Flying Tomatoes

Article by Patrick Stuart

The online version of The Atlantic had an interesting article recently about whether MFA programs produced better writers.  Now before anyone starts throwing electronic tomatoes, the basic argument was whether any difference could be detected between a best-selling novel by an author with an MFA degree, and one without.  So a couple language professors used computational analysis to determine if any differences could be found.  They looked at 200 novels over the last 15 years by authors with MFA degrees, and another 200 without.  To limit those without degrees, they decided to only review authors who had been critiqued by The New York Times.  And the results?

The various categories included diction, syntax, style, race and gender. Long story short, there wasn’t much difference. The computer model only picked MFA authors correctly 67% of the time, which isn’t great considering that a blind guess would be 50%. And consider this: MFA programs have increased nationwide from 52 programs to almost 7 times that amount now.  20,000 people apply for these programs annually, with universities gathering $200 million in the process.  So there’s a huge financial incentive to get people interested in pursuing MFAs.

Which isn’t to say that such programs are bad. On the contrary, writing a novel is only one of several uses for an MFA. And several esteemed non-MFA writers have advanced degrees in other subjects, such as Khaled Hosseini (doctor), Annie Proulx (PhD level history) and Kathy Reichs (forensic anthropologist). In other words, these are people who would probably have done well in a creative writing program anyway; they just happened to choose another profession first. But there’s also those who had successful writing careers with little to no educational background. Maya Angelou was trained as a dancer, with no college experience. William Gay worked as a handyman, painter, drywaller and carpenter before finally getting critical acclaim. And JK Rowling, the most successful writer in history, was a single mother on welfare when she wrote the first Harry Potter book.

So if you’re looking for excuses about your lack of a six-figure book deal, a missing MFA is not an option. Unfortunately, like most things (not involving questionable moral or ethical lapses), the ingredients for success are a couple cups of hard work, a pound of perseverance, and a dash of luck for taste. And for anyone with an MFA who disagrees with the findings? No soy responsable por eso. But if you’re still planning on flingin’ them ‘maters, let fly in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

And for anyone wanting to check out the article, here’s the link:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/mfa-creative-writing/462483/

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