It’s interesting that in the fallout of the expose on James Frey’s fiction factory in New York Magazine last month, New York City MFA students are the ones who come off looking like fools.
That is, at least according to MFA guru Seth Abramson, author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, who wrote all about why we’re apparently idiots for the Huffington Post last week.
“In seeking out young authors to exploit, Frey has done as much as anyone in the United States to reveal the seedy side of unfunded MFA programs,” Abramson writes. “Indeed, research done into MFA programs since 2006 reveals that Columbia University and The New School, Frey’s top targets for young, desperate literary artists, are distinctive in only two respects: (1) they host the two largest MFA cohorts in fiction in the United States; and (2) their fiction alumni are believed to have the highest graduate student loan burden of any MFA graduates anywhere.”
The case he’s making is that students at the New School and Columbia (and no doubt NYU, too, by default) are so desperate to earn their way out of their MFA debt that they’ll sign any old contract, panting breathlessly at the very thought of actually being published. Because apparently we’re that hopeless.
In reality, I think the students that did sign on for Frey’s dastardly deal are simply hedging their bets. Some percentage of a million dollar deal is a hard thing to turn down. Especially when advances these days are often pitifully low. But that’s a whole other conversation.
Really, I’d rather address Abramson’s allegation that New York City-area MFA students are idiots. As a graduate student in the MFA program in creative writing at the New School: A) I’m not going into crippling debt to pursue this. Yes, it’s an expensive endeavor, but I (and many of my classmates) do have some funding. We’re in New York City, the heart of the publishing industry and the known world. Of course it’s expensive, but so are many programs in other parts of the nation. B) I don’t have the the luxury of packing up my life and my family and moving to Iowa or Nebraska to pursue a funded degree. I work. I have a family. I have family in the area. I want to be in New York City. C) I truly believe you get what you pay for. And to me, this degree and the creative community that comes with it are worth it.
But also, having spent a semester in the program thus far, I also see that my classmates are far from being idiots for taking on this purportedly life-altering debt for a degree, as Abramson put it in another HuffPost blog, that is “at base, a non-professional, largely-unmarketable art-school degree that can’t get anyone a full-time teaching job (at least not in the absence of significant in-genre publications) and is not designed to ‘network’ graduates into magazine or book publications.”
In fact, I’d argue that the Writing for Children program at the New School is designed to be pretty much exactly the opposite of what Abramson presents. The class of 2012 consists of 12 students, a small cohort that’s designed to create a close-knit writers’ community. (Hence this blog.) It’s one of fewer than a dozen programs in the nation with a writing for children concentration, so the odds are, it’s building up the next strong group of instructors in this very specialized field (and with YA markets booming, the need for instructors with expertise in this arena is no doubt growing). Its focus is on creativity and the canon, so we know all about where we’re going — and where we’re coming from. It’s a diverse, intelligent, creative group of writers who no doubt represent the future of publishing in this arena.
And even more significantly, the networking element is crucial and a key component of the way this program is built. Case in point: David Levithan. A force to be reckoned with in the children’s publishing industry, and a best-selling writer himself, Levithan hasn’t simply put his name on the program. He’s an integral part of it. For one thing, he teaches every year, unlike some of the brand name authors that serve as MFA ambassadors throughout the nation, pulling students into their fold only to depart on book tours or sabbaticals, rather than teach. And it’s an education only he could provide, given his multiple roles in the field and his careful, articulate examination of it. He also advises students, and even publishes some of them.
Secondly, David and the other instructors in the program — all of whom are working writers and/or editors — play up the networking aspect. Just this past week, David brought in a cadre of eight working writers to class to “talk shop,” as it were. Among these were best-selling YA goddess and Printz winner Libba Bray and National Book Award winner Judy Blundell. We got to ask them questions about their process, craft, publishing, the highs and lows of life as a writer.
Thirdly, given our locale in downtown Manhattan, we’re at the heart and the pulse of publishing every day. Another major part of our program — for all genres — is the writers’ colloquium, which mandates that we attend a minimum of eight author events and readings throughout the semester, either sponsored by the school (which offers a great line-up each year) or within the city. Of course, most students attend far more than eight, considering that New York boasts such readings and events on a daily basis with major names in publishing. One of the first such events I attended as a student was Salman Rushdie introducing new writer Tishani Doshi at the Brooklyn Book Festival, which was absolutely free. Another great one was one of David’s NYC Teen Author readings, featuring David and his Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares co-writer Rachel Cohn and YA icon Scott Westerfeld, amongst other teen lit all-stars.
And last, but certainly not least, are the alumni, who continue to support the program that brought them right into the heart of publishing. Next week, author and New School alum Coe Booth will be teaching our class — and teaching her books, Tyrell and Kendra (both published by David Levithan at his Scholastic imprint Push). She graduated from the New School in 2005, along with fellow published writers Jenny Han, Lisa Graff, Lisa Greenwald, Siobhan Vivian, Daphne Grab, Kathryne Alfred, and Caroline Hickey. (That’s right, the Longstockings.)Given the short history of the writing for children program, an astonishing number of its graduates are published and publishing. Not bad for a throwaway degree, huh?