All I can speak for is myself. I’m sure that many found their MFA experience educational. Alas, it wasn’t so for me. I learned a couple of things, but neither were about the craft of writing.
First, I learned like in most things in this country, the average person doesn’t trust their own acumen. It’s why Michael Jordan gets paid bazillions of dollars to endorse breakfast cereals and shoes and other bullshit products. It’s not that businessmen are in love with him and just want to shower him with big bucks; it’s that hard-nosed businessmen know that the average American doesn’t have a clue what’s good and what’s not and when a public or famous person tells them something is good, then they buy it. Same thing happens with bestsellers in books. Bestseller lists are the biggest lie out there. They have little to do with sales. It’s a marketing tool, pure and simple.
Publishers are like any other businessmen and women. Exactly like the folks who own shoe companies and cereal companies. They know the average person doesn’t have a clue what’s good and what’s not, unless it’s so clearly obvious that even the densest person can tell.
I learned this the best way—the hard way. Years ago, I had a novel my agent, Jimmy Vines, put into auction. Very exciting stuff. It went back and forth until the bidders dropped out and there were two left—St. Martin’s and Random House. SM offered a $50,000 advance and RH, $45,000. Jimmy left it to me which to go with and I made the biggest mistake of my life and went with RH. Ruined me financially and is still affecting me adversely today. But, that’s another story.
The editor at RH who took it was Scott Moyers. Mine was the first book he signed for them, having just come over from Villard Press to become a senior editor at RH. Shortly after, I signed with them, then-prez Ann Godoff of RH told my agent, Jimmy, that she’d read my book, loved it, and that when it came out, not only would it be on the NY Times bestseller list, it’d be #1. They could guarantee that, she said, because that list isn’t determined by sales. It’s determined by copies published. And, since it was going to come out simultaneously from Ballantine Press 50,000 copies in paperback), and from Random House (5,000 copies in hardcover), she knew it would leap to the top of the list. When Jimmy told me that and then told me how the list actually worked, it was an eye-opener.
Over the years since then, I’ve had skeptics question that, so I tell them to watch the list until they’re familiar with the names on it and then the minute a new title appears, to call their bookstore to see if it’s in stock. Almost always, it isn’t. Usually, the bookseller will tell them that they’ll have it in 4-6 weeks. That’s because it not only isn’t in print yet; it hasn’t even been printed. Much less shipped and placed on the shelves. Or had any copies sold… (That’s changed a bit now with the “pre-sold” copy opportunity Amazon and others offer.)
The list is very simply, a marketing tool. There are bazillions of people in this country who don’t know what good literature is. A great many of them depend on these bestseller lists to let ‘em know. What happens is if a book has enough copies printed, it makes the list, and then people see the list… and buy a copy. Life imitates art. Marketing 101.
I used to have a mother-in-law (since deceased) who was probably at best, semiliterate. (It wasn’t Jane, to put that at rest! Jane was an extremely intelligent reader.). To “impress” people that she was quite the intellectual or whatever, about once a month, she’d glance at the bestseller list and then run out and buy a copy of something on it and plunk it down prominently on her coffee table. To “prove” that she was well-read… What she didn’t realize was that if she was buying bestsellers, it most likely proved the opposite… I might add that she rarely ever actually read the book… But she’s only one of a large crowd of people who get their reading material from those lists.
This long story is used only to point out the one main thing I got from my MFA degree. Many editors are like many readers out there in the Great Flyover. Don’t have much more of a clue what’s good and what isn’t. So, if a writer or his/her agent sends ‘em a query and mentions that the writer has an MFA, they open their eyes wider, will actually read the mss, and will often take a book that wouldn’t have been considered at all without that MFA thingy… If you think publishers and editors and those folks are all geniuses, you may have just landed on this planet…
So, an MFA degree gets you read by editors. Is that worth the thousands of dollars and investment in time to obtain one? That has to be your decision.
The other benefit for me was that I got a new and different reading list. Discovered some writers I wasn’t aware of. I think I would have eventually discovered them, but the MFA program sped that up a bit. Not sure if that was worth the thousands of dollars in loans I took out and just paid off this past spring. And, most of those new writers I wouldn’t read today.
Mostly, I was reading all this stuff about upper-middle class angst. Really jazzy stuff, like how some guy was sorrowing because all he had out of life was his Chrysler agency and ten million bucks and was searching his soul and was in this big blue funk because he hadn’t gone off with Easy Sally that time at the senior prom way back in H.S. Every book I picked up at that period seemed to have a similar theme. I just couldn’t identify. Hell, I never was able to afford a used Chrysler, let alone an entire agency, and I had run off with Easy Sally–yeah, I was that guy, the one in the leather jacket and the slicked-back hair–really! I had hair, back then–and believe me there isn’t a lot of angst to be used for material in the writing trade when you’re sitting in the trailer and Easy Sally is looking like Even Easier Sally and you don’t know where your next PBR is coming from and the TV is flashing those little tornado warnings across the bottom of the screen and you’re trying to quiet the little rascal on your knee that has your last name but the propane delivery man’s hook nose. I just knew somewhere deep inside my bones I couldn’t fake writing a whole, entire book out of what it meant to be the Executive Vice President in Charge of Sales for Southeastern Florida for the Tidy Bowl Corp and sorrowing over the lost babe of his childhood or the sad fact that he’d chucked it all and gone off to paint Tahitian sunsets. Or that his wife had. Crap like that. On the other hand, my own reading list contained names like Charles Bukowski. His stories weren’t about middle-aged English professors who were all in a fret because their wives no longer get excited sitting around listening to them conjugate French verbs and deducing that their lives, the meaningful portions of them, anyway, were over. Some of these guys, it seemed, took 400 pages to figure out why the major babe in their life was leaving. They were bored, Jack.
That was the kind of thing my MFA reading list provided and the kind of thing my personal list gave me.
That lack of faith in one’s acumen is what allows MFA programs to multiply like wharf rats. A host of writers don’t have much faith in their own ability to write and they think that if only they could get those three letters behind their name, not only would they learn neat-o tricks to writing, the powers-that-be would take their efforts seriously.
Well, part of that is untrue. There are no writing “secrets” out there. There truly aren’t. All the secrets are right in front of you. Whenever you read a work of quality and something affects you emotionally, study how the author did it and put it in your tool kit. Part of that is true. There are increasing numbers of editors who don’t have that much talent themselves and many have bought into that lie that MFA grads are better writers than those without those letters behind their names.
Things have changed significantly. A few years ago there were very few MFA programs out there. The school I attended was one of the very best. Vermont College. Every year for many years, they rank in the top five in the list Poets&Writer’s Magazine puts out. Usually as #1. Today, programs are all over the map. They’re the new cash cow schools have found to pump dollars into their coffers. Quite a few are laughable. They’re at schools that aren’t much more than community colleges. More than one of these are nothing but a joke.
I had the choice of attending Vermont or the University of Iowa’s program. I made a lifelong enemy of my mentor, Elaine Hemley, by turning down her recommendation for me to Iowa to attend Vermont. Two reasons. One, I discovered that Iowa was known for operating on a kind of “star” system. If you were their fair-haired, blue-eyed boy, you got all kinds of attention. If you weren’t that guy, in the terms of my Brooklyn friends, fuggedaboutit. They strove to put out an identifiable writer—the “Iowa writer.” Vermont, on the other hand, had the reputation of working to make you a better writer, but not a “Vermont writer.” They wanted you to remain you, but just better. The other reason was Iowa is a full-residency program and VC is a low-residency program. Being married with a family and not having a daddy to send me to school, VC made a lot more sense.
Elaine, this forum is too short for me to say everything I want to about MFA programs. In short, I think they’re kind of fools’ gold for most writers. I think a lot of the folks who go to them think they learned a lot… but I’m not so sure that they have. The one thing a lot of them did emerge with is some confidence in their ability. Not sure if it’s based on anything real, but who knows? The only way I know to learn how to write well is to read a lot and to write a lot. Someone did a study years ago, where they tabulated all professional writers as to their education. They defined “professional” by the only proper way to do so—by writers who made their living from writing. They found that about half had a college education. But, about half had only a high school or even less education. The conclusion was that college had very little correlation to a writer’s success. What was constant with all the writers surveyed was that just about every one was an avid reader from a very early age and remained so throughout their lives. And that’s how I think you learn to write. And, it doesn’t cost any more than a free library card…
Today, there are MFA programs at directional schools, at cow schools, at glorified community colleges. They employ a lot of faculty whose claim to fame is some obscure book that sold fifty copies. The truth is, there aren’t enough quality teachers for all these programs. When there were only a handful of programs, there were some pretty good writers manning them. Today, it’s as if the American and National Baseball Leagues suddenly expanded to fifty teams in each league. That means there are a lot of minor-leaguers playing. It’s the same in a lot of MFA programs…