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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.