Friday, August 03, 2007

Diversity (the other kind) in the MFA

Daryll Lynne recently created a post on demographic diversity in MFA programs, which was very helpful and can be found here. That post got me thinking about the other kind of diversity that just might be more important in the context of a writing program: aesthetic diversity.

The most persistent knock on MFA programs I hear is that they all produce the same kind of work. The "MFA story," as they call it. Having worked on literary journals before, I can see where this criticism comes from, but I don't think it is true characterization for MFAs as a whole. I know that in my own workshops at Columbia I've seen a wide range of work, from experimental word-play to literary genre fiction, along with a similar diversity in professors.

I know that, for me, this kind of diversity is helpful and creates the kind of environment to make my work grow and change. But what do you all think about aesthetic diversity? Is it important to you? Or would a program filled with students more or less in line with your tastes be more helpful, help you streamline and focus your work? Certainly there are programs that are known for promoting certain styles (Brown with experimental fiction, Iowa with the domestic realism thing, etc.) but what programs are known for their aesthetic diversity?


noah m. said...

aesthetic diversity sounds great. i'm definitely interested in a program that has people who are constantly open to new things, however there is a limit of experimentation that i'm open to. in theory, it seems like a no-brainer to me, however i don't think i want to be in a workshop where people are mainly concerned with being different. i guess i want diversity of style, but focus, too, on making great stories. that doesn't even make sense, does it?

maybe, for me, it comes down to this: what the heck is an "MFA story?" could someone please outline the characteristics of this label? i keep hearing it vilified - Stephen Dixon slammed Glimmer Train and Story Quarterly (two journals who have published his work) for constantly publishing the same "MFA story" over and over. hmmm... since i enjoy many of the stories in these two journals, is there something wrong with me? do i have bad taste (or boring taste)? am i writing the "MFA story," too (even though i don't have an MFA)?

Emily A. Benton said...

hello - I'll be applying for my MFA in poetry for next fall...

Aesthetic diversity is very important to me. This is something that I am probably including in my personal statement. I've been living in a city where local poetry groups fall into either two categories - slam or Southern narrative. I fall into the latter category, but that doesn't mean that I want to only study and be surrounded with poets who share my same style. I learn more from being around a variety of people - which may be why I have a hard time throwing all of my friends into one room without some tension haha.

So far, out of the programs I'm applying to, the only one I know for sure that embraces the notion of diversity is Sarah Lawrence - I have a friend who just left their MFA and she said she was the only one of her style (language/lyrical) in her first workshop.

my MFA/writing blog:

Lincoln Michel said...

what the heck is an "MFA story?" could someone please outline the characteristics of this label?

Keep in mind I'm not endorsing this label as accurate, but my impression of what people mean when they say "MFA story" is something like:

- A domestic reaslim story, normally centered around a young protagonist and typically dealing with a conflict in a relationship (normally romantic, but sometimes with friends or parents).

- Written in a what one might think of as the common style. Simple, but not totally minimalist, somewhat poetic but not baroque or ornamental and certainly not stylistically innovative.

- Often deals with some kind of "deep issue" like homosexuality, racism, drug addiction, AIDS or other life threatening diseases, etc.

- Often ended when some kind of lingering image which is supposed to be deep. "As she walked down the dirty street I starred at the snowflakes falling like tumbling acrobats to the cold earth" or some blahness like that.)

- As a more general slam, these stories are normally considered to be well polished and "technically proficient" but utterly lacking in fire, blood or grit.

I do indeed think Glimmer Train is a big proponent of this type of story. To name an author, I'd say Adam Haslett strikes me as someone who is famous for following this formula (though let me add I think he does it very very well).

Lincoln Michel said...

I'd say "MFA story" is also pretty similar to what people mean when they say "New Yorker story" (although in that case, I think it has little merit. I mean, the New Yorker publishes people like Saunders and David Foster Wallace quite regularly)

noah m. said...

Keep in mind I'm not endorsing this label as accurate, but my impression of what people mean when they say "MFA story" is something like:

crap... maybe i do write stories like that, but the Dixon and Saunders i've read could fit those descriptions, too. (although, perhaps not the lacking fire part... but maybe.)

then give me diversity, and quick! and can you give me some suggestions of jounals that publish non-MFA stories?

Lincoln Michel said...

I love both Dixon and Saunders. They have a few stories that might fit that mold, but I think the majority of their work falls outside it. Saunders mostly writes satire and most of his work could hardly be called domestic realism (or even realism of any kind). I'd also say both of them are stylistically interesting and unique. Dixon plays around with structure often and has a pretty dirty (in a good way) style, not one coated in a slick sheen.

As far as journals, some that I love that do different things would be:
Noon, McSweeney's and Conjunctions,.

Conor Robin Madigan said...

McSweeney's I love. Glimmer Train produces good material, and good non-MFA stories. Aesthetic diversity is great as long as the first person(al) narrative, far too close to the person writing i.e. it's a story about last week, goes away. Okay, not totally, but rarely does a story about last week, written for this week, stand out as good material. Seems to be the downfall of the MFA stuff I've seen. Great MFA work I've seen uses language, at the sentence level, in a way that tells the story in the only way it can be told. Poets in transition to fiction writing have had the hardest time. Novelists writing short shorts seem to have the easiest. I'm just glad it's not about blowing people away.

Meredith Ramirez said...

aesthetic diversity is important to me, and i would consider it one of the drawbacks of cornell (and mfa programs in general) that i don't think there's enough of it. if one considers that literary history has been able to absorb everyone from austen to beckett to borges, it's striking to me how many mfa writers (including me in my first year) are doing formally similar work. i realized this sometime during my second semester and have consciously been veering away from the short story style i've been learning the past few years.

that said, i think my fellow writers here are happier than me on this particular front. it's probably my main complaint about my progran, that everyone here, even our most experimental guy j. robert lennon, is ultimately a realist, and my fiction has veered away from that direction so it makes workshop less helpful for me. thankfully, there's a whole ph.d. side of the program i can turn to for additional support.

Conor Robin Madigan said...

Like M. I too am operating in a mostly outside-o-the box form, compared to most of my department. Though, sometimes I love rereading Cheever and those writers who are in that vein. Just seems a bit funny to write narrowly when in school.

Lincoln Michel said...

it's probably my main complaint about my progran, that everyone here, even our most experimental guy j. robert lennon, is ultimately a realist

do you think there is a large trickle down effect with facaulty in MFA programs? I feel like the work of my peers has gotten progressively more diverse and experimental over the last year, and I wonder if that is just an effect of having so many unique and non-traditional writers like Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart teaching classes alongside more traditional realist writers like Richard Ford.

Though perhaps it is mainly just a reflection of whose applications the faculty will like.

Meredith Ramirez said...

yeah, i think writing style and diversity is definitely partly a function of faculty preference. cornell writers tend to be quite character-driven, which reflects the bias of our faculty. it just so happens that i come from a pretty kooky background, and was accepted based on writing i was doing while i was beginning to grapple with fiction mechanics and writing in a realist mode to prove to myself that i can write in the "classic" short story format, which i think comes out of chekhov and has been adopted by a bunch of recent american writers. now that i understand that form better, i feel more comfortable fiddling with other forms and structures. also, i'm working primarily on a novel, and i feel like i have a better handle on postmodern novel structure since i've read so many more of them. i didn't really start reading short stories until i started writing fiction a few years ago.

Unknown said...

I'm saying this from a very narrow personal perspective, but the short story form has always struck me as much more difficult to master than we seem aware of in our literary times. To be effective, a short story has to draw you into its own world completely and seamlessly. Chekhov does that perfectly, and with no lack of "fire" in spite of his realism. I don't think, in other words, that we can ascribe the problems of the "MFA story"--whether there's even such a thing--to whether or not it happens to be written in a certain vein or "school" or style. In my opinion, if there are problems, they are problems of mastery and vision. This explains why contemporary masters like Saunders and Dixon make for reading that feels satisfying and perfect (in spite of their "dirty" forms), and why it's impossible to say that pristine realists like John Updike and Munro lack "fire." A good story is a good story is a good story.

If experiments with artistic form lead to discovery and (therefore) to progress in and mastery of that form, I have to think that diversity trumps uniformity. Though I do think that a program that chose to work in one vein could do the job just as well, by nurturing individual vision, for example. You hear a lot about the problems inherent in the workshop format. Does anyone here feel that the workshop itself promotes bad habits and/or mediocrity? Has anyone wished they never had to enroll in another workshop again?

Anna said...

In my opinion, if there are problems, they are problems of mastery and vision. This explains why contemporary masters like Saunders and Dixon make for reading that feels satisfying and perfect (in spite of their "dirty" forms), and why it's impossible to say that pristine realists like John Updike and Munro lack "fire." A good story is a good story is a good story.

l.--beautiful paragraph. Sums up what needs to be said. The term "good literature" encompasses a plurality of styles, and to have a prejudice against any technical aspect of fiction writing (the short short format, the 2nd person POV, the present tense, stories about alcohol, feminist stories, or the so called "MFA story") is plumb silly. It all depends on how well or badly the author pulls off whatever he or she is trying to pull off.

Conor Robin Madigan said...

fictional form in non-fiction is pretty great. This American Life has some pretty great story formats, though they are Radio, and therefore...Radio-like.

Lincoln Michel said...

I hope I didn't sound like I was disparaging any large school of literature, chucking realism out the window or anything like that. I try not to have a prejudice against anything like that, my only prejudice here is for workshops that feature a plurality of styles and programs which work towards that in both faculty and student body.

However, while I certainly agree that a level a genius and mastery is required (and a lack of these things is what makes people call something an MFA story that might otherwise be a great story), to play devil's advocate, I'm not sure I can really agree that "a good story is a good story is a good story."

That statement would seem to imply that literature can be read in a vacuum, that a story is either good or bad regardless of the literary context around it. I don't think this is true. Art always exists in a larger conversation, both with itself and society. There are lots of factors at work in determining a stories worth or quality. Plenty of old works that don't seem to be that great in and of themselves are hugely important in their innovations and influence, while plenty of old works that were hailed from all sides as great literature wouldn't read well at all today. So I think there are lots of factors at work. For this discussion, I think there can be such a thing as over saturation of a style or aesthetic which can negatively affect the quality of all the work in that genre. If Raymond Carver does his thing and is doing it by himself we might call him a master and read his work for decades. But if suddenly a thousand Carver copycats crop up, none of them stand out and their work will be read worse than it would if it had merely been published a decade earlier.

Meredith Ramirez said...

if there's one thing workshop promotes, it's the preponderance of short stories, which have become the writer's equivalent of etudes before we get to write a symphony. the problem is that the the story and novel forms are definitely quite distinct from each other, and i do think l is right to say that the story form is in certain ways harder to master, mainly because it's so unforgiving.

but great story-writers do not necessarily make great novelists, which is fine if a writer wants to stay with the short story form. the problem is that so many of us really want to write novels, but know that workshop feedback isn't as useful for longer work. in my case, i've spent the past year writing stories, only to admit to myself that i'm much more committed to the novel form and i just have to accept that my colleagues are going to have to look at an elephant's snout or tail when they workshop my excerpts, without knowing what the whole elephant actually looks like.

Anonymous said...

Don't all programs necessarily have their own far-ranging aesthetic, simply by virtue of the composition of faculty? While I support diversity among MFA programs, I think it is actually more effective to allow the natural cohesion of sensibilities that comes from the clustering of faculty who like to hang out and teach together.

Unknown said...

Plenty of old works that don't seem to be that great in and of themselves are hugely important in their innovations and influence, while plenty of old works that were hailed from all sides as great literature wouldn't read well at all today.

I'm mulling this over, Lincoln. But would you give some examples of the kinds of works you had in mind there?

In the meantime, I wanted to say that I do tend to favor experimentation, personally. I happen to believe that it promotes good writing habits: risk-taking, invention, following one's genius (thanks, that's a good word to bring into this discussion--I think everyone has one, and that the trick is to find it). Plus I think that most students of writing could do worse than use their time in MFA programs to play around with forms and get to know their art/craft from a number of angles, so to speak. Hopefully that leads to finding a form/style/whatever that's just the right fit.

But plenty of experiments go wrong, too. The sheer act of experimenting guarantees nothing, and there is just as much flat, bloodless, copycat experimental writing that I've read in the past year as not.

So I think we always have to bring the focus back to the individual writer's struggle to master an art form (which can involve a thousand reinventions of that form). If MFA programs can't do that--I don't care how much or how little aesthetic diversity they support--they probably aren't doing their students any favors.

stafex said...
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Lincoln Michel said...

I'm mulling this over, Lincoln. But would you give some examples of the kinds of works you had in mind there?

Sure. Well on the one hand, works that have been hailed but don't read well today, it might be hard for me to pick any as, by definition, we are talking about works who have fallen out of favor and thus most people don't know or read. But if you go look at the list of Nobel Prize winners (or Pulitzer Prize winners or whatever) you will see some names that are still considered geniuses (Faulkner, etc.) and plenty of names who are totally obscure and forgotten. Likewise if one is interested in popularity you can look up the best selling books of the 30s or 40s and the majority of them are completely forgotten. On an even larger level, there are whole genres of literature (western novels, etc.) that were hugely popular that are now ignored, with a few exceptions.

The other catagory is a little trickier as I'm sure to offend people by listing famous authors as not really that great of a read, despite being important, innovative and important. If I have to name one, I guess I'll go with Gertrude Stein who, while certainly being a genius and very important, strikes me as an author that very few people take pleasure in reading. A work like Tender Buttons will go down amongst the canon of western literature, despite not providing much enjoyment to people outside of its context... in my experience at least.

All I'm trying to suggest is that the various contexts (cultural, literary, yada yada) inevitably influence our conception of any given story. For example, Raymond Carver was a great author (IMHO), but he was also one who was ceaselessly imitated and copied. It is my opinion that many of his imitators wrote individual stories that, if we could divorce them from context and history, would be seen as favorably as his stories. So, if I could go back in time and trick a publisher into publishing a story under Carver's name that was written by someone else it would be viewed as a masterpiece. But since it was published years later, when everyone was imitating him and style was getting stale, by an imitator, it is not considered as good as Cathedral (or whatever).

I think this works for all art. The Beatles have been ripped off by tons of artists and I think many of them have produced songs that in and of themselves are as good as anything the Beatles wrote. Say, Olivia Tremor Control's best songs. If I shot a capsule into space with "Jumping Fences" (a OTC song) and "She Said She Said" an alien might intercept it and think Jumping Fences was a better song. But very few people would think that here on earth because we know the context and we factor in the time period, the importance of the Beatles, their alleged innovations and so on into our evaluations of their work. .... or, for example, there are probalby plenty of painters would create a painting that would pass as a work by Da Vinci to the untrained eye, yet it would be never judged as being as good as his works because it would imitating a worn out style... other factors and contexts inevitable shape our views of art.

Sorry for the length of this post! Maybe I should stick to fiction writing...

Lincoln Michel said...

But just to clarify one thing, while I do indeed love "experimental fiction" (whatever one means by that) and experimenting when writing, this wasn't what I was talking about when I said I was in favor of aesthetic diversity.

Even if people are not experimenting, I find that an aesthetically diverse classroom is better than a aesthetically narrow class. So I'd prefer to have one person writing Carver type minimal realism and another writing magical realism and another trying baroque Nabokov type prose (and so on) to a classroom where everyone was writing in the realm of magical realism or everyone was writing in the realm of domestic reaslim.

Does that make sense? I have had both kinds of workshops and I've always found the diverse one to be more helpful. However, I fully understand that this might be the case only because of what I"m writing. If I was writing Carver type stories maybe an MFA program that catered towards that would help me more?

Unknown said...

I was in a "Writing About the Environment" workshop a few years back, and it was so exciting to read all different types of work that revolved around that central theme. We had it all, from poems to personal essays. The one thing this workshop lacked was a feeling of purpose, though. People were always apologizing that they hadn't been able to comment thoroughly on peer work because it was in a form they were not used to working in. "I'm not a poet, so I didn't feel qualified to comment on this" was a typical response. In this case, I've wondered whether we couldn't have focused more if the instructor had shown more leadership, so this may not be a good example to bring up here. In any case, I found it very exciting and energizing to have the chance to workshop the cross-genre work of my peers.

I see what you mean about art that treads in the footsteps of visionaries. But doesn't art have to evolve? I hear people say that MFA students don't read broadly, and that this leads to retreading a lot of ground that's already been covered. Has the same thing happened in pop culture? For example, I can enjoy Interpol to a point, but in the end I have to wonder what exactly the point is of revisiting Joy Division/Depeche Mode so faithfully. On the other hand, look at Hollywood with its ten-millionth re-make of stuff we enjoyed in the 70s and 80s. Maybe it's the nature of our times. Maybe the Raymond-Carverites just work in a mode that's completely of contemporary culture. Maybe imitation is the spirit of our times.

I don't know. I'm rambling so I'll stop. There's a bunch of undergrads hanging out and singing frat songs in the courtyard outside my door at the moment. Can't think. Must find ear plugs. :o)

Stephanie Hammer said...

Thanks for this thread and comments. I am a college professor who turned to making creative work about 10 years ago, and I'm applying to low residency programs as well, since I don't feel that the MA/PHD track really ever trained me to think like a writer about literature. But I'm concerned about the aesthetic diversity question. I don't write standard realism, and I agree that there's a kind of standard American story-telling modality out there that I don't do, and quite frankly don't want to read (although some of this is generational since I'm so much older than most of you). I wonder how you measure a program's ability to tolerate different kinds of work, and would appreciate some guidance as to what to look for and what to look out for. thanks.

Miles Newbold Clark said...

Lincoln, you've raised some very interesting points here. But when you say that Gary Shteyntgart is non-traditional, in what way do you mean, exactly? I'm not convinced that his freshman effort (grossly misrepresented by some as a Saul Bellow revival) or his sophomore effort (which has been cited as an example of a work in which the editoral hand was both too heavy, and overly clumsy) can really qualify his work as "non-traditional." If the popular press is correct, and Shteyntgart was at least attempting what Bellow accomplished in "Dangling Man," he would be following one of the most "traditional" fictive paths of the last 60 years - one that runs the entire gamut of positivist fiction, from to Updike to Foster Wallace. Where does Shteyntgart's divergence from the norm appear? Was it "Debutante," or "Abusrdistan" that took him there? If so, how?

By extension, would you also call Karen Russell a nontraditional writer?

Sam Lipsyte feels like someone who arrived late to the McSweeney's sock hop, found everyone passed out or else hiding, in pairs, behind locked doors and craky bedsprings; he ambled on his lonesome into the kitchen, found some cold pizza and flat coke Heidi Julavitis had left in the refrigerator, ate, drank, then went back out to the dancing area to crank up the gramophone again. Jack Pendarvis and George Saunders probably woke up and told him to shut it off. He didn't. Instead, he turned to his bleary-eyed hecklers and said: "I like stories about wizards." By then it was almost noon. Diane Williams came downstairs and told everyone they had to leave. Lipsyte had gone into a corner to cry, didn't hear her. She came over and told him again. He told her "I like stories about wizards." Diane Williams felt sorry for him.

Lincoln Michel said...

Miles Newbald Clark:

You seem to be taking my statement to mean widly original or inventive, though all I meant by it was not your standard MFA writer. I'm not claiming that any authors I listed are some insanely radical or innovative authors, just that they are working in a mode that is a bit atypical for your average university creative writing professor. At least in my experience. There are plenty of similar writers with similar styles in universities, but they don't seem to me to be the norm by any stretch. So, non-traditional in the context of MFA fiction programs, not the context of the history of literature.

Lincoln Michel said...

I have not read Karen Russell's book, but looking at its description online, it sounds like she would fall into the same catagory, for me.


Doesn't art have to evole?

I would say yes, 100%. That is part of what I was trying to get across. Namely, that stagnent art is never considered as good as original and fresh art. The context of the arts place in history and culture, such as its originality, come into play. Thus why I think paintings that are on some level as skilled as paintings by old masters are never considered as good if they are just imitating the old masters.

As for imitation being the spirit of our times... I think imitation, in mass culture, is probably the spirit of every time. We just only remember the handful of original and worthwhile artists.

Miles Newbold Clark said...

Lincoln, I'm afraid I'm still a little lost here. Is your last post's use of the term “writer” meant to pertain to MFA students, or to the teachers of MFA students, or to both?

Lincoln Michel said...

Stephanie Hammer:

I wonder how you measure a program's ability to tolerate different kinds of work, and would appreciate some guidance as to what to look for and what to look out for. thanks.

I wish I had a better idea of which schools had aesthetically diverse student bodies, that was my hope in making this thread. But without any specific schools to recommend in this regard beyond my own (merely because I'm unfamiliar with the rest), my suggestion would be to look at the faculty.

If the faculty is diverse it is a strong bet that they will be picking students who are also diverse. If the faculty is all in the "standard American story-telling modality" you mention, that it is a good bet the student body will be along those lines as well.

It is never a safe bet to go to a school for a specific teacher (professors come and go, and plenty of great writers aren't great teachers), but I think it is a very wise idea to look for a school whose faculty as whole excites you.

I hope that's helpful!
All best,

Unknown said...

Just for the record, I don't really like stories about wizards.