MFA Worlds

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The latest flare-up in the small-scale MFA wars occurred just two months ago, when a writer named Ryan Boudinot published an article in Seattle’s The Stranger that infuriated many of my fellow creative writers. Criticism of Boudinot was widespread, thorough, and appropriate, calling the writer out on his misogynistic tone, his narrow definitions of worthwhile writing, and the ungenerous practice of mud-dragging your own students.

But Boudinot’s article was only the ugly end of a conversation that pops up in various forms in a blog, magazine article, or anywhere writers happen to be typing that day. In fact, just a few weeks ago, the New York Times published “Why Writers Love to Hate the MFA,” an article that revisits many of the familiar pros and cons that are lobbed at the growth of MFA programs by participants and outsiders alike. The Times article said nothing new, but its timing was auspicious: it came out right in the middle of the AWP conference—an annual gathering of 14,000(!) writers brought together almost entirely by the proliferation of MFA creative writing programs.

On the one hand, we have former or current MFA faculty members bemoaning the programs that give them their livelihood. On the other, we have many of those same people, plus 13,500 of their closest friends, getting together to share books, hear panels, visit bookstores, eat good food, and examine each other’s name tags with lust, longing, giddiness, and aspiration. How are we to reconcile these contradictions?

For some perspective, I’ve been consulting Howard S. Becker’s Art Worlds, the famed sociologist’s examination of the way that creative environments function—who peoples them, and how they organize themselves. Becker grew up playing piano in jazz clubs and strip joints, a side career that continued even as he made his way through the University of Chicago and into graduate school. His ground level experience as a working artist, in less than elite circumstances, wends its way through the book. He says: “Maybe the years I spent playing the piano in taverns in Chicago and elsewhere led me to believe that the people who did that mundane work were as important to an understanding of art as the better-known players who produced the recognized classics of jazz.” This democratic approach, seeing all participants in an art world as contributors, is a useful antidote to the prevailing wisdom: that writing, painting, music and other art-making is a zero-sum arrangement of those that have made it—or have the capacity to make it—and those that do not.

“Art is the work some people do,” Becker tells us. The matter-of-fact tone, the understatedness of his phrasing—all of this suggests that Becker sees art worlds as just that, shared worlds with observable systems. “Think of all the activities that must be carried out for any work of art to appear as it finally does,” he says. Few of us have the capacity or inclination to perform all the activities necessary for our work to reach an audience. Most often, we all play multiple roles, each a piece of the larger picture, often shifting over the course of our careers. In a smaller sense, of course, we might shift several times a day. This morning, I was reading, i.e. inhabiting my role as an audience for other writers. Now I am writing, fulfilling the “core role” of artistic production. Later this afternoon, I will arrive on campus and be a teacher, sharing the conventions and expectations of my field so others might be ready to participate.

And the boundaries of that field are much more fluid that many seem willing to acknowledge. Behind many of the aforementioned “MFA wars” articles lies a gatekeeping impulse—Who deserves to be a writer? Who doesn’t?—that runs contrary to the way that art worlds actually work. Becker writes, “Art worlds do not have boundaries around them, so that we can say that these people belong to a particular art world while those people do not. Instead, we look for groups of people who cooperate to produce things that they, at least, call art.” The boundaries are not fixed; the writing world is not stable; there are no gates to man. Instead, we make the art world each day through our participation in it.

The production of what we call art is only a small part of what it means to participate in an art world. There is a core activity, of course: we write, we paint, we make photographs, we dance. But most of our time is spent in associated activities, the most important of which is what Becker refers to as mobilizing resources: supplies, monetary support, distribution, the before/during/after of art-making. Some arts require larger, more visible resources than others. The Metropolitan Opera feels like a far cry from the coffee house poetry reading, but the difference is only one of scale. There is no artistic pursuit that can succeed without mobilizing whatever resources are necessary for that world to exist. A flourishing art world is one in which sufficient resources can be mobilized.

Seen in this light, the growth of MFA programs can be understood as a massive—and phenomenally successful—attempt to mobilize resources in support of writing. To take one example: according the Minnesota Visitors and Convention Bureau, the aforementioned recent AWP conference was estimated to add $28 million to the Twin Cities’ economy. $28 million. Congratulations, writers. You’ve made a high-functioning art world.

To those who say the money isn’t the point, I say: actually, it is. MFA programs, and the hundreds of millions of dollars they represent, are exactly the point. Rather than begrudge universities for supporting writing programs, rather than begrudge students for paying to take our classes or attend our conferences (that begrudging, in my opinion, reads like an act of self-hatred), we should appreciate the world that we have made, with its tens of thousands of participants, its massive cultural output (albeit of varying levels, of course), and all the resources that are mobilized in the process.IMG_8551

As an art world, the MFA system fails only if you reduce its function: to having every participant produce a massively-successful book, say, or having every participant obtain a tenured teaching job. But art worlds don’t work that way. They are made up of people occupying various roles at various times, with much fluidity. And yes, much mediocrity. Becker: “A less neutral, and less charitable, way of speaking about the bulk of practitioners in any art world would be to say that most of them seem to their peers to be hacks, competent but uninspired workers.” These are the main corpus of any art world, the ones that “keep the world’s organizations going.” Becker cites the art heyday of 1860s Paris, when 5,000 working painters produced approximately 200,000 “reputable” paintings a year. He cites similar conditions that produced the era of the American short story magazine, or the height of Broadway theater. But those looking at the MFA world, from within or without, are not used to placing contemporary writing in these terms. (Next time you’re at the AWP bookfair, think: I’m in 1860s Paris. You’ll feel much better.)

We do our students a disservice when we do not acknowledge that not everyone will produce a successful book, or land a creative writing job with tenure and other benefits. When we fail to acknowledge that, we are misrepresenting how creative environments function. Rather than focus on these worthy, but statistically rare, outcomes, we should be speaking more of preparing students to participate in an art world in the broadest sense, to fill many different roles in that world, to perform as many parts as possible to help our particular art worlds thrive. This, to me, is how we can serve our students and ourselves best—by inviting them to participate in an art world and to do so at a skilled level.

Let me speak of myself for a moment: I have produced three books, with a fourth on the way. But I still spend only a small portion of my day in the central role of artist. Over the course of my professional life, I have fulfilled many of the roles that the art world demands: writer, audience, teacher, administrator, editor. I am far from alone in this. Like many of you, I did not train for most of it. In my education, including an MFA, I learned the conventions, I learned a set of expectations, but primarily, I was invited to participate, and I learned my way from there. This is what we have to offer.

This is our shared world. Let us inhabit it gracefully.

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