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How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?

7 March 2016

From The Atlantic:

This year, about 20,000 people applied to study creative writing at MFA programs in the U.S. It’s a funny fact to consider, given that the idea creativity could be taught used to be widely mocked—the literary scholar John Aldridgeonce said the programs produced “clonal fabrications of writers.” For a time, MFA programs were oddities on college campuses: In 1975, only 52 existed. Much of this has changed in the last two decades. Today, there are more than 350 creative writing programs in the U.S. alone, and that number doubles if you include undergraduate degree programs.

The rise of the MFA has changed how both writers and people in general talk about creativity. The debate has shifted from whether creativity could be taught to how well it can be taught and whether it should be taught. The stakes are real: Creative writing has become a big business—it’s estimated that it currently contributes more than $200 million a year in revenue to universities in the U.S.

. . . .

Is it really possible to tell the difference between novels that have been through the meat-grinder of the MFA and those that haven’t? What if this is just something that’s been imagined into existence, by both detractors and supporters alike, to satisfy a collective need to believe that institutions can improve anything, even creativity? Or conversely, that institutions ruin everything, especially creativity? Whether you valorize the Romantic ideal of the lonely, humble artist or the neo-liberal belief that education can solve any problem, the MFA has become a kind of Rorschach test for how writers and critics feel about creativity, where it comes from, and how best to nurture it.

. . . .

We’re two professors of language and literature who regularly use computation to test common assumptions about culture. So we decided to examine to what extent writing from MFA graduates differs from writing by non-graduates. We collected a sample of 200 novels written by graduates of MFA programs from over 20 leading programs (including Columbia, University of Texas at Austin, Iowa, and others) that have been published in the last 15 years. (This sample includes authors like Rick Moody, Alix Ohlin, and Ben Lerner.) For the sake of comparison, we also collected a similarly sized group of novels published over the same time period by authors who haven’t earned an MFA degree (including writers like Donna Tartt, Miranda July, and Akhil Sharma). To make these two groups as comparable as possible, we only gathered novels by non-MFA writers that were reviewed in The New York Times, which we took as a mark of literary excellence. Using a variety of tools from the field of computational text analysis, we studied how similar authors were across a range of literary aspects, including diction, style, theme, setting, and even how writers use characters.

. . . .

We began by looking at writers’ diction: whether the words used by MFA writers are noticeably different than those of their non-MFA counterparts. Using a process known as machine learning, we first taught a computer to recognize the words that are unique to each of our groups and then asked it to guess whether a novel (that it hasn’t seen before) was written by someone with an MFA. When we did this, the computer was successful only about 67 percent of the time at guessing correctly. You don’t need a degree in statistics to know this isn’t very good—you can be right 50 percent of the time just by accident. To put this number in context, with the same procedure we can predict bestselling novels about 82 percent of the time or whether a novel is a mystery or romance 85 percent and 95 percent of the time, respectively.

Nevertheless, there are some words that are different, but given that we’re talking about over 200,000 unique words, this is hardly surprising. For example, MFA novels tend to focus more on lawns, lakes, counters, stomachs, and wrists. They prefer names like Ruth, Pete, Bobby, Charlotte, and Pearl (while non-MFA novels seem to like Anna, Tom, John, and Bill). But on the whole, these distinctions look pretty meaningless; the words that appear more often in MFA novels don’t seem to be related to each other in a significant way.

. . . .

How about style? Surely, we thought, there should be some stylistic differences between these novels. The way writers put their words in order, that special MFA voice, should be detectable at some level. As one brochure has it, the goal of the adjunct faculty of an MFA program is to “work closely with their students to help them develop their own voices, styles, and form.” Presumably upon graduation those voices should be discernibly different than what’s already out there on the market. However, taking syntax as a measure of style—if we see style as the way writers sequence their words, the way they put their sentences together—we saw little difference between the two groups. MFA novels tend to use pairs of adjectives or adverbs less often, or avoid the more straightforward structure of a noun followed by a verb in the present tense. But other than that, there’s nothing detectably unique about the so-called “MFA style.”

So far, nothing. No real distinctions at the level of language, themes, or even syntax. When we went further to test whether the way writers constructed their characters was any different, once again nothing significant showed up. It was extremely difficult to separate the MFA and non-MFA writing groups in any meaningful way.

. . . .

As the University of Texas program says, “The best thing we do for fiction writers at the Michener Center for Writers is leave them alone.” But then why go? If a program isn’t going to train you or change you in any significant way—and the data suggest that by and large most don’t—then the costs of that investment start to seem deeply questionable. According to the latest research, only 7 percent of MFA graduates are fully funded, which means 93 percent are investing some portion of their own money to sound like everyone else.

Some might say that’s precisely the point. The MFA isn’t about developing a unique style at all, but about learning how to sound like already published writers. It’s about gaining entrance to the club.

. . . .

The MFA promises to make the distinction of race come alive, take on literary heft, through learning how to write and the work of writing. But we have no evidence that MFA authors are any better at this than their less educated non-MFA peers. If there’s a quality that distinguishes a writer as Asian American or black, we could not find it. Junot Diaz has argued that MFA programs are “too white” and reproduce the “dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions about race and racism.” It’s a claim that fits in with our algorithm’s inability to tell apart works by non-white writers and white writers.

But this erasure of voice gets an even more negative spin when we look at gender. A second major claim of the MFA is that getting an education in writing is an enlightening experience, and a key part of this enlightenment we can assume is learning how to challenge society’s gender norms. Many MFA programs, like the universities they are a part of, say they actively promote a culture of challenging “patriarchy” and “heteronormativity.” Cornell’s MFA program, for instance, celebrates the gender diversity of its faculty, which is “evenly split” between men and women. We’d expect MFA writing to actively resist gender stereotypes, especially given that MFA graduates skew overwhelmingly female (about 66 percent of MFA grads are women, which is about 10 percentage points higher than for the master’s degree more generally).

Once again, the data tell a different story. The percentage of male protagonists in novels written by MFA grads is well over half, at 61 percent, while that figure is 65 percent for non-MFA novels. Further, if a novel has a female lead, the chances that it has two strong female characters is only 32 percent for both MFA and non-MFA novels. Last, the percentage of novels that have a majority of male characters in the non-MFA group is 99 percent, whereas it is 96 percent for MFA novels. These are terrible numbers by any standard. They suggest that the contemporary American novel is disproportionately preoccupied with the experiences of men. And they suggest that the MFA novel is only barely better than its non-MFA counterparts.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Christamar for the tip.

Books in General

14 Comments to “How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?”

  1. So……this study basically says if you can write you can write. Studying in college for it means nothing. So just do it, and your chance of success is just as good as having an MFA. Just as I always suspected.

  2. So……this study basically says if you can write you can write. Studying in college for it means nothing. So just do it, and your chance of success is just as good as having an MFA. Just as I always suspected.

  3. the Other Diana

    “…only gathered novels by non-MFA writers that were reviewed in The New York Times, which we took as a mark of literary excellence.”

    If you begin with a flawed premise….

    If I were doing this study, I would select the top one hundred in the Amazon store, BN store etc. Perhaps the first of each month and then do my analysis.

    • Yes, a clear case of selection bias. It mainly seems to be telling us that to get trad pubbed and reviewed in the NY Times you have to write like a MFA, whether or not you actually are one (or possibly that their classification system is not up to the job).

  4. I agree with the Other Diana. What this actually shows is that no matter where the book originated…if it goes through the gatekeeping of the traditional publishers (and their editors) and rigged NYT list….it is going to be similar.

    Surprise, surprise.

  5. I looked at the University of Texas program once upon a time, but didn’t have the time or money for it. Here’s the description:

    “The MFA in Writing is a three-year, full-time residency program, unique in its interdisciplinary focus. While writers apply and are admitted in a primary field of concentration—chosen from fiction, poetry, playwriting or screenwriting—they have the opportunity to develop work in a second field during their program of study. Students are typically enrolled in three courses each fall and spring semester; there are no summer classes. The 54- hour degree plan includes workshops and reading/studies courses in both chosen fields, flexible supporting coursework, and a thesis in the primary field of concentration.”

    Learning basics about the various crafts sounds useful, especially if they don’t try to destroy the writer’s voice in the process. Everyone needs to develop craft. Some of us do better with direction than others.

    It’s the same argument being made about all college degree plans right now. Why go to college if all the information is available for study online? You go to have it organized and presented in an understandable fashion by someone who is an expert in the field and can answer questions. Sure you can learn your craft through practice, but a teacher/ guide will get more people through the process. I wouldn’t have wanted to track down and organize all the information I studied in college on my own. It would have taken forever. Not to mention, we don’t always know what we don’t know.

    While maybe not necessary for all writers, the MFA plans aren’t a total waste of time either, especially for someone going into screen writing or play writing who’s had no exposure to the format. Whether the programs turn out clones rather than independent voices, that’s another issue.

  6. In my humble opinion, writing is an art like painting. Some people have a knack for it.

    As one case in point, Michael Beschloss is an American historian. His non-fiction books on U.S. presidents are generally well-received. His graduate degree is an MBA.

    Go figure.

    As far as the numbers in the article, I got a chuckle out of this: You don’t need a degree in statistics to know this isn’t very good—you can be right 50 percent of the time just by accident.

    • Reality Observer

      In both fields, you should have all of the basic intellectual tools you need by the time you graduate high school.

      Then a period of between two and four years for guided exposure to the vast wealth created by your predecessors (in art or in writing) should be more than sufficient for those who wish to pursue those careers. After that, more formal education is less than worthless, in my honest opinion.

      Unfortunately, neither of those prerequisites is being fulfilled – and I doubt greatly that the lack is addressed by any of the “graduate” programs.

      • In both fields, you should have all of the basic intellectual tools you need by the time you graduate high school.

        “Should” and “do” are very different words. I’ve taught composition and literature in several colleges and universities, and in my experience, while that is the hope, the reality is that a great majority of graduating seniors enter colleges lacking some fundamental knowledge and proficiency with even spelling and grammar, nevermind mechanics and craft.

        Then a period of between two and four years for guided exposure to the vast wealth created by your predecessors (in art or in writing) should be more than sufficient for those who wish to pursue those careers.

        Which is pretty much what an MFA is.

        My experience within a now-defunct MFA program was entirely positive, but I had classmates whose experience of the same program, even at the same time, was not. I went in with bad expectations — I hoped to workshop and then make the contacts and build the network that would get me into publishing and movies. What I actually got was enough instruction about business to realize that the infrastructure supporting corporate publishing sucks and an improvement in the quality of my own writing.

        I know other people who attended the same program at the same time, however, who wouldn’t say that.

        I will note that I think close study of reading and writing can improve one’s own, but that I don’t think that’s guaranteed. I’ll also say that, when I’m considering books for purchase, I’ve found better quality more consistently from writers with MFAs than any other indicator (geography, genre, corporate contract, whatever). But obviously I don’t think one needs an MFA to be a great writer or anything, nor even that earning one means one has greater chances of being a great writer.

        But then, I’m the sort of writer who believes in great books and great writing and quality and etc. Some people don’t, or are more likely to think that greatness is more demonstrable by way of sales. Requisite grain of salt, in other words.

  7. “How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?”

    Uh, made it turgid, boring, pretentious, and basically unreadable? 🙂

    (No MFA: Dickens, Twain, Hardy, Shakespeare, Verne, Poe, Hugo, Dumas, Hemingway, King, et al.)

    • Well, sure, but MFA programs are a relatively recent development as such things go. They didn’t even exist when half the writers you just mentioned were writing. Certainly not formally.

      There’s evidence Shakespeare attended advanced grammar classes and read the classics very closely. He was likely extremely well educated.

      Poe had a similar education in grammar and classical languages.

      Hemingway (and Fitzgerald) were both frequent participants in Gertrude Stein’s salon, which really has all the underpinnings of an early stab at a writing workshop.

  8. Also known as “Serious Writer Voice.”

  9. not sure how most aspiring writers can afford an mfa and be away, in residence for three years… 20k persons applying given we have maybe a few million who would like to write, seems thin amount. I wonder if there is a way to be in a program equal to and for far less money and age-bracketing –or are mfa progs mainly for persons without children?

    • “or are mfa progs mainly for persons without children?”

      Or to train would-be writers to do things the way they should be taught to: to expect very little in return for their writing (waste money being taught and then giving the lion’s share of whatever you make writing to a publisher — after they kiss the publisher’s feet and sign their life away …)

      Deities persevere trad-pub and their agents if wannabe writers hear any thing about today’s self publishing options!

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