The Benefits of MFA Programs: Q&A with Alan Davis

Photo of Alan Davis with quotation: "Publication, literary fame and monetary compensation either come your way or they don’t. Either way, writing well is always the best reward."

For a long time, now, I’ve seen writers on social media either asking questions about the real-world benefits of MFA programs or complaining about the MFA’s focus on literary fiction. Recently, I happened upon a long Twitter conversation that questioned the logic of MFA programs not including a course on the publishing process. Because I think these are important questions and valid criticisms, I asked one of my former MFA professors, who is also my writing mentor, if he would address those questions and criticisms—some of which are also my own. Our exchange follows.

Alan Davis is a writer who has published three prize-winning collections of short stories: Rumors from the Lost World, Alone with the Owl, and So Bravely Vegetative. He co-edited ten editions of American Fiction and Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan.

Davis was born in New Orleans, grew up in southern Louisiana, and now lives in Minnesota, land of the wind chill factor, where he taught, collaborated in the creation of an MFA program, and served as editor for over fifteen years of an iconic literary small press that he helped revive as a teaching press associated with Minnesota State University. He teaches in a low-residency MFA program at Fairfield University and writes, often spending winters in the Sonoran desert.

Kristen Tsetsi: What is good writing, and can it be taught?

Alan Davis: Anything can be taught except inspiration, vision, and voice. Craft is pedagogical.

Taking a writing workshop buys a student time, first, and a mentor (or mentors), second. A student’s peers also take writing seriously and often respond passionately to work-in-progress.

Craft is easy in the sense that it’s pedagogical; it’s difficult in the sense that it’s an all-at-once process, with momentary decisions (word choice, syntax, rhetoric, rhythm, alliteration and assonance, metaphor and metonymy, etc.) too numerous to count, and with workshops providing a barrage of often-contradictory critiques.

Writing, as I like to define it, is speech frozen on the page. A writer can return to a draft and revise until time runs out (a deadline, a semester, a lifetime), but craftsmanship without inspiration, voice, and vision, although it can get you an “A” and get you published, will leave a reader, finally, unsatisfied if the story is only discursive (one page after another) and not recursive (words calling out to words, theme holding forth dramatically, voice serving vision and capturing the attention of a busy reader in a world full of ridiculous distractions).

And good writing is meaningful. Bob Dylan once said, of his own mentor, “You could listen to Woody Guthrie songs and actually learn how to live.” That’s high praise.

Most MFA programs emphasize literary fiction. What does literary fiction do that other fiction doesn’t?

It speaks to the heart, brain, and soul all at once. It teaches you how to live. It does more than merely entertain. Unfortunately, crass entertainment often drives out art. That’s not to say, as Joseph Heller pointed out, that one of his contemporaries, Mario Puzo (author of The Godfather novels), didn’t get up as early in the morning as he did and work as hard at his craft every day as Heller did when writing Catch-22 or Something Happened (a very long novel in which almost nothing happens).

There’s no dishonor (quite the contrary) in writing popular or genre fiction if plot emerges from character; I love the mystery novels of James Lee Burke and I consider the best science fiction novels by Kim Stanley Robinson to be literary achievements of the highest order. Shakespeare elevated sordid stories or common tropes into art through his use of language until stereotypes were transformed into unforgettable characters still with us centuries after his time.

My point is that literary fiction is a hybrid designation; it’s not limited to realistic writing about contemporary or historical characters. It’s related not only to craft, which is essential for any good writing, but to vision and voice, whereas most bestsellers, as Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out, “are written for readers who are willing to be passive consumers.” She continued: “The blurbs on their covers often highlight the coercive, aggressive power of the text—compulsive page-turner, gut-wrenching, jolting, mind-searing, heart-stopping—what is this, electroshock torture?”

Unlike pop fiction, literary fiction is news that stays news, whereas it’s usually quaint and tedious to read some throwaway popular novel that was a bestseller in its day. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), a what-if book in which the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes President and a minority (in this case, Jews) fear relocation and the grotesque handprint of fascism and bigotry, is powerful fiction about a particular family in New Jersey that’s timeless. I read it last month and it made my neck prickle: it was that good and that relevant to our contemporary problems with authoritarians and bigots.

Schools offering MFA programs will often list as one of the advantages of an MFA the connections that can help a writer’s career. This sounds like, “Having an MFA can help you form networks that will be useful *wink wink* when you want to publish a novel.” How true is this, realistically, for the average MFA student?

Networking is a thing in every profession, but the degree itself won’t get you very far, so the quote in your question is not very true, given the number of such programs and the proliferation of such degrees. (It goes without saying, some degrees are more prestigious than others, which is true in every profession.) It’s a union card: a terminal degree if you want to teach at a post-secondary institution. It’s also a chit, though, that tells an editor or agent you’ve put serious time (and probably a decent chunk of change) into acquiring the skills needed to write a good book.

The connections, though, are very real: your mentors, if willing, can make the case for your books, introduce you to agents or editors (or at least recommend where to send your work), and invite you to events where you have the chance to make acquaintance with publishing professionals. Most, if they know your work, are willing to write advance comments (or blurbs) when needed.

It’s inspiring to think that a work of fiction or creative nonfiction can speak for itself to agents and editors, and that sometimes happens, of course, but writing is a business, sometimes a corporate business, where logrolling and backslapping can be legion (as well as offensive to those of us not good at it).

A writer without such connections who’s earned an MFA and who’s introducing herself to prospective representatives and publishers should mention the degree, and if a mentor or two who knows the book is willing to speak up for it, those names are worth mentioning (and any advance comments worth including), but it’s the work itself that makes your best case.

I read something recently by a writer who, in her piece, admits she’s bitter about seeing her peers’ names in impressive places while hers is comparatively less prominent. She blames herself: she chose to write what she wants to write rather than what her agent has told her might sell better, and the consequences are what they are. But that it was her choice doesn’t necessarily make the reality easier to accept.

This probably happens a lot: writers who are writing well, but not what will sell, and who are therefore feeling a sense of relative failure. What do, or would, you say to writers who are just starting out about this potential future frustration?

If you’re writing to become the next Jennifer Egan or Jesmyn Ward or George Saunders or Marlon James, good luck. I recently read a Ted Gioia essay about the late singer Eva Cassidy, who died 25 years ago, at the age of 33, and whose now famous album, Live at Blues Alley, was self-financed; she cashed in her pension to rent the venue and pay the musicians. She died unknown except to a coterie of fans; since then, she’s sold more than 10 million records (and, I might add, deservedly so).

It’s a heartbreaking story—she came close on at least one occasion to a record contract—but paradigmatic. She sang what she loved without regard for fashion.

Publication, literary fame and monetary compensation either come your way or they don’t. Either way, writing well is always the best reward and, sometimes, the best retaliation against those incapable of recognizing the worth of your work. We all want our work to survive and join the literary conversation that takes place over time, but a life’s work is a life’s work, whether it takes place in the spotlight or in the contemporary equivalent of a garret. Keep at it. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Keep at it. And join that conversation. Write and read widely.

Has there been any evolution in the MFA program toward evenly blending literary and commercial/genre fiction studies not only so students can learn the techniques and approaches of each, but also to ensure the instruction offers equal value to those who will go in different directions with their writing post-graduation?

Yes. Many MFA programs, especially low-residency ones, accept students interested in writing popular fiction, including fantasy (and, in at least one case, romance), sci fi, mystery and thrillers, and, of course, leprechaun fables. Most low-res programs make it a point to invite editors and agents to residencies and often incorporate the option of internships in publishing. As competition for students grows fierce, the business of writing increasingly receives attention in such programs.

A perplexing aspect of the MFA experience is that the program emphasizes the writing—attention to the craft, what effective writing looks like, why certain writers’ novels have lasted through the ages, etc. A student writer might think, “This is great. All I have to do is produce something good, and I’ll be golden.”

However, once out of the program, what begins to look more important is whether the writing—no matter how good—is traditionally published. The same people who profess to have a profound interest in and respect for, first, The Craft are also some of the first, if not the first, to decline to even acknowledge self-published writing—regardless of its quality—simply because it’s self-published. Can this be explained?

Yes. Once, universities scoffed at MFAs. Now, in many cases, it’s their meat and potatoes. Self-publishing, in contemporary terms, is in its infancy. Most readers like gatekeepers so they can avoid reading dreck. Publishers have been traditional gatekeepers. And publishing is also a business. There are lobbies, interest groups, corporations, logrollers, hierarchies with vested interests. Those with power, even limited power, won’t relinquish it without a fight.

It’s a dirty little secret in literary publishing these days that many competent and applauded presses require subventions, either the purchase of a minimum (but large) number of copies of one’s book or a sizable subsidy to cover publication costs, sometimes with the tradeoff that the writer receives a higher royalty rate. I’m not talking about vanity presses, though they exist; I’m talking about reputable presses (you would recognize their names) that have adopted a hybrid model (sometimes openly, sometimes under the table) to make ends meet. For years now, reputable presses have required contest or reading fees, and many prestigious literary magazines won’t read even a regular submission anymore without a fee attached.

I feel obligated to point out that self-publishing gets a bad name because some who self-publish write dreck or don’t even copyedit or proofread, but self-publishing is an honorable and honest means of publication.

If I decide to self-publish, I have a track record, reviews and advance comments and the like, and can point to my deep and long editorial experience as a gatekeeper myself to establish credibility. The question then becomes, however, how to do for myself the many things—distribution to bookstores, publicity and promotion, review copies, foreign and other rights, etc.—that an agent or publisher would otherwise take care of.

Part of what I was getting at with my question is that a self-published writer can have a track record, reviews, and advance comments (and from authors whose names or opinions should carry weight), and even that won’t satisfy—because the work is self-published. Period. A writer I recently interviewed, for example, admitted to having “an old-fashioned bias against self-published work.”

Can you speak to this attitude, having spent so much time in the community of professional literary writers? Is it as simple as snobbery?

I think genre fiction that’s self-published has an easier time finding its audience online (as ebooks and sometimes audiobooks) than literary fiction. Literary culture is nothing if not snobbish. Snobbery is its middle name. We take ourselves very seriously. Recently, I was one of three finalist judges for the Minnesota Book Awards (Novel and Short Story category). I don’t have a list of the preliminary titles that other panelists pruned, but I can guarantee you that none were self-published.

To be fair, it’s not as simple as snobbery. There are only so many hours in the workday. When I was co-editor of the annual American Fiction, at a time before my co-editor and I had assistants, I read 500–600 stories and my co-editor did the same, to find the 20 or so we’d publish and send to our Judge (Ray Carver, Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates, etc.) to pick three prize winners. I had wonderful assistants and interns I trusted, but the reading burden, in retrospect, was so time-consuming that, as mentioned above, my own work suffered. (It’s almost like PTSD to think about it.) Readers of American Fiction didn’t have to read 1,200 stories to find the 20 or so that stood out.

Stakeholders have often wagered their professional lives on the chits, awards, grants, book contracts, and sinecures handed out by gatekeepers, whose own professional lives are defined by such gatekeeping. The idea that a writer can decide for herself that a manuscript is ready to hit the streets, and publish it forthwith, goes against everything they hold true and dear: Mom, Pop, apple scones, and whatever flag they fly.

I’m no expert on this stuff, but my considered view as a seasoned writer and editor and teacher is that the publishing industry at present is clearly a work in progress and the only thing to do is write often, write as well as you can, and insert yourself, by hook or crook, into the literary conversation. Write for the internal listener you know so well by now. Tell that listener the story that only you can tell.

Many writers entering MFA programs must have publishing as a goal, ultimately, but most programs don’t include a course covering the path to publication—how to research agents, how to write query letters, traditional vs. self vs. hybrid publishing models, etc. Why do you think most MFA programs don’t offer such a course—and is it something you can see them adopting?

Yes, you see such programs and tools offered much more frequently now, especially in low-res programs. As competition for MFA students increases, more programs will do as you suggest. The truth, though, is that most disciplines teach students how to do a job or have a career, not how to find work, and send them to career centers if networking and logrolling and the like doesn’t get a particular graduate a sinecure (or, in this case, a book contract).

Many students attended (and attend) traditional MFA programs not only to write a book (or books) but to get a terminal degree and teaching experience to find work in academia. The MFA industry was once a growth industry, but I don’t know, given the proliferation of such programs, if that’s still the case. Demographics and a dearth of jobs in academia argue against traditional MFA programs (if a teaching career and not publication is the significant goal); students earn a degree and often work as TAs, teaching mostly freshman composition and rhetoric, hoping for employment after graduation as college or university instructors.

The camaraderie of such programs is lovely and often life-changing—students make lifelong friends, find long-term mentors and fellow travelers, and write a book—but many end up, if academia is the goal, as adjuncts working for slave wages and sending their revised MFA theses to numerous contests and publishers each year, hoping for a break.

Low-res MFA programs, by contrast, draw students from all walks of life who often already have satisfying careers but want to write books on the side and get them published. You can be 25 or 30 or 50 or 70 or even 80 and decide to enter such a program (without relocating) to help you along in your journey towards telling your story.

Meanwhile, you can find numerous courses and workshops online about paths to publication. This blog is a good place to start, and Jane Friedman’s books, among many others, offer the guidance you mention.

Many writers want to enroll in MFA programs, but either they aren’t accepted, or they don’t bother applying because they can’t afford today’s college costs or the high interest loans. What books on your syllabus should DIY-MFAers buy or check out from the library, and what should they pay attention to as they read?

Good craft books are legion these days. One such, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, by the New York Writers Workshop, promotes itself (on Amazon) like this: “Get the core knowledge of a prestigious MFA education without the tuition. Have you always wanted to get an MFA, but couldn’t because of the cost, time commitment, or admission requirements? Well now you can fulfill that dream without having to devote tons of money or time. The Portable MFA gives you all of the essential information you would learn in the MFA program in one book.”

Every workshop leader has favorite craft books. Many community education programs offer inexpensive writers’ workshops. There are numerous affordable summer writing conferences. Online workshops are also affordable, as are reputable writing consultants. Blogs like the one where this interview appears can be invaluable to find resources and advice.

Most important, read the kind of books you’d like to write yourself and develop a writing practice. Read as a writer, noting chapters, scenes, details, and structure. Write as many days a week as possible at a fixed time. A devotee of meditation meditates. It’s the practice that counts. Writers write, and organize their lives around writing, which means convincing yourself and your loved ones to take your devotion to writing seriously rather than as something you can put aside when your partner needs a floor scrubbed or repairs made. It might not make money but it’s not a hobby, it’s a vocation, and you, and those who love you, should treat it as such. (But don’t use writing as an excuse, especially if you’re a guy, to avoid your fair share of household duties!) Finally, when you’ve written something that’s reached a point where it requires somebody else’s attention, find a reader you trust or a workshop group to join.

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