MFA / Iowa bashing

Sometime commenter Saltwater Farmer alerts us to this article in the New York Press by Sam Sacks, a freelance writer in NYC. Pretty much rehashes every complaint ever made about MFA programs, but also says Iowa's laurels are getting dusty: "...with the possible exception of Marilynne Robinson, who teaches there, no major writer has come out of the Workshop in decades."


Pete said...
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Pete said...

Fill the cannons with grapeshot, Snee! It's a war on Christmas!

Looking at his other columns, the guy seems to be a firebrand.

Sometimes I worry that if my book review to published story ratio gets too high, I'll write like that. Not the iowa part, but the bashy part.

I worry the same about my masturbation to intercourse ratio too, though not nearly as much now that Adrienne looks to be around for good. And then the worry isn't about my writing, but how cool I am.

Edit- I had to fix a stupid-sounding sentence.

Trevor Jackson said...

If there is such a thing as the "workshop story," I think we can now safely categorize the hallmarks of the "workshop takedown" essay.

Reference to and bash of Iowa? Check.

Use of the phrase "writing by formula" and its derivatives? Check.

An assumption that a great teacher must also always be a great (read: financially successful) writer, themselves? Check.

Grendel said...

It's a very clever claim. In order to rebut the "no major writer in decades," you have to come up with a major writer who graduated between 1986 and 2005.

Even Ethan doesn't qualify for this -- nor does TC Boyle or Jane Smiley or Jayne Anne Phillips or John Irving or Denis Johnson or Stuart Dybek or Allan Gurganus or Andre Dubus. Those disqualifications leave us with folks like (on the fiction side) Elizabeth McCracken, Chris Offutt, Charles D'Ambrosio, Susan Power, Lan Samantha Chang, ZZ Packer...

Problem being, you often can't tell who is a MAJOR writer until the autumn of their career -- often "decades" into it -- or upon bestowal of major award. (Who, for example, would have called Vollmann a *major* writer six months ago? Now, I think you might have to sort of lean that way.) So, hats off to Mr. Sacks for finding a nice little formula for denigrating Iowa. Good job.

Antoine said...

I posted about this yesterday, so I won't go through all my points, but my favorite part of the article was this:

A Story, as it progresses, is counterbalanced by a Backstory, which informs the reader what of importance happened beforehand. Both Story and Backstory must have a pronounceable Why Now, a meaningful reason that they are being told something must be At Stake. Regarding meaning and significance, the writer should Show Not Tell through recurring Central Metaphor rather than through dry explanation of what is being felt. Furthermore, a good story has an apt and memorable Voice and conveys a strong Sense of Place.

Do they teach this in Arizona or wherever he went? Maybe they should teach this at Iowa too? We'd be unstoppable!

dunkeys said...

-- The occasion for the article is the Smiley-edited anthology, which reflects more on her than on the state of American letters.

-- How many "major" American writers have emerged in the last twenty years? Two? Three? Four?

-- He almost stumbles into a good point -- that being a great writer *doesn't* automatically mean you're a great teacher. But he makes the criticism backwards.

-- Still, making many stupid points doesn't mean there aren't some good points. It's true that some teachers fall back on rules, and it's true that publication often distorts higher goals. Sure, these are generalizations -- his main point seems to be "formula is bad," which is pretty simple -- but they aren't the most incendiary things ever.

I wonder who he thinks his audience is. Not us, obviously. But is he trying to discourage young writers from going to workshop programs? If so, it'd be nice if he gave them different advice, wouldn't it? Not just negating, but suggesting. Oh well.

Sam said...

Rock on, Corbin. That particular dig at Iowa and its alumni exemplifies a central weakness in the essay -- its reliance on the boilerplate logic of MFA criticism in lieu of original thought. What, exactly, distinguishes a "major writer"? Awards notwithstanding, Cheever enjoyed only limited recognition and commercial success until the pub. of "Collected Stories" in '78. Flannery O'Connor's stock has appreciated quietly since her death in the '60s. It's no great feat to recognize talent with the fighter-pilot-vision of hindsight. One suspects that Sacks's ideas about "major writers" consist essentially of popular opinion. In that regard, he's like the dude who champions OutKast once "Hey Ya!" and the Grammy judges have established their cultural bona fides. The irony here, of course, is that Sack's essay suffers from the exact weakness he perceives in so-called MFA fiction. It's standard in premise, rhetoric and tone, a rote performance of a text any reader interested in his subject already knows by heart.

SER said...

I agree with Dunkeys's point that a major part of Sacks's method of analysis - namely, by looking at the anthology edited by Smiley and making broad extrapolations therefrom - is silly, since most anthologies reflect the tastes of their editors. I'm sure there are editors who have more diverse tastes and editors who have more particular tastes; it just depends. But Sacks puts so much weight on BNAV, as if it were the definitive word on What's Good, obtained by some kind of algorithm - so much of his argument rides on the idea that this anthology is indeed the be-all/end-all, an accurate representation of what's going on in writing workshops around the country, which seems like a dangerous assumption to make for him.

But beyond that, as with so much of the kneejerk Iowa/MFA criticism, I just laugh at the idea that there's a Very Specific Way that writing is taught here. I took workshops with each of the four permanent fiction faculty at the time - Frank, Jim, Ethan, and Marilynne. Talk about a range of aesthetics! Talk about some different approaches (both as to what methods to use to teach writing and how stylistically to go about it)! And the same goes for the students - maybe there were some people who naturally wrote the quiet "workshop story" he derides, but even just considering the Goats, Ropes, and Babies produces quite a range of writing. That's probably what I appreciated most about Iowa - the range of GOOD writing and the range of aesthetics among the faculty (some of whom liked my writing, and some of whom would rather snuggle up with a naked Dick Cheney than read it again).

There are plenty of things you could criticize about the Workshop (like the lack of faculty availability outside of class), but this rote argument that workshops are producing clones who write tepid, bleached prose seems like a canard to me. War on Christmas, anyone?

MSF said...

i'd been thinking this was a typical don't-writing-workshop-sucks stories until mr. sacks inadvertently posed a math problem. secretly, i love math. sort of. it's a long story. anyway, the relevant problem:

"The only prerequisite to teaching in an MFA program for writing is that you have published a book—or, if not a book, enough stories to buff up a résumé. Of course, it's not easy to publish a book, but of all the ways in which to claim instant legitimacy and mastery in a field, publishing a novel or book of stories is one of the easiest, as it circumvents the years and years of understudy research academicians must put in before they may don the title of professor."

if we're going to compare writers' experiences getting prof jobs w/actual profs, we should compare w/english departments:

mfa: 2 years. includes thesis (at iowa, generally lame; at other places, more respectable)
ma: 2 years. thesis quality i would imagine varies similarly.
score: tie

novel: to write, varies. i worked on mine for about 2 years, though i'm somehow feeling that that is short.
dissertation: 4-5 years, depending on how long one can get funding.
score: in my case, dissertation kicks novel's ass. in other cases, i'm guessing it's closer.

publication: 2-4 years. need to get an agent, which can take anywhere from 3 seconds to a year, from what i'm told (cross your fingers, people, i'm not young), plus the time it takes to sell novel to editor--could be another year, plus the time it takes to actually edit book and get it to market--another 1-2 years. add even the minimum numbers and you're basically tied with the dissertation. this means that, at the point where any of us are actually *qualified* to apply for writing jobs, we've spent just as much time on our projects as the Ph.Ds do. though of course that's not pure *research* and may not qualify as work, according to mr. sacks, but "one of the easiest" ways to get a teaching job? particularly when the market is moving toward requiring Ph.Ds IN CREATIVE WRITING? i don't think so.

Jane said...

I'd really like to read some of these fabulous, unexpected, groundbreaking short stories written before the rise of the MFA that people like this guy are always implying existed.

Grendel said...

Sorry I missed your post somehow, Antoine. I usually swing by your place at some point during the day. Anyway, people should read it because it is funny.

kclou said...

As someone writing a review for the Smiley anthology this weekend, I find this all pretty interesting. I'm curious to hear how all of you feel about the anthology (either this one or past editions or the idea, writ large). This edition does not have an Iowa writer in it, though last year's did, and sometimes he posts on this site.

(NB: I won't steal any of your good opinions.)

Pete said...

I think I've had this conversation about 52 times with each of you. We've had it in the Foxhead, we've had it in the Hamburg. We've had it drunk, we've had it high. We've had it sober. We've had it online, we've had it on the phone. We've had it on car rides. Oh, how we have had it on car rides. I think we've even gone back in time and had this conversation with our younger selves, interrupting the space-time continuum for the sake of this. And then, we had an AWP panel discussion about going back in time that devolved into a referendum on MFAs. Remember that?

So either let's go to NYC and beat this guy with broom handles, or just keep our cool, huh?

Antoine said...

Pete, I think I love you.

bihari said...

Pete, I laughed until I emitted one of those embarrassing and inelegant snorts. In a cafe, no less.

S Sacks said...

Well put! What you guys and Iowa represent in the world of lit is a steaming pile of hot turd!

dunkeys said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Grendel said...

What dunkeys said was something like please please Grendel don't delete that. And I wouldn't! It's a nice exclamation point. And as Pete pointed out, it's been said before.

hiphopanonymous said...

I don't know any of you, but it sounds like Iowa is the place to be and this guy is a little green.