The "Unwholesome" Side of MFA Programs

Question: What do you think of MFA programs?

Lionel Shriver: I'm very torn about them.  I have to confess, I did get an MFA from Columbia University.  And I can't say that I regret it exactly.  I didn't have a bad time, I had some interesting teachers; I'm still in touch with one of them.  And we've become friends.  I am still friends with some of the students that I met at Columbia.  My very best friend I met at Columbia.  So it's a little mystifying why my immediate impulse is to diss MFA programs.  But I sometimes feel in retrospect that I should have gotten a proper education in something like history, something substantive.  If I'm going to be honest, what I really needed in my early 20s wasn't audience; I wasn't developed enough as a writer to be publishing.  So I couldn't achieve that audience through getting short stories in The New Yorker.  Frankly at this point in time, I'm still not getting short stories in The New Yorker.  But I'm working on it.  

So it is not a dumb thing for me to do.  And therefore I can't really tell other people who were in a similar situation and have a similar need to have people read their work that they shouldn't do it.  But it does have a kind of indulgent, middle-class gestalt.  The grim truth is that most people who get MFAs will not go on to be professional writers and therefore when I've been on the other side of it and occasionally taught creative writing, I felt a little bit guilty because so many of the people that you should be encouraging, because there's no point to it if you're not encouraging, are not going to make it.  And I think that's true across the board in the arts.  My husband is a jazz drummer and he has the same sense of queasiness about teaching jazz drumming.  There's more of a career in teaching jazz than there is in playing it right now, and so at the very best, most of the students are going to go on to become jazz instructors.  So there's something a little corrupt in that, something unwholesome.  And I share his discomfort in participating in it. 

Recorded on March 12, 2010

While there is value to graduate writing degrees, so many of the young writers encouraged by their MFA professors aren't going to make it. This leaves Shriver uneasy.

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