Tuesday, December 23, 2008

MFAs and Publishing

Here's a topic that isn't much discussed on this blog: the extent to which MFA programs should be actively working to set up their students with industry contacts.

Some programs have a better reputation than others in this department. Columbia might not have good funding or transparency about their funding, but it does have a great "Life After the MFA" program which exists to do just that. Now the University of Arizona is taking great strides in this regard too, with its new "Look Book," an anthology of writing by students designed to showcase their talents to future agents and editors. You can read more about it here, care of GalleyCat.

Thoughts on this? Are MFA programs doing enough? Not enough? Should the realities of the market even be a concern for MFA programs or something they should keep out of the classroom in the service of a purer expression of art?

35 comments:

Monica said...

MFA programs' neglect of (or disdain for) "real world training" is one of the major reasons I decided not to apply to any.

unsaid said...

As a poet, I feel the most a program can do for me is to help improve my craft and qualify me to teach. And that's doing a lot. I'm guessing this post is for fiction writers since poets don't really publish in the same way. Let me know if there's something I should be expecting as a poet lol.

Jonathan as I was told said...

My MFA Program (Texas State) didn't really do anything in regards to publishing. I think this is partly because two of the professors, Cyrus Cassells and Kathleen Peirce (who have both won the William Carlos Williams award), tend to write books and don't send their poems out for publication in journals most of the time. Steve Wilson and Roger Jones do, especially Roger. They gave a little advice, but that's about it. However, as far as theory, teaching, feedback, they were excellent. I loved my experience there.

I do remember Roger saying that it didn't matter where you got published, as long as you get published often. I tend to intuitively disagree, but what should I know right now.

I do think an MFA program should have some employee in charge of getting us out there and getting us employed. That would make an MFA program very attractive.

Jonathan as I was told said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan as I was told said...

oh I might want to mention that I was in Poetry.....our fiction teachers were Debra Monroe, Tim O'Brien, Dagoberto Gilb, and Tom Grimes.

John said...

Yeah, if I was getting a MBA or JD I'd expect job placement. But with a MFA, considering the number of graduates, there are too little openings for one to expect the program to find them a job. Even a top-tier program like Iowa states on their website that they'll help out a bit, but it's up to the graduate to find a job.

artjacks said...

Monica, where are you getting your information? The "real world" for writers is teaching and publishing and plenty of programs have things set up to help students in these fields. Where I'm at, we have teaching opportunities, speakers, presentations, practicums, and internships. Now having said that, I applied for programs just so I could get funded time to write, not for any kind of vocational direction. It's definitely in the program's best interests to help their students get their work out there, but if you suck as a writer, it's not going to help much. Monica, I'd recommend you take a look at more programs because you might be missing out.

Jennifer said...

Hi there,

I'm the University of Arizona student who came up with the Look Book; glad to see it mentioned here.

I think it's important for our program to get the word out about the book. In addition to the very real issue of funding, there are a number of intangibles that potentially go into making decisions re: where to apply and which offer to accept. It's true that Arizona is not totally funded (although the faculty is great about finding funds for students wherever they can; most unfunded or partially-funded students, in my experience, do have a shot at real funding once they're here). But it's important to know where schools are otherwise contributing to students' success. For UA, it's not just the Look Book. We also have novel-drafting workshops, a spirited salon series, and a track record of graduating writers who have gone on to distinguish themselves in their field.

For some people, the decision starts and ends with funding. But for the others, I think it's good to know that (for instance) graduating from UA means getting your story/essay and contact info into the hands of a top-tier agent—often someone who otherwise does not even accept unsolicited pitches. (For poets, we did send the LB to a number of small presses that publish poetry, though we realize the possibilities differ somewhat.) When I was researching schools, I would have loved to know what little extras each program had to offer.

Good luck to all 2008 applicants, and thanks again for the opportunity to participate in this conversation!

All best,
Jennifer Rice Epstein

Monica said...

Hi artjacks,

It's a myth that writers must teach (or edit) for a living. For me personally, if I'm a writer, then I should write. Constantly. And get a job that supports constant writing. I guess a lot of people find that editing or teaching somehow supports or stimulates their writing, but for me, those jobs would just divert precious energy. These opinions are based on observations of other writers I know, blogs I read, and personal experience, though; it's just the way it is for me. I work as a lab tech, which is beautiful because it's (1) lucrative, (2) emotionally and creatively undemanding, (3) so zen that I listen to audiobooks all day while I work.

I would want an MFA program to provide direct access to/workshops with/classes taught by agents, editors, and publishers. As it is, I already write a minimum of two hours a day, have ten stories on the market, read everything I can get my hands on, actively network, and fully intend to live on my art someday. In other words, no MFA program I looked at could have provided me with what I was already providing for myself.

zola said...

that's how i feel monica. though i do want to go work on my writing at an mfa program but after the mfa i'm going to do my best to find one of those emotionally and creatively undemanding jobs to support myself and my writing.

Jennifer Brown said...

Monica and Zola -- I can speak from experience on the need for an undemanding day job -- I'm an attorney who is the editor of a national magazine and it sucks me dry energy wise, leaving little time or energy for my own personal writing.

I'm looking to get out of that situation and do an MFA so I can spend my time writing in a workshop setting. After that, I'll never take a demanding job again because from here on out my writing comes first.

unsaid said...

Good comments you guys. I'm really interested in one of those non-demanding lucrative jobs post-MFA lol. Let's get a list of those going...thanks! lol

artjacks said...

Monica, fair enough. Everyone has to do their own thing. I just want to clarify though that I didn't mean that teaching and editing were the only ways for someone coming out of an MFA to make a living. Those are just the more obvious paths to follow since writing programs don't have anything set up to get you some kind of lucrative zen job. I guess what I want to know now is if teaching and editing aren't for you, what "real world training" were you claiming that MFA programs neglect?

insertbrackets said...

Monica,
I think disdain is a little over the top. As unsaid suggests, fiction writers can (to some degree) hope to realistically earn a living from their work. Between publishing a bestseller and having a book optioned for a screenplay (BIG BUCKS), it can happen. Poets, on the other hand, don't have that leeway in the employment sector. For better or for worse, we can't earn a living from our work unless we are (Jesus forbid) Maya Angelou or Billy Collins or someone like that.

And like Artjacks, I am curious as to what "real world training" constitutes? It seems too nebulous a concept to accept without some kind of clarification.

Nick said...

As a prospective MFA student this coming fall, I think the basis for MFA a program is to hone your craft. Maybe it's an added bonus that some programs attempt to give you an in or a chance at presenting your work, but that's not why you go there, why you shoot for the MFA. You go to practice your craft in an environment that will be most fruitful for you to grow as an artist.

I think that if you keep practicing your craft, that if you keep at it, the publishing aspect will take care of itself eventually. Granted, it might not materialize in terms of an agent or book contract, but in terms of having your story or poem published in some magazine or another.

Again, the opinion of a senoir undergrad.

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

Well Nick, you won't be disappointed.

Speaking from my first year in an MFA program, my experience is that the faculty see the important part of the MFA as production and craft. They afford us opportunities for networking (I'm going to the AWP conference for free because of them) and forward to us countless publication opportunities that I would never have found on my own, as well as promote our successes within the community -- but we, the students, always have to take the initiative.

The faculty believe that good writing along with perseverance will be published, therefore, it's the good writing part that they focus all their time on.

This past semester my workshop had a Q&A session at the beginning of each class, and by November we were explicitly banned from asking publication questions because the faculty instructor felt we were focusing too much on publication.

Lisha O said...

I can totally understand what Jennifer is experiencing as I'm an architect who is a part-time editor at a design magazine. Being in two demanding jobs mean I have little energy and time left to develop my own novel. However, the editing job has yielded unexpected benefits. I've gone back to the basics looking at grammar, punctuation and structure and that has fed back into my own writing.

Sands said...

I am looking for info on a distance MFA program and can only seem to find one at UBC in Vancouver, do you cover a list of these on your site somewhere?

insertbrackets said...

Sands,
I believe what you are looking for is information on Low Residency MFA programs (often abbreviated here as Low Res). There should be threads here on the blog that you can search for more information.

Monica said...

Hi artjacks and insertbrackets,

Thanks for your comments. As for "real world training," what I meant was this (quoted from my second post): I would want an MFA program to provide direct access to/workshops with/classes taught by agents, editors, and publishers. Maybe I didn't choose the best phrase to describe what I meant.

Monica said...

P.S. I am also really lucky to have originally been a scientist, so I have an M.S. in geochemistry -- hence, the zen lab job.

(My suggestion to young writers would be, if you want to be a writer, major in computer science or anthropology or biochemistry. You'd have an excellent shot at a secure, low-stress income AND bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table that many writers don't have. And you have all the time in the world to read all the things you'd have read as an English major! -- just an idea ;))

Mike said...

What schools besides Columbia and UA actively seek to set students up with professional contacts?

I plan to pursue a career in academia. From what I understand, people who seek jobs at the college level need to have a published book before they will be seriously considered for long term teaching positions, so any hand up in the publishing world would be practical and useful.

I emphasize "practical" here. I know I won't leave the mfa program with a book deal, but I'd like to know all I can and make all the contacts I can in order to make things easier once I have to return to the real world post-mfa.

Best!

Katie said...

Mike,

I don't know if Iowa has an official program set up, but I do know that New York agents go there to meet with students (probably in hopes of finding the next Nam Le or ZZ Packer or whoever.) I also know that Iowa has by far the best record of placing graduates in tenure-track positions and that even Iowa grads without books often get jobs as professors a few years out. So, if you're looking at grad school purely in terms of the professional benefits of the degree and the program, then Iowa is the obvious choice. But that's not very practical advice, is it? "Just go to Iowa" is kind of like saying "just win the lottery."

To be honest, if your goal is to eventually teach on the college level, then you should just concentrate on your work. It's not going to matter whether a school has a program set up to mentor students professionally if the students aren't producing good work. You could meet with twenty agents, but if you don't have something those agents want to sell, it won't make a difference. So that's my real advice. Just work on your writing and if you're producing good work, everything else will fall into place.

Ben said...

I'd echo the last bit of what Katie said. Most of the top programs (and others too, I'm sure) bring agents and editors in to meet with writers (the program i went to, UMich, did this)--the goal being not so much, let's get everybody represented now, but to give students contacts for the future (and if you click with somebody right away, then OK) and more of a sense of how the business side of things works. I know Syracuse does a thing where every year they take their graduating students to the New Yorker to look around and meet the editorial staff. And you can always go to your profs for agent contacts when you feel you're ready. But the focus at UM (as, I'm sure, at most if not all other schools), is the work and the art, as it's that that will lead to the other things (and once you've gone through a program, you'll always have your contacts to the business side of things through profs and fellow alums).

lisa said...

I agree with Katie. There's no question that Iowa is the school that will give you the biggest professional advantage, both in the publishing and academic worlds, but at the same time I also agree that in the end that professional advantage can only get you so far. You need to have a book that agents want to represent, or, in the case of academic jobs, you need to have something else on your vita besides just the prestigious degree.

Mike said...

Sound advice all around! Thanks very much for replying, and thanks for mentioning specific schools...

Amy said...

Eileen, sounds like you're in a great program with some smart people. :-) I think Monica has the right idea: everyone has a different path, but the key is creating an environment where you can and will write wonderful things. A lot of people find a job on a U campus with summers off, etc etc, to be that perfect environment. Others find academia stressful and even crazy-making, something that drains rather than replenishes. And she's also right that we all need experiences outside of classrooms, even those of us who do love teaching, and knowledge outside of literature, even if we do love literature.

Lincoln Michel said...

Just as a general response to some comments above, I don't think anyone should assume that offering advice on publishing or contact with agents interferes at all with focusing on artistic growth.

At Columbia, for example, we had after class panels feature literary agents/book editors/magazine editors and other events to give students an idea of how things work and interaction with people in the publishing world.

But it is not like our workshop teacher sat down and spent half the class telling us how to write grants. Workshops were entirely about the work and artistic growth with no focus or discussion of marketability or anything else.

I assume most programs work this way. There is no reason a program can't foster artistic growth and, in addition, help students work their way through the publishing world.

Smoke-oi said...

I think MFA programs would do their students a disservice by spending class time on the commercial side of things. Not that it isn't important, but you can find plenty of info on how to write a query letter and pester agents online. I do think Arizona's look book is a fabulous idea.

dee said...

I'm not really concerned with publishing. I want to pursue an MFA degree to enhance my writing, and to teach in the future. I have such a love for poetry and fiction, I only want to be able to read and write for the rest of my life. A career as a professor would provide that for me. If I am lucky enough for publication, that would be wonderful. If I don't cut it, Im sure there will be a little disappointment, however, I still want to be embedded in the writing world. I think MFA programs should focus on craft, teaching, etc. On an individual basis, I think in the last year or semester of study, the universities should provide workshops/courses that focus on publication for those who are serious/concerned about it.

Lincoln said...

Snake-oil:

I agree with you, but as I said above I don't think it has to interfere with class time. At my program there was a lot of discussion and help regarding publishing, lit mags and so on... but none of it was during classtime. It was all in outside of class events or panels.

Really, I can't see how it can hurt to offer that kind of thing at an MFA program and I can easily see how it can help.

Jennifer said...

Lincoln's description of his experience at Columbia matches my experience at Arizona. The academic work is entirely separated from any career/professional development. But I do think it's wise for programs to offer some level of guidance, outside of class, for students who want it.

Smoke-oi said...

Lincoln -

Sure, I think after-school seminars are great and perfect for this sort of thing. My point was that it doesn't make sense for James Wood to lecture you guys about writing query letters.

S-O

Annie Madison said...

Monica, if you want to get credit for writing fiction rather than for analyzing it, look into the low-residence MFA program at Seton Hill University, http://www.setonhill.edu/academics/ fiction/curriculum.cfm (Delete the space before fiction.)

In June, those of us with completed novels had the chance to pitch to two editors and an agent.

Only 6 of the 54 semester hours are reading courses. 25 credits are for actual writing; you complete a novel and either a novella or several short stories.

All the other classes about the nitty-gritty of writing: character & plot development, point of view, marketing trends.

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