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How has the MFA/Creative Writing affected fiction?
December 28, 2013 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible for a layperson to differentiate an MFA trained author from one who isn't?
posted by larry_darrell to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:41 PM on December 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

Nor is it possible for a "professional."
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:41 PM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would think by style and topics. Even if the writer doesn't actually have an MFA, they still might emulate the styles and topics of people influenced by creative writing classes
posted by gt2 at 12:45 PM on December 28, 2013

dunno, when I read a book about a white guy in his twenties who is sad/disaffected all the time and has weird issues with women I assume it's by an MFA-trained author, and usually I am right

(also books about middle-aged white guys who are sad and have weird issues with women/sleep with inappropriately young women - though sometimes those are by MFA instructors, natch)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 1:10 PM on December 28, 2013 [16 favorites]

Back when I had a job where I was paid to read/skim a lot of new fiction, I could often tell who had just finished an MFA program, but if they were more than a few years out, then no, couldn't tell.
posted by rtha at 1:14 PM on December 28, 2013

There's nothing quite so distinctive as the gloss an MFA puts on bad writing. It wears recognizable bells and whistles, and avoids certain pitfalls that MFA workshops teach you to avoid, while still managing to be completely lacking in the fun, urgency or insight that makes something actually good.

Probably the only person who gets to see this on a regular basis is someone who reads the preferred slush pile (MS's that come in with some kind of recommend, but not enough to skip to the acquiring editor) of a literary publisher.
posted by MattD at 1:16 PM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

the kind of job rtha just mentioned!
posted by MattD at 1:17 PM on December 28, 2013

I would say that in general, it would be impossible to distinguish between the styles of degree and no-degree holding authors. That doesn't mean that the huge popularity of the programs hasn't had an impact on literary culture, though.

You might look at Mark McGurl's book The Program Era, about the ways in which M.F.A. programs have influenced the subjects and styles of American fiction.
posted by munyeca at 1:32 PM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure about a blanket "MFA style" or "not MFA style" differentiation. Maybe "written during/immediately after an MFA program" and "not written during/immediately after an MFA program" would be a better distinction?

You can sometimes tell if a piece has been workshopped or if the writer is using techniques learned in some kind of writing program. For example, reading Kostova's The Historian, I could tell that the writer wrote it while getting some kind of writing degree -- the story seemed embedded in academia, I could imagine certain parts of it being workshopped, Kostova used certain techniques to avoid confusion or keep on track that I remembered learning in school myself, etc. It was polished in a certain recognizable way while being sprawling in a recognizable certain way, I guess? (Her second novel, however, which she wrote once she'd completed her MFA, doesn't read in the same way). Likewise, you can tell if someone definitely did not take a piece through the workshopping process, because their work will contain (common) missteps that would have been caught/corrected as a matter of course -- for example, the writer seems to have a crush on one or more of the characters, she includes winding digressions/throat clearing, etc.

In terms of figuring out from the text *which* MFA program a writer went through: There are a lot of programs that are so large and diffuse that I honestly can't and never could connect the writers from that program with each other in terms of their tone or style or topic or really in any way. For example, I can't tell offhand whether someone went to Columbia for their MFA, even if I'm reading something they wrote while studying there. But for smaller programs with a tighter cohort, there usually is a kind of "house style" that you start picking up on after reading a lot of writers from that program -- more of a similarity in tone or rhythm than anything more concrete. Iowa has a very definite "house style," Cornell has a "house style," etc. If you specifically read work produced by people while studying or teaching in those programs you'll probably start picking up on it yourself. When I was thinking about getting an MFA, I read a lot of writers who were coming through the programs I was interested in, to try and get a handle on where I might be a good fit, and I did get to a point where I could tell where someone had studied (at least for their work during and immediately after their MFA) -- but the distinctions were subtle enough that I'm not sure I'd be able to do the same now, a few years later.

*My undergrad degree is in creative writing, I've been through countless workshops myself, and did wrestle extensively with the idea of doing an MFA in prose -- but I haven't been through MFA program myself and am not a working writer.
posted by rue72 at 1:40 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I certainly can't tell. And it's not something I even tend to know about writers. I knew without looking it up that David Foster Wallace had an MFA from Arizona. I didn't know whether Lorrie Moore had one, but I looked it up, and she does (from Cornell.) It's hard for me to imagine what meaningful criteria could include both David Foster Wallace and Lorrie Moore. They're both funny, I guess. But I don't think writers who got MFAs are, in general, funnier. Though this would make sense, in a way -- one thing about the sharp-elbowed, slightly toxic workshop culture, people are willing to come right up to your face and say "your shit is not funny, make it funnier," which your friends are perhaps less willing to do.

As for Iowa, my friend Mark Jude Poirier (who wrote a lot of novels about stoner kids in Arizona, like Goats, and writes movies, too) has an MFA from there, as does Justin Cronin, who writes somewhat cruddy but wildlly popular post-vampire-apocalypse novels. T. Coraghessan Boyle. Kathryn Harrison. Not sure I can draw a house style around these guys.
posted by escabeche at 1:57 PM on December 28, 2013

basically, no. You can bet that for every "rule" that an MFA program might try to drill into a writer, there'll be a writer who's just as keen to be all "You're not the boss of me" and still be talented enough to complete their degree/get published.
posted by juv3nal at 3:50 PM on December 28, 2013

"rule" in scare quotes because these can vary greatly depending on program and instructor also.
posted by juv3nal at 3:51 PM on December 28, 2013

I'm an MFA grad, and while there are definitely certain stereotypes about MFA writing which hold some truth (that it's poorly paced, focused on micro issues such as prose rather than macro issues such as plot or character, that the focus of the subject matter tends to be disproportionally centered upon wealthy, white, upper-middle class men, or else poorly-informed stereotypes of the impoverished like some cheap rip-off of Denis Johnson), I wouldn't say these truths are universal at all. In fact, there was enough diversity, genre-wise and voice-wise, in my own program to be surprising.

I'd note that in poetry from my own program, it's fairly easy to pick out poems written while in the program, because one professor uses (and reuses) very idiosyncratic assignments: "Write a poem that's a list which features a term from ballet and is based on a black-and-white film you watched without sound." But that would really only be a tell if you've been through the program itself.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:07 PM on December 28, 2013

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