Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Every now and then I like to rail about the MFA industry and how, in many respects, it’s a self-perpetuating racket. I’m surprised Trump hasn’t established his own program, to be honest. Now I come to find, via this article in The Atlantic, that computer algorithms can’t tell the difference between writing produced by MFA grads compared with non-MFA scribblers. That means that there’s no qualitative reason to get the degree.
There might be other reasons, though.
I’ve always perceived that the real draw of a good MFA program, say, at Iowa, Stanford, Irvine, or Columbia, was the presence of teachers and mentors who could help you. Not just help you learn to write but, really, to sponsor you, to introduce you to powerful mavens in the publishing business, and to get you a book contract. Nobody would think it’s a given, obviously, but come on — that’s the hope of many if not most applicants. “Toby Wolff helped me get my fabulous agent, who then landed a spectacular two-book deal with FS&G.”
The stuff dreams are made of.
But if you do the math, you realize that not everyone who gets an MFA is going to sail through the heavily gate-kept portals of modern publishing. Something like 4000 students earn the degree every year, and I’d be willing to bet that the Big Five publishers don’t pump out 4000 debut novels annually. There’s only so much Toby can do for you.
So if there’s no qualitative reason to get an MFA and no certain quantitative one either (a book contract with a nice advance), then why are wannabe writers still flocking to them? Why isn’t the School of Life sufficient accreditation for a talented novelist?
Business, man. Marketing. The universities are selling prestige.
The perception exists — and has for quite a while now — that you have no shot at all without the degree. If you’re serious, you need the MFA. It’s a badge of quality.
I often recall, though, something Kurt Vonnegut said in one of his letters, from the period when he was teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’m paraphrasing, but he said that of all the students he’d encountered coming through the program, only one or two had much talent to speak of. He worked with at least one closely (a young lady), but she didn’t wind up having a dazzling career.
Nowadays, sure, there’s lots of MFA success stories. That’s because most literary successes (i.e., writers of literary fiction) have an MFA. But someone should do an analysis of success among all MFA holders and let us know what the odds are.
Pretty steep, I’m guessing.