Thursday, May 31, 2007

(Almost) An Argument Against MFAs

In New York Magazine, Australian-born novelist Peter Carey has a smart and humane article on coming of age as a writer by way of MFA programs: "A New York Writer's Catch-22." (Thanks to my colleague Adele for drawing my attention to this one.) It includes a pithy description of one of the major issues MFA students face -- the cost of their education and the unlikelihood that they will be able to recoup those costs through their work:

"And here is what seems most insane—young and not-so-young writers take out student loans to get M.F.A.’s in creative writing. This does not add up. I once taught in the M.F.A. program at Columbia, and so I know the extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer. But the Marshian in me says it’s impossible to start a life committed to literary fiction when you are $60,000 in debt. The very size of the loan assumes there is a market, a business to go into, a living to make. But the hard truth is that only a sucker writes literature with the intention of making money. This was so obvious in Australia in 1961, you never needed to say it. Today, when people seem to be breaking through all around you, it might be good to bear in mind that the only reward you can rely on is in the work itself. And, of course, they do know that. A while ago, I went down to Strand with my then 13-year-old son and we were, of course, selling books and we watched the buyer separating the sheep from the goats, without understanding which was which. When the judgment was made, he pushed back at us a pile of really good novels. These, it turned out, were the goats. I said, “But surely you can sell Rohinton Mistry.” And he said, “We don’t need fiction.” And I thought, Where am I?

And I thought, quoting Beckett to myself, Imagination Dead Imagine.

But those twelve students sitting round the table have to forget way bigger things than money. In particular, they must forget that they’re walking out onto the same field as Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, Austen. This should be enough to stop anyone. Of course, it never has been."

Surprisingly, despite a lengthy discussion of his own development as a writer in Australia, outside of the MFA system ("There was just one literary agency in Australia in 1962, but I didn’t know what a literary agent was," he recalls. "As for an M.F.A. in creative writing, I’d never heard of such a thing. Denied these distractions, all I could do was write."), Carey does not follow this argument to its logical conclusion, that maybe his students could become equally talented writers without the expense of the MFA.

If the chances of emerging as the next great author are so slim, why not suggest that they do as he did, and go someplace far off, and work, and write? Maybe that's just a silly and naive proposition. Then again, he is part of the MFA system now, so maybe the "extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer" have gotten to him more than he thinks.

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