The New York Press recently published a story by Sam Sacks about the debate over MFA programs in creative writing, an old and perhaps unresovable argument, about the quality of today’s literary output and its effects on publishing as well as on writing itself.
At first when I started to read this piece, I thought I was going to hear the same arguments that critic John Aldridge made in Talents and Technicians more than a decade ago. Aldridge took a No-Sale tone slicing and dicing not only MFA programs, but also heralded writers such as Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Anne Tyler. Sacks, reviewing the collection The Best New American Voices 2006, takes up a similar tone: “…the stories included are so monotonous that they seem to have been written by a single person of middling talent….the plot and action are always neglible…the things the characters do are always mundane and largely to their psychological conflicts…From time to time a structural innovation appears to offer an interesting novelty, but under the packaging the same old formula is always to be found.”
The spin on this piece, though, is that Sacks himself attended an MFA program–at the University of Arizona–unlike Aldridge, who is mainly a critic, although he published a bad novel. Sacks is hardly a cheerleader like Tom Grimes (the director of the MFA program at Texas State University in San Marcos) or Madison Smartt Bell, who in their respective books acknowledge that workshops can teach the craft and technique of writing and not the art of it. Sacks doesn’t make a full on assault against MFA programs, but targets some of their weakenesses: lack of intimacy in classes even with small groups, profs whose only credentials may be the publication of one book or even a few stories, the development of rules and doctrine–a basic formulaic approach to the short story.
To me, this formulaic approach is the most troubling aspect. Many critics complain about the homogenous “workshop” style that produces bland fiction with a bland voice. A legitimate criticism that can be deflated by workshop graduates who happen to be great stylists like T.C. Boyle or Denis Johnson. And as a writer, who has been interested in getting an MFA and has even applied but so far been rejected, I’ve read fiction by MFA teachers and grads–Grimes, for instance, or other Texas State grads like Scott Blackwood (who published an excellent story collection In the Shadow of Our House) or Ray Robertson and have seen a potential for good talent. Their prose is rhythmic and economical and I feel one of my weaknesses as a writer is choppiness. (The sound of language and sentences has been an obsession since reading Hemingway’s breathless use of the coordinating conjunction “and”.) I feel an MFA might strengthen my actual prose and, indeed, help me with the essences of craft. Anyhow, back to formula. In effect, there’s nothing wrong with formula. Some great literary works follow formulas and structures–dramas in five acts, stories with exposition, rising action, climax and denoument. But Sacks elaborates upon the formulaic structure taught in MFA programs, and that formula follows writers out into the real world of writing and publishing and short stories are often published by small academic presses and literary magazines–the small magazines that are often staffed by those holding MFAs. And here is the kicker for me–I submit a short story I’ve written to such a journal. Is it rejected because I don’t have three letters behind my name (I do have an MA in English)? is it read and the MFA editor doesn’t recognize the story formula? or is it just that I’m a no-talent hack and should give up fiction altogether? Sacks opens up these questions because the MFA does give you a network of editors and publishers and opportunities; it becomes a signal of credential.
And yet, some really good novels that I’ve read lately–Wesley Stace’s Misfortune for example– break rules such as the quintessential “Show don’t tell” and yet provide fascinating characters and above all great stories. Misfortune is Stace’s first novel, and while he may have had some connections to the publishing world through his career as a musician, the novel itself is a surprise–a first novel running at over 500 pages–and a rulebreaker. Is such a book an exception to the MFA world and its affect on publishing? on writing itself? Let’s hope not, or talents may be missed simply because they don’t fit a particular style.