MFA = Mother of Failed Arguments

Laura Miller wrote a nice piece in Salon not that long ago, capably outlining the recent flare up in the To MFA or Not To MFA debate, this time describing Mark McGurl’s latest rebuttal in the L.A. Review of Books to Elif Batuman’s takedown of his book The Program Era and MFA programs in particular. (DG Myers, author of The Elephants Teach [which everyone considering an MFA should read], also has an interesting afterthought.)

As someone who has both attended an MFA program (Alabama ’04, roll tide) and has taught undergraduate workshops, I am tempted to weigh in on the matter. But all of this back and forth has made me realize the perennial exuberance of this Down with MFA/Up with MFA debate. I realized only recently that you could spend more time reading about books on the internet than you could spend reading the actual books, so that at the end of the day, you are already too full on digests before the real literary meal. (Yes, it’s taken me a while to discern this.) But there’s more: you could obviate the need for even that digest-like reading by spending all of your time reading about MFA programs, and whether or not they are in fact the bud of all that’s evil.

So consider this a personal devotion to avoid all MFA program essays, rants, and articles in the future. They never solve the problem; they never settle the debate; they’re almost all ahistorical posturing; and they only provoke another onslaught of comments; and these discussions, peculiarly, seem to diminish their participants and make them sound less cogent, reasonable, and/or sane than they otherwise might actually be. Batuman is a better writer than her MFA LRB article (and yet she keeps returning again and again to kick the shins of creative writing programs, protesting too much). And McGurl’s original rebuttal to the LRB, which he posted in full on his website, was a stronger, more succinct response than his latest LARB essay.

So, enough. It’s the worst kind of discussion–rants traded within the cave of an institutional navel.