Much Ado about MFAs

MFAs don't have nearly as much influence--malign or beneficial--as people think

When I attended my MFA program in 2006, everyone was debating the influence of MFAs. The previous fall had seen Mark McGurl publish his essay on “The Program Era” as well as Ben Marcus’s Harper’s rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult.” While the latter debate wasn’t explicitly about MFA programs, Ben Marcus was the newly hired head of Columbia’s MFA program and the general discourse took it for granted that MFAs were fostering the experimental, niche, and “difficult” fiction that Franzen thought damaged literature’s popular appeal with the masses.

(That Franzen would a few years later become the avatar of snobby, elitist literary fiction thanks to his tiff with Oprah Winfrey and the “Franzenfreude” campaign is a nice bit of cosmic irony.)

The MFA debates raged throughout my short time in an MFA program and in the years after. McGurl published this book-length version of The Program Era prompting essays like Elif Batuman’s “Get a Real Degree” screed. And the debates have never stopped raging. The “MFAs are destroying literature” takes pop up with only slightly less frequency than the omnipresent “the novel is dead!” essay.

I bring all this up because MFAs are in the discourse again thanks to a Substack article by Erik Hoel that argues (yet again) that MFAs are destroying literature, using the year 2006 as the time when there were “popular literary writers with widespread name recognition at the height of their powers and careers.” After that, MFAs blew it all up I guess.

It is a bit surreal to see a time I remember as fraught with MFA debates held up as a golden age before the MFA decline. And pretty funny to see someone claim that no one critiques the influence of MFA programs when the exact same arguments are trotted out year after year. Anyway, Hoel’s main argument is that in 2006 you could still see popular but highly literary authors like Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith driving the conversation. They were award winners who also wrote bestsellers. He contrasts this “generation” of authors to the current crop of “Rooney….Yanagihara, Lerner, Cusk, or even Goff [sic]” who he says may be great writers but aren’t household names.

(That Franzen’s Crossroads is one of the most discussed books of 2021 and Zadie Smith is not only still around but also younger than Yanagihara and Cusk goes unmentioned…)

It’s probably true that literary novelists—and indeed novelists in general—are less widely read than they were 15 years ago. But the same thing was said then, and 15 years before that, and 15 years before that, and… you get the point. I have zero doubt that 15 years from now someone will write an article about how 2021 was a glorious time of robust literary conversation and popular novelists compared to the degraded 2036 landscape.

What’s most notable about Hoel’s essay to me, though, is what it claims is the influence of MFA programs on contemporary writing. Namely, a decline in bold and difficult literary fiction in favor of easy-to-read minimalism. Apparently the MFA programs that once were blamed for pushing Lishian sentences and elitist postmodernism are now blamed for removing “attack surface” (?) from prose.

This is one of the funny things about the perpetual MFA debate. MFAs become a stand-in for whatever trend in literature someone dislikes. I’ve seen MFAs blamed for hysterical realism, dirty realism, McSweeney’s style fabulism, autofiction, “identity novels,” and everything else in-between. (Sometimes it’s claimed that whatever style is being denounced was actually a deep state CIA plot all along.)

All of these claims ignore the real truth of the matter: MFAs just aren’t that influential to the larger culture.

That doesn’t mean MFA programs aren’t useful to individual writers. I loved my program. It was a dedicated time to write surrounded by smart professors and peers who (mostly) took writing seriously. I wrote a lot and had a general good time. Still, while the MFA was very useful for me it doesn’t mean it defined my style or influences.

It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting and fraught questions about how MFAs work in academia, the risk of student loan debt, or the way university-affiliated magazines provide a home for literary forms ignored by the masses. But the influence of MFA programs on what styles of literature are popular at a given moment are… overstated to say the least.

Take the claim in Hoel’s essay about autofiction. Autofiction was a trend in Europe long before it arrived in America, and the popular autofiction books that kicked off the trend here were by authors like Knausgård, Cusk, Heti, and Ferrante who don’t hold MFAs. (The Neopolitan novels weren’t actually autofiction, but they were grouped in with the trend by mistaken critics.) Nor do Cole and Lin. Ben Lerner does, though in poetry not fiction. So why exactly is this trend—which, Ferrante aside, never actually caught on with the general reading public anyway—blamed on MFAs?

MFA programs employ all sorts of professors and teach all sorts of books. No single style dominates. In my program we had professors who wrote horror fiction, Lishian sentence-driven fiction, experimental postmodernism, domestic realism, and countless others. (It was a big program.) Some programs are known for having an experimental focus, others for churning out bestsellers, and others for teaching SFF and genre-bending fiction.

Of course, the large proliferation of MFA programs certainly had some effect on the literary landscape. How could it not? But I tend to think the largest effect that it’s had was actually identified in another famous MFA piece: Chad Harbach’s “MFA vs. NYC.” Harbach’s essay is widely derided by people who don’t look past the title, but I think it makes a couple astute points. One of them is that the literary world has split into two somewhat overlapping, but somewhat distinct ecosystems. The MFA world and NYC publishing. Academic presses, faculty positions, and university-sponsored magazines have fostered a literary culture that lives outside of the bestseller list. Mainly this means there is a home for literary forms—poetry, short stories, lyric essays—that are largely ignored by the general public.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. But even if you don’t, the point is that this world is largely separate from what’s driving the general reading public. University presses selling a few hundred copies of a short story collection is not what’s preventing Time magazine from featuring the next Jonathan Franzen on its’s cover.

The truth is not that MFA programs steer publishing, but that trends in publishing steer the writing in MFA programs. Most big press editors do not have MFAs, but writers in MFA programs are reading contemporary fiction and paying attention to what is getting acclaim, sales, and awards. If autofiction has caught on in MFA programs, it’s more because it’s been popular in publishing than vice versa.

Most editors do not care about MFA degrees, and the reading public certainly doesn’t. (And CIA operatives embedded in MFA programs are not using sonic waves to manipulate what styles of novels are popular at a given moment. I promise.)

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