Monday, October 25, 2010

An Open Letter to Anis Shivani

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.

Stephanie Vanderslice


Seth Abramson said...

Hi Stephanie,

I wouldn't give too much thought to Anis or to his articles -- he is someone who has no knowledge of MFA programs beyond his own highly-circumscribed experiences who writes articles that are entirely (and intentionally) fact-free and polemical. There's just no "there" there. Sure, people may read his ridiculous assertions -- like his submission that it's almost impossible to find a poet or writer in America not working in the Academy -- and believe them in the short-term, but in the middle- and long-term the truth will out for all those but the most biased and blinkered. Case-in-point: Anis's cartoonishly ham-handed "guild" analogy (laughably wrong in every single particular for anyone who has researched the history and conception of the MFA) depends upon apprentices desiring to work with masters -- yet polling shows that 64% of MFA applicants don't even consider "faculty" a top five reason to attend an MFA program. That's right -- nearly two-thirds of applicants appear not to rank "faculty" in any position of privilege in choosing an MFA, yet Anis (based on nothing) asserts the opposite.

The upshot: As you know as well as anyone, researching MFA programs is hard work, and it's clearly work Anis has no interest whatsoever in doing. Perhaps because appealing to the ignorant (cf. Palin, Beck, &c) is always more profitable in terms of audience share than anything else. The work of people like McGurl and Kealey will last -- the rankings, based as they are on research and attention to what kind of phenomenon the MFA really is, will last -- while all these effort-free screeds will dissipate like fog.


StephanieV said...

Well said, S! I take encouragment from your perspective.

popsicledeath said...

This is the point nobody speaks up with any level of support for the article or its ideas, for fear of no longer being included in the MFA guild! :P

I'll at least admit I'm a coward and going to swallow a few of my own perceptions, here, because I want to be loved and accepted by a Master some day!

Jennifer said...

You find the AWP article “deeply troubling”? Really? “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”, huh?

I just don’t see that. I see AWP director David Fenza providing prospective students with some perspective regarding these rankings—and that is pretty much it. Are you aware of how hard AWP works to provide students with information in their guide to writing programs? I think it is evident that AWP does recognize the need for information and transparency.

Sheila Lamb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheila Lamb said...

Editing my first comment...Read through the first half, skimmed the second of Shivani's rant. To sum up HuffPo comments: Get to the point.

Faculty was one of my top reasons for applying to the programs I did. I'm excited to be studying with (studying under? sitting at the feet of?) authors (Masters?) whose work I have read and admire.

StephanieV said...

Hi Jennifer,

I know AWP works hard to provide its content. I used the AWP guide extensively in researching MFA programs across the country for an upcoming book. But the information was relatively incomplete and sometimes inaccurate. I don't want to wade in so much on rankings; that's a hornet's nest. But I do think the Poets and Writers guide (as well as some other websites out there) provides more information, information students need, on the programs that AWP could be taking the lead in providing.

popsicledeath said...

Faculty didn't factor much in my choices. The ability of a program to have a high level faculty, perhaps, but the faculty itself is something I didn't think was worth banking on. By the time one starts a program a year later, the faculty can change. High profile writers can be on the faculty and paraded out for the website and brochures, but then have not actually taught a class in ages.

Programs aren't going to have drastic changes to funding or reputation over night, though (right? OMG worried now!). You aren't going to apply to a program in one state, only to find they decide to move out of state by the time you're starting the program.

It's convenient to discount the articles 'guild' analogy by pointing out the faculty (the 'masters') aren't ranked high in prospective applicants. But I don't think it's because faculty isn't important, just that it's not something that can very easily be accounted for, so people rank other more fixed things as more important, because they can be better accounted for.

It's not like some research grad school where the 'masters' are basically selecting research assistants, and if the masters leave a program, often the assistants can leave with, or there are verbal contracts made based on how long a master/apprentice will be working together.

Maybe it's a good angle, though. Emailing some high-profile name at a program asking them to give you a verbal commitment they'll be there until the completion of your studies and ready to not only endorse you, but prepare for working together and teaching the classes you're in! If that was the nature of MFA programs, as with some types of programs, then I think faculty would be the top of the list. It's just not feasible as is, though, imo.

That said, who one ends up working with can matter greatly in networking. In fact, that's one of the biggest reasons I've been told I should definitely do an MFA (by people with MFAs and books). The networking is everything, and an MFA can lead to great networking opportunities and a foot in the door, or more. It's the reality of networking: common interests lead to common ties, common ties lead to a commonality and inclusion in common activities. Doesn't mean this is a good ol' boy system or conspiracy to exclude the outsiders, but it DOES happen (in all industries and in a natural if not unfair way) and it's a bit short sighted to see comments made around the net that the author of the article in question was just making things up that didn't even begin to exist. No, it begins to exist, and it's not surprising people are taking a fact, and trending it out into an extreme. Doesn't make it true, but doesn't make it shockingly illogical either.

And many of the defenses of the article are starting to seem a bit defensive to the point it just supports the points the article makes (however clumsy). Many of the 'I agree' comments floating around the net are supporting the points raised in the article, and have nothing to do with the author. Yet so many of the 'I don't agree' just bash the author...

That dude set a trap, and [imo hilariously] so many people are falling right into it by bashing him personally and shouting him down as an ignorant outsider, which was precisely one of the points I felt he was [clumsily] trying to make: how quickly the so-called MFA insiders are willing to defensively do exactly that.

Claire Dawn said...

My colleague and I actually had a discussion on MFAs as a result of this.

He, and I think a lot of the public, have MFAs pegged for what they're not. They are not a guaranteed opportunity to sell a book. And most of what you will learn, you could probably learn on your own, with decades of research.

What an MFA is, really is an internship. The opportunity to practice under the watchful eye of a "master" and earn a qualification.

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