There’s a long history of articles about the impact of MFA programs on contemporary literature. The latest addition to this oeuvre is “How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?” just published by The Atlantic. What’s different about this one: the authors fed 200 novels into a computer–100 by writers with MFAs and 100 by writers without MFAs–and used computational text analysis to study the diction, style, theme, setting, and characters of these novels.
Here are my thoughts:
Creative writing has become a big business—it’s estimated that it currently contributes more than $200 million a year in revenue to universities in the U.S.
I’m not sure how to evaluate this figure since the authors have linked to a 51-page pdf of Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era, which I have read. I just spent about ten minutes of my life scrolling through that pdf to find that $200,000 figure, but gave up. Which makes me wonder why the authors couldn’t have simply said, “According to Mark McGurl…” Another thing I wonder is if this figure includes only tuition payments or if it also includes the savings to universities–who are able to pay MFA candidates a small salary and NOT offer them health insurance (compared to paying TT or contingent faculty) to teach first-year writing courses.
We collected a sample of 200 novels written by graduates of MFA programs from over 20 leading programs (including Columbia, University of Texas at Austin, Iowa, and others) that have been published in the last 15 years.
I attended the University of Alabama’s MFA program between 1991-1995. During that period, I took two workshops with writer John Keeble, a visiting writer who taught at Eastern Washington University. He made a great impression on both my writing and my teaching.
In fact, the title of this blog, “The Big Thing,” comes from Keeble. I wrote about that here, and how I might not have written The Circus in Winter had he not changed the default setting of a pivotal workshop.
Here’s something else I learned from him.
Plant the Seed of Your Story
In workshop, Keeble talked to us a lot about “planting the seed of your story.” Once you figure out what your story is really about, you have to return to the the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence! and plant the story’s “seed” that you will nurture and grow for the next 5-30 pages. Continue reading →
My plan was to release the survey results one question at a time via ruminative blog posts like this one on whether MFA programs are “anti-novel” or not and this one on the “professionalization” question.
But I’ve changed my mind. Many people wrote to me privately and said, I want to see the results! I’m curious!
Also, I’m going to be under the weather for the next few weeks.
“Of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form.” Chad Harbach said this in his n+1/Slate essay, “MFA or NYC?”Do you think he’s right? I want to know. I’ve created two Survey Monkey surveys, one for faculty, one for students (past and present).
Remember: this is about graduate creative writing programs, not undergraduate.
Because your response will be anonymous, I hope you will provide honest answers.
True or False: It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.
True or False: The best way to learn how to write fiction is develop some level of mastery over the short story before moving on to novels.
True or False: It is the responsibility of MFA programs to “professionalize” students about the business of fiction writing.
True or False: Mentoring a novelist takes more of a faculty’s limited time than mentoring students in other genres and forms.
Each survey asks 10 questions requiring a simple True or False answer. Each survey asks the same questions. And I’ll be honest here: one of the things I’m curious about is whether there’s a disconnect between what MFA faculty believe they are doing and what students perceive. Continue reading →
2.) Take a good look at this short story. If you’ve read the book, then you know that Mrs. Bridge the novel is comprised of 117 titled vignettes. But “Mrs Bridge” the short story pre-dates the novel. “Beau Monde” the short story contains 12 of the eventual novel’s vignettes (in this order: 61, 39, 37, 60, 91, 99, 84, 86, 18, 102, 41, plus one titled “Equality” not found in the novel).
3.) Pretend for a moment that you are Evan S. Connell. You wrote the short story “Beau Monde” because you wanted to satirize the small-minded racial and class politics of your hometown. And you did that. Quite successfully. It’s just out in this new magazine called The Paris Review. But now what? Maybe you’re not quite done with this Mrs. Bridge. What about her husband? How did they meet? What would happen if this very American couple went on a European tour? What of her children? How will she respond when they grow up and challenge her worldview? And what about her best friend, Grace Barron? You open up the pleats. You write more vignettes. Most fit on a single piece of typing paper. They’re more than scenes, but less than chapters. They’re what Mark Oppenheimer in The Believer calls “chapterlets.” In fifty years or so, people might call them “flash fictions.” Each vignette is a building block, a movable unit, a piece of paper. You lay them out on the floor, tape them to the walls, trying to figure out how they go together.
This is exactly what I wanted to do when I finished the book: tear out the pages and lay them on the floor, tape them to the walls. I wanted them to be tangible, detachable things. So, I used post-it notes to create a thumbnail sketch of each vignette. This really didn’t take that long because I’d just read the book. A few hours. Continue reading →
In honor of National Short Story Month, I thought I’d share this course with you, a short story survey that focuses on imitations. I always include this picture on my syllabus, a visual representation of my pedagogical approach.
In the film, School of Rock, Jack Black draws this diagram on the chalkboard as a prelude to teaching his students how to be a rock band. I tell my students that my course is about constructing a similar chart for contemporary short fiction, not simply to “label” styles or approaches, but because I want to teach my students how to have a comparative and genealogical conversation. Continue reading →
If you would like to write a guest post for “The Big Thing,” by all means, let me know. Maybe we could trade? That’s what debut novelist Rebecca Rasmussen and I did. My essay on “Literary Citizenship” appeared on her blog, The Bird Sisters. I’m really looking forward to her book, which will burst into flight on April 12.
You’re Not Ready to Write a Novel
By Rebecca Rasmussen
You’re not ready to write a novel. If you can’t write a proper short story, what makes you think you can handle the scope of a novel? Why would you want to write a novel, when short stories are the far superior art form? Stick with what you know. Haven’t you heard of Poe’s unity of effect?
It seems unbelievable to me now that anyone was ever not in support of me writing a novel, but after attending two MFA programs, I have to say that the above statements are generally what a student of fiction can expect to hear over the course of their time in a writing program. The question now that I have written a novel that’s being published in April is why?Continue reading →
My first book, The Circus in Winter, a novel-in-stories, was written over the course of twelve years-one story at a time-and thus provides a wide-ranging experience as the reader observes me trying on different aesthetic approaches. There was one narrative hurdle, however, that I couldn’t seem to surmount: sustaining a plot for more than 25 pages. The book contains many big, maximalist stories that span large spans of time, even multiple generations, but I always compressed them until they fit into the short story form.
When I published the book in 2004, the inevitable questions arose: Why is that story a story and not a novel? What are you working on now? And please say it’s a novel, right? I resented this insistence on novel, novel, novel until I asked myself why I felt so much disdain for the form and for its fans. People who love to read-myself included-love being “inside” a story for three days or three weeks, entering John Gardner’s vivid and continuous fictional dream. Certainly this kind of loving is what brings most of us to writing fiction in the first place: the desire to create a reading experience that we ourselves value. As much as I enjoy the 30-minute thrill of short stories, I was raised on novels. I spent my youth living inside them, a perfectly normal dissociative state that allowed me to blessedly not be me for short periods of time. I think most writers are familiar with this condition, and it’s one of reasons we like losing ourselves in stories-those we read and those we write.
Everyone seemed to want me to grow up and write a novel. I had an idea for one, but to be perfectly frank, I had no idea how to do more than write a short story. Then I happened upon an interview by Karin Lin-Greenberg (who would, one year later, become a student of mine at the University of Pittsburgh!) with fiction writer Dan Chaon. I’d long admired his short stories, but he’d recently published his first novel, You Remind Me of Me. How did he move from story to novel, I wondered.
Chaon said, “This seems simple-minded, but the architecture of a novel is really important. In some ways, with a short story, when you’re writing it, you can just feel your way. It’s like being in a house in the dark and you can find the walls and you can figure out where you’re going-If a short story is like being in a darkened room, then a novel is like being in a darkened field-it was a process of finding the architecture of the novel before I even knew what was going to happen in it. The process of finding a story is more intuitive for me.”
These comments resonated strongly with me. Maybe writing a novel necessitates that you know more up front-the big picture, the shape, the arc, maybe even the rough plot-unlike writing short stories, where you are strongly encouraged not to know too much.
E.L. Doctorow famously compared writing a novel to driving a car. “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” True for some, perhaps, but I’m one of those map loving, visual memory people who drives with at least a hazy picture of the route in her head. In writing and in life, I tend not to do well in the face of uncertainty, so, as I moved from story to book, I looked for an already mapped narrative route.
For me, the answer was to write a nonfiction novel.
Instead of wondering fearfully what would happen past page 25, I started with an already lived plot, the architectural bones around which I shaped a novel-length reading experience. I embarked on my next book project in the investigative mode of documentarian-accumulating 350+ pages of very raw material/journaling/”footage” over the course of a year, followed by an intense six-months in the editing booth/at the word processor. (I can’t tell you the joy I felt inside when I saw numbers like “52” and “173” appear in the top right corner of my document.) Then, I spent a few more months on final edits, and boom, I’d written a book in two years. This was Comeback Season, a book that didn’t do well, really, but from which I learned a great deal.
Twelve years spent trying to write one perfect sentence after another, one perfect story after another, vs. two years spent (first!) writing a really shitty first draft, followed by (second!) revising that shittiness, and (third!) editing, tweaking, cutting, clarifying, controlling, polishing that shitty draft into a shiny new book of which I am extremely proud.
Next time: the first in the series, “This is How You Do It.”*
*”It” = better encourage and accommodate big projects within a semester, within a busy life.
In his book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”
So. This is me. Twenty years as a writer-teacher. Finally paying attention.
Apparently, I’m not the only one wondering whether the creative writing classroom can accommodate Big Things.
And today I read this fantastic essay on Slate, “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?”
Novelist and n+1 editor Chad Harbach says:
The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one’s instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the 10-page college term paper, or the 25-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre form. It’s not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it’s that the entire culture is steeped in the form.
I highly recommend that you read this piece, an excerpt from n+1. For one thing, Harbach suggests (rightfully so) that without “MFA program culture” to offset “NYC publishing culture,” the short story might cease to exist at all. For another thing, it’s a useful paradigm. MFA vs. NYC might seem reductive, but it expertly frames the difficulties of making a literary life in the late 20th but especially the late 21st century.
As I think about my cohort, the “second generation” of writers-teachers who will one day take the leadership reins of AWP and academic writing programs, I wonder (perhaps more than I should) about the future of creative writing instruction. Forty years after the first generation of writer-teachers established our curriculums and classroom practices, what have we learned? Where are we going? Where have we been?
Harbach wonders this, too.
It will be interesting to see what happens when this group of older writers dies (they are unlikely to give up their jobs beforehand); whether the MFA canon will leap forward, or back, or switch tracks entirely, to accommodate the interests, private and aesthetic, of a younger group of writer-teachers. Perhaps (among other possibilities) the MFA culture will take a turn toward the novel.
Over the weekend, I responded to a Facebook status update.
“KYLE MINORnotices that MFA programs are producing more good short story writers than good novelists. Many of my friends from many different programs have had difficulty, post-graduation moving from the short form to the long. Five-plus years into this novel, I’ve come to believe that the novel and the story are very different animals which might require different training.”
And so began an interesting exchange, lots of writers discussing their experiences as students and teachers. One of the responders, Michael Nye of The Missouri Review, just posted his thoughts on TMR blog. You need to read this.
Any veteran of fiction workshops can tell you: the short story is a more workable and practical pedagogical tool than the novel. Nye discusses this at length. I related to many of his frustrations, both as a former student and as a teacher and mentor.
However, I remain convinced that writing programs can (and should) accommodate both long and short-form fiction. I don’t agree that a writing program is only capable of teaching you how to write a short story, that graduates of fiction workshops must figure out how to write novels entirely on their own.
We can do it. We just have to start thinking outside the box we’ve been living in for 50 years.
Do you teach fiction writing in a creative writing program? Then read Kyle Minor’s FB thread. Read the responses to Nye’s blog post. Think about your own pedagogy. Talk about it here or elsewhere. If you’ve figured out ways to encourage novel writing in your classes, share your insights and ideas.
Because it seems clear to me that inquiring minds want to know.