I confess to having said a negative thing or three about MFAs in my time, so in the interests of fairness, I link to this defense.
What do I think? I think that Ms. Harding sounds believably correct . . . as far as it goes. I also think she’s writing from a foreign country, the one frequently called Literary Fiction. In the last few paras, where she talks about how writers are supposed to go about getting better, I think of the fairly vibrant network that exists over here in SF/F. It isn’t a perfect network by any stretch of the imagination; for everyone who can afford the time and money to go to Clarion (which we might as well label a short-term genre MFA program), there are a bunch of writers who can’t or have never even heard of it. But Clarion isn’t the only workshop. There are online critique networks. There are mentoring programs. There are conventions and other social gatherings, in person and online, in which you might find yourself becoming friends with a writer further along the path than you, who may very well pause on the trail to give you a helping hand upward. It’s usually not Ursula K. Le Guin descending from on high to help out a young woman who just finished her first novel, but the SF/F writing world is full of communal bootstrapping, a continuum stretching from established pros all the way down to newbies, and bit by bit we all haul each other and ourselves upwards.
I also think that the criticisms she’s responding to are not, for the most part, the ones I’ve leveled in the past. These days you can find a small number of MFA programs that are willing to let you write genre fiction, an even smaller number who employ professional SF/F writers who know something about your genre. Those programs? May well be great, for all the reasons Ms. Harding describes. But to quote two of the motifs she brings up — “Creative Writing Programs Foster Mediocrity” and “Real Writers Don’t Need No Skool” — I do think creative writing programs as a whole foster a particular kind of writing that is not what most SF/F folk are engaged in or would even benefit from, and while I wouldn’t say real writers don’t need no skool, I would say you don’t necessarily need school to become a real writer. Exhibits A through We Need A Bigger Alphabet: very nearly every professional SF/F writer I know. In fact, I stand by my conviction that if you can get your craft lessons by some other route — which in many cases you can — then you’re better off majoring in something that will feed your brain material, like biology or history or whatever suits the kinds of stories you’re telling.
Mind you, were a certain kind of literary type to wander by and read this (unlikely), they’d probably hit the second half of that paragraph and conclude that’s what’s wrong with genre fiction anyway.
But let me state for the record: I don’t think MFA programs are encouraging hordes of mediocre writers, for the reasons Ms. Harding describes. And it sounds like they serve a very necessary purpose in the corner of publishing she’s talking about. I do, however, stand by my belief that while they may do good for the occasional SF/F writer (especially the ones who make it into, say, James Patrick Kelly’s program), they’re not necessary — sometimes not even beneficial — for those of us over here in genre.