“The rise of the MFA has changed how both writers and people in general talk about creativity. The debate has shifted from whether creativity could be taught to how well it can be taught and whether it should be taught. The stakes are real: Creative writing has become a big business—it’s estimated that it currently contributes more than $200 million a year in revenue to universities in the U.S.
Whether you valorize the Romantic ideal of the lonely, humble artist or the neo-liberal belief that education can solve any problem, the MFA has become a kind of Rorschach test for how writers and critics feel about creativity, where it comes from, and how best to nurture it.
… There has to be something that makes them different, and those differences, according to the vigor and tenacity of critics’ claims, ought to be recognizable. As Mark McGurl, the author of the sweeping history of the MFA, The Program Era, writes, creative writing programs “obviously” teach writers how to become a specific “creative type.” Or as Chad Harbach has argued more recently in his popular essay “MFA vs. NYC,” “the university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” If there are indeed “two literary cultures” in Harbach’s words, we should be able to detect it.
…But when we refined our tests to look at how race factors into the results, we found the opposite to be true. We took each separate body of work—books by MFA writers and books by non-MFA writers—and compared all of the writers in each individual corpus along the metrics of diction, style, and theme we describe above. For both corpora, we expected white and non-white writers to group together in clusters, and we anticipated that non-white writers would especially group together in the MFA corpus (authors like Tayari Jones, Chieh Chieng, and Daniel Alarcon). But we found no such thing. Again, based on diction, theme, and syntax, these two groups, in both MFA and non-MFA writing, are impossible to distinguish.
So it seems to us that the MFA doesn’t merit many of the hyperbolic claims about its impact on literature. $200 million per year, after all, is a high price to pay for very little measurable impact.”
[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]