MFA, Critique, and The Ethics of Writing


A few writing friends of mine, probably frustrated by the lack of industry response to their capable writing, have decided of late to involve themselves in MFA programs – to up their skills, as well as their visibility in the writing profession.

Recently, one of these friends, one who labors under the burden of a day job, naturally began asking – particularly after she read this post, whether the money and time spent on an MFA program was worthwhile. I responded, more or less as below – and in agreement with the linked post.
My opinions on MFAs aren't a big secret – I've posted on the subject before – but after reading the linked essay and talking to the writer friend who sent it to me, I've given the MFA phenomenon more thought. Consequently, I feel a need to add to what I've written previously. To wit:
As Sharon Stone said when asked about the director's casting couch, "You can't fuck yourself to the top, you can only fuck yourself to the middle."
In line with this crude analogy, that's what I think MFA programs offer: the middle. While the massive volume of critiquing one would be involved in with an MFA program is valuable, its worth tends to be overinflated, and a writer who puts too much credence in critiques ad nauseum will end up with literary pap – bland characters, not much in the way of story, a homogenized voice, and an over-sensitivity to what is said in writing classes. Those like my writer friends might benefit from an MFA regime, but only because they're already seasoned writers with unique takes on life, and they already have fairly well-developed ideas regarding what works in writing (and why).
The essence of critique of any sort, whether in MFA or in ad hoc critique groups, is to teach you how to self-edit. I firmly believe a writer will get to the point at which the driving need for a writing friend, a mentor, or a more seasoned writer to pass judgment on your work is unnecessary. There are always things you may wonder about in your writing – whether a certain depiction or story style works, for instance. But you can always touch base with a peer in rather general terms to see whether your antennae get the "uh oh" vibe, or the "job well done" sense of certainty over such a point.
For example: Much decent critique comes back to the writer indicating that certain parts of a writing piece may be vague in meaning. Most writers will responsibly tweak their story, paragraph, or sentence structure in ways that help clear up such confusion.
But – – and here I begin my protest – – a writer will often receive critique comments that seem to push the critique-reader's buttons. Such as politically incorrect terms or ideas. Such as ideas or terms that don't find a comfort zone within American society's jumble of sociological agendas. Here, our intrepid writer will often react in a "feel-good" manner and re-write these passages in ways that will minimize the emotional hit on such readers. To my mind, this is bleeping one's writing to the middle.
We all know the publishing industry is a mess at present, what with print vs. digital, and corporate bean-counters determining what gets published. As the linked article proclaims: this is an example of creeping fascism, which is beginning to infect every aspect of our lives. Even book reviews are culpable in this regard. The NYT Book Reviews are posted by writers who were commissioned with the approval of the publishers whose books are to be reviewed. Many news-rags now send book copies to bloggers (an attempt to refrain from paying for reviews). If these bloggers don't dish up acceptable reviews, they lose "customers" and their cybernetic street cred.
And as for academe, I just roll my eyes and sigh. Yep, writers will go there for shelter and fall into various versions of the MFA mindset. There, they learn all the cool, new, radical ways of dissecting literature (and here I'm reading straight out a text): Structuralism. Post-Structuralism. Deconstruction. Psychoanalytic Criticism. Feminism. Marxism. Phenomenology. Post-colonialism Theory. African American Theory. Queer Theory.
NONE of these say what works in writing, or what communicates – they're all special group agendas that want their take on writing's collective ethos to be shouted above the others. As a result, literature (and here I mean to speak largely of American literature) has become as amoral, as lacking in moral direction as the article says.
Throughout this rant of mine, you may get the idea that I prefer writers to be curmudgeons. That's hardly my point. Writing, as we've heard from literary criticism over a couple of millennia, should be a device for entertaining and for informing. Entertaining is part of a writer's bag of tricks, but if the writer refrains from pointing out society's foibles, then they're writing pap – they're bleeping to the middle (at best).
I once had a friend categorize people into three groupings: Doers. Followers. Watchers.
In his homespun way, he delineated those "A" personality people who seem bent on leading, and the "B" people who seem compelled to a need for those in the first group.
But he's also identified a rather unique and needed subculture that fits in neither of these. His "watchers" are those who have to ability to view human society beyond mindsets. These are your philosophers, historians (perhaps), your artists…and your writers. Their value is in reflecting back to society its manners, its habits, its multifold interactions, in a completely unvarnished way. By performing this service, writers expose human frailties and flaws in need of correction.
This isn't to say that writing should be didactic. Being too preachy or instructive tends to alienate, and that makes such writing part of the social ill. As Anton Chekov said, the writer's responsibility isn't to provide answers, but to ask the right questions. The skill in this is in drawing readers into a piece of writing so completely that new insights into life are revealed – these perhaps far beyond the writer's intent.
For this reason, writers are generally outsiders to most of life. But that's not striking a pose, it's a way of living you're compelled to. We all face the conflicting urges of belonging to one group or another versus that of self determination. Writers aren't exempt from this – our role in the human drama is a difficult, often non-paying one.
It comes down to this: insight and communication. Insight is self-determinism – a unique way of viewing life, but one that may have a broad and needed resonance. Communication is the "people" part of writing – understanding how to tell such stories in ways that urge readers to ask those difficult questions of themselves.
MFA and critique can help only in the realm of communication. But writers' unique insights are equally valuable. If you decide to take on the rigors of an MFA program, don't let the development of communication skills stifle your fragile but eminently valuable insight into the human condition.
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