My critique of a critique of MFA programs

My critique of a critique of MFA programs

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.

How does a sample of novels reflect the aesthetic leanings of an MFA program? That’s one genre (fiction) that excludes poetry and nonfiction and screenwriting, the other MFA genres. And it’s only one form (the novel) within that genre and excludes short stories, novellas, and most importantly flash fiction.

When I hear people say that MFA programs produce writers who “sound the same,” I can’t help but think about how different my work is from that of my Ball State colleague Sean Lovelace. We attended the same MFA program (although not at the same time) and had one fiction faculty member in common, Sandy Huss, but we are about as different aesthetically as you can possibly be. If the University of Alabama was one of these 20 “leading” programs, then my book would have been fed into the computer (maybe, if you think The Circus in Winter is a novel), but Sean’s wouldn’t have. Because he doesn’t write novels.

And “leading” programs according to whom? Here’s what AWP had to say about rankings. Here’s a critique of the methodology that goes into the Poets & Writers ranking by Seth Abramson.

The sample size here (20+ out of 350) is about 5.7%. Is that enough? I suppose we rely on polling data these days that’s a lot less than that–but wouldn’t it have been more statistically valid to review books by graduates from both the “leading” MFA programs as well as those that aren’t “top” programs? To me, that’s like polling only the ritzy neighborhood to determine the politics of the whole town.

To make these two groups as comparable as possible, we only gathered novels by non-MFA writers that were reviewed in The New York Times, which we took as a mark of literary excellence.

So, you had to get reviewed in The New York Times to get your book fed into the computer? Jesus. I guess these guys haven’t heard of VIDA’s “The Count.” Haven’t read any of Jennifer Weiner’s critiques of “literary respectability.” Or read any of the articles about whether or not MFA programs have a bias against genre fiction. It seems to me that if you’re going to use ONLY the New York Times Book Review to determine “literary excellence,” you’re not looking at MFA and non-MFA novelists, but rather at the type of novels valorized by one particular review outlet.

MFA graduates skew overwhelmingly female (about 66 percent of MFA grads are women, [but the] percentage of male protagonists in novels written by MFA grads is well over half, at 61 percent, while that figure is 65 percent for non-MFA novels. Further, if a novel has a female lead, the chances that it has two strong female characters is only 32 percent for both MFA and non-MFA novels. Last, the percentage of novels that have a majority of male characters in the non-MFA group is 99 percent, whereas it is 96 percent for MFA novels. These are terrible numbers by any standard. They suggest that the contemporary American novel is disproportionately preoccupied with the experiences of men.

Or does it suggest that the the “leading” MFA programs and the New York Times Book Review are preoccupied with the experiences of men?

Or does it suggest that, due to sub-genres such as “upmarket fiction” and “women’s fiction,” writers who want to be regarded as possessing “literary excellence” eschew writing about women? Here’s a great essay on that subject by Meg Wolitzer: “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” 

The intensity with which readers and critics feel and think about the MFA, we might assume, has become disconnected from its moderate-to-minimal effects on the literary landscape in America. So it seems to us that the MFA doesn’t merit many of the hyperbolic claims about its impact on literature.

I can’t help but wonder if they actually read the essay they refer to as “hyperbolic”: Chad Harbach’s “MFA vs. NYC” first published in Slate. Harbach connects the “story vs. novel debate” to the “MFA/NYC” cultural divide.

Harbach says:

One of the clearest signs of that divide is the way that different groups of writers are read, valued, and discussed in the two different “places”—one could, for instance, live a long, full life in New York without ever hearing of Stuart Dybek, a canonical MFA-culture story writer who oversaw the Western Michigan program for decades before moving on to Northwestern. A new Gary Shteyngart novel, meanwhile, will be met with indifference at most MFA programs.

This, to me, is what the authors of the new Atlantic article have done: completely ignored the ways in which many MFA programs and their graduates are re-writing the rules of what constitutes literary excellence. And the reason they missed it is because they only considered one side of the cultural divide–the “NYC” side.

If they decide to run the numbers again–using a different sample–I’d love to see the results.

Further reading:

CW Programs


  1. gerbby says:

    I don’t think the Atlantic article is a criticism of MFA programs, just useless clickbait with no real information. There are a lot of biases at work in how the data was collected. However, there are plenty of real reasons to criticize MFA programs.

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