Why We Hate The MFA and Why We Should Not Love It But Be Okay With It

I am at a very important time in my life. The question is: to MFA or not to MFA?

On the one hand, it's what one does to become a writer (isn't it?). On the other hand, it's not the way to really become a writer (or is it?). When I was younger (you know you're old when you start saying this), the image I have of myself as a writer at this age was hitchhiking across the country while writing in a Moleskin made for lefthanders. I'd find myself in New York and Los Angeles and Iowa (I have only been to Los Angeles so far). I'd make witty chapbooks and trade them for fare. I'd have a time period where I'd live in the wilderness and fish with my lesbian lover named John.

Instead, I graduated early, had a stint selling homeopathic remedies, and now I wear button-ups and work a 9 to 5 job. I have become something I quite hated. I look in the mirror every morning and say "OMG! I'm a young professional," and I think about getting an anarchy tattoo on my arm as if to prove: see, I'm still radikal--with a fucking K!!!

To a certain extent I always hated the MFA because it represented just the opposite of that: it represented art institutionalized, art studied instead of felt and experienced, educational privilege based on class.

In fact, Anis Shivani in 2010 compared it to the medieval guild system: "They have their own religion, their annual banquet, their festival spirit.," and in a recent interview with author Mark McGurl in the Los Angeles Review of Books (a blog that tries to take itself seriously while on Tumblr), such ideas are further explored. In four questions, McGurl attempts to save the idea of the MFA as something necessary.

Yes, it is elitist, but "One want the people to have these pleasure not becuase writing short stories will magically lead to a more just world sometime in the future, but because these pleasures are instances of justices, a positive sharing of the [creative/cultural] wealth."

Yes, through crafting instruction we see mediocrity, but "[l]ogically, any large-scale human endeavor will be the sence of a certain amount of mediocrity."

Yes, it fucks with our "deep-seated feeling about the nature of creativity," that is--the fact that we really don't like school.

Indeed, McGurl makes good points on how there is nothing inherently wrong with the MFA program. In fact, he sees such growth as proof that at least some majority of Americans are interested in literature, compared to some critics who see the literary arts as some type of failing in the age of Hulu and Facebook and YouTube--there is no reason for blaming novelists "as though there was something they could or should have done to stop [Glee...because I've never seen The Wire, but I know Glee is pretty good] from being so unbelievably good." Indeed, the MFA program has brought us some amazing talent whose work is diverse and not cookie-cutter material: Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison among others who either been in or taught in writing programs.

Yet, my question is: is this still good enough? Especially, is this something worth investing in? Is it practical to go into this?--I remember reading an article about an MFA professor telling her students that they will learn absolutely nothing out of this, that they were wasting their money--all of you will be unemployed or something like it. Also, quite a number of writers have been successful even though they never attended writing school: is this to be accepted as a norm, or are these just special cases?

What I want to know, Mr. McGurl, is: how can I become famous?


  1. If you can get grants and scholarships, do it: two years of free writing = how can you lose? If you have to spend $60k, well, umph, you'd better make sure the teachers are people you really, really admire who are willing to recommend you to their agents and editors. The MFA guild affiliations are very useful, but you don't need much more teaching right now. You've got the craft tools you need. Best thing? Just live your life and write. My two cents.

  2. Thanks for the advice Nicola! <3