February 26, 2010

The King is Dead; Long Live the Many Kings

Full disclosure first: I do not have a MFA; I did apply to a program, some years ago, and was not admitted; I have great respect for many of the folks involved in MFA programs: students, teachers, and graduates. The following is all because I care.

If you haven’t already, you should read Ted Genoways’ article, which can be found on Mother Jones’ website here.

Among other things, Genoways examines the past relevance of literary journal and postulates what's behind the shuttering of venerable journals, declining readerships, and the cultural irrelevance of "literary" writing. Some of this he lays at the door of Post-Modernism, a mindlessly innovative movement of self-reference and play, but by and large he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of writers and, to a lesser degree, their teachers:

To pull out of this tailspin, writers and their patrons both will have to make some necessary changes—and quick. With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere. At the same time, young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers. I'm not calling for more pundits—God knows we've got plenty. I'm saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ's sake, write something we might want to read.

Genoways is overly-optimistic early in the essay when he says that Creative Writing MFA programs will continue to produce an army of under-talented, over-entitled writers into the foreseeable future. It seems obvious to me that the realities of the New Economy and the glut of graduates with “terminal” degrees will make the MFA increasingly unattractive to future students. Why should they enroll in a program that is unappreciated and which produces a degree that is devalued in an already over-saturated market? The MFA doesn’t produce professional writers as readily as it does professional teachers, and there are only so many jobs to go around.

This is the essential problem with the current design and mission of many MFA programs: they function as a pyramid scheme, a closed economy whose structure ensures its eventual dissolution. A successful MFA graduate will one day teach, ideally in an MFA program; they have few other practical (or field-relevant) options. The production of poems/stories/books is necessary to ascend through the ranks, a fact which often eclipses the writing itself. I have often heard folks with MFAs say, “One book doesn’t guarantee a job anymore. You need at least two.” Additionally, MFA graduates are under increasing pressure to pursue the new “terminal” degree: a PhD in Creative Writing. This inflation is an inevitable component of any pyramid scheme: because the economy is closed, more participants cause scarcity of resources and an increase in the dues that must be paid upwards. In the case of MFA students, the dues paid up come in the form of cheap labor for the school (TA’s, GA’s and adjuncts), student loans, contest fees, and a brutal job market upon their exit. Essentially, the fee many pay is a good chunk of their professional life.

Unlike Genoways, I’m not happy throwing the blame entirely on the backs of MFA programs and writers. The fact is some writers are improved by their experiences in MFA programs; many programs educate a new generation in the poetic tradition, which is important; and some culturally-recognized and relevant writers have emerged from MFA programs. Hell, I know many good, talented, hard-working, and purposeful writers with MFAs. I don’t think we should throw them out with the bath water.

Unsurprisingly, Genoways neglects to examine the role of editors in the ongoing sea-change; editors have helped to affirm aesthetics which have limited appeal. One could as easily say that the answer was for editors to publish more relevant, populist work, as opposed to his solution of writers writing better work. The reading-public plays a role too. While I believe wholeheartedly that writers should endeavor to communicate to a broad audience and fulfill a public service as canary, inquisitor, and mirror, the popular preferences and interests make that a challenge.

If literary journals hope to survive, they must expand their readership and reduce their dependence on academic institution and federal dollars. To do this, editors of journals need to recognize that part of their commodity is editorial endorsement. As I discussed in a previous post, there is popular interest in poetry and fiction; there is a public appetite for poetry, it just isn’t “literary” poetry. If you visit open poetry forums, not only will you find reams of poetry, but you will also find an enormous number of comments from genuinely appreciative readers. If journals used their powers of endorsement (which are still valued, believe it or not), and included and promoted the best work from these popular communities, right alongside their traditional fare, their readership would increase. Long live the many kings.

Not to let writers entirely off the hook, I would agree that we as writers are going to have to fight long and hard for cultural relevance. To be relevant we have to recognize that we serve a social function. If we write to be understood, to be appreciated, to express ourselves purely and without compromise, we will be dead, stuffed dodos behind glass in a museum before very long.

1 comment:

  1. You speak the truth Josiah. Preach on.