The MFA & the Literary Consultant: A dilettante’s procrastinations

The articles posted on this blog have so far concentrated exclusively on books and reading. With this article, Thomas Peak is turning the focus to the other side of the process—the writing. How should aspiring writers hone their craft? Thomas shares his thoughts on the pros and cons of creative writing courses and literary consultancies.

Today, most aspiring writers will, at some point, have flirted with the notorious ‘MFA Dilemma’. Should I or shouldn’t I? Can I or can’t I? Well, the MFA (Master in Fine Arts, thank you very much) presents an opportunity to spend two or three years honing one’s craft in the comfort of some of the most literaryfriendly university towns in America. Opportunities criss-cross the continent; choices range from the Ivy League experience at Brown, where literary experiments are encouraged within the cosy confines of quaint New England red-bricks, through the bustling urban creative scenes at Colombia or Boston U., and stretch to the Bohemian Californian coast where the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford imposes not a single distraction upon the process of thinking, drafting, rethinking, redrafting. The top programmes fully-fund all those accepted, and accordingly, competition for this first step into professional writing is, so they say, ‘fierce’. This MFA system has been hailed as the most extensive – certainly the most meritocratic – system of artistic patronage yet established. And places such as Texas, John Hopkins, Virginia, Vanderbilt, and the famed Writers-Workshop in Iowa (whose influence has elevated inconspicuous, small-town, Iowa City into North America’s only UNESCO City of Literature) present opportunities for the cream of literary aspirants in some, perhaps, how should we say?, unexpected settings.


But in this day and age, we are well aware that if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Dissatisfied rumblings abound on blogs and think-pieces decrying the ‘MFA Machine’. The sprawling empire of the accredited professional stalks the literary world, spewing forth an endless stream of first time writers, accredited artists, mechanised novelists producing work beaten within an inch of its life by the orthodoxies of de-individualising seminar critiques akin to Maoist self-criticisms. So we have both the fear and the promise of the MFA. Because how does one get work in front of its audience? For many emerging writers, the feeling is that to slink before the editor-agent-publisher, one almost requires an MFA. But will the work survive this pounding indoctrination, the threat of systematic creativity?

And then there is the cost.

For the top programmes, to get an offer you must beat anywhere between 100 and 130 others. With these odds, applying to a single programme would be confidence bordering upon the reckless. Really, it only makes sense to go with at least 5 or 6 choices, and at up to $100 per application, excluding postage of hefty manuscripts, this represents a not inconsiderable investment, with fleeting chances of success. On top of this, applications swallow a considerable amount of time, the dreaded ‘Personal Statement’ for instance; you are pretending to be a writer after all, so this must be, all together, insightful, succinct, witty, and, for sure, effortless. But just like a super model’s makeup, natural is the hardest look.

Part of the trouble with writing is the uncertainty. Do I have a readership? Talent? Something to say that resonates? In this sense, the MFA application process could be seen as, less dipping a toe into the waters, more hurling oneself head first through the ice. Hell-for-leather. Because if the end result is a constant stream of polite-yet-generic rejections, the inevitable answer to these questions is ‘probably not’. Of course, one could say the same about the agent soliciting process (which is brutal, on this I speak from experience) but there is always the consolation that you were simply ‘not ready yet’. A brick-wall from the hardened bouncers loitering outside the MFA Garden of Eden is far more definitive. One must ask, am I ready for that type of rejection? Might it stifle my promising yet premature art in unforeseen ways, viciously kneecapping fragile self-confidence?

If you have read this far, then similar thoughts have possibly entered your mind too, dear friend. And you may also have considered an alternative route: forking out for a literary consultancy report. Perhaps the road-less-travelled, it is financially equivalent to the MFA application process minus some of the gruelling process, such as bothering loved ones for personal references, and posting big fat manuscripts all over the American continent. A literary consultancy will evaluate your work, and offer a blunt yet honest assessment. If it is bad, hopefully, they will tell you; if it is middling, they will suggests ways to improve; if it is good (enough) then perhaps they will recommend you to agents. Whilst they may not exactly be ‘talent scouts’, they don’t want a good thing to slip through their friends’ fingers either. However, as Ferrante’s Elena Greco discovered, one person’s dross could be another’s masterpiece. And the literary consultant gives a single – albeit expert – opinion, whilst the MFA process will put you on the desks of numerous readers at multiple institutions.

For now, this is where we part. Having drafted some stories, mostly narrative love letters so far, prematurely self-published a first novel, only to retract for improvement beyond recognition, and in the meantime having begun a second, I have the material. I have, too, the desire to reach past overly kind friends and to finally find out, do I have an audience? The MFA promises a golden dawn of time, encouragement, opportunity, inspiration. Yet it also threatens rejection, deep – potentially crippling – rejection, and even in success, there hovers the noose of conformity. The literary consultant offers consolation, nuance, and even a shortcut to the editor’s desk, but, at what loss?

Photo: Jim Nix

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