A reader sent me a New York Times article about the pluses and minus of earning a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.). (Click) I put the article aside for a while as I admit, I’m ambivalent about the subject. Setting standards for creativity strikes me as an oxymoron.
Nonetheless, these factories of good taste exist and as Cecilia Capuzzi Simon observes in, “Why Writers Love to Hate the M. F. A.,” the degree is among the fasted growing graduate study tracks at Universities. Between 3,000 and 4,000 students a year graduate from these schools, and applications keep growing — from 64 for the Iowa School of Writing in 1994 to about 20,000 for the upcoming year.
The danger of homogenized education is that it tends to reflect the values of the white, middle class students who have both the resumes and money for admission. Ellen Tremper, chairwoman of Brooklyn College’s English department, reinforces my opinion: “We try to see if a person seems rational, and, frankly, unneurotic, because if you get someone with a screw loose, it can be disruptive to the group.” Had Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and William Styron applied for an M.F.A. at her institution, they doubtless would have been rejected.
What these literary “mills” do best is make money, and they do it by feeding off people’s aspirations. They sell illusion, a belief that a writer with an M.F.A. will be welcome at the large publishing houses, while the untutored will be relegated to small presses and die unloved and unknown. To be fair, these schools are great places for networking and getting good recommendations from instructors, but, as Simon’s article points out, most graduates end up taking regular jobs and writing on the side. As for the untutored who labor in the shadows, J. K. Rowling, E. L. James and Stephenie Meyer put a lie to that myth.
With or without an M.F.A., a writer needs something to say and a life on the streets is more likely to provide material than life in an ivory tower — which may be why most of the 3,000-4,000 students ascending from those ivy covered walls each year can look forward to a life of literary obscurity. With or without an M.F.A., it’s best to know how to wash dishes.