I recently read an article about short fiction that I found particularly interesting, even if it was written with what I perceive to be an almost-stereotypical snootiness that seems to pop up whenever someone is discussing MFA programs.
But let me talk about the merits of the article first, and there are some things I really enjoyed. I agree with him that "great writing requires a unique voice" and yeah, it can.
He adds: "And true voice doesn't stop with the writer. When you read a book with a distinct voice (such as that of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying), it can sometimes take pages and pages to get into the author's rhythm. No one first reads As I Lay Dying without some momentary discomfort at the constant switching between different voices and points of views. But, in the case of Faulkner's book, this effect on the reader is deliberate—the effort we must make to understand the different voices used in the book is analogous to how hard it is to understand the different voices around us in everyday life. Even when everyone is telling the same story, their different voices and points of view totally change the story as it passes from person to person."
Absolutely. I think of when I first picked up Terry Pratchett, the novel Night Watch. I was reading it and felt awkward when I laughed. Like, wait, I thought this was science-fiction-fantasy? WHY AM I LAUGHING LIKE AN IDIOT? Same thing with Neil Gaiman for me. I couldn't finish Good Omens for instance, but when I picked up American Gods I understood his appeal, and I also understood why I like him much better as a stand-alone guy. His short stories are amazing and American Gods is such a great novel.
"Great literature is an exploration, both for writer and reader. Great writing moves beyond the ordinary to things that can not be understand through simple naming or description. Say the word Holocaust. Now read a novel on the Holocaust. That is the difference between a mere word and a deeper understanding. That is also the same level of difference between a simple story and truly great piece of literature."
Again, I agree.
"The problem with most short shorts is not the genre—it is that they are being written by writers who are not committed to the true exploration of voice that's at the heart of great literature. Too often short shorts are written by writers emerging fully deformed from MFA workshops and programs around the country, writers churning out page after page of bland academic writing that has as little style, voice, and vision as George Bush on ritalin."
Here, as much as I don't agree with the whole commitment bit (more on that later), I think he's spot on about the other things. I probably wouldn't have phrased it like that (I mean, come on, deformed?) but I see his point and I see where he's coming from: His premise is that there are a lot of great short story writers out there in MFA programs or in some way affiliated with them but: "these writers exhibited the talent, drive, and craft needed to be great writers before they went into MFA programs. All the programs did was refine what was already there. I still suspect that, overall, MFA programs are not helping the cause of great writing"
Full disclosure: My program, UTEP's Online MFA in Creative Writing, is an aberration in many ways. It is the first fully-accredited no-res program in the U.S. and I happened to be taught by an incredibly diverse faculty who forced our cohorts to find our own voice.
In many ways I agree that there is a certain unmistakable amount of raw talent some people have, but I feel his point is a little bit contradictory because he himself says one key word: Refine. Let me give you an example of two basketball players: LeBron James and Tim Duncan.
LeBron James joined the NBA right out of high school because he had the kind of ability that people describe as "generational" which in the world of sports is probably the highest compliment you can pay to someone's skill. It took him awhile and several years before he won his first championship.
Tim Duncan developed into a generational talent, went to Wake Forest, graduated (although he was encouraged by everyone to leave early) and then developed into the most dominant power forward in NBA history. And now, a few months after his retirement, I stand by my assertion that he was the GOAT. One of my favorite quotes, by San Antonio Express-New's Jeff McDonald, basically said, paraphrasing: "As good as you remember Tim Duncan to be, he was better."
(I'm not crying. YOU'RE CRYING.)
But the point is, you can't really compare the two talents or how they got to be where they're at. I know the people in my cohort were fantastic writers outside the program. I am confident that they would've been just as successful without the MFA. But I am also confident that the program did help. I also severely disagree with the idea that "true writers" run from MFAs. Like, what the fuck does that even mean? Am I not a true writer because I took the MFA head-on and learned a lot? Are any of my cohort not true writers for the same reason? Not true poets? Not true performers? I'm talking about people with book deals, Pushcart nominations, and fellowships in some of the most prestigious writers' retreats.
Again, I understand the cynicism. I mean, there is a lack of diversity in MFA programs. There's a lot of bland writing out there. A lot of programs made up of students that sound like this:
And don't take it from me, read this peace by Junot Diaz.
But instead of dismissing the whole idea of MFA in general, why not work to better it? Yeah, publish or perish but why not try to publish something fun? Something that doesn't involve around a couple fighting, someone drinking alcohol, or a bar? Have the professors break away from the circle-jerk and have the students not feel crippled by anxiety when they're not coming up with ideas set in New York.
Short stories are great. This past weekend I discussed two in a Tintero Workshop: Neil Gaiman's 'Nicholas Was' and Don Shea's 'Jumper Down'. And as one of these quote unquote troubled gatekeepers, I take joy in doing what I do.
When I vote against stories we receive in Bartleby Snopes, I'm not picturing myself swinging a broadsword to keep the 'hostile hoard of mfaers' at bay. Here are our things to avoid guidelines for our short fiction:
Stories written in present tense (especially third person present tense)
Stories with graphic dead baby scenes
Stories about writers
Stories about struggling marriages
Stories set in bars
Stories with more backstory than plot
Stories with undeveloped characters
Stories that are overly reflective
Stories that rely heavily on second person usage
We aren't saying that we never accept these things, but they are less likely to be published. If you think your story is great, send it to us. The worst we can do is reject you. Don't take it personally. These are just our tastes.
So let's say we get a story from someone at the MFA program at St. Cutbhert's State School of MFA Writing, written in present tense and with three pages of exposition, about two writers, husband and wife, coming to terms with the loss of their son in a grenade chainsaw accident. It's likely going to be voted down. But we'll still read it. My goal, and by extension, the goal of my up-tops, is that the submitter gets the rejection and thinks, "Hm. Maybe it wasn't the right fit and maybe it could use some work." I have 0 interest in keeping someone from writing. If they want to take that rejection and go "WELL, MY PROFESSOR WHO'S GOT HIS WORK PUBLISHED IN THE SATIN QUARTERLY DISAGREES SO HA!" cool, whatever, I've done my part. Maybe we're we wrong. Maybe we're right.
Here's the thing, if you're an MFA student or considering becoming one, you will be exposed to the kind of stuff Mr. Sanford is rallying against. Here's the challenge to you: break the mold. Learn the techniques, but break the mold. My poetry professor was a fan of Sharon Olds. I wasn't. I didn't then and still don't like it (SORRY, MRS. OLDS!) but reading her helped me understand line and form n poetry. So what I did was embrace the technique in order to become a better poet.
And if your prof just won't put up with the deviation, defer to them, and then write your stuff on the side, what are they going to do, knock points off for daring to deviate from the norm on your own free time?
Lyrics: Mago de Oz - Arbol de la Noche Triste