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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Does An MFA Show Up In The Writing? Date-based Atlantic Article Turns Up Interesting Results

Last year, I was in the audience for an AWP panel about literary agents. Four young women--two editors, two agents--sat at a table much like this and spoke about their jobs.

Each woman wore a New York gloss over what appeared to be an Ivy League shine--expensive haircuts, glasses, suits. 

And yes, when I asked, they had, indeed, all gone to Ivy League schools. And where did they look for writers to take on as clients, for stories to publish? Primarily, they said, at literary events in New York City. Otherwise, they sought them out via MFA programs and from short stories published in literary magazines. 

So, I thought, "you are all very likely find people like you, who are writing stories from their personal experience, meaning tales you can relate to. People who have mastered the short arc and surprise ending of the short story form. People who live in New York and have no small children and are able to hang out with you at literary events. 

I don't have the funds to do an MFA. Even if I did, I have a kid with special needs which means I don't have the time. Plus, I'm writing about South Central Los Angeles, Eastern Europe and rural Mississippi. 

I came home and doubled-down on my revisions. I it will have to be better than good to get past that blockade. 

Even so, I am more fortunate than most--my current home as a thriving literary community. My life-load is lightening up slightly. I can now take classes, form a writing group, sometimes attend literary social events. What about people living in rural Colorado? In the Dust Belt of West Texas or the Rust Belt of southern Ohio? 

What is the literary world missing by a narrow focus on MFA graduates and short story masters? 

According to the Atlantic's fascinating and data-based article, what MFA grads pay may be only that--the increased ability to have literary agents give their work the eye. The authors found slight statistical differences in subject matter, and none at all in what is called "voice," the distinctive perspective that makes even Harper Lee's letters so distinctively Harper Lee. 

I will make one caveat to their analysis of results--because the authors narrowed their study to fiction reviewed in the New York Times, the bias they find in both MFA and non-MFA fiction might be inherent in the New York Times' choice of books to review.

How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?

We wrote a program to analyze hundreds of works by authors with and without creative-writing degrees. The results were disappointing.

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