Thursday, September 09, 2010

The MFA Defense

Seth Abramson, aforementioned “Ultimate Apparatchik,” has written a would-be defense of MFA programs for the faux-Lefty establishment web site The Huffington Post. See

His article is not so much a defense as an avoidance, in that much of what he says (not all of it) is irrelevant to the matter of MFA programs and why writers should join them, and what they’re really about.

Let’s examine Abramson’s six points, taking the first one last.

2.) He says that the programs are selective, that they don’t admit everyone. Well, fine, but this leaves unresolved two crucial issues. A.) They’re still creating a too-large of supply of would-be writers with no demand for them. The supply-demand problem leaves the writer— each of us—with little to no value in the culture, in the society, in the economy. Writing programs, in my opinion, continue to be dominated by bourgeois people with little to say but attracted to the role of “writer.” Any examination of the subjects and themes of their work shows this to be the case. B.) If not everyone is admitted to these programs, then who decides? What are the criteria? Abramson fails to see that the very existence of these programs establishes Gatekeepers. The reality is that prospective students know they’ll need to conform to the standards of the gatekeeper, whether a bureaucratic administrator who thinks in the kind of CONvoluted jargon which Abramson himself writes, or the Professor who’ll be teaching the course. This is the first step in the conformity process. Maybe Abramson does see this.

3.) He disputes the notion that writers are promised a book deal from entering the MFA program. There are two things to be said about this. A.) The edifice of the “Become-a-Writer” scam, which MFA programs are part of, gives the impression that publication is the outcome. Otherwise, what are all those articles in Poets and Writers, Writers Digest, Writers Markets, etc etc etc, about? Why do these magazines catering to the dreams of hapless bourgie folk exist? B.) Abramson needs to take the next step and admit that the edifice—the System; the Machine—if not an outright scam, is hardly necessary for the writer and the production of literature. He doesn’t anywhere attempt to show this. If there is no guaranteed “book deal” from MFA programs as Abramson says, or hardly the chance of one, then what’s the point?

(For a privileged few, of course, there is a point to them—if you’re in the right one. If you want to be MEANINGFULLY published, which means, by a major with publicity support, then there are a handful of elite programs which offer the opportunity of that—Bennington, Brown, Columbia; perhaps a few others. These can be determined by what colleges the elite pack of supported writers attended, from Bret Ellis, Susan Minot, Jay Mac from years past, to the overhyped hipster writers of now. This introduces other questions, such as who gets into those schools and programs; what are the criteria, and so on.)

4.) Abramson disputes the notion that “—you must attend an MFA program.” This begs the question: What is his advocacy for them about? Why devote the time and effort toward attaining that certification, when the writer could instead just write? WHY does the art need to be professionalized, its practitioners certified? He pretends not to see (he pretends not to see a lot) that with the explosion of writing programs, celebrated in his Poets and Writers article, it’s becoming more and more accepted that being a writer necessarily means having that certificate. If all lit editors have them, all their friends and colleagues, everyone they publish and see published, then writers without them are assumed to be unqualified, if not from another planet. THE ENTIRE HISTORY of the Underground Literary Alliance, and the hostile reaction to its very existence, testifies to that.

5.) Abramson dismisses the idea of choosing an MFA program based on its faculty. But for the cynically ambitious, this is the only reason for choosing a program. I’ve known and encountered enough ambitious writers who’ve been in elite programs, private reading groups, and the like, and their prime motivation for being in them is to make connections. Getting to pick up Jonathan Franzen, say, at the airport when he’s giving a talk at Iowa. Finding the right mentor—with access to meaningful publication—as happened to Jonathan Safran Foer by attending a class taught by Joyce Carol Oates. In the real world, making connections is what it’s about.

It comes down to the writer’s motivation. No doubt many students are hobbyists looking for little more than bourgie self-expression, looking for a nice little circle of like-minded folks to read and approve their unambitious works—a variation of Ladies Literary Societies of days past. These people are mere cannon fodder for the never-leave-the-academy Seth Abramsons of the intellectual world. They justify the teaching positions, giving jobs to those who already have MFA degrees. But then, like any Ponzi scheme, you need a fresh influx of students, always more and more, to keep the scheme operating.

1.) Which brings us to the first point of Seth’s, that many programs today are “funded.” Leave aside the matter of why hard-pressed universities would subsidize A.) hobbyists whose febrile solipsistic work is unneeded and frankly unwanted by the society-at-large; B.) the kind of ambitious affluent trust-funders who attend Ivy League colleges. Instead of, say, cancer research. Forget all that. We should know by now that “free” funding is not only a good thing for some writers, it’s a good thing for those like Seth who want to continually feed the writer supply, assuring teaching positions—and Poets and Writers or Huffington Post articles—for themselves.

6.) Have I missed a point? Ah yes. “Cookie-cutter writing.” It’s easy enough to show this is what’s being produced. Certainly nothing is being published from these programs WHICH CONNECTS WITH THE PUBLIC. Otherwise, the hundreds of university lit journals which publish MFA writers, almost exclusively now, wouldn’t be “non-profit”; i.e., begging for donations, on life support. It’s an insular process. No, there is no excitement in American literature because the writer Machine takes up all space, squeezing out everything else, and what the Machine produces isn’t exciting, and not even very good.

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