For those of you who have not been sucked into the vortex of the literary establishment, you may not have heard of this book, MFA vs NYC, published by the journal N+1. The crux of it: “There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 1,269…” It used to be that the NYC publishing industry was the literary monster in the US, but this new academic mega-beast has crawled up from the sea. We all risk being stomped, I think.
It’s only in recent years that I became aware of the awesome power of the MFA. Indeed, it is massive and daunting. As George Saunders put it, “I’ve noted a gradual professionalization, especially over the last ten years, a growing feeling that, if a person wants to be a writer, an MFA is an absolute, panic-inducing must.” MFA vs NYC is not about the panic these monsters induce. It’s more about the monsters themselves—you know, where they like to vacation and all that. But let’s take a moment to reflect on the screaming hoards.
Some perspective: Yale Law is rated the most competitive law school in the country. Last year they received 2,943 applications and handed out 245 offers, for an acceptance rate of about 8%. Compare with the Creative Writing program at Iowa University, which received 929 applications for 25 openings. That’s an acceptance rate of just 2.6%. And that’s not the most competitive MFA program. That honor goes to Vanderbilt which last year had an acceptance rate of 0.86%. In fact, the top fifty MFA programs have acceptance rates between 1-4%. Which means they are at least twice as competitive—and as much as eight times as competitive as the most competitive law school in the country.
If you are one of those people who have come to feel the MFA is, as Saunders put it, a panic-inducing must, you can understand where that panic is coming from.
Most faculty at these programs will do their best to assure the rush of potential applicants that MFA’s are not really necessary, and that in many cases it is unwise to pursue one. This is perfectly understandable advice.
1) It would be depressing to think one needed an advanced degree in any art form to succeed.
2) MFA faculty have hundreds, and hundreds (and sometimes hundreds more) submissions to read through, and it would surely be nice to prune that number down ahead of time.
3) It is a misconception that holding an MFA will open the door to teaching.
4) Although some programs offer funding through a teaching assistantship, the others will just eat your money. A lot of it.
5) And so on…
But let’s be honest, having an MFA helps, quite a bit. Agents are buried in manuscripts, and that MFA credential is an easy way to sort the pile. You can’t blame them. Writing is hard—the most infuriatingly difficult thing I’ve ever attempted (and I’ve attempted several things!) Most of the musicians, photographers, and painters I know are relatively happy creatures (for artists), but I routinely have to talk my writer friends down from their roofs. Writing is next to impossible. And by the way, “next to impossible” is a cliché and should never be used. You see how hard it is? I think even the best writers would benefit tremendously from having a few years to focus on their craft in an academic setting.
If they can get into one.
I feel exceedingly fortunate to have received an offer from Ohio State, which I think most people would agree is one of the better programs—it’s found on most “top ranking” lists (and it is fully funded). A wonderful school, wonderful faculty, I’m very excited at the prospect of joining this community. But if I am to be consumed by the MFA monster, I hope to give it profound indigestion. Writing, for me, is a strictly personal thing, it is not about belonging to a special club.
Even if I do not end up a published novelist, I hope to, at the very least, write the best fucking emails you’ve ever glanced through.