MFA vs NYC


By Chad Harbach in Slate

In the United States, there were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 854! It’s fair to say that a similar growth trajectory has also occured across Australian academia, private colleges and community centres. This explosion has created a huge source of financial support for working writers, not just in the form of lecture/teaching fees, adjunctships, and temporary appointments — though these abound — but honest-to-goodness jobs: decently paid, relatively secure compared to other industries, and often even tenured.  In a North American context, it’s arguably safe to say that the ‘university’ now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.

And because of this universitisation of American fiction, as argued by Mark McGurl in his 2009 book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, it’s virtually impossible to read a particular book and deduce whether the writer attended a program, or not. For one thing, she almost certainly did. For another, the workshop as a form has bled downward into the colleges, so that a writer could easily have taken a lifetime’s worth of workshops as an undergraduate, a la Jonathan Safran Foer. And even if the writer has somehow never heard of an MFA program or set foot on a college campus, it doesn’t matter, because if she’s read any American fiction of the past 60 years, or met someone who did, she’s imbibed the general idea and aesthetic. We are all MFAs now.

That’s because most post-grad creative writing type programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work — especially shocking if you’re the student paying $80,000 for the privilege (or about $20,000 in Australia).  Staffed by writer-professors preoccupied with their own work or their failure to produce any; freed from pedagogical urgency by the tenuousness of the link between fiction writing and employment; and populated by ever younger, often immediately postcollegiate students, MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation, or finishing schools for almost-ready writers (in the way of, say, Iowa in the ’70s), and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American (read western worl) problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.

Read the full essay at Slate …