What the Internet’s MFA Wars Are Really About

Two weeks ago, a former MFA instructor named Ryan Boudinot published a piece called “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” in Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger that has begun ricocheting around the Internet ever since. It’s a critique of MFA programs that unfortunately was taken by many as an indictment — and betrayal — of his students.

An example:

 Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.” I almost quit my job on the spot.

Boudinot’s practical advice is incredibly sound. But his hammering of students he saw as lazy and untalented hit a chord of defensiveness and anger, stirring up the age-old debate about whether to get your MFA.

Follow-up posts included an interview with the writer, a piece called “I Was the MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry,” the anonymously penned “How the MFA Glut Is a Disservice to Students, Teachers, and Writers,” the inspirational “The Real World of the Writing Life,” and even a response from Salon critic Laura Miller:  “Nobody cares about your book: Why that ‘Things I Can Say About MFAs’ essay struck such a nerve with writers.” Miller writes that Boudinot’s criticism is nothing compared to the future of indifference that awaits most writers: “Most books get lost in the deluge published every week. Forget about the world hating your book — chances are it won’t even notice it. Your teacher owes you better treatment than that, but the public does not.”

I don’t disagree with those who are saying that the overall landscape of MFA programs has lost rigor as it has swelled in numbers. I have also heard from my friends in academia that a small but vocal group of students who enter some of these programs are Hannah Horvaths, unwilling to deal with serious critique, serious reading, or serious focus. And one has only to turn the page in The Writer’s Chronicle and see the lavish ads from new MFA programs in every single issue to conclude that their rapid multiplication means they have to be a moneymaking proposition for universities. That gives me pause.

It’s tempting to heap blame on students who enroll in these advertised MFA programs looking for therapy, support, or encouragement rather than tough feedback. A lot of people may even enjoy yelling “you’ll never be a writer” at this group and, like J.K Simmons’ sadistic instructor in Whiplash, expecting the geniuses to deflect the blow and keep going while everyone else veers off the golden path to Art. As entertaining as it is, this model ignores the fact that for every genius who thrived on being cut down, there were geniuses like George Eliot who hated criticism and had to be shielded from it. It also ignores the existence of mediocre artists who love their art, and themselves, so much that they’ll keep going no matter what you tell them. And why shouldn’t they?

The question that interests me more — both now and when I was enrolled at an established low-residency MFA program which included in its ranks students fresh out of college and octogenarian, those eager for harsh critique and frightened of the same — is this: why are so many more people signing up for MFA programs at this particular moment to begin with? Where does the new demand come from? Is it because we’re all deluded into thinking we’re the next Fitzgerald or Faulkner and willing to put ourselves into debt to achieve that unachievable dream?

No. People aren’t that stupid. They may hope, but deep down most of them understand the odds for publication. Rather, I think this surge in demand is because creativity and play — whether it’s basket-weaving, coming up with frisbee golf strategy, or writing short stories — feeds a part of many people which can’t be satisfied by work, family, or even home. Let’s call it the soul, since that’s a convenient metaphor.

I hate to inevitably bring it back to capitalism, but I really must. Because we live in a society that grants us zero established time to create without the expectation that what we create will be lucrative. And this engenders a culture in which everything we love, and do, is meant to be a consuming passion or vocation (unless we’re mega-rich, in which case, see you on the links!). The idea of writing as a lifelong hobby or interest to be nurtured seems absurd in this kind of culture. Therefore the only way to scoop out time and legitimacy for one’s abiding love of writing is to enroll in a degree-granting program that will offer both structure and more importantly, authority and permission to spend time doing something that, in fact, offers little to no monetary promise. Investing time and money, receiving a degree — these are only the ways we are allowed to give these pursuits a sense of legitimacy.

Many of my peers left my somewhat touchy-feely, if ultimately rigorous, MFA program feeling as though a side of themselves that always existed but had been stifled was now acknowledged and flourishing. When we stood up to receive our degrees, a faculty member read aloud a sentence of our own writing (on the flip-side, we also compiled the most cutting critiques we’d received and read them during the ceremony). Everyone cried, and many said it was the most meaningful educational experience of their lives. Is that such a waste, a terrible experience to amass debt for?

I wish the debt weren’t necessary, of course. But I don’t blame the students. To return to a theme that came up during the “husband-sponsored writer” debate, imagine what would happen to the creation of art and writing in a world with a guaranteed minimum income and/or a four-day workweek, a society with government subsidies for writers and mandatory sabbaticals for all workers. In that different world, neighborhood writing workshops, collectives, and poetry slams would probably fill the void of many MFA programs. But until that semi-utopia comes into existence, don’t be too hard on creatively starved people for seeking a community, a license to be themselves and to do what they love. The problem, and solution, are much bigger.