existence of those programs. 


Bio: Rick Mulkey is the author of Toward Any DarknessBefore the Age of Reason,Bluefield Breakdown, and the forthcoming collection Ravenous: New and Selected Poems. He is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Wichita State University and currently directs and teaches in the Converse College Low Residency MFA.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.