Or: Not Really Anything About Boudinot and Instead About What He Didn’t Say
Ryan Boudinot’s recent essay in The Stranger, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” has sent shockwaves through the literary community, eliciting acclaim from some and admonition from others. Boudinot’s essay is essentially a bullet point list of harsh, er, advice to prospective and current MFA students, telling them not to whine or complain, to get out if they aren’t serious, and to do things on their own. All in all, while his tone might be a little dickish, Boudinot isn’t saying anything controversial (outside the ill-put “joke” about wishing his abuse victim student had suffered more), at least not in regards to what any serious writer needs to hear. Yes, you do need to be serious. No, you can’t skip reading things you don’t want to. Yes, you do need to practice like mad. No, your life story isn’t that interesting. Why any of that should be controversial is beyond me. Boudinot is not the first to say some people have talent and others don’t, and he’s not the first to put it as bluntly as he did, either. But it’s an anonymous MFA instructor’s essay over at the Electric Literature that is more interesting. It takes Boudinot’s microcosm of problematic and lazy students and puts in full-frame view of the larger issue—the programs themselves, which Boudinot never actually addresses despite the title of his article.
MFA programs have come under attack in the last few years—and David Foster Wallace wrote an early critique in “Future Fictions and the Conspicuously Young”—with everyone from famous authors to faceless alumni to instructors themselves, claiming that the programs are a blight on America’s literary output. And if you’re brave enough to wade through the comments, you’ll see plenty of self-righteous and self-congratulatory lurkers cracking jokes about Starbucks and bemoaning the homogenization of American literature. And every time I hear people say this stuff, I think that they must have no idea what they’re talking about.
Let’s be clear about what MFA programs are doing wrong: there are far too many charging people exorbitant amounts of money for an experience they could have recreated at home. Too many programs seriously underpay their instructors, many of whom are struggling post-MFA grads trying to make a living and have time to write. Too many programs have a bar that’s indistinguishable from the floor, one so low that a potentially earnest, talented writer could find herself sitting next to a schlub whose story was missing the last page and was composed entirely in comic sans. More broadly, the degree itself has no intrinsic value; it does little more than suggest you have a sort-of prerequisite to teach at the university level, and given how America values education—particularly higher education—you shouldn’t count on that unless your novel wins a major award, and even that might not be enough.
Sure, sure; different programs are suited for different people. A capital-R realist of the Carver/Beattie variety likely wouldn’t fit in at Syracuse, and a clevermesiter hatching characters too weird for a Lynch flick probably wouldn’t make it far at Ann Arbor. Generally speaking, though, there are probably only about fifty writing programs—maybe seventy—worth attending, meaning that unless a program that usually charges offers you a scholarship, you should think twice about that low-residency offer. Those fifty-some programs have a reputation, are staffed with tenured faculty who are in their own right established and accomplished writers who have a fondness and talent for teaching young minds. Those fifty-some programs offer full funding so that their students don’t have to worry about the bill later. It’s in these places where you’ll find the true benefits, the real gifts an MFA program can offer: lots of time to read and write, a community of budding talents and seasoned mentors to offer criticism, and a break from a demanding world that does not leave lots of leisure time to those working 40- or 50-hour weeks. No one can guarantee, of course, that your peers will take you or your work seriously, or that the instructors will be supportive (especially since this piece, however gracious an attempt, by Boudinot’s former student paints him as a bit of a tyrant), but wouldn’t it be so much worse if you had a bad experience and had to pay out the ass for it?
For some people the low-residency or crazily-price school works, and those people are serious about their writing and know that they’ll most likely be taking on some debt that their degree does not guarantee employment after to pay off. Thing is, a lot of idiots get themselves into the same kind of programs with delusions of grandeur. It’s why Twitter accounts like @GuyInYourMFA are so delicious; anyone who’s been in at least a semi-serious workshop knows exactly who that douchebag is. Still, in opposition to the anonymous writer of the Electric Literature piece, I do think a writing community is a benefit of the MFA. I believe that because I don’t think writing communities are so easy to find in your neighborhood. If you can find one, that’s great, but all too often volunteers are unreliable, there one week and gone the next after having received feedback on their piece. And the claim that MFAs are forcing young writers through a grinder is just ludicrous. Sure, certain instructors prefer certain aesthetics and styles, but this idea that a group of writers go to Iowa and come out writing the same exact shit is demonstrably untrue. The only way American writers seem more similar (if you think they do, I personally don’t) is that too many haven’t figured out how to adjust the “write what you know” mantra or move beyond imitating their favorite authors.
There are plenty of criticisms to lay at the feet of MFA programs, but too often those valid criticisms of programs that deserve it get mixed up with the programs that do an awful lot to nurture talent that might otherwise take much longer to bloom. Much as I will talk trash about money-sucking MFA programs, there is a sickly feeling in my stomach that a lot of this recent bashing is yet another attack on the arts, a beacon whose glimmering light gets dimmer and dimmer every year, whose territory in the culture at large becomes ever more marginalized.