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FEBRUARY 9, 2013 3:11AM

The MFA Mafia And Their Apologists

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  Recently, film critic Roger Ebert, who has a distressing habit of 3-4 times per year, swallowing his own foot on his Chicago Sun-Times blog, posted a piece titled Books Do Furnish A Mind, wherein he bemoaned the state of reading in our republic, and pinned the blame on everything other than the biggest cause of the problem- the fact that MFA writing programs have, since their inception after World War Two, tried to commmoditize writing to the point of becoming assembly lines churning out bad, soulless writers and books that, duh?, no one actively chooses to read, not even the ever diminishing clique of bad MFA writers, churned out by the tens of thousands each year. Hence, the reason for the deliterate state of America today rests not upon any shoulders save those of the cabal of MFA programs that effectively ‘wall out’ any writers, regardless of quality, who do not ‘buy in’ to the MFA crony and spoils system of publication at big houses wherein the editors and staff are all tuition paid members of the club.

  Let’s tackle Ebert’s column, bit by bit:

  My friend Bill Nack and I sat in the coffee shop of the student union and chortled like escape artists. We couldn't believe our good luck. You could actually get a university degree just by reading books and writing about them! Students in other majors had to, you know, actually study. I make it sound too easy, and I sweated some exams, but now in my autumnal glow those undergraduate years are bathed in wistful nostalgia. My image is of myself walking down the quadrangle at Illinois, my shoes kicking at leaves, my briefcase containing a couple of novels, some poetry, and of course some fun reading, which could include, I recall, Herbert Gold, John Updike, Katherine Anne Porter and Playboy--for the good fiction, you understand.

  It’s interesting to note, that of the three authors mentioned, Porter came before the MFA programs, Updike was never really associated with them, and Gold, while winning some prizes, was basically a Beatnik. Playboy, at least in its early days, did publish non-MFA writing.

  What Ebert is describing, though, is a classically liberal education in literature, or English, not an MFA class, wherein bad writers- who do not understand characterization nor even what a cliché is, try to pass on their ignorance and biases to others.

  Our professors were like gods. They were learned and wise and they valued poets we learned to think of in groups: The Romantics, the Metaphysicals. They saw things we couldn't see, not yet. Two of my fellow undergraduates, Larry Woiwode and Paul Tyner, actually sold short stories to The New Yorker, which we read in awe.

  Even in this throwaway paragraph, the seeds of bad teaching and thought creep in. While it’s certainly true that, in shorthand, the groupings of writers and artists took place, it was not until the establishment of MFA programs that a caste system of both dead writers, and those in MFA writing mills, took hold.

  In an email the other day, Prof. David Bordwell of the University of Wisconsin responded to a piece I wrote about American education: "Actually, based on what my colleagues tell me, it's worse than we thought at the college level. Students WILL NOT, and absolutely refuse, to read anything. Give the assignment, and they just ignore it, even if there's a quiz on the reading."

  I have no doubt of this. Authors like Updike and Roth used to be celebrities. The New York Times fiction best sellers used to be reputable. The well-dressed undergraduate might have a good paperback secreted somewhere about his person. Now there is no longer a pocket not occupied by something electronic. In coffee shops, students who once leaned intently over novels now lean hypnotized over cell phones.

  While this is so, what Bordwell and Ebert miss is that the MFA writing system is almost wholly responsible for this trend of non-reading youngsters. Why? Because the MFA Mafia has codified deliteracy with its uncritical acceptance, and, worse, even praise, of demonstrably bad MFA writers, like David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle, and Dave Eggers. And, frankly, Ebert falls into this very trap, the Appeal to Authority Fallacy, by even mentioning Bordwell, one of America’s least knowledgeable, but most quoted, ‘film experts.’

  Of course, it should come as no surprise that Academic types, place the blame elsewhere, and not in their own sphere:

  In an article in The Weekly Standard by Joseph P. Epstein asks, "Who Killed the Liberal Arts?" Not long after on Salon.com, Katie Billotte responded, " and blurbed: "Destroying the humanities--and the notion of informed citizenship--is part of the conservative agenda."

  There are many suspects, but I'm not sure they are political ideologies. If I had to thumb a suspect, it would be the career orientation of many students entering college. They want careers with prestige, income, futures. They know English majors don't exude a sexy aura in singles bars. You walk in out of the 1960s, leather arm-patches on the elbows of your corduroy sport jacket and a copy of The Best American Short Stories of 1972 in your pocket, and you lose.

  In fact, there are NOT many suspects. It’s just that the obvious culprit is one that Ebert does not want to acknowledge: the cabal of PC Elitists who, under their own Left Wing agenda, have hijacked the arts, in general, and literature, and writing, by actually aping the political tactics of the Right Wing, and marginalizing not only those with differing political points of view, but FAR more importantly, utterly shutting out those people and writers of quality whose backgrounds do not give in to the pay for play lottery that an MFA mill education presents, because, even paying into the MFA lottery does not guarantee one a first book deal with a major publishing house, no matter how great the writing.

  Don’t believe it? There are only a few thousand old fashioned print book titles published in America a year, by big and small houses, and, after subtracting the works by already published writers, this leaves a few hundred, at most, titles for new writers. Clear out the non-fiction and science books by newbies, and that means maybe 150-300 possible titles a year for MFA newbies. The United States graduates between 30 and 50 thousand MFA graduates a year. Do the math. Hence, even if some ill educated college aged coed screen reader at a press likes (meaning they emotionally love a book rather than intellectually and artistically understand the book’s qualitative worth) the book of a non-MFA writer, the owners and editors of the presses (big or small- there’s little difference, save in the advertising budgets) will never agree to publish it because a) they feel they would be disloyal to ‘the system,’ and often the grants for small presses de facto require them publishing MFA grads, b) they feel that they owe it to the untalented wannabes who have paid into the system, even if they do recognize the lack of skill and accomplishment in the things they publish, and c) they, like the screen readers, have almost all been ‘miseducated’ into thinking that trite, banal, lifeless stories, filled with formulaic plots and platitudinous dialogue speaking characters equals good writing.

  Notice that I wrote the word feel, not think, in the first two reasons above, and this is because these editors and publishers literally do NOT think about the business end of book selling. Somehow, they have come to the conclusion that MFA rejects constitute a pool of consumers who will devour the very sort of crap they produce, but this is not so, for most MFA grads, if they even have an ability to see what others produce is bad, simply won’t like it. Many is the time I’ve run into ‘poets’ who just write it, but don’t read it, meaning they know nothing of the art and medium they claim to love, and it shows in their writing, for they have no idea of the technical aspects older poets have used, and feel nothing is wrong with this, since writing is just a way to ‘express yourself.’

  Of course it is, but if the aim is to express yourself by merely having the end goal of expressing yourself, one has not only become tautological and solipsistic, but one has become a bad thinker, hence not really an artist, whose main task is communication at the highest level. But, one can only communicate intellectually in art. Feelings and emotions are very difficult to convey, for most people, because most do not realize that emotions are merely offshoots of the intellect. Great writing or art that aims for the intellect cannot help but stir one’s emotions: think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, wherein the computer HAL is unplugged and goes mad, then seemingly dies. It’s a tear-inducing scene, and utterly dispels the notion that Kubrick was an unemotional artist. Yet, more cogently to the publishing business is the fact that this total reliance on feelings over intellectual/artistic reasoning is exactly why publishing is in a panic over the rise of digital self-publishing. No, it’s not because it will ‘let in’ a bevy of bad writers to the marketplace, although this is true, because the MFA mill writers are no better nor worse than the self-published writers of yore or now, but because this total reliance has dumbed down fiction, especially, with PC and Postmodernism, to the point that most people do not want to read writing at a level they know they can equal or surpass.

  Films, as bad as they are, especially in Hollywood, are still beyond the means of most Average Joes, as is songwriting and the creation of video games. But writing is as easy as pounding away on your keyboard. The publishers simply do not get that THEY have killed off the market for good writing with their decades’ long stranglehold on the publishing world. In business, always follow the market, or anticipate it, and you will succeed. Companies that do not do this are soon defunct. The only reason the big publishers have not followed suit is because they have heretofore constituted an oligopoly, but that is now threatened by self publishing. In short, emotional decisions in business are killers.

  Continuing with the Ebert article:

  "In a loose definition," Epstein writes in his excellent article, "the 'liberal arts' denote college study anchored in preponderantly Western literature, philosophy, and history, with science, mathematics, and foreign languages playing a substantial, though less central, role; in more recent times, the social science subjects--psychology, sociology, political science--have also sometimes been included. The liberal arts have always been distinguished from more specialized, usually vocational training. For the ancient Greeks, the liberal arts were the subjects thought necessary for a free man to study. If he is to remain free, in this view, he must acquire knowledge of the best thought of the past, which will cultivate in him the intellectual depth and critical spirit required to live in an informed and reasonable way in the present."

  The words that spring out to me are "vocational training." Do many students enter college these days hoping to become English lit teachers? I have only one friend who learned to read and write Greek, and she later became absorbed in the works of Led Zeppelin. I was a poor central Illinois kid whose father had just died, but I cheerfully headed for the Liberal Arts. Tuition in those days, as I recall, was around $100 a semester for Illinois residents, and I won a state scholarship and worked two newspaper jobs part time.

  Ebert is merely nostalgizing here. Most people NEVER went to college for the Liberal Arts, but to get ahead in business, even if that business was education.

  Today the tuition is unimaginably higher, I am informed by Epstein. You want bangs for your buck. Incoming students are pragmatic and ambitions.

  "For many years," he writes, "the liberal arts were my second religion. I worshipped their content, I believed in their significance, I fought for them against the philistines of our age as Samson fought against the Philistines of his--though in my case, I kept my hair and brought down no pillars. As currently practiced, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to defend the liberal arts. Their content has been drastically changed, their significance is in doubt, and defending them in the condition in which they linger on scarcely seems worth the struggle."

  He must be right. If film is a liberal art, it may be the only one showing growth in universities, and even then film professors (not Bordwell) tell me they have students who WILL NOT look at silent or black and white films, which is where all the history of cinema begins and much of it resides. Rare the undergraduate in cinema studies who isn't looking for an agent.

  This passage utterly misses the point about what’s wrong with colleges today. Tuition was always a stumbling block, and tenure has made a whole class of non-working, leisure-bound hacks who have no incentive to work, and, because they received the same contentless classes on the arts, no ability to produce anything of value. And, in the 8-10 hours a week of work they average, they simply pass this zombie education forward. Ebert totally misses the failure of the education system: not that it is too expensive (although that is a lesser problem) but that it is void of any intellectual (much less practical) benefit. THAT is the problem, and until folks like Ebert (and, more importantly, people within the system) recognize it, the arts, in general, and literature, specifically, will continue to flounder.

  All of this, of course, is based on the political dogma that there is no objective way of determining quality, that everyone’s opinion is equally valid- even if demonstrably factually wrong, and that everyone is ‘special,’ ‘talented,’ or fill in the blank with your own term denoting praise for something utterly pedestrian.

  Ebert continues:

  Perhaps this is a tragedy, perhaps not. In several years of running thus blog, I have posted more than 110,000 comments, most of them intelligent, some invaluable. I don't have to kill two junk comments a week. I find readers from all over the world who write eloquently about the liberal arts and many other things, and occasionally, as in the memorable example of the one signing herself "A Kid," they reveal themselves as still in middle school.

  They have educated themselves. They've read books, seen movies, attended plays. They do it because they love to do it. That's really the best reason, and given the pay scales, maybe the only remaining reason.

  I mentioned two undergraduates who sold to The New Yorker. L. Woiwode remains a major American writer. Paul Tyner killed himself. He was a very funny fellow. "Roger," he once lectured me, "the only reason to do anything is to give pleasure to yourself." For years after, in Champaign-Urbana or Chicago, I could identify a men's room Tyner had visited by a graffiti that had become his calling-card: "Auto-fellatio is its own reward."

  Of course, most of Ebert’s commenters are no better nor worse than the rest online. They do, of course, fawn incessantly over him, and thus there is a higher percentage of asskissy type replies, but Ebert fails to realize this is because he is a celebrity. And, for the record, neither of the two writers Ebert mentions are major writers, qualitatively, critically, nor recognition wise, although it is telling that Ebert ends his article with an anecdote that rewards emotion over intellect, unaware that his dead friend provided what may be the perfect epigraphs/epitaphs on the hopefully soon to be passed PC/MFA Era of published writing.

  There were not many cogent comments to Ebert’s article- most were inane and/or insane, but these two need addressing:

Daniel | November 15, 2012 11:16 AM | Reply

  I agree with you about the decline of the liberal arts. I am a 26 year old iwth an English degree from a top tier school. When we read Whitman, DeLillo, Ellison, and even Cormac McCarthy (or anything else for that matter) most students found summaries online that would allow them to get through class talking about an obvious motif or a single famous line. Unfortunately, at a lot of schools, professors only have interest in that obvious motif or that single famous line. Real discussions don't exist, and a lot of those non-readers become high school English teachers.

  Then, those teachers who never really had a hunger for reading sit around reading "The Hunger Games" and "FIfty Shades of Grey" because they don't know any better and have never been truly rewarded by a book. They teach "Heart of Darkness" (because it's supposedly short enough to be easily digestible) and "The Scarlet Letter." Then we're shocked when our youth graduate and don't like reading. This is a real epidemic. It is so rare that I meet others my age who are very widely read. And you are right that books furnish a mind. This is why self-education is so important.

  I read "White Noise" and "A Confederacy of Dunces" in high school. I have read hundreds and hundreds of books (fiction and non-fiction) since because the right groundwork was laid. If your teacher is not only not equipped to lay the groundwork, but only challenges herself by reading "50 Shades of Grey," how are we supposed to furnish our minds?

  Incidentally, I think the digital age and the rise of ADD in Generation Y and Millenials is also to blame. Thanks for this Roger--very thought provoking.

  Naturally, the problem here is correct: ill educated teachers, but more importantly is that there are ZERO alternatives to the Hunger Games/Fifty Shades models. David Foster Wallace simply is no better, so the animus shown against such books like Hunger Games is NOT because of their manifest lack of quality, but because they sell, whereas the work of the Wallaces and Eggerses does not.

  Then there was this:

Dave | November 16, 2012 10:57 AM | Reply

  You lament the dissaperance of Updike and Roth? That's not my generation's fault. Blame yours. Good luck finding any English professors left interested in teaching them. They are too white, too male, and dear me, so terribly sexist, esepcially that rascally Updike. All students get for English now is what Harold Bloom correctly calls the "school of resentment" where work is studied simply because it is NOT Updike and Roth.  And if it is read, its read through the lens of oppression, racism, homophobia, etc. I've seen "English" folk bend over backwards trying to convince Moby Dick and On the Road are really romantic gay narratives. Seriously? Ahab and Dean Moriearty are all about the disenfranchisemnt of homosexuals? And don't get me started if you get the slim chance of reading Hemingway...that will be posioned by a feminist lens. If this isn't the worst part, the few remaining slots of literature teaching available in the U.S. are for scholars who buy into that kind of crap. And THOSE are the people who teach the incoming high school English teachers, who feed that feel-good watered down literary grabage to the masses. No wonder they don't read Updike. They don't know he exists, and if they did, they wouldn't be able to to appreciate it.

  The commenter was good until he mentioned Updike, because, while better than the Wallaces and Eggerses, Updike is no great writer, and, in a century, will be seen as the minor writer he is. Again, however, notice that the actual problem is missed, because publishing more Updikes is NOT the solution.

  Conservatives just see money and don't care about the arts, but liberals have been the ones left to care for it for the past twenty-five years and the reason why it sucks right now.

  Correct, but for the reasons why the Left (not real liberals) have wrought such damage, you will have to rely on articles as this. You won’t get it anywhere else.

  ALSO...you are terribly right about the state of colleges...but their purpose has changed. College is NOT affordable and is increasinly become a placed to gain "credentials" to do something, VERY expensive credenitals. You were blessed to live in a time where a rough and ready guy with a bachelors could snag a job at a newspaper and just stumble into film criticism. That doesn't happen now. They want to see CREDENTIALS. We DON'T need to read Kafka these days because we LIVE Kafka. Just look at teachers shoved into a panoptican by the Obama administration and their Democratic AND Republician friends who want "teacher evaluations" that are modeled after the industrial era of assembly line thinking and "artificats" to show as "evidence" that a teacher is more than just "developing." Who would want to teach literature in such an enviornment?

  Again, correct in the macro, re: educational ideas and the lure of a polished sounding CV, but that has nothing to do with the dumbing down of literature, as I describe above. And it is these [politically based misreadings that do most of the damage in these arguments.

  The only hope for the humanities are blogs like yours where people study it out on their own. But hopefully, when the hippies die, out we can return literature to a state of normalcy, that is if Republicans ever decide to give teachers a fair wage and Democracts leave them along to simply do their job.

  Well, here is what I meant about the asskissy Ebert commenters. Sorry, Roger Ebert is a nice guy, but his blog is NOT any place that champions the values of the humanities (itself a dubious aim) because, as shown, Ebert does not even recognize the problem.

  So, let’s amend that epigraph on the MFA writing mill culture: Any fellatio is its own reward. There we go. Now smile!

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Although I cannot speak with any accuracy about the state of MFA programs in the States, I have noticed, over the past ten, fifteen [maybe more] years, the festering of The Blind Allegiance of the Staus Quo To The Establishment Writers, at the expense of quality writing, ideas, and readership.
For instance. I read Michael Cunningham's 'The Hours'. Why not? I heard it was a great movie; great book. The first chapter hooked me [Virginia Woolf loading her pockets with rocks and taking a walk], but by the end of the book, I felt so ripped off, so taken by publishinghouse propaganda, that, when the guy in the chair finally jumps out the window, I jumped up and through the book out the window, too. What a waste of time.
Even at the height of my worst 1970's acid trips did I ever feel such a disconnect between what someone was telling me was good and my own good common sense was telling me was not.

"The Timekeeper's Daughter'. Another waste of time, yet, when one visits the publishing house that pushes it, all one sees is what a wonderful writer Kim Edwards is...and blah, blah, blah....

They push this tripe like it's the end-all-be-all, and so, expect all newcomers to follow the formula. Fuck that formula. Writing like that ends up in my bathroom, to be used when I run out of Scott for Scat.

All that ego on display! Even here! "I'm a classically-trained writer! Here me roar! My stuff is handed to me directly by my personal muse, who is smarter than your personal muse, and all my friends here use the same muses, who are the best muses ever; and we laugh at you, because we know that our muses are bigger than your muse, and can kick your muse's ass" -and blah, blah, blah; all designed to try to push down the outsiders and pump up the status quo, never once stopping to think that maybe their stuff sucks just as bad as any stuff written by a tone deaf, inconsiderate, professional pinhead on an ego ride, driving blind and laughing all the way to the bank, never once stopping to think that maybe the model they are following is leading them down a dead end, and never stopping to think, when they read something worth reading, that the pain they feel, or jealousy, is not healthy; that good writing is rare, must be acknowledged and encouraged, and must be cultivated and protected, and allowed to flower.
Nah, they don't see good writing because they are too busy working the circle jerk.

Give me my pen.
Where was I, before I got distracted.
Oh yeah...
Just that for me you've got the Updike/Wallace thing reversed, I'd have to say. Updike, a screaming bore. Wallace, a fascinating, inventive and in the end, tragic writer.

And as if... what about all that writing, or literature, that exists beyond the bounds of the great american navel gazers. If words are indeed "weapons of mass instruction" then, we can also see how effectively the last generation (those with their foot on the loam at the edge of the hole, let's say...) have managed the situation... from their own nefarious point of view, that is...

So where are we peasants now, with our chalk and our spades?
Ha! Could you put this in one sentence that I can copy and paste into my Facebook feed? :-)

This part was a doozy - Of course it is, but if the aim is to express yourself by merely having the end goal of expressing yourself, one has not only become tautological and solipsistic, but one has become a bad thinker, hence not really an artist, whose main task is communication at the highest level. But, one can only communicate intellectually in art. Feelings and emotions are very difficult to convey, for most people, because most do not realize that emotions are merely offshoots of the intellect.
Interesting. Not sure (I am not, after all, a writer) but interesting anyway. I am an MFA painter, and fine art is a field disrupted by critics and the university system.
Don't limit yourself to the American classics! Methinks Dickens' 'A Tale Of Two Cities' [a British classic] would be a good fit with you, Toritto.
I can't speak for all MFA programs, since I only attended one of them, but my experience, both during and after my time at Vermont College of the Fine Arts, leaves me baffled by your essay. The idea of a cabal enforcing rigid writing guidelines just feels odd and cranky and unrealistic after my time in Montpelier, and my exposure to the diverse styles, attitudes -- and politics! -- of my professors. They cared about good writing and they taught it -- from the intelligent use of verbs to the value of image-patterning to the structural mechanics of plot -- with stringency and passion. Yes there were quite a few students who were never going to achieve publication. Many writers were over-praised (to be charitable) but everyone knew that the aura of success granted by a fulsome intro to a graduate reading would burn off like ground mist as soon as the hapless would-be author got out into the harsh sunlight of the real world.
Still, at least their basic skills improved, to the point that their inter-office memos, corporate reports, e-mails and thank-you notes will be far more readable and coherent than they would have been otherwise.
If you say -- those skills should be taught in high school! Or college ... I can only agree. But, since they are not addressed until the graduate level, this tardy effort is better than nothing; kind of like a baseball team with an outfield but no infield. They may lose the game, but at least we can stop every pop fly from turning into a home run.
Few of my classmates have been published, but the ones who have fall into the mainstream commercial literature category that you seem to think MFA programs have destroyed. Editors don't publish a book because of some old school secret handshake. They publish books they think they can sell. And if you took the time to read more widely, you'd find a wealth of new and established writers, MFA-trained or not -- who give the lie to any casual dismissal of the state of literature today. Just the next few months will bring new work by Kent Haruf, Jamaica Kincaid,Manil Suri, Teddy Wayne, Ron Rash, Joshua Mohr and Elizabeth Strout, among dozens of others.
And a lot of those 'electronic devices' people are carrying around instead of books actually are books. People even read books on the dreaded cell phones. More people are reading more books than ever.
It's quite a party -- and you're invited.
I hope you'll get around to it before the next slash-and-burn take-down piece. It could save you a lot of time, entertain you, and perhaps inspire you to apply to VCFA, yourself.
I'll be happy to write a reccomendation.
All this and another $550 will get you a signed copy of
The Manchurian Candidate over on Ebay.
And remember, if you're thinking about submitting some of your work to The New Yorker, you'd better be 'somebody'.
Rather ironic that you are calling other people bad writers when your piece is practically unintelligible, full of leaps of logic, unsubstantiated theories presented as fact, and the telltale sign of the feeble mind -- shouting in capital letters. Plus, it's far too long for a blog post. And then there is the matter of you accepting Rober Ebert's praise for your interview series in your biography, all the while heaping scorn on him. With friends like you, who needs enemies? As someone who worked as a film critic and a writer for a long time -- without an MFA, I might add -- I shudder to think what your reviews are like. Based on this post, I won't waste my time finding out.
Sometimes I wonder, "Where is Emma Peel when we need her?"
Then..she appears.
It's all in the timing.
What's an MFA? Oh, Master of Fine Arts. Carry on.

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