From Jane Friedman:
Anyone who knows me even a little can guess my answer to this question. I even wrote a book, The Business of Being a Writer, that’s meant to be used in university writing programs to help students understand the publishing industry and what it means to earn a living from writing. My perspective is informed by my work in the publishing industry, as well as being someone who has a degree in writing. A few background details:
- I earned a BFA in creative writing and an MA in English. My undergrad education led to some school loans; my graduate degree was funded entirely through an assistantship.
- I was employed at a mid-size publisher while I earned my master’s. I really had no choice—I needed the money. I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I couldn’t afford to take time off work or enroll in a low-residency program. Neither was I eager to step away from my publishing career, which was teaching me far more about writing than I ever learned in school.
- I was an AWP member for many years and attended AWP’s annual conference first in 1998, then every year between 2004 and 2018. Often I was a panelist or speaker. (More on this later.)
- I’m a regular speaker at MFA programs around the country, both in person and virtually, and moreover I hear the concerns of early-career writers daily via email and social media.
- Several years ago, I was hired by Southern New Hampshire University to help develop the curriculum for their online MFA program, which includes a strong professional development and publishing education component. Their goal: to graduate writers who learn the fundamentals of craft while also understanding what it takes to publish professionally and successfully.
Despite the books I’ve written, the keynotes I’ve delivered, and the courses I’ve taught, I’ve never laid out, in a public forum like this, why I think it’s problematic when MFA programs or professors argue that the business of writing lies outside their purview. Why? Well, the type of person often attracted to the MFA likely believes the same and I don’t see my role as persuading the unconvinced or barging in where I’m unwanted. Rather, I am here if people see the need, as I do, for writers to understand the business they’re entering.
However, I think times are changing, for many reasons which I won’t delve into here, but part of it has to do with the gig economy and/or creator economy and the greater variety of writerly business models we now have than we did twenty years ago. More writers are ending up in undergraduate and graduate writing programs who need and want this information. I also believe writers should leave degree-granting programs prepared for the pragmatic and professional issues they will face as a writer. They’re often working alone, with limited or bad business guidance, confused about what’s “normal.” The anxiety and confusion is apparent at every AWP conference I attend.
Writers should focus on craft first, business later.
It can appear boorish or second rate to suggest that business could or would ever be as important as art, craft, or technique. Because art is everything, right? Without quality work, there is no business—right?
(Let’s put aside the fact “quality” is subjective and MFA programs tend to be concerned with the kind of quality that’s of less interest to publishers than you might think.)
This “craft first” argument has a big assumption behind it: that art and business are antithetical to each other or can’t be in conversation. This belief is so ingrained in the literary writing community that few even question it.
Just look at the stories we tell about great writers, which all generally sound the same: we focus on the development and discovery of their literary genius. Business conditions rarely enter into it, much less business acumen. George Eliot is celebrated as a great moral novelist, but she also left her loyal publisher for another house that offered her a bigger advance. The bestselling work of Mark Twain—a novel that funded his career—was sold door-to-door in a very low fashion instead of properly, in a bookstore. (Today’s equivalent might be selling your ebook through Amazon rather than the print edition through your local independent bookshop.)
Why don’t we share these business stories? Because it is typically taboo to produce for the market or to be too good at business, lest you get pilloried by your peers and accused of selling out. Amy Lowell met this fate: she was criticized by T.S. Eliot for being a “demon saleswoman” of poetry. Even one of the earliest successful authors, Erasmus, was pitied by his peers for taking money from his publisher. (No self-respecting author at the time took money for their work; you were supposed to be above that.)
What a bind: writers get shamed if they’re not successful but also get shamed if they are too successful or overly concerned with success. How to Reform Capitalism wisely notes, “There remain strict social taboos hemming in the idea of what a ‘real’ artist could be allowed to get up to. They can be as experimental and surprising as they like—unless they want to run a food shop or an airline or an energy corporation, at which point they cross a decisive boundary, fall from grace, lose their special status as artists and become the supposed polar opposites: mere business people.”
The prevalent belief, at least in the literary community, is that “real writers” don’t worry themselves with commercial success or with how the sausage gets made. That’s someone else’s job, that’s for the agent or publisher to worry about. In fact, if one is good at art, then good business will follow or take care of itself.(won’t it?). Quality will make it or cream will rise to the top (right?).
. . . .
Business and art are often portrayed as antithetical because we think of business in terms of cartoon caricatures. But business is just as a complex and creative as any “pure” art form. Just ask a book publisher.
. . . .
This brings us to the next argument often trotted out by MFA programs: that it’s a time and place to focus on one’s writing and not be distracted by the outside world/real world or commercial concerns.
. . . .
It’s true that writers can potentially get distracted by submissions protocol and agent etiquette and all the secret handshake stuff they think exists, but that’s another reason the business needs to be taught. There is no secret handshake and a lot of what the business of writing is—well, frankly, it’s boring. The more quickly that writers can start seeing agents and editors not as mystical beings who anoint them and make their careers, but as average and flawed business people, the better.
Also, we’re not talking about MFA programs switching over to half-craft, half-business curriculum. (Or I’m certainly not.) The basics could be covered in a single required course. There might be a series of optional business-related courses for those who are interested.
I don’t think there is a downside to teaching business if we assume (and we must) that MFA students can be treated as mature adults. Safeguarding them from business talk is infantilizing them and making them vulnerable to bad actors and bad deals if they don’t know what standard business practices are.
And might I suggest that the only students who can afford to not consider the business side of the writing life are those who already have money or a safety net.
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman
PG notes that Jane has produced an epic discussion of the huge number of people who claim to teach students about writing, but don’t really deliver on their promises.
If graduate programs were required to abide by the same truth-in-advertising that applies to people who make and sell laundry detergent, there would be a vast change in how they’re presented and pitched.
In the United States, we have a seemingly endless number of federal and state agencies devoted to protecting consumers from being defrauded by unscrupulous businesses.
We have The Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to name just two federal agencies. We have a large U.S. Department of Education, presided over by a cabinet secretary, with an Office of the Inspector General tasked with investigating violations of Federal laws, rules, and regulations pertaining to ED programs and funding, including complaints involving ED employees, recipients of ED funds, schools, school officials, other educational institutions, contractors, lending institutions, collections agencies, or public officials.
Absent a very large trust fund, it is almost certain that students pursuing an MFA will borrow substantial amounts of money in the form of government-insured student loans.
MFA and similar graduate programs have a very poor record of graduating students who are able to find jobs that allow them to repay their student loans (and PG guarantees one and all that MFA programs, particularly at “elite” institutions, pile on the student loans).
From Inside Higher Ed:
[T]he A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater) Institute at Harvard was placed on the Department of Education’s naughty list for running afoul of the department’s gainful employment metrics for its “debt to earnings” ratio.
As compiled by Kevin Carey at The New York Times, those ratios are indeed grim.
- Two year tuition is $63,000
- Average borrowing is “over $78,0000
- Average graduates earn $36,000/year
As Carey says, “After accounting for basic living expenses, the average Harvard A.R.T. Institute graduate has to pay 44 percent of discretionary income just to make the minimum loan payment.”
The news is particularly embarrassing given that Harvard’s endowment is over $35 billion, and the American Repertory Theater is a nonprofit with a board that includes a Who’s Who of American music and theater music mixed with some really rich folks.
. . . .
Some desire a career in academia with the MFA as a terminal degree. Some are already planning for a PhD. Some want to make connections to help get a book deal. Some are just looking for time and space to pursue their passion with little care or concern about future publication or employment. Some just want the opportunity to work closely with a particular mentor or even live in a particular place.
Some feel like they’re not sure about their prospects as a writer, but they’re definitely writing-curious, and graduate school sure beats your soul-killing job.
. . . .
There are approximately 3,000 newly minted MFA holders each year. It is a good thing that many are not interested in academic positions because the Academic Jobs Wiki for creative writing this year listed a sum total of 102 tenure-track jobs across fiction, poetry, non-fiction, open, and mixed categories. Even presuming equal chances (which would be silly), the odds of landing a tenure track job are vanishingly small. The vast majority of those positions will go to people who are many years post-MFA with significant publications.
. . . .
At a place like Columbia, which boasts a faculty that includes Paul Beatty, Richard Ford, Leslie Jamison, Hedi Julavits, and Ben Marcus, among many other luminaries, the full-cost tuition for the two-year program is $120,000. Those students are also living in New York City.
When it comes to tuition and funding and student outcomes and what all that means, I think it’s worth programs asking some questions and seeing what kind of answers emerge:
Can we charge tuition?
Should we charge tuition?
Must we charge tuition?
In the case of, “Can we charge tuition?” the answer for the vast majority is “yes.” Even with so many programs, the demand for slots exceeds supply. According to AWP, the average number of applicants to full-residency programs is 56 while acceptances are 18.5.
But just because you can charge tuition doesn’t mean you should, at least if we’re looking at doing right by students.
The A.R.T. Institute at Harvard is a great example of where we may draw this distinction. The gateway to success that its students are trying to squeeze through is so narrow, I’m betting they could charge even more in tuition and still find plenty of qualified and willing applicants. When it comes to people pursuing a career on Broadway, the heart wants what it wants.
. . . .
The questions are more complicated for creative writing fine arts programs, however, as they are not strictly pre-professional. Using a heavy bureaucratic hand to police programs would likely do far more harm than good.
. . . .
What’s happening to those students post graduation? Here’s some of the questions I think programs could answer:
- % of students in stable, full-time academic positions
- % of students who have published with commercial, independent, or university press
- % of students who work in writing or publishing-related field
- Debt at graduation/Debt at 5 years/Debt at 10 years/Debt at 20 years/Average time to debt free
Link to the rest at Inside Higher Ed
What would a clear warning statement concerning an MFA program in creative writing look like?
- Do you understand that this course of study will not prepare you to become a professional writer? Y/N
- Do you understand that none of your professors or instructors are or ever have supported themselves exclusively from their earnings as professional writers? Y/N
- Do you understand that, for the last three years, the average graduate of the MFA creative writing program has graduated with a total student loan debt of $200,000?Y/N
- Do you understand that the MFA student loan debt described is in addition to any student loan debts you incurred prior to applying to enter the program? Y/N
- Do you understand that the average salary of an MFA graduate from our school is $44,000 per year, provided that the graduate lives in New York City? Y/N
- Do you understand that the cost of living in Manhattan is over 250% of the average cost of living in the United States? And that the median price of a home is $1.2 million? Y/N
Just so visitors don’t think PG is piling onto MFA students, he will reveal that virtually every law student of his generation (and quite possibly, subsequent generations) had a professor/dean, etc., tell her/him that law school was going to teach him/her to “think like a lawyer.”
This lazy/hazy description made lawyers seem like some sort of leisure class who sat around and focused on thinking about various and sundry legal theories.
PG would have suggested, “Work like a lawyer” or “become a successful lawyer.”