So I’ve read “Creative Writing Programs: Is the MFA System Corrupt and Undemocratic?” and there are parts I agree with and parts I disagree with. But mostly, it makes me worry.
I worry about the impression articles like this give to the general public about creative writers and creative writing in higher education. You see, Mr. Shivani, your narrative, while compelling, is awfully simplistic, repeating, with a new, excruciatingly extended metaphor, myths and arguments that have been made ad infinitum over the years. Polemics like yours are polarizing, sending organizations like the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) directly back into their corners to craft their own polemic responses. And who can blame them? Polemics in their very nature are cynical; you yourself see no possibility for change at the end of your essay, in itself a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I worry that the general audience that reads the Huffington Post doesn’t realize that a great deal of nuanced work has already been done on the positive and negative effects of the rise of MFA programs in America—Mark McGurl’s recent The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing and Paul Dawson’s Creative Writing and the New Humanities, for example are particularly detailed in chronicling the history and origin of this rise, revealing contexts far more complicated than the feudal system you describe—because you don’t even mention them. Sure, you weren’t writing a scholarly article, but at the same time, your essay seems to exist in a vacuum, willfully unaware of the vast amount of energy that has been spent in the past ten years trying to understand creative writing in higher education, to critique it constructively and move it forward as a discipline. Work done by writers like Anna Leahy, Cathy Day, Kelly Ritter, Tim Mayers, Patrick Bizarro, Dianne Donnelly, Wendy Bishop, Tom Kealey, Seth Abramson and Graeme Harper, to name just a few.
That said, perhaps the area in which we are in the most agreement is the section of your essay which seems to be the most current—the reference to the “brouhaha recently about a journeyman’s attempt to rank MFA programs in Poets & Writers magazine according to input from potential apprentices as opposed to evaluations by journeymen and masters themselves: obviously such prospective evalution couldn’t be allowed.” I too find this brouhaha, and the resulting AWP Annual Ranking of MFA Programs, deeply troubling as it signals a real reluctance on the part of our field’s signature organization to recognize the urgent need for more information and transparency about these programs.
Overall, however, I worry that in painting the picture of the MFA program in America in such broad and pessimistic strokes, you not only discount the significant, ongoing labors of my generation of writers to change the status quo but you also write off entirely the potential of the rising generation of current and prospective creative writing students, readers of this blog, to create conditions that might “break up” the guild system to which you refer. They are an entirely different breed, this new generation of writers, for whom “new media” is not new but reality, the reality in which information about creative writing programs, teaching, publishing, indeed, functioning in the milieu of 21st century (writing) arts is as omnipresent to them as the air that they breathe (I know, because I teach them). They don’t sit still long for the status quo, this generation. They tend to want to mix things up; the “very fine state of consolidation” of a system like the one you describe is only a challenge to them. I wouldn’t write them off just yet.