Cathy Day Responds to Elise Blackwell’s Column on M.F.A. Programs

To the Editor:

I read with much dismay Elise Blackwell’s column of February 15, 2011, “A Geography of Fiction.” The real subject of this piece is the importance of geographic diversity in one’s literary upbringing. I support this idea wholeheartedly. As a native Midwesterner who earned her M.F.A. in the South, I’m living proof that a writing apprenticeship doesn’t have to take place in an East Coast urban center, and I tell my students this, year after year after year.

But for some reason, this wonderful argument was prefaced by pointing to “anti-M.F.A. online hate,” and my essay recently published in The Millions was included as an example of said hate, a “dismissal” and a “strike to the heart” of writing programs. This is a mischaracterization of my argument. My article posits, among other things, that short stories are the dominant pedagogical tool in fiction workshops and questions whether this is good practice. As someone who frequently writes about creative-writing pedagogy, I think it’s incredibly important that such arguments not be taken as a “dismissal” of an entire system.

I’m not sure what, besides the provocative headline of my essay (“The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis”)—which was not written by me—would cause anyone to lump my inquiry into any category that includes “hate.”

Blackwell is correct that over the last year, a number of “anti-M.F.A.” articles have been published. However, I’m not someone on the outside of the ivory tower looking in, throwing stones. I’ve been inside it for 20 years, teaching in graduate and undergraduate creative-writing programs and writing about pedagogy. I emphasized my credentials in my bio accompanying the article, and I provided a link to my blog where I was careful to contextualize my article and distance it from the recent spate of “anti-M.F.A.” articles. A simple Google search would have provided Blackwell with this information, as well as any number of better examples to make her argument.

Blackwell is careful to differentiate between me and the much more provocative Anis Shivani. Mine is the “softer imagination” that blames “a vaguer villain: workshop process among tables of people-pleasers.” However, I am certainly not the first person to assert that the workshop process has a downside. Mark McGurl in The Program Era calls it a form of retraction or “shame management.” Even veteran creative-writing teacher Madison Smartt Bell, in his introduction to Narrative Design, maintains that “there [are] enormous, crushing pressures to conform” in fiction workshops, but the pressure comes “not from any teacher but from the students themselves. It [is] a largely unconscious exercise in groupthink and in many aspects it really was quite frightening.” Such observations aren’t “hatred” of M.F.A. programs. They represent sound critical reflection, and such efforts coming from within the academic creative-writing community should be encouraged, not discouraged.

I write many letters of recommendation on behalf of students trying for a dwindling number of open slots in two very competitive applicant pools: the academic teaching-position pool, and the M.F.A. admissions pool. These letters are read by creative-writing faculty all over this country, and I need them to hear me say this: I am not against the M.F.A.; I am one of its many champions.

Cathy Day
Assistant Professor of English
Ball State University
Muncie, Indiana

ELISE BLACKWELL REPLIES:

Foremost, I would like to apologize to Cathy Day for characterizing her recent article in The Millions by one small part of the whole. Her piece is primarily an argument that creative-writing programs favor the writing and reading of short stories over novels. While I disagree with this assessment as a generalization, it certainly doesn’t fall under the heading of “anti-M.F.A. hate” and I wish that I had more thoroughly distinguished Day’s thoughtful and experience-informed criticisms from those of Shivani.

That said—and said sincerely—I do believe that Day’s piece perpetuates the assumption that M.F.A. programs replicate a certain kind of fiction that some detractors have termed “cookie cutter.” Under the heading “This is Not How You Do It Either,” Day creates a satirical syllabus for a fiction course in which students are pressed not just on length but on aesthetics and style. Under “Methods of Evaluating Student Performance,” this straw syllabus reads:

Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.

Of course Day is using exaggeration as a (humorous and entertaining) rhetorical device and poking fun at one approach. Still, her satire implies that more than the occasional creative-writing program is out there not merely cultivating short over long forms but enforcing realism, favoring minimalism, discouraging artful narration, and perhaps stunting the next Robert Coover (who has spent much of his career teaching writing workshops in an M.F.A. program).

While my own M.F.A. experiences lead me to disagree with her on several points, I would eagerly read any M.F.A. application accompanied by a letter of recommendation from Cathy Day, not only because of her reputation as an outstanding and committed teacher but also because she has given so much thought to our profession.

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