Everyone's talking about Ryan Boudinot's not very well considered anti-MFA piece. Not very well considered means that, despite the fact that there are dozens of legitimate criticisms about the MFA system and what the pursuit of creative writing degrees has become in our country, his critique comes off mostly as an embittered attack on his former students.
Disclosure: I graduated from an MFA Program in 1990 and currently teach in an MFA Program. I have often fantasized about writing an article with exactly his title: Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One. (Meaning I’ve fantasized both about giving the MFA System a prolonged critique and about no longer teaching in one.) I often have my students read Anis Shivani’s more politically charged screed against MFA’s and literary culture in general, Why American Fiction is in A Dismal State. So I went to Boudinot’s article hoping to find validation for my simmering unease with the increasingly corporate-style, networking-driven, and often conformist literary culture that is at least partially driven by the MFA Machine. Instead I got eight resentments that read more like petty gripes against the time his students demanded from him with their annoying questions. Occasionally there are valid points buried under his distaste for the aspiring writers he was forced to teach. Let me elucidate.
1. Writers are born with talent. Here he fetishizes the idea of "talent," an amorphous (genetically determined) substance that one either has or hasn't got. It is certainly true that more students pursue MFA's than really ought to, and yet it has nothing to do with the genius genes that we either did or didn’t inherit from our literary forefathers. One can learn to write. More important, one can learn how to think and to perceive. Interesting writing comes from interesting perception. I’m a social constructionist at heart, meaning that I’ve been bristling at the culture’s tendency toward genetic determinism as it flowered ridiculously in the 90s and as it continues to rear its ugliness in the 00’s and 10’s. In short: genetic determinism is often used to mask the degree to which privilege and wealth and educational opportunities and positions in the social hierarchy are inherited, along with “genes.” Boudinot’s “real deal” has clearly manifested himself (or herself?) by the time Boudinot encounters this person; meanwhile, he is a perfect judge for whether one is or isn’t a real deal. The possibility that his own biases might lead him to recognize a genetically determined real deal, or to value a writer who has developed precociously because of economic advantages, doesn’t occur to him. This ties neatly to --
2. If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it. So here he qualifies his genetic determinism with a nurture-based, if equally essentialist idea that a writer needs to “establish the neural architecture” to write a book as a child. If you weren’t raised in a literary household, forget it. Subtext: if you grew up poor or the child of philistines, forget it. The equally damaging idea percolating underneath the surface of this ludicrous claim is that there is only one way to become a writer, and that is to be primarily and only devoted to reading and writing. One of my own critiques of MFA programs is that they often foster the notion of “craft” at the expense of intellectual engagement with the culture – with ideas about politics, science, technology, art, representation, belief, how to live, how to engage, how to do battle against propaganda and received ideas. Boudinot’s looking only for expression from those who have devoted their lives to an intimacy with language. I’m all for intimacy with language, but as an excluding position with which to dismiss anyone who might be a visual artist/writer or a composer/writer or a doctor/writer or whatever … it’s just nonsense.
3. If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out. Not having enough time to write is a legitimate complaint for those of us not born into the leisure class, isn’t it? I do understand that nobody likes to hear such complaints, because they are so universal. And there is, perhaps, a more legitimate issue hiding beneath the surface here – students who are not actually driven to write complaining about their lack of drive. Still: it comes across as another attack on less privileged students, who actually might have tedious jobs, crying babies, alcoholic fathers, horrific financial pressures, and “real life” considerations muddling up their creative flow.
4. If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write. OK, this one I agree with. My definition of “serious” might be a bit looser than Boudinot’s – The Great Gatsby, Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and 2666 are his examples – but I’ll give him a pass on this one. Literature is a conversation. If you want to speak without listening, there’s no room for you at the party.
5. No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer. Here he attacks almost all of his memoir writers as narcissists. There may be a legitimate point here about the over-use of writing as therapy in the culture, but the personalized meanness of his attacks just feels petty.
6. You don’t need my help to get published. Some helpful advice here – nobody knows what’s going on, especially me! If there’s a critique of the MFA environment itself as fostering an obsession with publishing, networking, branding, and self-promotion among students, as opposed to a drive to become better writers – more idiosyncratic, perceptive, and skilled writers – it’s buried under Boudinot’s seeming annoyance that his students might imagine their teacher has some guidance to offer them as they prepare to make their way through the wasteland of American publishing.
7. It’s not important that people think you’re smart. That sentence on its own feels true – just as it’s not important if people think you’re sexy, talented, nice, cuddly, or fun. How you are perceived is not important to good writing. It is, of course, crucial to selling books. But that isn’t Boudinot’s point here. It’s actually an attack in the style of Jonathan Franzen on ambitious, smart, experimental writing. Boudinot comes down on the side of entertainment. Rather than arguing at length for everything I value in the literary world – which doesn’t exclude entertainment, but certainly doesn’t raise it to the ultimate value – I’ll point interested readers to Ben Marcus’ essay from 2005, still seemingly relevant today. The problem with MFA programs, however, is certainly not that they undervalue entertainment, “good stories,” and accessible writing. In my experience, the opposite is true.
8. It’s important to woodshed. The point here is that it’s good to write work, as practice, that nobody will ever read. I don’t disagree.
I don’t know Ryan Boudinot; I don’t want to attack him simply for not being nice. The literary culture needs more people who aren’t always nice, and who speak up about what’s wrong with our literature, our culture, our MFA Programs. The problem is that his article barely does that. It speaks to his own petty gripes against his students and his teaching experience. Bhanu Kapil’s very personal response, on the other hand, is generous and carefully considered. Bhanu Kapil is a wonderful writer, and I’m inclined to value what she says. I’m also much more interested in a conversation that seriously considers how MFA programs actually shape American writing – not in theory but in reality – and works to ameliorate those problems.