Going on the Account: A Coarse So Plotted…

So after yesterday’s rant about writers getting abused the short end of it in the professional field (and in coverage of them by the WALL STREET JOIURNAL), the first assumption you might be tempted to make is, “He got that off of his chest and can’t find anything else to complain about, can he?”

So comes the dawn, and soon thereafter this piece on GAWKER about an MFA professor at Columbia who sent her former students back at University of South Carolina an e-mail that calls into question the whole concept of creative writing programs.  While there’s a lot Ms. Hospital says in her note that can be found offensive, this part in particular made me reach for the cutlass and scream as I charged:

Columbia’s MFA is rigorous and competitive but students don’t just have publication as a goal – they take that for granted, since about half the graduating class has a book published or a publishing contract in hand by graduation – so they have their sights set on Pulitzers.

I’m really, really tempted to warn readers from this point forward that the language might get saltier than a SEAL’s on liberty; I’ll try and stay calm, but no promises…

It gets worse from there:

Sixty theses have been submitted for fall graduation (approx. 35 fiction; 15 poetry; 10 nonfiction). On average, each year from 5 – 10% of these will be failed, and the student will be advised to try again for spring graduation. If the thesis is failed, the student will not meet with the committee but will receive the detailed reports. In the two weeks from Oct 4 – Oct 15, all those who pass will meet with their committee for the “thesis conference.” Since pass or fail has already been decided, this is not a “defense” but a conference in which the committee discusses positive and problematic issues with the student and makes recommendations of what should be done before submission to a publisher.

So let’s get this straight:  Your thesis has at worse a 90% chance of passing, and a fifty percent chance of being picked up for publishing before graduation…

…which means if you pay your tuition to Columbia for their MFA program, 45% percent of you are guaranteed a professional contract…

And yet vanity presses are sneered at…

Ask yourself:  What kind of books come out of MFA programs?  Take a few minutes, see if you can pick those out of the NY TIMES Bestsellers List or Amazon’s Top 100 Books.  Odds are, they are much like the works cited in Elif Batuman’s essay, “Get A Real Degree.” Not exactly Stephen King, any of those…

Whatever you may think of creative writing MFA programs, there’s definitely one thing that’s missing here: the working writer.  No, not a writer making a living at the craft; we all know that’s about as likely to be out there as an American automobile factory job you can get right out of high school to raise a family on.  I’m talking about the person who starts submitting pieces in small markets, then works up the ladder and getting noticed for practicing the craft before getting enough of a rep to make Publishers Row and the agents that feed it willing to talk to you.  The folks who try, maybe get it wrong a few times with the public at large watching before the make or break point is hit, the ones who sweat and grunt as they put words together.

That’s the kind of writer that’s missing here, which having some dumb-ass mother-lovin’ pays-your-money-for-access writing program spoilt bugger making for the trough with serrated elbows flaying everyone in sight denies us.  How’s the voice of real experience supposed to get out there if these “writers” are sucking the air like a fire below decks consuming the ship around it?


And by the way, in addition to everything else Ms. Hospital says, making me spew like I did above, she comes to the close of her piece with this:

And then there are all the peripheral pleasures of living on Manhattan: we’ve seen the Matisse exhibition at MOMA, have tickets for the opening of Don Pasquale at the Met Opera, have tickets to see Al Pacino on stage as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, etc etc. Plus I’m just 15 minutes walking distance from Columbia and from all the sidewalk bistros on Broadway, and 3 minutes from Central Park where we join the joggers every morning.

To be quite frank, this is not how most people live in Manhattan.  Doing Broadway on a regular basis means having at hand the equivalent of the GDP of a small Euro-Zone country to draw credit on.  The Met’s no bargain either; damnit, I have trouble getting my whole family into a movie in the city.  And bistros, really?

Where’s the mention of the more accessible amenities?  How about getting a couple of franks at Gray’s Papaya and watching the folks go by on 72nd Street?  Making a special trip to H&H Bagels because for one f’n’ morning you want a little indulgence.  And a trip down to Strand Books would for folks wanting to get literary as all hell without forking over the tuition to Columbia.  (I’d offer going to Murder Ink or Shakespeare & Co. if you wanted to get even more involved with literature, but both are sadly gone, soon to be joined by the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble; trying not to get maudlin here…)

Most of all, towards the top of the list for fun things, taking a sandwich and a drink with you onto the campus of Columbia University and having an impromptu picnic on the lawns there, enjoying the view of sturdy buildings and stressed students around you…


1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Writing

One response to “Going on the Account: A Coarse So Plotted…

  1. And right after I published this, the folks at Gawker found someone who put this woman in her place rather smartly:


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