by Isaac Butler
This weekend, my thesis advisor (and amazing novelist and teacher) Julie Schumacher has a letter to the Times justifiably protesting the lazy stereotyping of "cookie cutter" MFA writing:
These gratuitous, tiresome and increasingly common comments typically suggest that graduate work in creative writing has produced a legion of novelist-automatons, all of them publishing insipid and similar work. I have never heard the same aspersions made against painters, actors or musicians: Oh, another Juilliard graduate — his fingering on the cello is identical to everyone else’s.
She then goes on to list some people who graduated from the MFA program she attended (Cornell), a list which includes everyone from Junot Diaz to Lorrie Moore.
Another recent piece in Salon provided some much-needed pushback against the tiresome "MFA vs. NYA" debate started by Chad Harbach that culminated in a recent essay collection about the dichotomy-that-isn't-actually-a-dichotomy. (Amongst other things, in his original essay, Harbach lists the New Yorker 20-under-40 as a key aspect of the NYC literary economy without noting that a majoriy of its current members have MFAs). Tony Tulathimutte, the author of the Salon piece, mentions, amongst other things, that a large cultural shift has taken place within MFA programs away from the heavy handed prescriptivism of yore and more towards a wide-angle view of what writing can be.
What's especially upsetting about the trend of blaming the MFA for everything you dislike about writing (or a particular piece of writing) is that it is generally based on a caricature that bears little resemblence to what MFA programs are acutally like.
To give an example from my own experience at Minnesota... here is a quick summary of the prose thesis projects my final year:
(1) An American Abroad comedy about an expatriate young woman in China in the aughts.
(2) A fragmented story of a family's crack up after the death of one of its members told through prose, facebook status updates, fake e-mails etc.
(3) A collecton of exquisitely observed short stories in a realistic mode.
(4) An essay collection, ranging from lyric to journalistic, about solitary confinement and silence.
(5) A sort-of memoir (this would be my project) that blends multiple POV, raw interview transcript and first person narration
(6) A semi-fictional multi-decade family saga thematically linked through themes of health, the body and grief
(7) A book about the history of country music, sexual politics, violence and autobiography in the form of a fake encyclopedia
It's hard to see a house style amongst these works. Amongst the recent high-profile fiction debuts from University of Minnesota grads are a realistic crime novel about drug dealers and dog fighting set in Queens, a short story collection that ranges in style and tone and includes, amongst other things, an allegory for George W. Bush's Presidency set at a doomed sleep-over camp, and a work of lit-fic about a solitary orchardist who takes in two runaway girls.
Furthermore, critics always seem to ignore that there post-MFA gatekeeping further winnows down the range of writers they encounter. Agents, publishers, editors all have huge impact on what writing actually gets into the public's hands. It's impossible, thus, to actually determine what negative or cookie-cutter aspects of a piece of writing can get blamed on whom. (This actually reminds me of a past Parabasis post about Jenny Schwartz's "God's Ear" in which a commenter attempted to blame, sans evidence, everything he disliked about the play on dramaturgs).
There's plenty we could be criticizing MFA programs for, I'd just like us to criticize things they actually do rather than recycling a tired understanding with its roots in the 80s and 90s.