We are all MFAs now

Go to Slate and read MFA vs. NYC, which is an essay by Chad Harbach from the journal n+1. It draws heavily from the excellent, even tour-de-force work of literary criticism and history The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing ( Amazon ) by Mark McGurl, which we discussed a bit here at AMV as part of Th.’s Stephen Tuttle interview about the BYU MFA.

Some excellent points are made so are some overgeneralizations and deliberate provocateurisms. But taking the model seriously for a moment I’d like to ask a) are there any Mormon NYC writers of literary fiction? (It seems to me that — to borrow a phrase from Harbach —  “we are all MFAs now”) and b) would the better dichotomy for modern Mormon fiction be MFA vs. Speculative Fictionists?

29 thoughts on “We are all MFAs now”

  1. This is the sentence in the article at which I stopped reading: “Second, and perhaps most important, to be an NYC writer means to submit to an unconscious yet powerful pressure toward readability.” Maybe the sentences that came after tempered the inanity of this one, but, by this point (more than half way), I’d grown impatient.

    I’m not sure why I felt so impatient about this and really have no interest in deep self-examination about it. I found the article depressing. Over 800 MFA programs producing, how many graduates come yearly? And all of these thousands of MFA graduates write to get credits to get jobs teaching others to get on the same going-nowhere hamster wheel? And, at the same time, the MFA writing that is produced belongs in a the same pickled and preserved can.

    And it’s a university can. Which tends to be a liberal. Now even if one of our MoLit writers fancy him/herself a liberal Mormon, the odds of being liberal enough to please the average university tastes are not likely high. Same with NY tastes.

    And then I wonder if we (the MoLit community members) are churning away on our own little wheels (speaking generally, I admit), talking to ourselves in very much the same way it seems to me this article complains about MFA programs. Are we running the risk of becoming not only canned MFA writers, or canned NY writers, but canned MoLit writers, be it of the short story or the novel?

    That’s just too depressing a thought for me to spend much time on. But as soon as I was finished thinking it, I thought of grafting, of the technique of inserting part of healthy fruit-bearing tree into one that is producing weakly. Grafting requires a surprisingly small segment.

    Maybe that’s what we, as a community, can be for the publishing realm. An unrealistic hope? Maybe. Idealistic? Definitely. But dream big. If both the MFA/NY “canons” are going stale, each needs the renegade, even if they don’t know they need it. Its deeply ironic, I think, to think of a Mormon writer as a renegade.

    It feels a lot like looking forward to the appearance of a literary Jesus. 🙂

    You asked about Mormons in the NY literary canon. Most names I can think of, including Udall, I’d cast as MFA writers. I’m thoroughly impressed with the success of certain Mormon YA writers.

    Sorry if I missed the point you’d hope to discuss, Wm.

  2. Like Lisa, I didn’t read the whole thing. Unlike Lisa, I didn’t even make it halfway through the article. I did read the first third and the closing paragraph. So given my cursory reading here are my thoughts:

    1. False dichotomies always lead to bleak outcomes. Seriously. Blech.

    2. Haven’t we heard enough about how publishing houses are all whoring their art? Although, given what I read in the article maybe what this guy is saying is that publishing houses are brothels and MFA programs are turning into the geisha girls of literature?

    3. In regards to Mormon Lit what this article got me thinking was we don’t have the infrastructure for a schism like the MFA/NYC one. So maybe how that plays out is through the active/inactive relationship. I first thought of Brady Udall and Elna Baker as writers that fit the NYC writer defintion–but most people I know who read their works question the author’s faithfulness to Mormon dogma. (Whether or not that questioning is appropriate or not doesn’t seem to matter; That Mormon readers tend to put a lot of emphasis on authorial intent and spirituality simply is.) So maybe we don’t have an MFA/NYC divide; we have a faithful/unfaithful divide.

    4. In regards to Wm question about if it should be MFA versus Speculative Fictionists, I’d say no. I think a more accurate model for the Mormon market would be MFA versus Mormon Mommy aesthetic. It seems to me that the Mormon writers who are most successful are those that can accurately read and predict the revolutions of the Mormon Mommy. (Please note that I use the Mormon Mommy phrase to include all women in the Church–whether married or not, with or without children, working or SAH–because the Church encourages us to think of all women as mothers engaging in different states of mothering.) I think the Speculative Fictionists excel at these predictions.

  3. I also found the article kind of annoying–not because of a lack of truth in the dichotomy he sees, but because it both seems irrelevant to the majority of writing (non-fiction and genre fiction) and because so much of the current context is absent (the changes due to the digital world, for example) and because there seems to be no suggestion for what could be done about the problem or examination of how writers’ situations were better in the past (if they were).

    I do think literary fiction is important. But if this dichotomy has arisen, is it really a bad thing? Do the difficulties that Harbach sees really arise from this dichotomy? Or are they a result of other factors — the rapid increase in the number of writers with literary aspirations, the changes in popular tastes, the increase in literacy and the accompanying decrease of literary fiction as a proportion of the market, etc., etc., etc.

    I do wish there were stronger markets for literary fiction and poetry. But my take is that the declines in these areas actually are perceptions that come from a decline not in raw sales numbers, but in the proportion of literary fiction and poetry that is published vs. the rest of the market. Thus the number of poetry collections published is actually stable or increasing, while its importance decreases simply because everything else is growing faster.

    To many this makes the past look like the “good old days” when, in fact, the good old days weren’t so good.

    Lisa wrote:

    Now even if one of our MoLit writers fancy him/herself a liberal Mormon, the odds of being liberal enough to please the average university tastes are not likely high. Same with NY tastes.

    I’m not sure where you are going with this, Lisa. I don’t see things as being quite as black and white as this implies. This feels a little like the Mormon outsider perspective that pervades too much of political discourse among Mormons (no matter who is in power, liberal Washington is to blame). Are you sure that “liberal University” tastes really reject works that are “conservative” (whatever that is) but are otherwise excellent? Does the liberal bias in University programs come from the makeup of the group? or from the belief that non-liberal works are inherently inferior?

    IMO, too often the complaints that the University or NYC are too liberal come from those who have been rejected for other reasons.

    In regards to Mormon Lit what this article got me thinking was we don’t have the infrastructure for a schism like the MFA/NYC one.

    Spot on, Laura. This is, of course, one of the reasons that Mormon literary fiction is financially so weak — we don’t have the infrastructure to get much good work out into the market.

    IMO, the answer to the problem of the “faithful/unfaithful divide” (which we have discussed much here on AMV) is to strengthen the infrastructure for literary fiction. And I think that we have seen some improvements in recent years and collectively have a good idea where the remaining problems lie.

  4. I think the fact that so many of us couldn’t even finish the article (I’m one of those who made it less than halfway through) suggests that this division isn’t really a meaningful one for us. There’s little more boring than listening to True Believers talk about distinctions that mean something to them, but nothing to the rest of us. (Something I first realized in a graduate course on literary criticism where we were being forced to read Lyotard versus various other Marxist critics on just what “ideology” means, if I recall correctly.)

    It’s my sense that the distinction between MFA and NYC writers makes sense only within the confines of literary fiction as a genre/audience. Within the Mormon literary world, by contrast, I’d say that there are at least 3 distinct genres/audiences:
    – Mormon literary fiction, which is (so far as I can tell) dominated by MFAs, to use the article’s terminology
    – Mormon popular fiction writers, some of whom have training as writers/editors, but most of whom (so far as I can tell) don’t have (or particularly see the value in) MFA-type credentials
    – Mormons speculative fictionists, who (like most speculative fiction writers of every stripe) have received their training through an almost entirely different, community-based milieu

    It may be that Mormon YA authors form yet another category. I don’t know enough about their training/community to have much of a clue.

    If we’re looking for splits *within* the world of literary Mormon fiction (my first category), then perhaps the active/inactive dichotomy makes sense, though like Laura I’m unsure that we really have two separate infrastructures relates to that.

    Where does Jamie Ford come in, by the way? Is he an MFA writer or a NYC writer? Or is he irrelevant to the current discussion, as a writer who hasn’t (so far) chosen to write about Mormonism or Mormon culture as a topic/venue?

  5. Where does Jamie Ford come in, by the way? Is he an MFA writer or a NYC writer

    From his website (Jamie Ford, author), I’d have to say he is an NYC writer. There don’t appear to be any academic credentials there, except for Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp.

    Of course, these things are sometimes hard to gauge.

    However, I don’t think that we make too much of whether an author writes about Mormonism or not, so I can’t see him as irrelevant.

  6. Excellent responses.


    “It’s my sense that the distinction between MFA and NYC writers makes sense only within the confines of literary fiction as a genre/audience.”

    I completely agree and find your Mormon divisions very intriguing, Jonathan. On the other hand, there’s some value in stating things so starkly (although as I mention in my original post, there are definitely some overgeneralizations and deliberate attempts to provoke) in that it highlights some of the specific networks that operate and the funding that is attached to them and how that affects the writing products that result.

    The points that I find the most interesting from the article are a) that even if writers don’t earn an MFA per se, they might still be MFA writers and b)that NYC authors are often enmeshed in the politics and economics of NYC publishing.

    And as you all have pointed out (as have some of the commenters on the article) what the article elides (in particular genre fiction, including YA, and international writers/markets) also says something about a certain perspective on what “counts” as fiction.

    Also, fwiw, McGurl’s book is much more sophisticated and humorous than the analysis provided in the article.

  7. To Kent: Touche. What I wrote may have that outsider tone. Of course, the political whine moves in both directions and every side positions itself as the outsider now and again. Regardless, I really didn’t mean to be political.

    Rather, I was hedging sort of sideways into the sense I have that most of the gatekeepers in this business probably have more liberal tastes in lit than many of our writers. Its true that strong conservative voices rise. Marilyn Robinson is an obvious example.

    Pause: “Conservative” is the wrong word, I sense. “Conservative” can’t help but sound political. I’ll switch to “traditionalist” here, with the understanding that I’m speaking of “traditional ways of life” as opposed to traditional forms of art. Unpause.

    Writers have to get past the gatekeepers (the agents, publishers) before they can find an audience. Universities and the east and west coasts tend to be more liberal in their sentiments and, therefore, artistic taste. Its fair that they would want to represent and publish what sails their boats. We wouldn’t ask Deseret Book or even Zarahemla Press to publish books that were fundamentally contrary to their tastes/values/traditions even if the writing was stellar.

    If we exclude niche markets like the Mormon or Christian markets, traditionalist voices do seem less represented. I don’t think that’s because traditionalists haven’t learned to write. I hope to encourage our writers to always work on being better, but also to keep sending stuff beyond our MoLit boundaries.

    Now if I’d only practice what I preach…

  8. Interesting link, William.

    Back to the broader issue: I think it would be interesting to do an analysis of the background, training, and affiliation of Mormon writers of literary fiction. How would we define them? Publication in Irreantum, Sunstone, and/or Dialogue? Maybe throw in publication by Zarahemla, Parables, and Signature. Plus finalists in the Whitney “general fiction” category and winners or runners up for the AML awards. Yeah?

  9. Are you asking, Jonathan, if most of our writers who appear in these venues are MFAs? I’m betting its about half and half, based on bios I see coming thru for fiction in Irreantum. But its a guess.

    I can’t think of anyone we’ve picked up for fiction in the couple years I’ve been there who didn’t have at least a bachelor’s degree. Our lit fic is shaped by the university (and university writing classes) one way or the other, it seems. But the editors are university people.

    Angela Hallstrom and Jack Harrell teach/have taught creative writing (and comp) at church owned schools. I’m not sure about Jack, but I know Angela is an MFA. To the extent editors shape what we write by their choices, then I guess the argument could be made that Irreantum writers are shaped by the modern MFA program.

    But that’s just nuts.

  10. Just read the article link Wm last gave. Yes. That’s what I’m talking about. I liked what Mark Goldblatt said toward the end when he wrote:

    “I don’t set out to write conservative novels. I wind up writing them because the things that most resonate with me, that most provoke my intellect and stir my emotions, are misconceived challenges to tradition”

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations. Chekov said, “The obligation of the artist is not to solve the problem, but to state the problem correctly.” It seems to me that traditionalist writers who succeed in getting past the liberal gatekeepers maintain this kind of focus.

  11. Partly I’m asking if they’re MFAs. Mostly, though, I’m thinking that an analysis might yield some useful categories. So far as I can tell in Mormon letters, we don’t have the equivalent of an NYC grouping that might counterbalance the MFA/creative writing program — at least if we stay within the “literary fiction” category.

    I’m not sure that possession of a bachelor’s degree, or even a master’s degree, necessarily puts one in the MFA camp. I certainly don’t feel much like an MFA writer myself, despite my master’s degree and ABD in English literature. But then, I only ever took one creative writing course (at the undergraduate level), and it focused on science fiction and fantasy. Rather, I see myself as very much a (belated) product of the sf&f school of writing.

    Actually, going back and taking another look at the original article, I don’t think that within Mormon letters we have the equivalent of either the MFA *or* the NYC school, in the sense that the article describes them. At base, what the article describes is two distinct cultures that have arisen from two distinct sources of funding: literary publication (the NYC school) and teaching in MFA programs. But so far as I can tell, there’s no one who’s actually making a living off publishing Mormon literary fiction. And while there are a few Mormon creative artists who make a living by teaching in MFA/creative writing programs, there aren’t that many of them. (Note: Teaching in an English department, as I see it, doesn’t count unless your slot is specifically related to creative writing.) Instead — as we’ve noted before — Mormon literary fiction is a largely volunteer endeavor. Individuals may have been trained in an MFA program — or not — but there’s not really the wherewithal to create an MFA culture within Mormon letters, because in the end there aren’t any paying jobs to pass out.

    In short, literary training or no, I’d argue that — reversing William’s declaration — none of us are MFAs in the sense that Harbach is talking about. And none of us are NYCs. Which may be for the best, in some ways.

  12. Mormon literature is a volunteer effort, but Mormon literary fiction is very much under the sway of the MFA culture — the emphasis on the short story, on workshop-speak, on quarterly journals, on literary realism. And teaching in an English department very much counts if your fiction interactions and publications happen in relationship with MFA culture.

    It’s not so much about who is making a living, but rather what authors are reading, writing and how the conceptualize their place in American literature. What they aspire to.

    As Harbach says:

    “And even if the writer has somehow never heard of an MFA program or set foot on a college campus, it doesn’t matter, because if she’s read any American fiction of the past 60 years, or met someone who did, she’s imbibed the general idea and aesthetic.”

    Of course, that’s generalizing almost to the point of ridiculousness — except not really. Harbach doesn’t make a convincing case, but McGurl does.

    Note that I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. It is one stream of literature. And one that I write and read in. Just as YA/children’s and/or speculative fiction (since lately it’s kinda been both at once) is another strong stream in Mormon letters. What is interesting to me, though, is that while there is some tension between literary and genre fiction crowds in Mormon letters, there’s also a surprising amount (or at least surprising from the outside looking in) of cross fertilization and writers working in both modes. I think that that’s a good thing.

  13. Okay. I know we’ve already acknowledged Harbach’s provincialism, but “any American fiction of the past 60 years”? Come on! Has this fellow even heard of science fiction and fantasy?

    Which, by the way, have now won a certain acceptability within English departments, although I’m unsure whether that crosses over into MFA/creative writing programs (except those that actually feature an sf&f writer on hire).

    What you find, by and large, among practitioners of science fiction and fantasy is a pretty widespread disdain for creative writing programs in general and MFAs in particular. I don’t see much evidence that these writers have been influenced by that culture. In fact, I see a lot more overlap between the MFA and NYC cultures than I do between either of them and the sf&f culture. That may be true in other categories and genres as well; all I can really speak to is sf&f.

    And yeah, the MFA has become more common in sf&f circles, but it still strikes me as something of an oddity. More common, I think, is people like P.C. Hodgell, who taught in an English department at UW Oshkosh for a number of years but who (so far as I can tell) never made connections with the creative writing culture at her university. Instead, she remained a dyed-in-the-wool member of the sf&f community.

    William: I’m not sure that I see the crossover you’re talking about between literary fiction and sf&f (a phrase I prefer to speculative fiction because in my experience, “speculative fiction” is the term used by people trying to deny ties to the sf&f community). Examples that come to mind of LDS sf&f writers who have also written mainstream work (such as Scott Card and Dave Farland) are also among the most militant critics of MFA culture and “literary” fiction in general that I know. Granted, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some kind of influence…

  14. I’ve been so busy getting the word out on Irreantum’s upcoming issue/contests/Pushcart nominations that I haven’t had time to really read or participate in this most interesting discussion. (And–yes–Pushcart nominations. How MFAish of us.)

    I still haven’t had time to read all the links, but I can surmise from the OP and comments the basic gist of the argument. Speaking purely as Irreantum’s editor, I’ve got to say that I don’t care one little bit whether or not a writer has an MFA. As a matter of fact, it’s very rare that I know anything at all about a writer’s background, since our fiction is chosen by a contest that’s judged blind. What I do care about, though, is well-written fiction, and very often, that fiction is written by someone who’s had some training in the craft. Very often, but definitely not always, some of that training happens in a college setting.

    I have solicited fiction from known MFAs (even PhDs in fiction, egads!), but only because 1. I can tell by what they’ve written that they know what they’re doing and 2. they’re some of the best writers currently at work in our culture. I also solicited a story from Orson Scott Card–a writer who’s known to dislike MFA programs–for the very same reason.

    As to Mormonism’s “best” writers and whether or not they have MFAs, degrees in creative writing, or teach creative writing in a university setting, here are some names off the top of my head: Doug Thayer, Orson Scott Card (no MFA, but teaches), Margaret Blair Young, Brady Udall, Jack Harrell, Shannon Hale, Carol Lynch Williams, Phyllis Barber, Todd Robert Petersen, Levi Peterson, Karen Rosenbaum, Darrell Spencer, Stephen Tuttle, Patrick Madden, Mary Clyde, Lewis Horne, Darin Cozzens, Ann Dee Ellis (unsure if she has an MFA, but teaches creative writing at BYU), Scott Hatch, Brandon Sanderson (MA in creative writing–okay, I looked this one up–and he teaches), Dave Farland/Wolverton (not sure about his degree, but he teaches too & was Sanderson’s mentor teacher). Obviously, I could go on.

    Some of our most popular writers have undergraduate degrees in English. While it’s not an MFA, it’s still training in the art of narrative. Stephenie Meyer, Ally Condie, Annette Lyon, Jessica Day George, among others. (Okay, so I looked some of these up. Thanks for keeping me up past my bedtime!)

    My point is that many of our best writers–both within and without Mormon culture–wind up intersecting somehow with university writing programs. I, personally, don’t see this as a bad thing, since universities teach people stuff. If we want to be good at our craft, we’d do well to learn a thing or two about it. Do all good writers need to take college writing courses? No. Can we learn how to write without taking a class? Of course. But can a good writing course make a mediocre writer good or a good writer great? Definitely. I’ve seen it happen over and over.

    And, as we can see by the list above, people who come out of university writing programs, or teach in such programs, don’t always wind up writing the same kind of fiction. I mean, heavens, look at the fiction writing professors at BYU: Stephen Tuttle, Doug Thayer, Margaret Blair Young, Brandon Sanderson. Talk about different voices, different styles.

    I see no need for hand-wringing. And now, on to bed!

  15. The point of the original article, as I understand it, isn’t so much about training as about perspective on writing fiction, which in turn is influenced by whether you belong to a community that is supported financially through teaching contracts or through publishing. Granted that NYC writers are more focused on markets (as they and their publishers perceive it) while MFA writers are more focused on craft (at least, according to the article). It’s about culture, not training.

    That being the case, simply being the graduate of a program in English — or teaching a class or two on the side while working as a published author — is not enough to bring one into MFA culture.

    I don’t mean to sound grumpy about this. I just don’t think that every type of connection to literature-related university training ought to be conflated into membership in the MFA culture.

  16. Okay, so I read the article. Some excellent points, some yammering. (I’m a little irritated about his insistence that MFAs and cretive writing classes are so “easy.” I worked my hind end off him my MFA program–worked far harder than I did in my BYU English undergrad–and my creative writing students often told me that my Intro to Creative Writing class was one of the most difficult classes they’d taken at BYU. Anyway.) The article was interesting though. I particularly liked this section, which sums up what I was trying to say in my previous comment:

    “One good outcome of McGurl’s analysis would be to lay to rest the perpetual handwringing about what MFA programs do to writers (e.g., turn them into cringing, cautious, post-Carverite automatons). Because of the universitization of American fiction that McGurl describes, it’s virtually impossible to read a particular book and deduce whether the writer attended a program.”

    My main point, Jonathan, in listing all the names was, first, to simply answer your question about which of our writers have MFAs. But the other reason I did it was to illustrate exactly what you said: “I just don’t think that every type of connection to literature-related university training ought to be conflated into membership in the MFA culture.”

    Exactly! Who gets to decide who’s a “member” of this MFA culture, especially when so many writers are mixed up with universities in some way? It’s a silly exercise, in my opinion. Especially as far as Mormon writers are concerned. Our numbers are so small and we’re (generally) so uncool that I doubt many of us aspire to hanging out with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates. (Sigh. Does it show how uncool I am that I’m using Joyce Carol Oates as an example of a cool person??)

    But the labeling and categorizing can drive me batty sometimes—any kind of labeling. (Says she who’s in the business of promoting and publishing “Mormon” literature.) Seriously, though. Is Brady Udall a “Mormon” writer? He certainly has a Mormon background and explores Mormon themes, but he has no interest in calling himself a Mormon writer (and many Mormons, themselves, would hesitate to claim him, since they don’t see him as orthodox enough). Is Udall a “New York” author? He writes big ol’ novels, after all, traditionally wrought novels with actual plot lines and complex characters and even a touch of emotionality. He pops up on “This American Life” (which, yeah, is in Chicago, but you get the idea). But he lives in Idaho, which, you know, isn’t New York. So, then, Udall is an “MFA” writer, isn’t he? After all, he went to Iowa. He wrote short stories and published a collection. He teaches for a living. But doesn’t his success as a novelist (and the types of novels he writes) distance himself from MFA culture as defined in this article?

    Is Shannon Hale a participant in MFA culture? She has one, after all. But she publishes YA and readable novels for adults, so she *got* an MFA but she wasn’t tainted by it, I guess.

    Perhaps Darrell Spencer is what one would term an “MFA” writer since he publishes primarily in small, prestigious journals and supports himself as a professor. His style is a little more academic and language-focused. But I’m sure he (or Udall–or most any other writer I can think of offhand) considers himself, frankly, a writer. Period. One who publishes in venues and for audiences that are interested in his type of writing.

    Although I received an MFA, my lived experience as a writer and teacher is very far from what one would term “MFA culture.” This was the case while I was a student, too. I suppose my point is this: trying to fit writers into neat boxes or categories doesn’t work very well. For any of us. Even those of us with MFAs.

  17. .

    I’m applying to MFAs today (I would have been done earlier but I’m frozen over my writing sample — can I really send in seventeen stories about angels and one about a ghost and still be taken seriously?) but I’ve been conflicted over this move since I first contemplated it eight years ago. After all, I use “so MFA” as an insult (against this story for instance) when I see the tired old tropes of quote-unquote MFA fiction trotted out again.

    Curiously, I’ve also made fun of writers out to prove their NYC bonafides.

    And writers desperate to prove how Mormon they are or are not.

    Basically, I make fun of boxes.

    I’m in favor of box-hopping. I don’t know how it will do for me in terms of career, but that’s my plan.

  18. .

    I knew that Brian Evenson ran the MFA at Brown (I’ve applied) but I just discovered that Ron Carlson who runs Irvine’s MFA is LDS too (I’m just about finished that application). Or was at least. I don’t have details.

    But isn’t that wild? Those are two topnotch programs. I mean—Michael Chabon went to Irvine!

  19. .

    Correction! Carlson’s not Mormon! Just spent enough time with us to smell life one. (He’s even in In Our Lovely Deseret.)


  20. No, Ron Carlson’s not Mormon, but thanks to Bruce Jorgensen, I have to read his “The H Street Sledding Record” every year about this time to get into the Christmas mood. It’s a perfect little Christmas story set in Salt Lake.

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