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Contentions

In Defense of the MFA

In today’s post, horizon blogger Stefan Beck points out that Stewart O’Nan’s new book Last Night at the Lobster, about the manager of a fictional Red Lobster franchise, is about “where folks live. There is nothing ironic or silly about it.”

Indeed, I think we’re all a little tired of irony. Stefan goes on to say he has “vowed to read any new fiction that depicts people working at actual jobs.” It is refreshing to read a tale about someone doing meaningful work, rather than about a sensitive guy or gal scooping lint from his or her navel.

But I would add one caveat. Of late there has been a backlash against creative writing programs, which are seen as factories in which boiler-plate first-person narratives and clever short stories get churned out on assembly lines. The conventional wisdom is that MFA grads have little life experience, and in fact that their degrees are the only things qualifying them to express themselves.

I believe the current interest in “where folks live” and “actual jobs” is part of the tide rolling against writing programs. (Full disclosure: I attended such a program.) For instance, in the catalog copy of a prestigious house for the debut novel of a young writer I know, her medical degree receives top priority in her biography, as if to say, “this writer has done something real.” Subsequently this writer’s MFA receives mention.

Now I’m not pooh-poohing work. It’s important. But just because jobs are real doesn’t mean writing programs are fake.



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