Survey Results: 56% say MFA favors story over novel

It is possible to teach novel writing in MFA programs, and many do. My panelists (David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) prove it here, by sharing their syllabi with you. You’ve got everything you need to design your own novel-writing course. You’re welcome!

Opening Remarks: “A Novel Problem: Moving from Story to Book in the MFA Program.”

About a year ago, I submitted an essay to The Millions titled, “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from Story to Book,” which the editors were kind enough to publish, but with a more provocative headline: “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.”

The essay touched a nerve. I got a lot of reactions, from faculty and from students in both residential and low-res programs, and from people who opted not to pursue an MFA because they felt programs were “anti-novel.”

They are not alone in this opinion.

In his essay “MFA vs. NYC,” writer Chad Harbach writes, “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.”

In a recent Poets & Writers article, writer John Stazinski featured Boston’s independent center for creative writing, Grub Street, and its new, year-long Novel Incubator. Stazinski writes that the program’s aim is to “fill a hole left by the near-exclusive concentration on the short story by traditional graduate workshops.”

I wondered, “Is it true? Are MFA programs “anti-novel?” I decided to find out via a survey I sent to MFA faculty, students, and graduates. I got 36 responses from MFA faculty and 300 from MFA students past and present.

(Please remember that this was just an informal poll.)

So: Do MFA programs discourage novel writing?

Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of MFA faculty said, No, I don’t discourage novel writing!

And—drum roll—the vast majority of students concurred. When asked, “Did anyone discourage you from workshop or working on a novel?” they said, “No.”But when presented with the Harbach quote and the question, “Is your program organized around the short story form?” the faculty (again) said, “No, it’s not,” and most students said, “Yes, it is.”

So: what does this mean? Many students feel that their programs are organized around the short story–even when the faculty insist they don’t discourage novels, even when students themselves say, “I was not overtly discouraged.” Why the disconnect between what MFA programs THINK they are doing and what students PERCEIVE.

In my next post, I’ll summarize the comments of panelist David Haynes, who was not surprised by these findings. He told the audience that it’s not just a question of whether or not individual instructors “allow” novel chapters to be brought to workshop. It’s this: Do the primary pedagogies of workshop serve novel writing?

More on that, the survey results, the comments of my other fine panelists, and notes from some of the other novel-writing/novel-workshopping panels I attended, in upcoming posts.

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