Unless you’ve been hiding under rock, or you don’t spend your days reading blog posts published by free weekly newspapers about the writing world, you’ve heard about and/or read Ryan Boudinot’s “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One.” In the blog post/rant/first-year composition essay, Boudinot outlines his major gripes against MFA programs. I say “gripes,” instead of “arguments,” because arguments tend to have some semblance of logical coherence.
Several people have written wonderful responses to Boudinot’s piece. The best point out that Boudinot is an asshole. For example, his thoughts on MFA students who choose to write memoirs: “In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” It is very poor taste to talk about the work of former students that way, and Boudinot is being rightly ridiculed for it.
For those of you looking for your daily dose of patriarchy, Boudinot reminisces about how he told a (male) student who asked for extra reading to dive into Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow.
The best responses to “Things I Can Say” point out that Boudinot raises some decent points. There are a lot of people with/earning MFAs who aren’t good writers, and, for a variety of reasons, will probably not become good writers. Personally, I loved his idea of “woodshopping,” where a writer spends several years just writing, without any expectation that anyone will ever read the work. Because that will definitely prepare you for the current publishing market.
Instead of rehashing all of these arguments and counter-arguments, I want to bring up the concern fueling many of the MFA debates—the current MFA/PhD system seems unsustainable.
In 1975, there were fifteen MFA programs. In 2009, there were 153. According to Poets & Writers, there are now 218 (some of those are in other countries). There are four MFA programs just in Chicago. And it doesn’t end there. There are now around thirty PhD programs in Creative Writing (Full disclosure: I will be pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing in the fall).
To top it all off, for those of you who do not regularly check your Duotrope account, guess how many literary magazines are listed? If you said 4,998, you’re correct. That’s more than three times the number of people who died on the Titanic.
Here’s another point—almost every time I go to a reading, fiction or poetry, the questions from the audience rarely bring up theme, or plot, or what the piece is trying to say about being human. The questions are about craft. How do you write strong summary? How do you get dialogue to pop? How do you stop writing about how horrible your mother is?
If there are way more writers than readers, the system is unsustainable. The thing with writing is you need both readers and writers. I’m imagining a dystopian society where everyone writes but no one reads, except for the sole purpose of stealing craft.
Of course, you can read to steal craft while reading to broaden horizons and learn about the human condition. Also, I have a hard time thinking the country is worse off for having a lot of people with MFAs. Workshops teach way more than writing. You learn about bias, how to articulate your opinion, how to convey meaning, and how to take criticism, among other skills.
Still, I’m a little worried. I can’t help but think that 218 MFA programs and 5,000 literary journals point to something not so pretty about our nation. To the part of our society that spends a lot more time speaking than listening, to narcissism’s constant buzz, to the inability to run a functioning democracy. It concerns me that I’ve read more stimulating debate from literary types about MFA programs than about how the country has been at war for fourteen years.
But, I’m part of the problem. I want to be a writer. I want to be heard. I. I. I.