On the total world-domination of workshopped fiction
You can make a broadly similar argument for science I think too. In a recent nature article, "Biologists must generate ideas not just data", Paul nurse wrote: "Rather often, I go to a research talk and feel drowned in data. Some speakers seem to think they must unleash a tsunami of data if they are to be taken seriously. The framing is neglected, along with why the data are being collected; what hypotheses are being tested; what ideas are emerging. Researchers seem reluctant to come to biological conclusions or present new ideas. It is as if speculation about what the data might mean and the discussion of ideas are not quite ‘proper’... Why are researchers holding back on ideas? Perhaps they are worried about proposing an idea that turns out to be wrong, because that might damage their chances of getting promotion or funding."
Reeks of reduce-your-attack-surface science.
I also think the channeling of psychosocial diversity like you describe for writers is an underappreciated problem in science. Succeeding through the gauntlet of undergrad/grad/academic job market requires a whole bunch of attributes (conscientiousness, conformity, patience for bullshit, work ethic, social intelligence) that are at best weakly correlated with the qualities that make one a great scientist.
This was a terrific article, and I learned of it as it was misquoted on Twitter! So, there you go, your point went into the "metasphere" and was lost in twitter characters.
I have stopped engaging in American publishing and am now published outside of the US (in Europe/Romania) because I felt that my work is protected and accepted more deeply in ex-soviet countries rather than America (that says a lot, no?) I also come from the Avant-Garde theater of NY and the MFA was dismissed as "corporate" in my world. So, though I went to Sarah Lawrence College, I never thought to join an MFA program (ok, once, but then I looked at the price) and so I don't write in workshop "form". When I spoke with my publisher in Bucharest for the first time he said, "welcome home" because my writing explores ACTUAL feelings and a generally twisted plot inspired by Bulgakov and Marquez.
It is not easy to be an outsider, but I feel I must protect myself from a marketplace mentality in a time where writing is even more essential. I have no idea what would make me attractive to our US way of thinking, perhaps only when I am dead? ;)
One notable counterexample comes to mind, though not writing in English - Karl Ove Knausgaard. He has a degree in literature and wrote the towering autofiction work of the 21st century, but his fiction is anything but workshopped or safe. I wonder if the problem you're describing is specifically American for some reason.
Please don't read my response as being argumentative but building on your point. I think the drought goes a bit further than a lacking figurehead for literature. I think sales are actually the wrong thing to focus on. Sales of great novels have often been terrible, or great novels have been discovered decades after publishing. Sadly this appears to be the reality of writing. Nobody wants a hot-button novel. The only form of art more conservative than the motion picture is literature. Anything contradictory to our current belief system, given how intrusive the novel is to the reader's internal environment, is often discarded not with critique or anger but by simply being ignored. Out of sight. Out of mind. It doesn't and shouldn't exist. I do not think our contemporary literary culture makes that any more or less likely--so sales should have little influence on the quality of the writing being produced, and so since there are no sales, why are we struggling to find great voices? If there's nothing to sell-out for, even if you wanted to sell-out, then why put yourself through the house of horrors that passes as contemporary publishing? John Grisham once said he had no desire to be a best-selling writer but since it turned out he was good at it, he decided to go with it. To me, I can respect that insofar as it makes sense. I can understand why his style changed so dramatically from A Time To Kill to his later works and why he built his books for movies--as he is one of the rare authors whose books actually lead to thrilling big screen dramas, in my opinion. I don't particularly find his ideals inspiring but I can see why the situation was so persuasive to him. What is persuasive about this current marketplace? Why when I go to local writer's groups and listen to young writers (for free) do I not hear people taking a chainsaw to the form in their angst and despair that writing is so incapable of capturing the messages they feel are so vital? Why do they persist in the game and following all the rules when it is clear that the game has ruined them? Why grow more dependent on what is keeping your starving? At some point, you begin to realize, as you talk to writers, that this is not about the form, or words, it is entirely about money, fame, notoriety, and a platform. What Grisham surrendered to our best minds aspire to secretly and shamefully. And so every word these writers craft turns into an indictment. It becomes a window showing us how empty their souls are. And so you end up back at the original question, what is the point? Why spend years crafting a suicide letter masquerading as a novel? You don't need your editor's permission to die, FFS, but somehow I think there are many writers who would feel a deep urge telling them otherwise--that they must not rock the boat, that they must behave. I do not have an MFA, nor do I have an English degree, nor have I attended a writer's camp or workshop, etc, but I will agree I can see how problematic they become when you consider that a writer should be a wild animal. The writer should be reckless and dangerous, to herself and others. An editor should have to fight the writer to the bitter-end trying to tame this wild beast but our wild beasts are drowned out by tens of thousands of people born in captivity and exploited into thinking they have something original to say. And to make matters worse, our captive writers are like puppy dogs performing tricks. They don't get that everyone is not laughing with them, they're laughing at them. So we can find a writer with the most solid prose in history, a crack shot who would down Updike at high-noon like he/she operated in slow-motion, but what does it matter how talented that writer is if they're so committed to being civilized they wear their shame like a badge of honor? If there is nothing to sell-out for. If there are no sales to be found. if there is no popularity out there. If the only person who is actually going to read your book is your mom and maybe that one aunt you're close to. And if your wild, ill-mannered ass cannot out-perform the MFAs in butt kissing and brown nosing, why not keep your writing to yourself? Why not put it in a drawer and go on with your life? If you love writing and you're good at it, you would never turn it loose on this modern world and the readers in it. Like I said before, it's just cruel, and wild animals are not cruel--they can be dangerous but they are rarely cruel; however, it is often the opposite for the civilized. They are incapable of doing anything, they are captives and used to bondage. They are addicted to competition, whether they realize it or not, and so they walk around sabotaging themselves and others for reasons they don't understand and for a goal they can barely describe. Oh yeah, and their writing sucks. Nice article, btw. I forgot to mention that.
How does a writer even get an audience nowadays? Say I was the best living writer, how would you ever find out? No one talks about books, especially challenging ones. Everyone’s afraid to say the wrong thing or appear stupid. No one makes any money in publishing so you think it would give the industry bravery to break all barriers and go for broke but people are terrified and quasi-delusional, the way they get around not disclosing how devastatingly small their book sales are, how even their agent didn’t read their book and they’re half certain their editor read most but not all of it so they paid $10k to hire their own editor on the side. The book reviewers certainly didn’t read the book, they didn’t have it long enough, and all the flowery quotes from other authors on the cover of your book was your agent burning out her rolodex calling in favors but none (or few) of those writers read the book either. And this is the sad state of the industry. I’ve heard it privately from all types of writers across many genres beside romance. What is the point of this dance? Is it Nihilism? Is it self-hated? Is it death worshipping? I can’t figure it out. And every time I think it can’t get any worse, that pride in something has to eventually turn into rage and anger and glorious art, all I see is more manners, more polite speak, more pandering to the audience and especially to other writers, more “I’m just happy to be invited to the party.” If fiction writers were a character in A Song of Ice and Fire, we’d be a young Sansa Stark. That’s awful yet everyone sings their songs and stands in line and hopes the writing fairytale comes true one day, just like finding Prince Charming. I just don’t get it. It makes me feel suicidal tbh but all I see is myself surrounded by smiling faces so how are things supposed to change? It’s come to the point that I’d rather the novel just died. If we’re dead set on killing it, we might as well be merciful. There’s no need to toy with it and have some fun while it suffers and begs for its life. We should not stoop to such cruelty. Just a bullet to the head and a proper burial and let’s get back to our frivolity with some decency and an appropriate amount of shame.
You’re dead-on with this. And the fiction world would be wise to heed your warning, because I’ve seen the future of what you are describing and it has a name: poetry. The academic suffocation (or the “MFA-ing”) of poetry seems to be about 30 years ahead of fiction—the last generation of culturally-relevant (outside of academia) poets probably had its heyday in the 70s, and that particular species of poet is now functionally extinct. (There are occasionally the shooting star celebrity poets who get thrust into the national conversation, but none of these people are the next Frank O’Hara or Sylvia Plath.) Many of the conditions that led to serious contemporary poetry becoming a complete non-factor in the cultural landscape today are the same as the conditions you describe in fiction today.
As someone who’s spent the last 30 years continuing to pursue an essentially dead art, I can say that there’s a certain degree of liberty that comes with it. During the last 20 years in which I’ve decided to keep writing but stopped trying publish (because publishing poetry in unread journals just felt like deeply empty act) I’m certain that I’ve become more willing to take risks with the work, and the process has been far more satisfying. The downside, of course, is the lack actual readers—which is one of the many reasons why fiction writers should listen to you. Fiction writers do not want to become poets.
Alas, poetry did not listen to me, although about 10 years ago I tried to make a last ditch effort at warning them (even though it was already way too late to change anything really). I wrote a piece similar to yours about poetry for the literary site Tottenville Review. Interestingly, looking back at the piece today I realized that in writing it, I fell victim to the same kind of criticism-dampening insularity you talk about.
Although in my memory I know that my position was founded upon the idea that poetry’s problems were rooted in an overly-academic, MFA-obsessed literary culture—in the piece it seems I go out of my way to avoid directly criticizing MFA programs themselves, and instead just focus on my concerns about the writing. My cowardliness in that respect is likely because I was the only writer for the site who did not have an MFA (or was actively pursuing one), and didn’t want to offend my colleagues by going after their MFAs directly. So, apparently, mine was an act of overly-polite rebellion.
The site’s now defunct, but the piece is archived here if you’re interested in seeing fiction’s future by traveling a decade into poetry’s past…
This is so on-point. We see these bookforum-like pleas from time to time, but having published a very un-MFA novel recently--explicitly in the tradition of Tolstoy, Eliot, James, Joyce, and with a huge "attack surface"--it's been interesting to see how little interest the academy has actually shown in it. Hollywood's expressed more!
This articulates a private conversation I've been having with myself. I came of age as a reader devouring all of Franzen, Zadie Smith, Tartt, Eugenides, and David Foster Wallace, while also writing and producing books content. Then about a decade ago I realized I could not stand most contemporary fiction. The word I was using to describe it is "self-conscious," but your elaborations on the embattled stance of literary fiction is more precise. So eventually I just did what it sounds like the Bookforum contributors did, and returned to the classics - and started a Substack. This post has not encouraged me to come out from hiding among the classics, so that's where you'll find me :) :)
I recently discovered your newsletter since it was linked by Fredrick Deboer the other day. I appreciate all the comments here. I got an MFA only because I finished undergrad during the Great Recession, and I was at a loss for what to do with myself. I don't think I learned anything there that I couldn't have learned by reading and writing on my own. Very few of my peers continue to write today; it seemed a lot of people get an MFA because they don't have the discipline to write independently and crave the structure of school. Most were unhappy with the program itself, but none of them would ever publicly criticize it, because, as someone else pointed out, they are afraid of burning bridges.
I don't know if the novel will go the way of poetry, but the short story, my genre, is definitely already there.
I think part of the reason there is little criticism of MFAs and the writing spawned from these programs is the way in which authors (prospective and published) are cowed by the industry gatekeepers and unwilling to voice controversial positions that might offend their sensibilities and therefore kill their chances of publication. Even agents, interns, editors, etc who don’t have MFAs themselves still revere them, so who wants to be the one trashing them? Writers have to walk on eggshells around these delicate geniuses if they want their works to see the light of day. It’s no time to rock the boat.
But it does suggest a bigger blind spot within the industry. They’re so far up their own asses that they fail to see just how many writers and READERS have little genuine interest in what they’re selling:
“she doesn’t read contemporary literature, and doesn’t see why anyone would, given the wealth of past voices and the paucity of present ones.”
This describes me perfectly. It describes everyone else I know. We can’t be the only ones. So either the industry is making a very broad assumption about who “readers” are or they have taken a “let them eat cake” attitude toward anyone not enamored of the academy and it’s manicured, moralistic fiction. How many writers genuinely identify with this MFA style, and how many just go through the motions to appease the literary gods?
Thank you for this article. I graduated from a BFA Creative Writing workshop program over 20 years ago. I struggled with the choice of continuing on for the MFA or getting a job to support a family. I chose the latter and it has made all the difference. I'm positive that the stuff I would have been writing about in the MFA program would be lacking in exactly the experience and perspective that I gained from getting out in the world and living a real life outside of my own words.
Now though, I'm ready to start stacking sentences together. I wouldn't change a thing.
This is interesting. As a young millennial myself I have no recollection of what literary fiction was like in 2006 - I was in 6th grade, after all.
Even now I'm pretty unaware of the current state of "literary" fiction, even though I consider myself a reader. The field that I do have some knowledge of, though, is science fiction and fantasy. My favorite authors are N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, and Cory Doctorow, and all three fit your theory by coming from different fields before writing and not having a MFA.
This might not be a coincidence - thanks for stating the theory!
Thanks for referring back to this article, a time, only a year ago, where I didn't know substack existed.
Although I don't know much about MFA programs, in general, people who think deeply about any topic but haven't been 'academically trained' are more interesting. Their perspective has not been flattened by rules. One might say it is intrinsic.
But this seems like another example of balkanization, or the technological fragmentation of culture. Their consumers are narrowing in breadth, and so therefore their style is following suit. When only a decade ago I trumpeted literary fiction, today I simply yearn for a decent plot and a realistic character - something that the literary rarely provides.
(And I didn't know you had a novel. Definitely next read on the list!)
I'm sorry I'm coming so late to this conversation -- I linked here from a more recent newsletter, but after reading this felt compelled to add a small note. You mentioned that you didn't think writers like Joyce, Woolf, or Faulkner would get into an MFA program today. Perhaps that's true, if they didn't finish undergrad, but I don't think that's the point you were making.
If instead you were suggesting that people with broken edges/unconventional educations/etc. wouldn't be accepted into an MFA program, I'd offer up my own experience as the product of a small, regional university's newly-minted (at the time) MFA in creative writing. There were many people in that program without pedigrees of any sort, and no connections to speak of. The program had low standards (I say this as an alum), and seemed mostly to screen students in terms of their willingness to spend money for a creative writing degree. Virginia Woolf's money would just as gladly be taken as mine.
What has of course happened is that MFA programs have proliferated to such an extent that the degree in itself means very little. What they won't tell you (before, during, or after the program) is how much more it matters that you attend a program with connected professors, in a strong literary community, with reliably successful alumni.
While elitism has always affected institutions of higher learning, what makes it especially bitter in MFA programs is that getting the credential has a vanishingly small chance of leading to any kind of career as a writer. You can earn a medical degree from any accredited university and become a practicing doctor. Earning your MFA anymore won't even guarantee an adjunct position. Yet every year they're churning out more of them.
Mark McGurl's The Programming Era (https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674062092) is all about this. It's a pretty remarkable book, worth checking out if you haven't already.