Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing

August 20, 2014 | 4 books mentioned 75 10 min read

1. The Gift Economy of Creative Writing
McSweeney’s, one of my favorite magazines, is currently holding a fiction contest for undergraduate and graduate students. The winner receives $500. Submitters must pay a $55 entry fee. Critic Ron Charles says the hefty fee “passes the smell test because everyone who enters gets a year-long subscription to McSweeney’s, which normally costs $60.” He’s correct about the subscription cost, but assumes students who submit work to literary magazines also subscribe to those magazines. I hope that working writers financially support literary magazines, but don’t expect the same of students.

I feel guilty telling students to subscribe to literary magazines, particularly if that money is coming from their own pockets. Literary magazines typically request that submitters become familiar with their publications. They suggest writers purchase an issue, or better yet, subscribe. This mantra is repeated by writers, including myself. But such mantras, like supposed writing rules, need to be occasionally reconsidered. Of course a writer should be familiar with a magazine before submitting. But the economy of literary magazines is weak, and needs some interrogation. First of all, is it unreasonable to hope that a major American literary magazine could offer a larger monetary prize for such a high entry fee?

My questions extend beyond this single contest. Should a writer submit to a literary magazine that only “pays” in contributor copies? What does it mean that we, in the literary community, have accepted lack of monetary payment as commonplace? Does literary citizenship benefit a certain class of writers and academics, particularly those on the tenure track, for whom continual publication is a professional necessity?

These are exactly the type of conversations that I have in my writing classrooms–and I teach high school students. Granted, I wait until my advanced course, but from September through June, my students read widely and write often, and they also learn about the business of creative writing.

Creative writing should be taught as an art, and as a business. A creative writing program that only includes the former can unwittingly reinforce romantic stereotypes of writing. A young student might major in creative writing. She could become a wonderful poet, and a well-read critic. But she needs to know that poetry doesn’t pay the bills. This is the inside joke of creative writing programs in America. We know creative writing doesn’t make money, and yet we continue to graduate talented writers with no business acumen. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is fraudulent.

Let me be clear that I do not think there is a vast creative writing conspiracy, filled with professors who don’t care about their students. I have only encountered compassionate, knowledgeable professors in this discipline. But I do think some self-reflection is in order. Few other academic programs are marketed or discussed in such spiritual terms. Writing students are given “time” to write, to find themselves. While feeling almost new age in its promises, creative writing speak retains working-class metaphors. Writers must be agrarian when they “cut the chaff.” They are to be craftsmen and craftswomen, carpenters of words. If writers are spoken to as skilled artisans, it should follow that they not only produce beautiful and useful creations, but that they also know how to sell those creations. This does not happen. It is reasonable to expect that graduates of a discipline understand the economic realities of that discipline.

An apprentice artisan observes the economic realities of his or her discipline. My father and grandfather were carpenters. They built homes and remodeled bathrooms. They worked when other people slept or relaxed. They had to create things that were beautiful and useful in order to make money to help feed their families. Their profession required the synthesis of artistry and practicality.

cover Could writers learn from carpenters? I think so, but in ways less metaphorical than literal. Charles Blackstone, the managing editor of Bookslut and author of the novel Vintage Attraction, thinks writers need to know more about the business of their art. He says during the days of postal submissions, writers often had to read “an issue or two of the publications to which they submitted, mainly due to the fact that that was largely how anyone knew about what journals were out there.” Now writers unfamiliar with the submission process can sometimes produce “absurd results.”

Becoming a realist takes time. When Blackstone “was teaching, not that far from being a student myself, I believed that it was all about the art, and that beautiful sentences made work publishable, marketplace be damned, and so on. My years of publishing my own books and editing Bookslut has only reinforced the folly of this kind of romantic thinking. I now know that platform is king.” Often writers–and teachers of writing–forget “everyone still has profit and loss to consider. There’s no getting around that. Without grants and donors, the literary altruists would be out of business too. There has to be a reasonable expectation that something’s going to make some kind of return on investment in order to justify the risk.” When Blackstone received unsolicited submissions of book galleys from publishers, he “could fill a fairly long and wide dining table in about two weeks.” And I didn’t even give my address out to a lot of publicists.” Most of those books weren’t right for Bookslut to cover.

Blackstone thinks “the Internet has made publicists careless and inefficient, just as it has aspiring writers.” So what can be done? Blackstone thinks writers need to learn independently. As a writer, he “paid attention to rejections and tried to free myself from the delusion that my work was brilliant and misunderstood as quickly as possible. I worked to find my own answers.”

I agree with Blackstone, and that’s a problem for me as a teacher. I know that my students have to fail to succeed. Although I was lucky to attend creative writing programs that familiarized students with the business of writing, I was never coddled. I come from a blue-collar Catholic aesthetic. There is a difference between “good works” and, well, work. You get paid money for work. That is why I cringe when I see writing “jobs” shared online, followed by the inevitable admission that “we are unable to pay.” I know young writers have to work their way up the ladder, but more often the business of writing looks like writers climbing those rungs to nowhere. It has been said that poetry, in particular, is a gift economy. Unfortunately, that gift benefits readers and writers less than it perpetuates the creative writing system, a system that makes promises it is unable to keep.

2. A Checklist for Teaching the Business of Creative Writing
How can we prepare students for the reality of this profession? I spoke with other teachers who engage the business element of the art in their courses. Mary Biddinger teaches a graduate course as part of the NEOMFA (Northeast Ohio MFA) program titled “MFA Craft and Theory of Poetry: Revising, Editing, Publishing.” Biddinger finds that “revealing the working stages of a manuscript from draft to shelf” helps demystify publishing, and “shows students that revision skills, and active reading, are tools valued beyond the classroom.” She shares galley proofs of new books from the Akron Series in Poetry, as well as typeset pages from her own forthcoming books or journal publications. Writing students need to see their teachers as working writers, and to see publication as a meticulous, collaborative, and often slow process.

At James Madison University, Jay Varner includes the professional world of writing in his introductory creative non-fiction course. Students read “pieces about the actual business of writing,” including “No” and “Yes” by Brian Doyle, “Diary of a Mad Fact Checker” by James Pogue, and “Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or How to Make Vitamin Soup” by Richard Morgan. Biddinger, Varner, and all the other teachers I spoke with stressed that a “fundamental understanding of both the form [across genres] and the process of creating [literature] comes first,” but discussion of the business elements of writing is necessary to debunk myths. Varner’s students are “routinely shocked that months of work on an essay would net them $50” and contributor copies. They are also surprised to learn that “slick magazines might pay them several thousand–but once the process and time spent on a project is explained, they are surprised for other reasons.”

Catherine Pierce, co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University, avoids business talk in introductory courses, instead saving her “professionalization unit for the last few weeks of the semester” within an advanced poetry workshop. Students present research about a literary magazine they enjoy. Afterward, they submit a packet of poems to one of the markets researched by their peers. Pierce thinks “having this as a requirement of the class helps to alleviate the anxiety many students feel about sending out their work for the first time,” and it gives her the “opportunity to talk candidly about rejection.”

This sense of toughness might be lost on a generation of students raised on rubrics. Perhaps more than any other discipline, students must learn that there is a profound difference between being a successful student writer and a successful professional writer. Students receive grades, which are meant to be reflections of growth and mastery of material. The relationship between writer and teacher and writer and editor is not comparable. Magazine editors might begin as purists, but even purists need to eat. Editors want to sell magazines, gain advertising revenue, and attract the best writers. As students, all of us have moments where we did just enough to earn a grade. Students need to know that as writers, they must be excellent to even have a shot.

Kris Bigalk stresses this transition from student to independent writer in a course within Hamline University’s MFA program. Her students “develop short and long-term artist development plans, in which students identify their artistic strengths and weaknesses, ways they wish to grow as writers once they leave the program, and publication and career goals related to writing.” Many students “have a hard time leaving the role of ‘student’ and moving into the role of ‘artist,’ where they must manage their own development.” Students read biographies of writers to see how a writer’s career develops, and “how that development is often independent of the employment that sustains them.”

In a lecture given to students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, Patrick Madden and Sue William Silverman discuss this “slow and steady path” to magazine and book publication. Madden focuses on the magazine end, and advises that since so much is beyond the control of writers, they should focus on taking tangible steps. Students should read magazines for enjoyment, inspiration, but also as a form of reconnaissance. They can become part of the magazine publishing world by writing book reviews, conducting interviews, and joining the staff of a literary magazine (VCFA students work on Hunger Mountain).

It helps when teachers of the business of creative writing have worked as editors. Cara Blue Adams, former editor of The Southern Review and fiction editor of The Sonora Review, teaches at Coastal Carolina University. In one graduate course, “Forms of Fiction,” students consider “how to build a writing practice and write and publish a cohesive book–as opposed to crafting individual stories.” Students examine the “publication, marketing, and critical reception of the book side-by-side with the craft of writing.”

Adams notes “these questions are not directly addressed in graduate school. The assumption sometimes seems to be that simply reading books is enough to teach an apprentice writer how to write a book, and that each person must forge a writing practice and learn about the publication process for him- or herself. People sometimes say apprentice writers are not yet ready to think about publication. I disagree. Guided attention to these questions does much to help students to develop a plan to get to where they would like to be.”

Her useful approach mediates between the creative and the realistic by helping “students to question how other writers have carved out time to write by reading interviews with practicing writers and studying their lives. This is often tied in interesting ways to those writers’ aesthetic choices: their chosen forms, their material, their themes. We also learn about the various economies at play in the writing world through reading and discussion. Writing doesn’t happen in an economic vacuum. Nor does publication. Studying the context in which writing is produced and [how it] finds readers allows students to productively think through the dialogue between their own lives and their writing practice.”

cover She recommends two books as case studies: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Victoria Chang’s The Boss, noting “both writers have jobs aside from writing–teaching at a number of institutions, working in business–and both have children. Both reinvented their forms in light of strictures on their time. Offill wrote her novel while teaching and parenting, dismantling a more traditional novel in favor of a novel written in fragments to more accurately examine the ‘collision of art and life.’ Chang wrote her poetry collection while waiting for her daughter to finish her Saturday Chinese lessons.” These doses of reality are meant to strengthen, not dissuade, students. How can we not be honest with them?

We can start by being honest with ourselves, as teachers of this discipline. Here is a checklist of 10 skills related to the business of creative writing that students should have when they graduate.

Graduates of creative writing programs should be able to do the following:

1. Identify the aesthetics of contemporary literary magazines, both print and online.

2. Contribute to the production of a literary magazine or blog, either as a submission reader, editor, designer, or by marketing on social media.

3. Prepare a manuscript for magazine submission, including industry standard formatting and a cover letter, as well as gain proficiency with an electronic submission system, such as Submittable.

4. Prepare a manuscript for book submission (arranging stories/essays/poems in a collection, or writing a query letter/synopsis for novel/memoir manuscript).

5. Pitch article/essay ideas as a freelance writer.

6. Apply close reading and editing skills learned during workshops toward copyediting.

7. Identify the language of contemporary publishing (from how genres are catalogued to the differences between independent and self-publishing).

8. Prepare a résumé/CV that highlights their writing skills and experiences.

9. Write a book review.

10. Prepare proposals for panels at conferences and other events, as well as draft grants for fellowships or funding opportunities.

3. Our Responsibilities to Students
There is no one path to success in creative writing, as there is no prototypical student of the discipline. Enormous demographic and pedagogical differences exist among undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs. A single classroom will contain novices and veterans. Alexander Chee, currently a visiting writer at UT Austin, recalls that when he was a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, many students published in magazines, but only one or two of his peers had sold or published novels. When he returned as an instructor, two of his students had the same agent as him. Iowa’s pedigree aside, Chee’s point is well-taken. Rising writers have access to more information, faster, but they still need guidance. Chee reflects on taking a course with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan in 1989. Dillard used the “Best American anthologies as a roadmap to contemporary publishing.” She told students to see where essays or stories in the anthologies were originally published, and if the work’s style neared their own, remember the magazine as a possible market.

Such legwork might seem antiquated in the days of resources like Poets & Writers and Duotrope, but I fear that ease of information has enabled laziness. In an essay on her site, “Last Lecture: Am I a writer?”, Cathy Day offers some tough love for students. Day believes a “writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long . . . [starting when students take] writing seriously–meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.” I can appreciate Day’s sentiment. Often students want to simply publish a book, and do so for the wrong reasons. There is a time and place to introduce the business of writing to students, and it should not happen before they are competent storytellers.

But if we don’t talk about the business of creative writing, we perpetuate the myth that money always stains art. Does it often? Of course. Yet pretensions toward artistic purity hurt students. Writing can become a perpetual unpaid internship. Doing something “for the love of it” has made countless people–not the least of whom are teachers–see their generosity and good nature be rewarded with mediocre pay and respect. I owe it to my students to get them ready for the professional world of writing. If they ignore my advice, that is their problem. We should talk about money with creative writing students because, even though we wish it were different, money equals value in our culture. If you doubt that, try buying your next dinner with a well-recited poem.

I need my students to know that they will likely struggle every step of this way in this business. They must be shrewd and determined and aware. But when they close the door and go to their writing desk, they must be generous, sensitive, and open to the mystery of this art. It is the responsibility of writing teachers to help students become better on the page, but also to teach them what to do with those pages. Many students will fold those pages and put them in drawers. They will be better readers and more careful thinkers, but will never publish their work. But we do owe those students who want to publish–the ones who are willing to fight–a little training for their real battles.

Image: Unsplash/Jeffrey Hamilton.

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at


  1. This is an excellent piece. I’m glad to see writing a book review on the list of things a graduating creative writing student should know how to do. It’s an important skill that too often goes untaught.

    I would also add to this list marketing skills. At the very least writers should understand their audience, their best readers, and how to connect with them in significant numbers. I know it’s hard to do this because we’re so accustomed to the quiet of the writing studio, but if we’re to seriously think about creative writing as a business then marketing and learning how to do it well is key.

  2. Mr. Ripatrazone,

    Thank you for sharing this information and your perceptive insights with Millions readers.

  3. This is the crux of the problem of contemporary literature. Creative Writing Programs. If you look at it economically, it is delusional. How many debut writers get published a year? How many students enroll in Creative Writing programs a year? Thus, when the inevitable failure to break into the profession happens for 95% of the students, the Creative Writing Industry needs to justify its existence, and here comes the entrance of marketing, business, and PR approaches to get students ahead of the game. The Corporatization of Literature is the result of all this, which leads to an overabundance of predictable, safe, formulaic literature. There will be no more wild geniuses to come if all of this continues. The would-be geniuses would be too busy compiling their small press marketing strategies to ever create something worthwhile. It is quite simple really. There are just far too many writers, many of whom are average at best. And these Creative Writing Programs keep spewing them out year after year, flooding the market. Let’s call a spade a spade here: The Creative Writing Industry is at best a jobs program for mid-list writers and a golden cash cow for universities, and at worst a giant pyramid scheme cloaking itself under the guise of high culture.

  4. People bandy about that “cash cow” indictment quite a bit, yet in my experience, this is not the case. Yes, it’s true that most writers do not make a living as writers (coincidentally, I just yesterday got my annual royalty check, which is enough to give my family a nice dinner at a restaurant). But I know of no residential MFA program that doesn’t give (most or all of) its students full-tuition fellowships, in exchange, usually, for their teaching (freshman composition, etc). So there’s no real income from MFA students. Cheap labor, yes, but the same effect can be had from hiring adjuncts or literature MA students. As for low-residency programs, the ones I know are zero-sum games, though I suppose perhaps there might be some that net a profit. But making a profit isn’t the same as being a “cash cow.”

    The mistake so many people make is absorbing capitalism as their value system. I teach in two MFA programs, a residential and a low-residency, and I’ve met only a handful or students who aspire to make a living as writers only. The vast, vast majority see writing as a passion, something they want to improve at, to do in their spare time, because writing fills and fulfills them. You can’t put a dollar sign on that, and most don’t, feeling that their MFA was worth the time, effort, and even money, despite never making back their investment in income. Maybe, if Eugene is correct, this leads to an excess of mediocre writers, but I can’t see how it would stifle genius, and I don’t have any problem with people doing something they love. I’ve read a good number of Nobel Prize winners, and only about half of them speak to me, so I’d be a fool to believe that my aesthetic judgment is God’s aesthetic judgment. Maybe what I deem “mediocre” is someone else’s “brilliant.”

    In any case, complaining against it here, in the comments on an informative article, is the definition of kicking against the pricks. It’s not like you’ll convince aspiring writers to give up on their dreams and steer clear of MFA programs, and there’s even less a chance that the programs themselves will shut down on some skewed moral grounds.

    Thanks, Nick, for some practical advice to help bridge student writers into publishing.

  5. Patrick – I was referring to unfunded programs as being cash cows, particularly the likes of NYU and Columbia. Fully funded programs evidently produce little to no profit for schools. I don’t know too many people who can afford (time or money-wise) committing two years of their lives improving upon a hobby, and for the unfunded programs you most certainly can put a dollar on it, fulfilling to the soul or not. Don’t get me started on prizes, that’s another beast entirely. I complained about it here as it was a knee-jerk reaction to something I feel quite strongly about. I have no agenda in changing the minds of anyone. I know I am against the grain of thinking regarding Creative Writing Programs.

    Patrick, although I don’t agree with most of your points made, I appreciate your insights nonetheless. I am merely a dabbler and voracious reader, observing from the outside.



  6. Eugene: thanks for your reply. Mine wasn’t meant only to argue with your points, but to offer a different perspective on what creative writing classes are and are doing. I would not claim that the current system (academization of creative writing, etc.) is ideal, but I do think it’s a result, mostly, of people pursuing their passions (not money or fame), and mostly in informed (not deluded) ways. And in so far as some people are deluded, I think it’s mostly self-delusion, not intentional trickery from the programs.

    Nick: I would ask: if you’re teaching the business of creative writing as early as high school, do your students ever complain that “this is something I’m never going to use”? I’d imagine that most students never go on to publish anything. Also, I and many writers I know never had any mentoring on the business side of things, yet figured it out (to some degree). While I’m basically on your side (I do instruct in the art and business of publishing), I wonder if teachers can, like the internet, enable laziness.

  7. “Most of those books weren’t right for Bookslut to cover,” is the most amazing statement of this essay. What is considered “right”? White? Male? Female? Cisgendered? Heterosexual? Looking at Bookslut, there’s a limited palatte and conjoined with Blackstone’s statement about “platform is everything,” this reads as a not-so-subtle treatise on the central reason the so-called literary culture has been and continues to be marginalized. Much like the Republican party, outlets like Bookslut, terrified of diversity and losing whatever position they’ve achieved, are curated to appeal to white, straight, old people. There is nothing wrong with being white – in fact, I am half white, but queer and middle-aged, when I queried Bookslut (correctly, formally, timely), I received no response. This essay is good, I suppose, for a general reader, but for one who writes from the margins, it’s irrelevant. Unless one is the next Jennifer Egan, in which case it’s perfect!

  8. I wish this article had addressed the strange fetishization of the short story in most writing courses. There is almost no way whatsoever to make real money from a short story, and yet so many courses focus on it. Instead, students should be writing full-length manuscripts (novels or non-fiction), which could conceivably sell if they had a leg-up (through faculty connections) and wrote something good enough. The best short stories in the world can get published in Tin House and Zyzzyva and Conjunctions all day, but nobody’s going to make a living on them.

    I would also argue that short stories are technically harder than novels, given the small canvas and the need for ruthless efficiency. And the fact that one can’t finish an entire novel in a semester is irrelevant. Students could still be working on portions of a novel.


  9. Yes, but after the MFA students learn those ten things, what will they do for the other 22 months of their 24-month program?

  10. At the end of the day if you want to do what you want, as a writer, you’ll need a ‘real’ job. I don’t understand these kids going into creative writing degrees. As Borges would call them, “correct youths lacking any mental equipment”. If you’re worrying about your book being publishable, it probably is.

  11. Tommy,

    The reason CW courses stress the short story is 1) that a good ten page story can encapsulate everything you want to do as a writer, e.g. creating narrative moment, satisfying character arcs, conclusions that expand the story, and so on. I have been in workshops where people submit chapters of novels in progress, and while this has some merit, it is simply difficult to know what to critique or how to help. Novels are just too big and messy to fit well in the confines of the workshop model.

    That said, it was common knowledge in my program (and I suspect most programs) that you needed to write a novel, and that no one reads short stories. Short stories and the short story economy, so to speak, is a means of establishing academic resume credentials and landing an agent (agents do read lit mags). This isn’t some big secret.

    Eugene/timble, and to some extent Nick,

    Look, to my experience the wool isn’t being pulled over anyone’s eyes. No professor in a reputable program would suggest that the odds are with a student getting a tenure track job after graduation, or publishing a successful book of short stories (lol). As Patrick Madden said, most people do an MFA for the chance to spend 2-4 years mostly working on and thinking about writing. I fail to see how this is so consistently viewed from the outside as a bad thing, yet any article even tangentially related to MFA-world always seems to predictably elicit this kind of hostility.

    Also, can we dispense with the canard that MFA programs are responsible for some kind of wretched glut of middling novels? The market has always been saturated with a uninspired dreck. Actually, I would say, if anything, MFA programs are probably responsible for a slight uptick in the quality of the average literary novel, so-called, but this is, of course, an unprovable assertion. At any rate, the idea that the wild-haired savants from days of yore–who presumably wrote their opuses with quill and ink in abandoned shacks–are now TAs at the Michener Center having the small candles of their internal genius being snuffed by middlebrow pedantry and the specter of workshop submission, is just beyond silly, yet it crops up constantly.

  12. I’ve got mixed feelings when this comes up. I do feel like MFA programs should teach a programming/business course that should not be required, but is available if a student is interested.

    But I do not like that Nick Ripatrazone is teaching this sort of stuff in his workshops/writing courses. This sort of mentality feeds the current industrialization of the pursuit that Eugene Marxsen refers to.

    Writing should not be viewed as a career or profession. It is a religion. Some people who pursue this religion will need to know the business side of things–those who want to work in churches, do mission work, etc.–but many do not. The writing teacher is no more devout than the carpenter or lawyer that prays with poetry.

  13. Ross and Others,

    Whence this golden age of writers writing but for themselves, God, and the muses? Writing (and all art) has always been “industrialized”–compromised by economic and professional concerns. How/why are the relatively paltry economies of MFA programs and academia worse than ad agencies or rich noblepersonages? Explain yourselves.

  14. Hot Oss,

    I believe my metaphor was fairly straight forward. I did not at all say that pursuing writing professionally was somehow impure. I only said that it was no more noble than those that write for themselves or for friends or other small audiences. My grandma was one of these people. In order to have a healthy and vibrant literary culture, we need these people, as they are our smartest readers. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with becoming, as a said in my metaphor, a priest or a deacon.

    As for MFA programs, I’m attending one myself, so obviously I don’t fully agree with Eugene Marxsen’s assessment. On the other hand, as someone who attends an MFA program, I can say that I have a lot of very anxious, super achieving classmates who have spent their entire lives in school and who would probably be better off learning to enjoy literature for its own sake than as a tool to earn a new gold star. With the degree of, yes, industrialization going on in the culture, there’s a very real risk of seeing publications not as the end, but as the means in which to earn that secure, tenure-track job.

    Teach writing and literature. And teach business and programming. But don’t teach them in the same class. It’s important that they remain compartmentalized in the minds of aspiring writers. Isn’t that what Lan Samantha Chang’s newest novel is all about? Though you could probably accuse her of some hypocrisy here.

  15. Re Ross: Wonderful excerpt from the review you just mentioned:

    [Quite soon, “there was nothing left of either love or cruelty.” Each of us, Roman rationalizes, “is born into our own time and eventually the things we held as the center of the world, dearly, unforgivingly, must fade.”]

    Picture a cold November night in Washington DC. A poetry open-mic is kicked off by a special reading by the Poet-in Residence from a school somewhere to the south of us. She reads, while Cyrus sits hunched directly below her at the front table, furiously writing new poetry in pencil. All present hope it is not more of his erotic masterwork.

    At the corner of the bar, a Handsome Young Man writes on a wet bar napkin. At a table in the far back a Lady In A Large Wooly Sweater Covered with Cats sits nervously. It is her first time here. At the door is Mary, off her meds and not bathing. She heads to the bar and Tom kindly directs her towards an ice tea, instead of a beer. Fortunately, she agrees to the ice tea.

    The Poet-in-Residence is quite Poet-ish, but nothing she says sticks to me. Cyrus’ poem is about Scientology, not his balls. The crowd sighs in relief. Handsome Young Man fulminates about old men letting young men Till The Poetry Furrows, or something like that. Mary embodies an exchange student from Gambia at a café, and recites in a perfect stream of improvised free verse for 20 minutes. She’s gone 15 minutes over, but the emcee is afraid to cut her off. Verbal sparks fly off her body.

    The Lady comes on, and a snicker, and whispered quip about cat sweaters is hushed by the emcee. Her poetry digs into deep layers of the earth’s crust, bring up minerals, fossils, the heart of an ancient woman searching for berries and nuts. I feel the tell-tale tingle along the linings of my nerves and know the real thing when I hear it.

    Aftermath: Several local poet dignitaries converge on the bar, surrounding the Poet-in-Residence. One shoves past The Lady with his eyes firmly fixed ahead of him. She returns to her table in the back with an ice water with three lemon slices. No one seems to have heard her. She is not a part of the Poetry-Industrial-Complex. But in some magical way, her words will live on when “there [is] nothing left of either love or cruelty.”

  16. Hot O

    The fact that Samantha Chung’s novel (“All Is Forgotten Nothing Lost”, to which Ross linked) exists (its writer well-educated in craft but so deficient in imagination, ambition, and confidence that she can’t write anything outside her own head and experience), was published (by WW Norton, no less), and was reviewed (by the NY Times, no less) should tell you all you need to know about the damage MFA programs have done to American letters.

    Boring, inessential, navel-gazing, shitty novels have always existed in the minds and drawers of talentless hacks. Some of them have even been published. But when the culture puts these sort of novels on a pedestal – because the culture is littered with MFA-factory grads who have rather amazingly been trained to accept writers writing about writing, for example, as something that anyone in the world would or should give two shits about, and because the author’s MFA teacher once dated an agent who knew a publisher who was owed a favor by an old pal at the influential publication and on and on and on – when these novels are celebrated instead of ignored away and replaced with something meaningful and valuable and artistic and occasionally great? Silly indeed.

  17. Don’t see any reason the subject of “writer’s writing” should be any less worthy of a novel than any other topic. I found “All Is Forgotten Nothing Lost” beautifully written and fun to read.

    As for another novelist writing from his own life experience, how about a plug for British novelist David Lodge, who really deserves a wider readership in the U.S. Most of his novels (recommend “Changing Places” and “Small World”) are set in the world of academia where he has spent much of his life.

  18. I think this article raises an interesting point, but I do wonder why no one is comparing what gets taught on creative writing programmes with what gets taught by music and dance conservatories, art school or drama programmes?

    Creative writing programmes are often defended by saying that other art forms can be taught and writing isn’t really that different from those art forms in terms of requiring practice and instruction in the craft. In line with that argument (which I am not questionning at all), it would make sense that any assumptions about what should get taught on creative writing degree courses would be in line with what should get taught in other creative subjects. Given that the academic/vocational education in those art forms tends to be more established (sometimes by decades or even centuries) and (possibly, potentially) more widely accepted and recognised throughout society as valid than creative writing degrees, it stands to reason that creative writing programmes can learn from how other art forms are taught and what is taught in such programmes.

    As debates about creative programmes often generate a discussion about whether there are too many of them and too many graduates from these programmes, it may also be interesting to consider that the ‘academic’/’vocational’ system also produces more musicians, singers, dancers, artists and actors than there are ‘jobs’ (let’s for the sake of argument assume that getting hired by an orchestra, an opera, dance or theatre company or having an exhibition in a gallery in that world is comparable to having a moderately successful book published in the writing world), but the wider world just assumes that those getting these degrees know (or at least should know) what they are getting themselves into and that the students on those programmes know (again, or should know) that they will most likely need day jobs, work badly paid small gigs or never really have an audience. Why should it be any different for writers? Why shouldn’t writers be able to choose to be trained in their chosen art form in the same way as musicians, singers, dancers, artists or actors with an understanding that most of them will not become famous, rich or even moderately successful in their chosen field, but that the training itself may be interesting, engaging, intellectually challenging and even fun?

  19. To Nick Ripatrazone:

    Your ideas are great! All of us at the Reston Library Writers Group have read through your Millions article. Jan just submitted a piece to “Ploughshares,” Martha is pitching an essay idea to the Fairfax County Connector Newsletter, and I’m polishing up the manuscript of my first poetry collection.

    Our new writers group motto: THE ONES WHO ARE WILLING TO FIGHT

    Best Regards,

    “Lady In A Large Wooly Sweater Covered with Cats”
    Imaginary Poetess – See Comment Chain Above

  20. Ed,

    So a boring novel (I haven’t read it–Moe, who seems to have good taste, likes it) got published, so what? I just don’t buy the correlation you, and others, seem to arbitrarily–and again, antagonistically–draw between the existence of programs that fund writers and try to teach them craft, and some of those writers writing boring books. Writers inclined to write navel-gazing crap will do so with or without a 14k stipend and one class a month where they try out a story on classmates. Having been through one of these programs, I can very confidently tell you that no one is pressuring you to churn out middlebrow academic crap. First, no one cares what you write, really, least of all the faculty; second, if anything, a few years away from the pressure of the making a living in the real economy, spending your time around other writers, inclines you, if anything, to try out different things and experiment. Many of the most prestigious MFA programs–Brown, UNC-Wilmington, UC-Irvine, Alabama, Syracuse, and others, are well-known for promoting experimental fiction.

    I would freely admit that MFAs and workshops are imperfect systems, but the amount of ill-informed, resentful hostility toward an apparatus that mostly exists to benignly fund struggling writers is just endlessly baffling to me. Haters, I suppose, as they say, are inclined to hate.

  21. Nic,


    You don’t hear this endless carping about, say, MFAs in painting. (To be fair, I don’t troll or whatever, so maybe people do carp about that, too). I think it has something to do with the fact that everyone can write, that there’s no obvious barrier to entry with writing if you’re not illiterate, and so everyone is inclined to subconsciously believe they are more or less as good as everyone else at it (everyone, as the incredibly untrue adage goes, has a book in them; not everyone has a horn concerto). Writing’s seemingly democratic nature creates an enormous reflexive antipathy in people to anything writing-related that smacks of hierarchy, see: publishing and MFA programs. The advent of self-publishing, blogging, etc., has only further “democratized” writing, further aligning people against these institutions.

  22. Preach it, Sophfronia. Even the big five publishers need their authors to be partners in the promotional and marketing process. With so many writers (and musicians and films and tv shows and photos and YouTube videos of cats) competing for attention, the most successful authors are those that take an active role in their books’ promotion. See Vivek Shraya, Julia Fierro, Amber Dawn, David Harris-Gershon, Neil Gaiman, Daniel Handler, Roxane Gay and so many more…

  23. Re: “All Is Forgotten Nothing Lost” — the story versus the meaning. Query: is Camus’ “The Plague” about a local public health matter in North Africa seventy years ago?

  24. Hot O

    My issue isn’t necessarily with the programs or the writers themselves (though seriously, quit writing books about writers writing in Brooklyn). I don’t care if a writer has seven MFAs or zero, the question is, can they write? They problem is that industry as a whole has elevated boring-ass risk-averse “but well-crafted!” crap to the forefront of the literary scene. The NY publishing industry is basically an MFA alumni group. I get it, it’s always been more about “who you know” in publishing, but I stubbornly believe there was a time where quality mattered.

    And again, shitty novels have always been published. The best selling novels in the past century or so tend to be commercial, trashy, etc. The danger nowadays is the rise of the pseudo-literary novel at the expense of the brilliant one. It’s laziness more than anything – for a publisher, it’s much easier to publish a book by an Iowa MFA (the marketing is built-in, plus you can count on a certain level of competence) than it is to get boots on the ground and search for flat-out talent and art.

    This is why independent presses are publishing the interesting work in America right now, not the Big 5 (or is it 4 by now?). But America doesn’t read books by small independent presses. They don’t know about them. What gets read is what gets marketed. And when what gets marketed is homogeneous unimaginative unoriginal shite, well, our culture as a whole suffers.

  25. Okay, Moe, I’ll bite. What is the “meaning”? There is so little at stake in that type of novel (Keith Gessen’s “All the Sad Young Literary I’m Falling Asleep Already” or Waldman’s “Love Affairs Of Hezekiah P” are others). They speak so little to the world or the human condition or anything, really, outside of the writer’s own skull that what’s the point? I can’t for the life of me understand why a so-called writer, when she sits down to write a novel, staring at that blank screen, when literally anything is possible – you are the creator, you are basically playing God – you can do anything you damn well please – which is a rare thing in this world, no? – why you would choose to paint that canvas with the same old things you see and live every day? That is such a fundamental lack of passion and ambition and creativity! That, to me, reeks of someone more interested in being a Writer than actually having something to say.

    How come we don’t see “well-written” but plotless books about plumbers going through plumbing school and hanging out in hardware stores with other plumbers, dating other plumbers, talking about plumbing and what plumbing “means” to them?

  26. Good article.

    I’m an author with about 20 books and lotsa graphic novel stories sold to major publishers. I also teach an online undergrad course via UMASS called Writing for a Living. That’s arguably an oxymoron, but I wanted to teach all the stuff I felt was missing from the classes I’d taken, the things I wish I’d known before trying to start a career.

    As a result, the class focuses entirely on the business side, talking art vs commerce, industry, market, writing queries and press releases.

    Is it a *creative* writing class? To my mind, writing queries is a creative process – learning to condense concepts into a few paragraphs over the years has improved my writing tremendously.

    One person’s religion may be another’s paycheck. One person’s idle hobby may be another’s avocation. At the same time, in terms of what writing is, none of these are mutually exclusive.

    And, as I said, the business side is what I wish I’d known years ago. From the feedback I’ve received, students love it.

  27. Ed,

    While it is true that the American publishing industry has become more conservative and risk-averse over the last forty-odd years (hard to imagine your boy Gaddis getting published by Knopf in 2014), I would lay this at the feet of business woes and attendant mergers caused by cultural shifts and economic downturns , themselves caused by demographics, Republicans, TV, the internet, and so on. The fact that agents and publishers rely to a some extent–though I would say much less than what you posit–on MFA pedigree is more of a symptom than cause. Publishing has always relied on imperfect systems of chaff reduction due to time constraints and excess of material, now more than ever. I agree that in a perfect world, the Big Five would be searching every avenue possible for interesting work, and taking big risks on it, but that just isn’t realistic economically, and again, I don’t believe MFA programs have much to do with it. In fact, i nthe absence of MFA programs providing a viable pipeline of new literary (pseudo or otherwise) talent to the publishing industry, it’s entirely possible to imagine it being even more conservative, transitioning entirely to self-help books and vampire novels.

    Also, while some MFA graduates may cross over into publishing, to my knowledge/experience the vast majority of agents and editors are not, themselves, MFAs. And sorry, but lol at the idea of an author’s MFA degree providing anything in the way of promotion or marketing. No one cares.

    On this, however, “though seriously, quit writing books about writers writing in Brooklyn,” we can agree.

  28. Jennifer, Roxane Gay is indeed one of the writers I have in mind when I think of a strong marketing presence. I admire the way her presence is not just about “buy my book!” She’s a powerful literary citizen–yes, I will use that phrase– who makes it evident she reads a lot of literature, writes about it, and participates in the important discussions concerning writers. I consider her a model to follow.

  29. Hot Ossuary writes: “In fact, in the absence of MFA programs providing a viable pipeline of new literary (pseudo or otherwise) talent to the publishing industry, it’s entirely possible to imagine it being even more conservative, transitioning entirely to self-help books and vampire novels.”

    True enough: Workshops get scapegoated, justifiably so or not.

    But as people concerned with aesthetics, as presumably the readers within this community are, is it not incumbent upon us to consider the consequences of a literary world in which participation in creative writing workshops is seen as a prerequisite for publishing fiction? The most obvious consequence of this understanding, it seems to me, is the complete disappearance of anything resembling a literary avant-garde, particularly in America. I submit that’s not good.

    I think a lot of the resentment toward workshops has to do with their rise coinciding with the emergence of a very bland, topical, period piece-y type of novel that conglomerate publishing, whether in cahoots with the creative writing establishment or not, has contrived to promote and perpetuate. This offends many readers, and I am among the offended.

    I also submit that without a viable avant-garde, and without a community of advocates and readers willing to take on a more challenging, less modish aesthetic, you never get a Beckett. You never get a Joyce, a Proust, a Camus, a Sartre, a Pynchon, a Barthelme, a David Foster-Wallace, a Delillo, etc. You’ll get another Franzen. You’ll get more Harbachs. Lord knows you’ll get a gaggle of Raymond Carver knockoffs. You’ll get a whole bunch of commercially sanitized, formally indifferent novels. In short, you’ll get less “outstanding” work—work that demands to be read, again and again, throughout one’s lifetime.

    I guess I’d just prefer not to imagine a world where something with the originality and derring-do of a “Molloy” or a “Nausea” or a “Grav’s Rainbow” isn’t possible. I’m just not convinced many creative writing workshops aren’t pushing us much faster toward that world.

  30. elko

    The disappearance of the avant garde was never more apparent to me then the day a few months ago when I cracked open an issue of Harper’s and read a story by Ben Marcus, who has been propped up as “avant garde” as much as anyone. So what did this maverick have to offer? A story about a writer teaching a writing workshop – on a cruise ship! It’s the worst short story I’ve ever read. It is maddeningly devoid of style, of passion – hell, of a pulse….this by the dude who wrote the insane Age of Wire & String! Man, it’s depressing.

  31. Haha! Sounds traumatic. To be fair to Harper’s, they have included some striking and boundary pushing works over the past few years—”Hammer and Sickle” by Delillo comes to mind, as does a story by John Wideman, published a few years ago, which I also thought high quality.

    To be sure, the cultural and political dynamics continue to redefine what it means to get published and build a readership. These dynamics have always been in flux. What I believe not to be in flux are the elemental components of what makes great art great. Contrary to popular belief, getting published does not ipso facto equate to literary eminence, aesthetic merit or being read in posterity. In our hyper-focus to get published and get a platform and “get our names out there,” we seem to have forgotten the true precedent for great writing: great reading.

    What does that mean? It’s different for everybody. To me it means opting for Joyce instead of Joyce Carol Oates, Kafka instead of Carver, Woolf instead of Harbach, Dos Passos instead of Franzen, Stevens instead of Ashberry, etc.

    Over-emphasis on the publishing machine has clouded out what is in my mind the only real precedent for producing great work—acquainting yourself with other great works. That precedent hasn’t changed in thousands of years, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon—no matter how the tastes of the bourgeois or conglomerate publishing evolve.

  32. “I also submit that without a viable avant-garde, and without a community of advocates and readers willing to take on a more challenging, less modish aesthetic, you never get a Beckett. You never get a Joyce, a Proust, a Camus, a Sartre, a Pynchon, a Barthelme, a David Foster-Wallace, a Delillo, etc. You’ll get another Franzen. You’ll get more Harbachs. Lord knows you’ll get a gaggle of Raymond Carver knockoffs. You’ll get a whole bunch of commercially sanitized, formally indifferent novels”


  33. Elko,

    I don’t really disagree with a lot of what you’re saying (though I don’t really see the need to choose between Kafka and Carver, Wallace and Franzen, etc.), and it is true that the American avant-garde is not very avant right now. Still, you haven’t made a very compelling case for how or why MFA programs should be indicted on this count. It seems to me the next Delillo is more likely to have an MFA than not, is likely to avail themselves of several years of funding and relatively little work, in order to hone their peculiar craft. An MFA program is one of the few places, in fact, that an experimental writer could actually make a living in this economy; also, as I noted before, many MFA programs promote experimental writing, to a much greater degree than lit culture at large. Really, MFA programs are, if anything, the last refuge and salvation of a lot of forms of writing that the culture at large can at this point, seemingly, do entirely without, e.g. poetry.

  34. First of all Hot Ossuary, you haven’t addressed elko’s argument (not unique to him/her, but expressed well and succinctly here) – the argument involved the thought experiment of imagining a great writer in a writing workshop. We immediately feel that the great writer would hate it, or alternatively, would be crushed by “I think you’re really being indulgent in this passage, like, I just don’t really… get it. I think you need to introduce some more back story.” Etc.

    All you’ve said is “MFA programs are the last place that experimental writers can make some money.” First of all, experimental work doesn’t equate with avant garde necessarily. For instance, magical realism may seem experimental, but come on, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and George Saunders aren’t experimental, it’s clearly a genre (and they all sound like one another). Ed had the point that Ben Marcus has written some experimental work, but just because its experimental doesn’t make it – the next artistic movement in literature -.

    Your second point that MFA programs are the last refugee of the poetry community is well-taken however – it is certainly true. But that *doesn’t mean* that the poetry they produce is any good, or up the standards of previous eras. Just that their existence provides a sustainable model by becoming a part of academia. Should fiction be such?

  35. My god,

    I have addressed that argument. Here it is again: it isn’t true. Many people in my class, and in classes I teach now, and many of my friends and acquaintances in programs, and many other manys I could formulate, write experimental/strange/unorthodox fiction without being whipped or derided or forced at gunpoint to write Carveresque realism. This argument is a canard, an imagined failing. I really think it doesn’t have much basis in fact, but it seems to have a deathless appeal among people disposed to look for things to hate about the MFA system.

    Honestly, the argument upthread that MFA programs provide too convenient a talent pipeline to agents/editors, is a much more serious indictment in my opinion.

  36. Actually, HO, by definition you didn’t address it. Addressing it would be addressing the thought experiment. Rather, you provided a counter-point, which is that in your experience, writers can be and often are experimental in workshops because they don’t always write like Carver. I’ll grant you the non-conformity, by I strongly doubt that the experimentation that you claim is in bloom all around you is a) true, and b) relevant to the point. As I said earlier, magical realism is still sometimes thought of as experimental, but is definitely not avant garde at this point (which you failed to address). And avant garde, the original thing that was claimed to be lacking and stifled, is not equal to experimental – just because something is weird or different doesn’t make it avant garde (literally “advance guard” or pioneering). So you’re claim that everyone around you writes experimental fiction, even if true, doesn’t address either the thought experiment, nor does it affect the point that someone copying Ben Marcus is not an innovator. IF you deny just experimental and claim that you mean avant garde, it is somehow true that everyone around you is writing such cutting edge fiction, I can’t wait to read all this upcoming work.

  37. MG,

    This is silly. I am obviously not claiming everyone around me is writing cutting-edge fiction, despite your attempt to snidely strawman my comment into that. Most people around me strive to write competent fiction, as would be the case in any imaginable literary milieu. What I claimed, or meant to claim if it wasn’t clear enough, is that over the years I have known/taught/worked with many writers who write strange/experimental fiction in MFA environments, and I didn’t witness their muses being stifled.

    I can’t speak to your thing about magical realism or Ben Marcus, whom I haven’t read. But as another example, in one of my workshops, there were identity/social protest writers, there was sci-fi, there was Carvey stuff, and there were a couple of people bending toward sui generis meta weirdness. All of it seemed to cohabitate pretty harmoniously, and if anything, the weird writers were probably encouraged to get weirder.

    As you say, I’m trying to provide an experiential counterpoint to the rampant asserting going on here. It’s a little irritating, to be honest, like being in the military and told what basic training is like by people who watched Full Metal Jacket one time. If I must specifically address this “thought experiment,” which I guess is David Foster Wallace being told to write conventionally and made to cry by a horde of envious non-geniuses, well, clearly I think it is stupid and meritless. I think a Great Writer would do fine in an MFA program, and would probably benefit greatly from the free money.

  38. I’m very proud to say that our MFA program (The Red Earth MFA @ Oklahoma City University) has taught all of these skills except #10 (Prepare proposals for panels at conferences and other events, as well as draft grants for fellowships or funding opportunities.) within the last year. We have a “professional writing” emphasis (called a “strand”) and a literary magazine, which covers several topics on the list. Sometimes the professional writing topics are taught as a strand course (an elective), but most often, we teach workshops in these skills during our residencies so everyone has access to the information. But, I supposed I should teach one on #10 this January! Such a helpful list! We’ll use it to make sure that workshops in these skills stay in rotation.

  39. For a broader-angle view of some of the issues touched upon here (success vs. obscurity; anonymous art; creation for audience vs. solitary work) and much, much more, strongly suggest the Otto Rank masterwork “Art and Artist – Creative Urge and Personality.” (First printing as Norton paperback – 1989). Otto Rank was a Jungian analyst who was once part of the circle of acolytes surrounding Freud before breaking away on his own.

  40. Hot Ossuary –

    You’re right, I used the wrong word. I didn’t mean “choosing” Kafka over Carver (etc.) so much as “preferring” Kafka to Carver (just as an example). In truth I like both writers. My basic point in raising the comparison was to show the importance of recognizing that writers, or artists across all media, necessarily exist on an aesthetic hierarchy, and that the central business of critics or prospective artists is to determine where a given work stands in relation to predecessors and followers. This dynamic—this spirit of quiet competition—is what fosters ambitious art. But this is a bit of digression.

    As for MFA programs, I have no doubt one can derive value from them and improve tremendously as a writer. A friend of mine who was in a program said it was especially helpful for “getting the kinks out” of his writing. Certainly the reps can be of no small benefit.

    Do I think devoting several hours a day to a creative writing program is more crucial to a writer’s development than, say, having a Golden Age of Reading in your twenties—a period of total immersion in the masters new and old? Well, these things are hard to measure, given that no two writers develop identically. The alternatives I’ve presented aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, either. But I’m inclined to say the Golden Age of Reading is going to do more to advance your art and shape your sensibility as a writer, and it’s no exaggeration to say that a welter of examples supports that.

    It has been fun exchanging ideas on this topic. Writers and literati should be thinking about these things, and I’m grateful there’s a good forum, with very knowledgeable participants, in which to opine.

  41. Elko,

    I agree with you on the Golden Age of Reading in your twenties. Not, as you note, that the two are mutually exclusive, but I do tend to think that if there is an MFA novel, quote unquote, it’s as much as anything the product of ambitious young writers all reading mostly the same stuff, and each other. George Saunders, one imagines, read Kafka, Pynchon, Chekhov, etc.; Karen Russell, one imagines (probably falsely) read George Saunders. If there’s any criticism of the MFA model that I fully support, it’s that it creates, or fosters, a class of professional students, for whom the MFA is merely the next step in an endless academic do-si-do. I have taught/known brilliant 23 year-olds in these programs, but the 33 year-old, who has worked and lived in the real world for years, almost invariably produces more interesting/better work.

    Anyway, as you say, interesting thread–thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts.

  42. Continue to be drawn back to this never-ending chain, with bits and pieces of ideas that it has inspired. Two more:

    a.) Realized Chung’s novel “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost” is a novel of ideas, much like Voltaire’s “Candide,” with somewhat simply drawn, obviously exaggerated characters as stand-ins for positions along the spectrum of art and success. Miranda is Muse and Judge, Bernard Self-Abnegating Artist, Roman Ambition, and Lucy initially Domestic (the fabled “perambulator in the hallway), who post-Young Motherhood enters into a new period of poetic fertility. This is not low-stakes and boring depiction of someone’s real-life experience, this is a wonderfully creative metaphor.

    b.) Along the Art-Success spectrum above, I am still having shivers about a recent article I read about a genre novelist who had her manuscript put up for Crowdsourcing. One item that bothered me was her agreement to narrow her POVs in the manuscript from +25 to 4, when the Crowdsource found the high # of POVs “confusing.” I learned one of the original POVs was that of a squirrel.

    What a sad irony if the poor squirrel were cut (I don’t know if he has been or not) and that was the one voice would ultimately have spoken most deeply to an audience in 100 years, an audience of ADD-bred human beings who could easily handle 100 or more simultaneous POVs?

    Additionally, assuming the poor squirrel were cut, what a loss to the world, as everyone knows that squirrels are preternaturally perceptive of all matters of the heart. Look at the passion with which they lovingly hold onto and delicately chew their nuts and acorns!

    Moe Murph
    (Chewing Her Ideas Like Acorns)

  43. What’s the point of teaching the business of writing, if the product created won’t sell, and furthermore, if the business model you’re teaching is badly out of date?

    Better to be honest with writing students. Tell them that the fiction writers who make money from their writing today are those like Joanna Penn, or Amanda Hocking, or Hugh Howey or Joe Konrath– authors who if they ever took a “creative” writing course threw out everything they were taught. Increasingly, such writers follow their own business model, which is not one of groveling to agents and editors part of an outmoded, inefficient publishing system in a state of collapse. Many have taken their business into their own hands, via self-published ebooks.

    Their writing sells and is read because it’s NOT “literary” writing, which is focused on the well-written sentence to the neglect of things which actually turn on readers. You know: unliterary things like dramatics, action, pace, plot.

    The publishing world is swiftly changing. The Amazon versus Hachette debate is one chapter in this change– a way station on a road toward an inevitable destination. If students are paying ridiculous sums of money, going heavily into debt, in order to obtain a questionable certificate, they should at least be taught basic economics: that unmarketable artworks produced by woefully inefficient, overstaffed bureaucracies centered in one of the most expensive cities on the planet will not be competitive in the long run.

    This is an exciting time for new writers if they’re willing to abandon old business models and stale aesthetic products, to look instead at streamlined alternatives– new promoters and publishers who embrace change; who are willing to reinvent the literary art, and in so doing, create the literary future.

  44. Karl,

    I don’t know why I’m rising to this bait, but a few things. First, while it’s all well and good that these people have done well by self-publishing execrable genre fiction that doesn’t care about old-fashioned stuff like language and gives the people what they want, which is apparently “paranormal romance” and books with a Laura Croft look-alike on the cover entitled “Pentecost,” surely you see this is not a serious argument against the apparatus that buys and markets real fiction. The fact that semi-literate vampire novels can now go directly from author’s Macbook to reader’s Kindle is indeed bad for publishing, though I’m not sure why this is something to crow about. The same process will not obviously benefit good writers, who do rely on an industry that subsidizes their talent with mass-market garbage, and works diligently to get people interested in worthy fiction, when they’d probably just as soon watch Celebrity Matchmaker.

    Second, it’s common knowledge that MFA degrees are not moneymakers, and all of the reputable programs, excluding Columbia and perhaps NYU, provide full-funding and stipends to students. No one with any sense, or without a trust fund, is paying ridiculous sums of money or going heavily into debt to earn an MFA.

  45. When I think about Mr. Wenclas’ “literary future” something pops into my mind: (Mike Judge’s “Idiocrary”)

    Mr. Ossuary, very thoughtful response, no need to not rise to the occasion, if not the bait. A few more comments of my own:

    a.) See no reason the “well-written sentence” requires the neglect of dramatics, action, pace, plot.

    b.) What the H is a “stale aesthetic product?” Great art is ever-fresh. Opera at the moment is in a rather moribund state, but does that suggest that the “classical music future” is Katy Perry and Keisha?

    c.) Is art to be evaluated by its current “marketability?

    d.) I wouldn’t say the publishing industry is “overstaffed” — have you noticed the abject decline in proofreading and grammar standards?

    e.) I’ve mentioned this before, but I see no need to assume “literary” writing will have a wide audience. This is not meant to be elitist, great works of art come from all parts of society (I am thinking of poet Langston Hughes, for example, but there are so many others).

  46. I agree with you, H.O., that a lot of DIY ebook fiction is execrable– but as you admit in your comment, so is very much of the mass market stuff cranked out by the Big Six publishers. (Read a Konrath, novel, on the other hand, and you’ll see how much he does well as a writer. He has what few writers have– enough imagination to bring the reader into an exciting and thought-provoking world.)

    The question addressed here, however, is business. Can the old-fashioned, heavily bureaucratized publishing model survive in a changing economic environment? I don’t believe the writing teacher should pull down the blinds in his classroom and tell students not to look at what’s happening outside in the world.

    I could examine mainstream publishing point by point to show its inefficiencies. I shouldn’t need to, because they’re clearly visible– starting with voluminous office space itself, and the location, as I mentioned, in New York. Arguments about the writer’s cut, or what’s fair, or whether the writer truly needs an agent, editor, proofreader, from a business standpoint are beside the point. We already see that big publishers are demanding artificially inflated ebook prices. This is because they can’t compete economically against the DIY crowd, and so are as much economic dinosaurs as outdated industries kept on life support in the old Soviet Union. It’s not a business model which can sustain itself in the long run.

    You say that MFA programs themselves are on life support. Fine. It keeps alive a delicate and marginalized art; an art not standing at the center of the culture, relevant to all, but a niche whose role grows smaller. It’s the model of classical music. Good for some, but not all. As with music, populists come along willing to blow up an art and start over, with more populist, accessible, competitive products.

    I believe literature can do both– be popular and relevant, fast-paced and exciting, but also well-written and thoughtful. I believe this because that’s what literature once was, through novelists and story writers like Dickens and Dumas, O. Henry and Jack London. There’s no reason why writers today can’t do better than those long-ago icons, using what worked for them but taking the model farther.

    Writers artistically ambitious enough to attempt this are the writers I’m looking for. Whether they’ll be found in writing programs is an open question.

  47. Moe,


    Re: a), it’s just a ridiculous false dichotomy that allows the wielder of it to casually dismiss anything that isn’t written at a fourth grade level. Is Cormac McCarthy’s (who I don’t love, but still) fiction devoid of action and plot? What about Chabon’s Kavalier and Klay or Yiddish Policeman’s Union? How about Coetzee’s Disgrace, which won the Booker of Bookers, so-called? No dramatics there, right? Hell, there’s tons of plot and pacing, in a circular, strange way, in Alice Munro’s short stories. Really, there is in most good fiction, even if it doesn’t manifest itself in the form of a large-boobed, lycraed assassin.

    It’s a strange position for someone to take, who has good enough taste to name-check Edith Wharton and “Roman Fever” on his (nice-looking) litmagblog.

  48. Karl,

    This isn’t a zero sum game. It’s like the triumphalist internet argument against dinosaurs of old journalism, like the NY Times. Sure, Twitter is great for feet on the ground accounts of events, but newspapers, as it turns out, were really good at stuff like building durable relationships of trust with sources and financing real investigative journalism. Losing these institutions is, well, a loss. It would likewise be a loss if publishing went under, with its ability to identify and groom and commercialize talent that can’t easily market itself. I applaud the ability of the writers you cite for making a living doing something they love, and the market will clearly continue to move, to some extent, toward e-publishing and the like, but economics don’t demand that one of these models “win” over the other.

    Frankly, as much as it obviously rankles people in the age of internet democratization, literature benefits from a certain amount of hierarchy and tastemaking. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, Lolita simply coming out on e-book. If anyone read it at all, it would be dismissed as the ravings of a pedophiliac lunatic. That novel’s successful publication required the efforts of first a small press and then widespread distribution by Putnam and Sons, with the imprimatur of legitimacy it conferred.

  49. Karl

    “Their writing sells and is read because it’s NOT “literary” writing, which is focused on the well-written sentence to the neglect of things which actually turn on readers. You know: unliterary things like dramatics, action, pace, plot.”

    What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  50. (Read a Konrath, novel, on the other hand, and you’ll see how much he does well as a writer. He has what few writers have– enough imagination to bring the reader into an exciting and thought-provoking world.)

    Seriously dude, if you think the cliche-riddled genre shit Konrath spits out remotely resembles “imaginative” or “exciting”, you need to broaden your reading horizons. The only commendable thing he does is end his books.

    Also, “though-provoking world” is the type of nonsensical phrase that one would expect to find littered throughout a crappy self-published thriller.

  51. Karl

    Here’s the problem with self-publishing: you can’t expect to be taken seriously when the revolutionaries you prop are are total hacks. Those 4 writers you mention are sub-Dan Brown level. There are terrific self-published books out there – Sergio de la Pava’s “A Naked Singularity” is a great example (though curiously it eventually got picked up by a traditional publisher. How to explain?). But for all your bluster about “the future” and “business” and “competition” you curiously never mention quality.

    Television has gone through a similar revolution in the past few decades. First came cable, now it’s netflix and streaming. Why were those changes so dramatic? Changing customer base, technology, sure. But none of that would have mattered if HBO, for example, didn’t reinvent what a tv show could do. Now Netflix creates high-quality original shows as well. Nobody would subscribe to Netflix if all they offered was choppily-edited no-budget amateur home movies.

    Quality matters. Say what you want about “legacy” publishing, but it does have in a built-in system for quality control. Self-pub, more often than not, is just throwing shit against the wall. Some of us care about art. You’re not talking about art, you’re talking about money. Which is fine – just don’t confuse the two. Most “literary” writers aren’t in it to break the bank.

  52. Hi Ed Bast,

    Thanks for the reference to Sergio de la Pava – always exciting to discover a new author.

    Also, fascinating and wonderfully-written article from The Independent in the UK on a “new” old writer, Robert Aickman. Virtually out-of-print for many years, his peerless “strange stories” of The Uncanny are receiving renewed attention this year (the Centennial of his birth). I’ve been a fan of his for years, my Ex was a huge horror buff and had several rare copies of his books. My very favorite of his stories is called “Never Visit Venice.” Much of his work is being reissued this year by Faber.


    Just one of many great turns of phrase from the article above: “Aickman wandered through the 1960’s fantasy publishing scene like an elegant, if quarrelsome, revenant.”

    Wonderful when a truly great artist is resurrected from publishing obscurity.

  53. Let’s get back on topic, Ed. The question was whether writing students should be taught about the business of the writing game. My point is that, if so, they should be given all options available to them– including self-publishing. It does a disservice to new writers not to inform them of the drastic changes taking place right now in the publishing world– which are going to happen regardless of what you or I think is “quality” writing.

    Speaking of which: you say legacy publishing has a built-in system for quality control? Really? How then do you explain the fact Joe Konrath, like many of his peers, was published first by one of the big publishers, then later branched out on his own, because he believed DIY is a better deal for the writer? Or that after Amanda Hocking sold a million self-published ebooks, she was hurriedly signed by one of the bigs?

    I said about Konrath that he does some things well as a writer. He does. That’s a true statement. To dismiss him outright as a hack shows a refusal to learn what he does right. It demonstrates an unwillingness to learn why so many readers are drawn to his work. The first reasons are pace and clarity of thought. Second, he has quite a fertile imagination which keeps many people reading him despite themselves. He knows how to lay down plot hooks and keep the tale moving. In his way, he’s like an old-fashioned storyteller. Is there something wrong with that?

    I first heard about Konrath on a shitty job I was working, from someone I never thought would be a reader of books. Konrath and others like him are drawing people to reading, to literature, who otherwise wouldn’t be reading at all. In this media-soaked age, this is all to the good.

    Is a Joe Konrath the ultimate value in literature? Of course not. But then, in my estimation, neither is an Alice Munro. I’ve been advocating writing which can be readable and quality both. I don’t think the concepts are mutually exclusive. The project I’m involved in is designed to find a middle path between the poles of the literary and the popular. I’m looking for writers capable of using strengths from both worlds.

    As for being “taken seriously”: By whom? I’m not out to be “taken seriously” by the mandarins of an established literary world whose outlook refuses to broaden. My objective is to get my ideas across, hoping they connect with an independent thinker or two. I want to present yet another option for new writers. It’s why I’ll occasionally appear in forums like this one. I thank The Millions for the opportunity these past few days to do so.

  54. “But then, neither in my estimation is Alice Munro…” [Re: “value” in literature]

    Oh. No. He. Didn’t.

    OK, that’s it for me…. I’m with Toad from now on. To steal a concept from an unknown original source, I think Jane Austen may rise from her slumber to pummel Mr. Wenclas about with her thigh bone for that one……

    (200 years ago, someone was probably doing the same comparison between Miss. Austen and the redoubtable Amanda McKittrick Ros!)

    Moe Murph
    Not A Fan Lord Raspberry and Lily Lentil

  55. Karl,

    “I’ve been advocating writing which can be readable and quality both. I don’t think the concepts are mutually exclusive. The project I’m involved in is designed to find a middle path between the poles of the literary and the popular. I’m looking for writers capable of using strengths from both worlds.”

    You have not discovered some magical Third Way. Yes, there is literary fiction that is horribly boring. And there is genre fiction that is horribly written (there’s also literary fiction that’s horribly written and boring genre fiction, but I digress). In between exists a galaxy of writing that most reasonable people can agree is worth reading, although possibly or probably not by them. You’re setting up this false dichotomy where good fiction is boring b/c it lacks “plot hooks” or whatever, but that’s just not true. Is the only literary fiction you’ve ever read The Sea, or something? Or maybe literary fiction just isn’t your thing (not being snarky here). Maybe you should focus your efforts on finding and putting out genre fiction that isn’t written at a middle school level.

    “I first heard about Konrath on a shitty job I was working, from someone I never thought would be a reader of books. Konrath and others like him are drawing people to reading, to literature, who otherwise wouldn’t be reading at all. In this media-soaked age, this is all to the good.”

    I don’t believe Konrath or Hocking or Stephenie Meyer or whoever are drawing people to literature any more than I believe The Avengers is drawing people to Citizen Kane. I like plenty of lowbrow stuff, but it’s usually not a gateway drug to high art. I believe the Dan Brown to Borges readership trajectory to be essentially a null set. Maybe I’m too pessimistic.

  56. Moe,

    Vollmann’s writing is horrible and mostly useful as litmus test for horribleness in others. I think he’s an interesting guy, sort of an autistic gonzo journalist, but goodness his prose is unreadable. BEE attacking Alice Munro is kind of funny, I guess, in a chihuahua attacking an airplane type way.

  57. Um, ETBIII, I hope you’re kidding. Vollmann is a goddamn genius. And besides, if you’d read the link, Vollmann doesn’t say shit about Munro (some professor does). That’s not Vollmann’s style, which you would know if you’d read any of his work — he’s the most empathetic, humanistic writer going, perhaps ever. Certainly he’s not the kind of guy who would waste his time trashing nice old ladies, even ones who spend decades writing the same formulaic, dull, and formally bland short stories.

  58. Ed Bast:

    I take it you’re not a Munro fan, to each his own. Great way to sneak in a patronizing little slam, haul out the lame and tired old trope of “nice old ladies,” and sneeringly dismiss a great artist.

    I do not find Alice Munro formulaic, dull or bland at all. She can reveal the world and its possibilities through the lens of her own small village, and has no need to crawl on her belly across a piss-covered Tenderloin sidewalk to do it.

    (Oh Piffle! You are probably a part of that odious tribe of Austen-haters as well!)

  59. Moe

    Personally I gravitate toward fiction that takes some risks, fiction with ambition, fiction that stylistically could only have been written by its author. Plus I tend to prefer novels to short stories anyhow. Munro’s very skilled at what she does, don’t get me wrong, she’s just too quiet for my tastes.

  60. Hi Ed,

    1. I know it wasn’t Vollmann saying that.
    2. I think he’s a pretty bad writer
    3. I think you’re mistaking the boldness of some of his projects or his personal life with the boldness or quality of the writing. Munro is an infinitely better stylist than he is, and I would venture that her circular, quietly metafictional stories are more ambitious formally than Vollmann’s writing as well (I haven’t read all one hundred billion pages of Vollmann’s oeuvre, but my sense is that he’s an adherent to the DFW, more is more is more philosophy of writing). I’ll grant you that she doesn’t write novels about not getting erections for two years with Thai prostitutes, or w/e, and I can certainly see why her stories aren’t for everyone, but not ambitious she ain’t.

  61. ETBIII

    While I vehemently disagree with you re: Vollman vs. Munro, we’ll just have to chalk it up to personal preference. But I don’t know how anyone can suggest Munro is any sort of “stylist”. She subscribes to the “invisible author” school of thought, which, some people prefer, I get it. But it’s anti-style. It’s a commitment to not having a style. How heavily one weighs “style” is totally subjective — just because Vollmann’s a better stylist doesn’t automatically make him a better writer.

    I’d be curious to know what’s ambitious about spending your entire career writing introspective short stories about small town Ontario life.

    Again, I get that people love Munro. But ever since she got the Nobel people have tried to beatify her. It’s getting to the point of hysteria. Appreciate her for what she is – a master of the quiet New Yorker-type short story – instead of trying to turn her into something she isn’t, like an ambitious stylist.

  62. Ed,

    I just wrote out a big thing using iffy examples of Vollmann’s writing, but what’s the point? To each his own. I will say that, re: Munro, I think being hung up on her writing about small town Ontario misses the point considerably. Munro’s stories are universal in the humanity, wisdom and compassion they express; to my mind it is an astonishingly ambitious project made more astonishing by the limited canvas on which it’s painted.

  63. Very interesting article. I start my MFA program in November and I hope that alongside writing & craft that we also learn about publishing and querying and how to deal with the ever multiplying rejections. I work full-time in a financial field to pay the bills while I desperately write and rewrite in the hopes of plying my love of words into something that can whisk me away from my day job.

  64. As a creative writing graduate I believe the most essential discussion, often not addressed in most MFA programs, regards “fine art”. Art, as we all know, manifests in varied expressions, however, honing it and how it classifies itself as significantly different from cliché makes it “fine”.

    Hence, Literary fiction versus genre had been unaddressed in a few creative writing classes I attended. Many up and coming programs, which have jumped on the bandwagon, such as the place where I attended for my undergrad, merely found another way to make money for their university. So many writers out there simply want to become another Harry Potter, Twilight or fantasy writer, and regrettably may be encouraged to submit such work to literary magazines.

    I work at a small publishing house, which publishes literary work, and I couldn’t tell you the high percentage of people who submit Chicken Soup for the Soul publication. Oh’ and occasionally may submit a Xerox photo copy of themselves.

    Before professors guide students through the submission process, and encourage students to become familiar with what a review publishes, they ought to have a conversation discussing what the students should be familiar with.

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