The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Making the cut

Mark Slouka wrote a piece on the Columbia creative writing program that generated quite a bit of coverage in the blogosphere recently. Dan Green's response and comments on creative writing MFAs are worth quoting:

"diploma mill" is an apt description of all too many creative writing programs, which lure in students without much understanding of what a writer's life is like or how few people actually succeed in becoming published writers, take their money, and give them false hope they'll be among the lucky few.

Speaking of creative writing programs generally, my experience of them is that they're of extremely various quality in terms of what they're supposed to do: i.e., help an emerging writer. At their worst, they're filled with favoritism and back-stabbing. At their best -- well, they can be pretty good. But they tend not to address one of the issues raised in Green's post, which is the heartbreaking difficulty of achieving success .(And holding onto it, it should be added, since aging writers too frequently find themselves battling to stay in the game as the industry moves on to newer, supposedly more exciting voices.)

Instead, writing programs -- especially MFAs, which have become similar to junior leagues where agents troll for talent -- act as a forum in which to network. Perhaps this is why cannier, ambitious writers sign up for them. And that brings the logic of these programs full circle, to the kind of emotional/ethical nastiness that they sometimes engender. But all this only reinforces the importance of major publishing houses changing their policies on reviewing the work of emerging writers. In short, by refusing to even *consider* unsolicited fiction, the publishers have created a system in which MFA "farm teams" are essential. This is one of the few ways an emerging writer can get signed by an all-important agent. As such, they bear some responsibility for turning achieving career success as a literary writer into an elaborate game ... and an expensive one at that, for the writer who wants to break in.


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