The Ultimate Genre MFA

So, this article about MFA programs has been going around for the last couple of days.

Unsurprisingly, the ever-thoughtful, ever-incisive hilarious Chuck Wendig has a point-by-point response which is dead-on (standard heads-up: Chuck is virtuoso of inventive swearing).

So rather than add my own point-by-point response, I want to take the conversation in a bit of a different direction, which is to say toward genre fiction.

The State of the Field

This whole article and the discussion around it reminds me of how poorly-served I think a lot of genre writers are vis a vis the MFA establishment in the USA. There are some MFA programs that are more oriented toward commercial fiction, like Seton Hill and USC, and some genre-friendly programs with SF/F writers on-staff like NC StateTemple, and Stonecoast (and there may be some others with Crime or Romance writers), but as recently as 2011, when I was looking at MFA programs, the schools listed above seemed to be pretty much the extent of places where a SF/F fiction writer could go and expect to not just be tolerated, but to be at least marginally well-served – with instructors qualified to assist the writer in becoming better in their chosen genre. When I applied to MFA programs, I got zero feedback as to why. No ‘we had to many genre fiction writers apply this year,’ no ‘your writing sample wasn’t quite up to snuff because <insert craft element>. Just a form rejection. Alas.

So when I sold Geekomancy the next year, I didn’t bother applying again to programs. I have a career in writing, I can share my knowledge through classes offered on the web, and I have the skills to sell stories and novels to professional markets.

Which is annoying, because I *really like* teaching (I’ve taught creative writing, tango, web design, public speaking, and historical martial arts), and I especially love talking shop and sharing knowledge about writing and the business of writing.

Word on the net and in the business is that for most MFA programs, genre fiction is at best an also-ran, at worst an outcast forbidden style. And that seems silly, given how many writers want to specialize in these genres, and how much money those genres make in the industry. So many MFA programs seem to be designed to very specifically train writers to become teachers at MFA programs, to just replicate across the literary  fiction landscape. Except that just like almost everywhere else in academia, there are nowhere near enough jobs for the # of MFAs granted. So an MFA can be a teaching credential, but it’s often more a chance to spend two years focusing on craft. And that’s cool.

Unless you’re a genre writer interested in writing commercial fiction as a career.

So What?

Here’s the fun part.

One of my ‘If I Had All Of The Money’ dreams would be to found and endow a brand-new, world-class Genre Fiction MFA program, with faculty in Crime, Romance, SF, Fantasy, etc – adult and YA. The program would focus exclusively on genre fiction, and whwre most MFA programs do their cross-training between fiction and poetry, or fiction and memoir, this program would cross-train between fiction genres – since those three main genres cross over so much as-is, and current publishing trends are inviting that hybridization.

Some of the faculty would be chosen as much if not more for their business acumen as for their writing experience – their chairs would be for that business knowledge. And as a result, my dream MFA program would have a strong professional development/business knowledge component. Every MFA that graduates from my program would have training in pitching a book, participating in panels, hand-selling in a convention environment, writing query letters & synopsis, self-publishing skills (art direction, hiring freelancers, etc.) social media skills, as well as managing their writing as a business (taxes, expenses, budgeting). You know, skills a professional writer needs to prosper.

I love Clarion West. It taught me a ton about writing. But CW is not a be-all-end-all writing and professional development course. It can’t be.

But you know what can be? A modern two-year MFA program. A good curriculum, consistently evolving to adjust with publishing trends, should be able to give its graduates the most up-to-date information and help them launch their own careers, while also making them incredibly enticing to any smart Creative Writing program, which should leap at candidates with not only craft skills, but business skills. The Low-Residency MFA programs just don’t allow for as much teaching experience, which I would think puts those MFAs in a weaker position when applying for teaching posts, something likely exacerbated by their genre fiction focus. (Note here: much of this is based on limited knowledge – folks are welcome to correct me).

In a few years, it would become The Ultimate Genre Fiction MFA, and other people would copy the model, either adding strong commercial fiction and business development aspects to their programs or retrofitting them entirely.

Yes, it’s a pipe dream. But boy would I love to give it a try. I think the writing would would be notably better for it – as-is, the MFA ecosystem seems to be dominated by literary fiction and poetry, while leaving commercial fiction and genre fiction largely out in the cold, which serves to re-instantiate that divide, as commercial writers often avoid the MFA system and develop their skills elsewhere, or focus on developing their basic craft elements without getting support with genre-specific skills or business development.

Those of you out there who have attended MFA programs, either with or without a commercial fiction focus, low or full-residency – how were (are) your experiences? What would you want out of a MFA program if you could start over?

16 thoughts on “The Ultimate Genre MFA

  1. Kate Swed

    Wow. I mean, how can we make this happen?

    I attended a low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. You’re spot on about the teaching opportunities, although I didn’t really have an option – I had to keep working full time. That program does have some killer SFF folks like Ben Percy, Kellie Wells, and Katherine Dunn. I jumped around genre-wise. In my final semester, I worked with an excellent advisor on my thesis. She was very open about genre and raised my writing to a higher standard – it was a wonderful experience. However, there were some clear tensions among the faculty when it came to genre and the notion of commercial success (some seemed to equate commercial success with selling out – baffling). Some faculty wrote off anything that contained even a hint of the supernatural. It could be extremely stressful, especially going into workshop when we weren’t always sure who would be teaching.

    As I was leaving, they were beginning to bring in YA authors, which I thought was great. I wouldn’t take back the experience I had, and I’d recommend Pacific as a more than tolerant (if less than perfect) MFA for people writing genre fiction – but I would have LOVED the option of a genre-focused program.

    • Kate,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences! I heard a bit about Pacific when I was working on my M.A. in Folklore out in Eugene.

      I think to make this happen, we’d need one or more of the following:

      1) A TON of money – where we could approach a university and say ‘We want to give you all this money to start this program’
      2) Convince a MFA program with funding to spare that it would serve their mission (and honestly, their pocket book) to expand their program in a way that fulfilled this idea.
      3) Be or know a hugely popular writer who could then champion the idea. Like, international best-selling or veteran mega-award-winning writer.

      I’m working on becoming #3, but it may take me a while 😉

      • Kate Swed

        Kickstarter! No, not serious, but if I win the lottery I’ll come talk to you.

        I’m rooting for #3. I love your books!

  2. Che

    That would be an amazing program!!

    • Step 1) Sell lots of books.
      Step 2) Sell way way more books.
      Step 3) Endow MFA program.

  3. When I was an undergraduate in the writing program at Warren Wilson, I had the opportunity to attend the winter residency of our MFA program, and I certainly had the experience that even talking about genre was verboten, or at the very least rather gauche. In fact, talking about pitching, agents, or even, shudder, trying to make money from writing seemed to be taboo; everyone told me just to focus on my craft, and once I’m good enough, the money will come to me.

    Even my undergrad program didn’t seem to serve students who had any aspirations to write professionally. We only talked about submissions once, during our senior portfolio class, and although we did have the homework assignment to research a market and submit a story/poem/essay, that seemed to be pretty much it. At that point, I already had at least a dozen submissions and rejections under my belt.

    At this point in my life, I don’t think I could fit this theoretical MFA into my life, but boy howdy, if it existed, I would try to find a way.

    • I’m sorry to hear that you got so much pushback in school with regards to genre, and got so little support re: the business side. I’ve been trying to spend less time getting grumpy about things I mostly can’t change, but genre snobbery in the literary establishment rubs me in a particularly wrong way.

      • Overall, I still think that the program was a positive experience, and even if I didn’t have many allies in genre, I did grow a lot as a writer. Certainly some of our faculty were just supportive of good, effective writing, regardless of genre, and one of my favorite professors was the first to point me towards Duotrope.

        Honestly, the only thing said by any member of the faculty that made me really genuinely upset was an adjunct teacher specifically calling out Amazing, a magazine for which my father edited during the 80’s, as being full of hacks. Granted, I don’t think she knew, at the time she made that statement, that I was connected to Amazing, or that their former editor in chief, George Scithers, had put me on my path, but it struck me as the sort of thing that someone in a position of authority shouldn’t be saying.

  4. The University of Oklahoma has a famously genre-friendly master’s program, but it’s in their journalism/mass comm school, not English, and it’s not an MFA. I have no idea whether other schools’ English department hiring committees would consider this an equivalent or acceptable degree. The program seems to be pretty good at producing working novelists; I’m just not sure whether it’s also good for those who want to teach.

    • Very cool. I would definitely be interested to see how graduates from these programs fare in trying to get Creative Writing teaching positions.

      I think you’ve also pointed out of the oddities of the system – the MFA is the required credential to teach creative writing, but it’s also the degree for developing skills. Many students want one and not the other, but only the MFA offers the credential (barring some special exceptions, as there will always be).

  5. I applied to 60 MFA programs in 2012 and got into 3: Vermont, Pittsburgh, and Chapman. The writing sample was from my second SF novel, ‘My Name is Dee.’

    Chapman is extraordinarily fortunate to have World Fantasy Award winner James Blaylock there, and he supports genre writers because he is one.

    I think all places have people who turn their noses up at genre, even other genre writers do it.

    All that contempt only makes us into meaner, leaner, fighting machines 🙂

    • Robin, thanks for sharing your experience. I’d agree that working harder and improving your craft is the among the best responses to snobbery. 🙂

  6. Leah Baxter

    I just discovered this discussion, but want to take a moment and share my experience.

    I attended Western State Colorado University and received an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on Genre Fiction. It’s a low-residency program that began in 2010. The focus is on genre fiction, though literary fiction is also welcome (a little turning the tables, huh?) Courses included researching a novel, a sampling of various genres–fantasy, science fiction, romance, etc., a creative non-fiction course, a business course… The program’s thesis requirement was a compete novel as opposed to the partial that is the requirement in other programs.

    Basically, this is a practical education in genre writing for publication and as close to the Ultimate Genre Fiction MFA as it gets!

    • Leah,

      Thanks for sharing your experience, and I’m glad it was a good one. I’ve seen some praise for low-residency programs, which is great, but from what I hear, they’re substantially more expensive than full-residency programs, and unless they include a strong teaching section, I could imagine graduates being a weaker position w/r/t getting teaching positions. What was/is your experience along that axis?

      • Leah Baxter

        Michael, Yes, I’ve heard that the cost is higher for low-res. It was around 43K total for the 2 years, not sure how that compares with others. As far as teaching, it was a bit less of a focus when I was there (though it was covered, including advice on job seeking). I think that it’s more of a focus now. I’d say the program is worth a look and asking those questions to anyone interested. I studied strictly to learn how to write genre fiction, and for that it was great. I’ve even gone back–taking a screenwriting course this semester–superb for learning about story structure!

  7. Richard Rain

    This thread was the best thing my head has ever encountered on the Internet.

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