2014 MFA Index: Further Reading


trois_petits_chats says...

What Seth still seems to fail to grasp is that what he calls "selectivity" is really just the school's acceptance rate. A school that generally draws less qualified applicants but has (or claims to have) a 5 or 10% acceptance rate is not going to be as "selective" as a school that attracts much more qualified applicants and has the same acceptance rates as the first school. He never makes that distinction.

Of course, it would be hard to compare the quality of current MFA students in one program with those in another on the basis of any clearly quantitative measurement. 

vivian says...

After reading your post, I would like to talk to you and get your advice. When it comes to an MFA and Critical Theory, NH Institute of Art is big on that....I applied and got in....now I am strongly wondering if this will help me.....I applied to Lesley as well. What are your thoughts about both programs? Which one is better???

trois_petits_chats says...

"Beautiful prose in the service of what?" That's the sentence one Iowa-alum friend of mine described Conroy as saying when the prose in a story that was being workshopped was lovely but nothing of consequence was actually happening in the story. My friend, who saw Conroy as sometimes very unkind to students, has still said, all these years later, that he "learned" a great deal about story-telling from being in Conroy's workshops.

Besides Stop-Time, his memoir (written before the memoir became hip and widely marketable), Conroy's work includes the short story Midair (first published in a collection by that name), and it's astonishingly good--one I've read three or four times in the past 15 years.

trois_petits_chats says...

I was in a dark hole-in-the-wall corner of a restaurant when I wrote my last post, but I nonetheless apologize for the typos, etc. therein. (If there's a spellcheck on this site's keyboard, I missed it).

A New Yorker piece from 2009 about the many attempts to define or explain the worth and purpose of the MFA program in creative writing:


Based on the accounts of two people I know who got their MFAs at Iowa, former director Frank Conroy didn't appear to believe that faculty ought to just "get out of the way" of students and let things happen, creatively. (And WERE that truly the case for the faculty at Iowa's writing program, the university might want to consider putting those same faculty members' salaries toward another use.) Anyway, Conroy was known to sometimes say to a student (and in front of that student's classmates) some things that certain others in the class saw as emotionally damaging. In any case, Conroy was, apparently, never known for "getting out of the way" and leaving any discussion of a story's merits solely to the students in a particular workshop. 

trois_petits_chats says...

Also, Abramson has claimed that he's acquired special expertise on MFA programs, and Poets & Writers editors have quickly supported/defended that claim. Yes, he's got some numbers down--though those numbers don't satisfy either a doctoral-level mathematician or statistician I've talked to about this.

The problem is that, in a broad range of areas, he doesn't display great expertise:

1) He shows an almost obsessive need to classify things: literature, writing teachers, periods in the history of poetry... 

But the difficulty with a tendecy to classify that intensely is that it veers increasingly toward over-classification--and, as many people realize, overclassification often leades to oversimplification.

Seth Abramson is trying to learn about the history of poetry, and I laud him for that effort, but he so often gets that history wrong. And his rather grandiose claims about the worthiness of MFA programs does next to nothing to elevate the status of MFA programs in the eyes of those who didn't attend one. Pre-Seth, we had Dana Gioia as the main detractor of MFA programs. I seems obvious to me that as more of these programs have sprouted, the more resistence I'm seeing among "literary" (and I mean that in the best sense) poets and witers who didn't get an MFA. And to be honest, had my first encounters with MFA programs been with Abramson's description of them, I would have likely regarded the whole phenomenon with much more suspicion.

As it is, Abramson sometimes seems like a kid who's just encountering a whole new history of poetry, but his reaction seems to be an over-simplified thinking about that history

His latest view on the future of poetry: Metamodernism is taking over lierature--or lit crit? (It's an intersting conclusion for someone who supports the ideal of the "studio" program where no "analysis" takes place.)


And while this exchange is clever on the surface, it's also worth reading because it shows that literary history is messy and complex:


By the way, the latest (as far as I can tell) fad in lit crit is "neuro lit crit." My favorite sentence from this particuar article:

"Given that many philosophers saw critical theory as a way for English professors to do philosophy really badly, it should not come as a surprise to find that some with a keen understanding of neuroscience are deeply skeptical of this attempt to say something new about old books." 


trois_petits_chats says...

I'd like to avoid altogether referring to Seth Abramson, the creator of this system of "rankings," but he's created such a world for himself around his views on MFA programs that it's impossible for me to avoid referring to his other comments on the topic--or impossible to avoid if I'm to again raise questions about the wisdom of his system and about the wisdom of Poets & Writers for advocating the system's worthiness. 

Abramson has a habit of proclaiming that something is true and then assuming, as if through magical thinking (or so it seems to some of us), that the mere the stating of the idea therefore makes it true.

One of those truisms of his: that being a good writer has little or nothing to do with being a good writing teacher. Yet, he provides utterly no evidence for that claim--not even his own anectdotal evidence.

Here's my own anedtodal (experience-based) evidence:

With one exception, all the good writers I had as writing teachers were very good writing teachers. True, it's not necessarily the case that a good writer would be a good writing teacher. But unless the teacher has an emotional problem, is self-centered (and, therefore, uninterested in students' needs), or has some other emotional/social/psychological reason she cannot communicate her ideas orally or in writng to students, it would make sense that good writers would tend be good readers and good at expressing themselves in language about the art of (say) fiction writing and, therefore, would make good writing teachers.

Having an asute reader is vital to learning to write well. 

Rust Hills wasn't a fiction writer but he was a great fiction editor (meaning, a smart fiction reader) and, therefore, a good writing teacher:


On the other hand, good fiction writers tend to think about what they're doing and--barring some bizarro problem with their abilty to work with other human beings--tend to be (if they communicate even a tenth as well outside their writing as they do in their writing) perfect candidaties for being good writing teachers.

I'd like to see us rid ourselves of this romatic/romanticized notion that writing teachers are pretty much irrelvant in these programs.

Oh, and by the way: I, like many other voracious readers when we were young, was able to read astutely long before I entered an MFA program (even though I didn't major in English!). Although the sprouting of more and more MFA programs would serve Abramson's purposes well, the idea that MFA programs should increase in number so that Americans can become better readers of literature is not only absurd when we look at literary history--including the history of readership--in the U.S. but also conspicuously self-serving on Abramson's part.   

trois_petits_chats says...

I've read comments on a couple of sites claiming that the so-called studio-versus-academic distinction regarding MFA programs was created by the AWP. If so, that's too bad. It's an unfortunately misleading distinction.

What does "academic" mean? I attended one of those so-called academic programs, where certain courses were modeled after earlier courses at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where one of the co-founders of my program studied under Donald Justice in the 1960s. Our "Form and Theory of Fiction" and "Form and Theory of Poetry" courses were modeled after courses in Iowa's MFA program, including "Form and Theory of Fiction" and its later versions under later names. In fact, here's an example:


I read a few years ago on the MFA blog a comment by one potential MFA applicant who stated that she would prefer a "studio" MFA program because she couldn't stand the thought of writing another lit crit paper.

After having read plenty of "critical theory," etc. on my own in an effort to figure out what all this jargon-laden prose by contemporary lit scholars was saying, I became determined to never write such a paper EVER. The sole reason I didn't major in English (I majored in "analytic" philosophy instead) is that I was appalled by the obscurantist writing that characterized so much of the scholarship I'd come across in literary theory, and I didn't think I would benefit from any course that would reward me for writing that badly.

And had I been expected to write such papers in my "academic" MFA program, I would have left the program after one semester. Fortunately, the focus was on craft, not Derrida or post-structuralism, etc, etc.

So in case anyone fears the more "academic" programs, rest assured that at least SOME of those programs won't torture you by making to write a Marxist or feminist or Foucauldian analysis of "Sense and Sensibility." (As physicist Alan Sokal demonstrated, one can be politically liberal, or "progressive," without embracing the ideas of the “academic left.”)

akboatwright says...

I think people mistake all education with vocational training these days.  They want a certificate and a job when they finish. Money in, money out.  At Columbia, I was given time (and academic credit) for writing.  There were no teaching fellowships and no one chased after you to give you career counseling, agent counseling. There was not one single lecture on marketing your work.  Much of what I learned had to do with developing a certain angle of vision. Attitudes about my work and how to pursue my ideas with both faith and objectivity.

trois_petits_chats says...
trois_petits_chats says...

Since the orginator of these "rankings" has repeatedly denigrated Columbia and other NYC MFA programs (no, I neither got my MFA there nor applied to that program), I thought I would mention this 2013 MacArthur Fellow who earned her MFA at Columbia:


Alumni of NYU's MFA program: