What’s wrong with an MFA?

It’s interesting to listen to writers on the subject of Creative Writing courses – not just MAs, MPhils, and MFAs, but the generic Creative Writing 101 course, offered by your local Community College or equivalent. So many writers, publishers, and critics will get themselves completed knotted up about the whole concept. Why?

The usual reasons given can be summarised as follows:

  • attack of the clones
  • poem by committee
  • inspiration is sacred
  • buggered if I know

Lets take the first of these. The theory is that a group of (usually) young writers come together under the tutelage of a senior writer. Enter the Svengali effect. At its most benign, this may just be the homogenising effect of the students’ completely understandable desire to please their tutor. It takes definite effort from both students and tutor to avoid this creeping in.

The MA at Victoria University in New Zealand is an example of this problem. I’m not being particularly controversial when I say that there is a definite “type” of book that comes from the programme. It’s mildly witty, urbane, polished … and (for poetry at least) often pretty bland. Especially those books that are then published by Victoria University Press. They really do all blur into one. And I’m not alone in this opinion. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t interesting writers who go through there. There are, and I know quite a few of them. But most of the interesting idiosyncrasies are rubbed off by the time they finish. I know of at least two students who have been instructed that they have to “tone down” certain aspects of their writing to bring it into line with the house style if they want to be published by VUP. Which doesn’t sound so bad … except that the quality of these unacceptable poems wasn’t ever in question. Just the subject matter. Two people control both the number one publisher and number one creative writing course. And routinely review and publish each others’ work. How can anyone be surprised that the work coming out of both press and programme is so similar? It would take a huge amount of self assurance to swim against that particular tide. Which is why it’s a problem.

So, what’s my rebuttal? That it doesn’t have to be that way. The Glamorgan MPhil has a much more diffuse power structure, so there really wasn’t ever one person to try and please. Each student is matched with a different tutor, who poses the biggest threat as far as cloning goes. But all the other tutors are very aware of the danger, and jump on anything that strays too close to mimicry. (Oh yes, and I still have the bruises to prove it. And culled poems.) There was no single centralised authority. And the tutors were generally not interested in defending their students – we argued the poems, and stood or fell largely by ourselves. And learned.

Another thing is that we only came together physically eight times. So the alliances that usually form didn’t really have a chance to do so. Not that we all hated each other – quite the opposite. But there was less opportunity to become invested in the person, and hence be soft on the poem. And any wounds, resentment, disagreements etc had time and space to heal over, so we essentially started with a clean slate each time. (Honesty is much easier if you aren’t going to have to see the person for another three months!)

I think this may have to be continued …

To stay amused in the interim, here’s an interesting article on just this subject.

4 Replies to “What’s wrong with an MFA?”

  1. I know of at least two students who have been instructed that they have to “tone down” certain aspects of their writing to bring it into line with the house style if they want to be published by VUP.

    Oooh scary! Just when we’d all been assured that we were being paranoid and the VUP/Manhire conglomorate encouraged good writing.

    What kind of things did they have to ‘tone down’? Like experimental writing, unsuitable content?

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