Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

MFA, NYC, and the Classics

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On Friday, Slate published a long article, which originally appeared in N+1, about the dueling literary cultures of New York City and the typical MFA graduate program. The article is a bit of a slog—the author, Chad Harbach, while clearly talented and smart, veers uncertainly between jargon words like “normative” and precious coinages like “unself-consciousness”—but it’s hard not to grant one of its underlying points: that it’s now possible for a writer to make a comfortable living, primarily as a teacher, by appealing to a tiny slice of academic readers, and that this approach is, if anything, easier, safer, and more of a sure thing than the writing of “commercial” fiction, even as it manages to portray itself as the more honest and authentic way of life.

Now, I don’t have an MFA. And I’m the author of what is intended, frankly, as a big mainstream novel. (Whether it succeeds or not is another matter entirely.) But I do know what Harbach means when he notes that MFA programs are becoming “increasingly preprofessorial”—that is, a credential on the way to a teaching job, rather than preparation for a life as a working writer. It’s a trajectory that seems very similar to that of the Classics, which is something I know about firsthand.

There was a time, or so some would like to believe, when a classical education was seen as an essential part of one’s training for the larger world: it was taken for granted that our lawyers, doctors, and politicians should know some Latin and Greek. These days, though, such departments seem primarily interested in training future professors of Classics. And, perhaps as a direct result, there are fewer and fewer Classics majors every year. (In my graduating class, there were something like fourteen, out of a student body of sixteen hundred.)

The same thing, I think, is likely to happen to MFA departments, if they continue along the track that Harbach describes. If author/professors continue to produce short stories exclusively for one another, interest in literary fiction will gradually die, no matter how many anthologies continue to “disseminate, perpetuate, and replenish” the canon. Like the Classics, university writing programs will remain a comfortable career option for a lucky few, but enrollment will inevitably decline, along with the sense of urgency and risk that all good fiction requires.

The major difference between an MFA and a Classics degree, of course, is that the former is much easier. That, too, is likely to change, especially if, as Harbach tentatively predicts, the MFA comes to focus more on the novel, rather than the short story, and continues to put its primary emphasis on literary theory. After all, with only so many tenured professorships available, there has to be some way to thin out the crowd. And if you don’t believe me, just look at the Classics. If you want to restrict a field to the professorial class, such an approach certainly works. It works only all too well.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Tagged with , , , ,

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