I’m occasionally reviewing the essay anthology MFA vs. NYC, choosing different essays that I thought were interesting. Here’s Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Plus I already wrote about Emily Gould’s essay that appears in the book.
This is about David Foster Wallace’s essay, “The Fictional Future.”
No surprise that I enjoyed the straightforward nature of David Foster Wallace’s essay, “The Fictional Future.” Even though he received an MFA and went on to teach writing, he recognized the inherent flaws of the system.
I like how he divided MFA students into two groups–those that obey and those that don’t.
It reminded me of this recent Steve Roggenbuck essay, where he describes being an MFA castout.
Those who obey the proper “prescribed” way of creativity will succeed in a MFA program. And those that don’t will be shown the door.
What happens with those that stay is that things become predictable because as Wallace puts it, teachers have to have their own applied rules of what a short story is or isn’t, creating an “enforced closure to fictional possibilities.”
Practically this means that MFA hopefuls have to find some advisers and teachers you want to work with. Or it won’t be worth it.
Wallace was afraid this setup would put constraints on creativity, which would then attract a certain type of obedient student who then is not trained in any other curriculum for context.
I guess that was part of my point in Part 3, that writers need to stretch their boundaries. I’m afraid what’s happening instead is that writer’s natural tendencies are being reinforced, rather than challenged. That basically creates the McStory chain, and as Wallace notes, more teachers of Creative Writing than actual writers.
That however, can happen with any style I think. I’ve seen it some of the writing circles I’ve been involved in, people directly copying Jonathan Franzen, Tao Lin or Walt Whitman–both in subject and tone. It’s not bad to have influences, it just takes some balance.
What’s going to happen then?
There’s going to be some fallout in MFA programs. There has to be.
Traditional MFA powerhouses will remain, but the low-residency MFA might move into a low-residency new media program. Adobe Creative Suite will be emphasized and so will coding for literature.
Actually sign me up for that program. That might start a new chain of events, but at least platform and skill diversity will be present for awhile.
What will that look like? More Vimeo, less Ploughshares.
Maybe what will keep up MFA programs for awhile is the legacy of literature in people’s minds. I think there are more people that want to be writers than readers. There’s a cascade of people who never pursued their artistic passion who are looking forward to it in their twilight years. I mean Baby Boomers basically. It’s probably a smart biz by some MFA programs to ride that for awhile.
Ultimately, MFAs are in the business of good education, not good literature.