October 25, 2010

"Nice story but what MFA program did you graduate from?"


Ever the bomb thrower, on Saturday the Huffington Post published the latest long and thoughtful grenade lobbed by Anis Shivani (also published in the fall edition of Boulevard), this one comparing modern MFA creative writing programs with the medieval guild system. The long and short of his conclusion is this: MFA programs are so anti-democratic and elitist that they are simply factories for producing mediocrity and little more.

The genesis of the current system in the US, Shivani says, began during the cultural upheaval of the 1960s where a confluence of disparate forces forged our elite writing programs:

Why the 1960s? Why would integration of writing into academia begin to occur at the same time as the counterculture? Why not accelerated emphasis on doing it yourself? We need to think of the other side of liberalism, the mythologizing of experts and professionals, which very much went hand-in-hand with social libertarianism. The professionalization of human, spiritual, and psychic needs was very much part of the sixties scene. The AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) was founded in the late 1960s, as writers clearly saw the stresses associated with being on one’s own in a culture dedicated to hyperconsumerism. The late 1970s and early 1980s became really telling–with the arrival of Ronald Reagan’s cowboy militarism, writers were pushed into a corner. Nobody was safe. The culture had lost its senses. The choice was made to retreat behind the barricades as protection from the masses, and to create MFA programs all over the country, where those who were scared of the easy talk of nuclear Armageddon could take permanent refuge.

He then goes on to say that both MFA programs and the medieval guild system are “inherently conservative” and that both setups are a buffer against the whims of the market (which seems a little contradictory but is what makes it fun to roll around the old noggin). “There is glory,” Shivani says, “in uniting against the abusive capitalist system.”

Yet apparently for Shivani, the resulting cure seems worse than the initial disease. The current system, he argues, shuts out any freelancer who may have the literary talent to merit public and critical attention:

The system is profoundly undemocratic when it comes to the quality of the product it engenders, and its relentless crushing of any incipient freelance competition. There is an undeclared boycott in place with the famous residencies, conferences, and awards, and non-guild members need not apply (unless they want to waste their fifty or hundred dollars in application fees). Yaddo, MacDowell, Bread Loaf, etc. among the residencies/conferences, and the well-known awards/fellowships/grants committees do not welcome outsiders. There is a de facto ban, though probably, with the minute number of writers outside the guild these days, it is something they have to worry about less and less. The same is true of the Stanford Stegner fellowship, and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center fellowship, which absolutely exclude those not already privileged enough to be members of the guild. You may pay a few thousand dollars to attend Bread Loaf as a “paying contributor” and soak in the mystery surrounding the über-masters, but you may never become a scholar/fellow/waiter unless you are a certified member of the guild. Yaddo and MacDowell simply will not admit you, even if you have published well, because you will not have the necessary recommendations from über-masters to get you into such places. There is the phenomenon of the roving and repeated fellowship recipient–the few people who seem to go from Provincetown to Stanford to Ucross to Wisconsin to Virginia to everywhere else–as though to hold up to apprentices a model of the hyper-diligent medal recipient. Rather than spreading the wealth around, to concentrate so many awards in a few chosen people year after year holds up these apprentices for imitation of how to work the masters’ favor.

At times one gets the sense that Shivani is compelled by a feeling of sour grapes. But still, the piece represents the kind of vital, dissonant disruption that those responsible for making our literature ought to be thinking about. Are editors and agents relying too heavily on this system simply because it’s too easy not to? Is the current system shutting out people who, on merit alone, would otherwise be considered modern lights of letters? If so, should we labor to do something about it?

All very interesting stuff to ponder. And definitely worth reading if you have a minute or two (or three or four or…). In light of this, here’s an example of the very thing Shivani rails against in his piece. A conversation about, yes, MFA programs between probably the most famous recent graduate of an MFA program, James Franco (whose new book just came out and is being both hammered and praised), and Michael Cunningham, another recent target of Shivani.