a view from another world

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.

0 Responses to “a view from another world”

  1. mrissa


    If I thought that MFAs were the Great Satan, this might well have dissuaded me from that belief. But for me the question isn’t, “Are they the Great Satan?”, but rather, “Are they a better use of that time and money than the other options, stipulating that the goal is to end up with a better writer at the end of the 2-3 years?” For some people, the answer is probably yes. Other people…would probably be better writers with a Master’s in Dance or Fluid Dynamics or Russian Literature under their belts instead. Or with two years of working a corporate job and using the vacation time and greater pay to travel at will. Or etc.

    I wish it was more culturally acceptable to say, “I did this because it sounded like fun,” because I think that’s one of the better reasons for people to get MFAs in Creative Writing, right up there with “I wanted to teach.” It doesn’t sound like fun to me, but if it sounds like fun to them, hey, go for it. But despite the focus on frenetic types of entertainment, our culture seems to feel that fun is not sufficient justification for anything. Sigh.

    • Marie Brennan

      “Are they a better use of that time and money than the other options, stipulating that the goal is to end up with a better writer at the end of the 2-3 years?”

      And I’m still really inclined to think that for SF/F writers, the answer is “no,” because most of the programs aren’t really equipped to help you do genre. Even if they allow it, how much help can they offer on issues of worldbuilding, making sure your handwavium is plausible and your magic isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card? Do they know what infodumping is, and how to avoid it? Can they even recognize when you’re writing Standard Plot #17 that editors have seen eighteen million times before?

      I wish it was more culturally acceptable to say, “I did this because it sounded like fun,”

      I also wish it were more culturally acceptable to write just for fun, because it’s a hobby you enjoy, not because you think you can make a living at it. But outside of fanfic circles, there seems to be this expectation that you’re trying to sell your work, and that if you haven’t done so then you’re wasting your time.

      • mrissa

        Or that, once you’re selling work, your goal needs to be to do it full-time. I have a friend who has sold short fiction to several pro markets. She loves her day job. She wants to keep her day job. She has never intended for these short fiction sales to be a springboard to quitting her day job and writing novels (or even writing a lot more short stories). And this is very hard for some people to understand.

        • Marie Brennan

          My intent, originally, was to be a professor and to write on the side. It took a while for me to accept that my priorities had shifted.

  2. difrancis

    I went through an MA program and was never accepted into Clarion (though I tried.) I think that creative writing programs do help people hone certain things about craft–like an awareness of language, dialog, imagery and so forth. All of which are very useful.

    But creative writing programs are almost all devoted to a specific kind of genre–literary. And it is a genre. It has specific conventions, like other genres, and frankly, I often find such books rich and interesting, but not the sort of food I could eat often or ever day. I also often find them boring. They tend to neglect plot and often lack any sort of resolution in favor of exploring character and layering in ornate language and imagery.

    There are many genre books that can and do include both the best elements of literary fiction and also have plots and resolution. For instance . . . Magic Never Come. And Catie Murphy’s The Queen’s Bastard, and Kay’s Tigana and the list is very long.

    The trouble to me with MFA programs is they don’t really focus enough on the commercial side–markets and the how to’s of things.

    And then too, it seems to me (speaking as an academic) that they hire people who are very like each other. They tend to avoid anyone who doesn’t write a literary style so it’s a bit (or a lot) like inbreeding in some programs.


    • Marie Brennan

      The trouble to me with MFA programs is they don’t really focus enough on the commercial side–markets and the how to’s of things.

      When I taught creative writing last spring, I devoted the final week to the business end of things: how to submit, how to figure out where to submit to, and even some side topics like copyright.

      And then too, it seems to me (speaking as an academic) that they hire people who are very like each other. They tend to avoid anyone who doesn’t write a literary style so it’s a bit (or a lot) like inbreeding in some programs.

      I get this impression, too, but since I’ve never been in an MFA program, I don’t feel qualified to say for sure. But the link certainly gave me the impression that it’s a very cloistered world, where MFA writers are being read by other MFA writers, and not necessarily many people outside the circle.

  3. calico_reaction

    Interesting. I went through the Odyssey Writer’s Workshop, and then got my MA at Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction Program (though I hear they might be trying to up that MA to an MFA). I think these genre-focused programs (SHU doesn’t just focus on SF/F/H, but also romance, mystery, children’s and YA, and some courses are applicable to all the genres, and some courses are genre-specific, and then of course there’s the nuts and bolts of publishing) can be very beneficial, not just in terms of learning more about your genre and working with authors who are currently publishing there, but it also introduces you to a community of writers that will last well beyond graduation.

    Now I agree that these programs aren’t necessary in becoming an SF/F writer. That’d be silly. But they can help writers step into the writing world without, say, getting overwhelmed by conventions, which is another good place to learn about what’s going on in the genre, etc. In some ways, which seems to be at odds with the general reputation of MFA programs, programs like SHU and Odyssey can be just as nurturing as they are constructively critical. You learn what you need to (provided you’re willing to learn it) in a somewhat safe environment, and you get to learn from other people.

    I’m rambling now, so I’ll shut up. πŸ™‚ But I went through the programs I did because 1) for the fun of it and 2) I wanted a Masters and 3) I needed a more structured environment that would push me because without that structure, I wasn’t able to push myself the way I needed to in order to complete a novel. Now that I’ve got those programs under my belt and I’ve graduated, I’m back to the need for self-structure, but now that I’ve had it and I know I can do it, it’s easier to move forward and to focus on what I need to. Then there’s the added plus of having those friends and crit partners holding me accountable and wanting to finish my work. Without Odyssey or SHU, I wouldn’t have had those people in my life, which would have made me a much lesser writer.

    I’ll shut up now. πŸ™‚

    • lurkking

      Interesting conversation. I was down on MFAs at one point in my career, in part because I was a total Clarionhead (Went, taught East, West and Odyssey, joined the BoD of Clarion Classic). And I do agree that not all MFA programs are created equal; many are actively hostile to genre. But now that I’ve taught at one, I see it as very similar to Clarion with one distinct advantage and one huge disadvantage. On the minus side, my program is fricken pricey, and we’re probably cheaper than most. Clarion/Odyssey type programs are a bargain. The plus is that I and my fellow know-it-alls get to work with our students for two years. You don’t really learn what you learned at a six week program until long after you leave. In two years, under the gentle guidance of your mentor, there is time to actually put what you learn to good use.

      I put my thoughts in better order in a recent Asimov’s column which you can peruse here (http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0807_8/Onthenet.shtml) if you please. At the very least, you can find my list of genre friendly programs.


      • Marie Brennan

        The list is very handy.

        I loved teaching sf/f/h creative writing this past spring. It was just one semester, and my students were mostly raw beginners, but I had a blast, and I like to think they got something out of it, too. So I definitely believe formal education on the topic can be of use. But part of my pitch for the course proposal was an explanation of how your run-of-the-mill CW class usually views genre fiction, and the anecdotes from my students backed me up.

        I’m still getting over my knee-jerk aversion to grading (four years of TA-ing, one of teaching my own courses), but once I do, I confess I’m hoping to do as you’ve done, and leverage my professional experience into some teaching gigs, at least on a semester-by-semester basis. I felt a bit of a fraud doing it the first time — who was I, to go teaching anything to anybody? — but I do actually know something about pedagogy, and I know an increasing amount about writing, and by the time I’m ready to face grading again, maybe I’ll feel like I know enough to get started.

    • Marie Brennan

      You were involved with programs that openly accepted and encouraged genre fiction. I think that makes a vast difference in terms of their usefulness, and also probably changes the dynamic Ms. Harding’s describing.

      • calico_reaction

        Which I totally understand. πŸ™‚ I just noticed the few comments on Clarion and Stonecoast (JPK’s program) and thought I’d pipe in. πŸ˜‰

        Hell, I know writers who aren’t genre who’ve been a part of MFA programs they ended up completely hating.

  4. Anonymous

    MFA Programs

    There are a number of MFA programs now like the one I attended where you are free to write in any style as long as you are serious about it. And more are also now teaching about the business side of things. One good reason to get an MFA is for the privilege of spending 2-3 years concentrating on your writing — a real gift and one that can be enormously beneficial if you manage it correctly.

    —Wendy Tokunaga

Comments are closed.