Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Casualties from the Fast Track

          I recently read Mark McGurl's new book, The Program Era, about the effect graduate level creative writing programs in a growing number of colleges and universities have had on the availability of new fiction in the American literary market place. While there have been a number a good reviews, most notably in The New Yorker and Rain Taxi, I'm not going to add my two cents regarding McGurl's excellent insights. I will only say that McGurl has confirmed what I, as an unknown and largely unpublished novelist, have already long ago concluded: that the best way to successful publication is to have that "MFA fast track."
  After I wrote my first novel back in the 1970s, the only literary agent I could find to consider my work was one to whom I had to pay about $200. After a period of time, he (or someone in his employ) read my novel and sent it back with a report. While the report was generally a good one, he admitted that he couldn't "place" it. Later I saw this same literary agent being interviewed on a national television program. He had some really nice rings on his fingers and I realized I had probably paid for one of those rings. Then I got it. I realized I was the rube.
  I've now written six novels and have self published four of them in very small numbers at my own expense. After trying to find an agent after writing my second novel, querying every agent I could find from various listings, I realized that finding a literary agent was as difficult as trying to find a prospective publisher used to be. First I suspected that the role of literary agents was to screen out the plethora of aspiring new novelists on behalf of a diminishing diverse yet concentrated publishing industry, one that was looking to make more profits while scaling back on its costs of production. In this regard, I also realized that picking from the pool of well-trained creative writers provided by the MFA programs was a way of being assured of finding potentially lucrative products. I found this process a cynical way for the publishing industry to get students to actually pay, through their tuition, for the process of finding potentially worthy works for publication –– yet another cost saving measure.
  I know at least four other novelists in my immediate community who have written novels. None of them have been successful, and by that I mean have not made any money from their labor. I absolutely refuse to believe their works are unworthy of success. Another local novelist, who had the MFA fast track and published a couple of monetarily successful novels from a mainstream publisher, turned her back on the local literary community except to acquire a few sycophants before moving away. This defines the dynamic between the money making profit hungry publishing industry in collusion with canonical oriented academia as suggested by McGurl’s The Program Era, and aspiring, yet stranded, local or regional novelists and fiction writers. It is the reason I advocate a new resurgence of local or regional publishing enterprises: to infuse new full bodied substance into an anemic national literature from the places from where we find inspiration, from the places where literary artists have aspirations, and for those places that ought to be in touch, through artistic works of all kinds, with our local cultural, social and historic environments. Such are the parts that truly constitute the sum of our national cultural identity.


  1. It's kind of silly for me to argue against McGurl since I haven't read his book, and there is no question that immersing one's self in writing programs.

    But over a 40-plus year career as a writing, admittedly very little of it fiction, I feel strongly that writing cannot be taught. You've either got it or you don't, and no MFA program is a substitute for shoe leather and the real world.

  2. First time reading this blog, thanks for sharing.