The Genius Illusion

1.

When literary historians look back on the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, it will be hard for them to explain the sudden, explosive growth of MFA Creative Writing programs. Certainly the degree makes no economic or professional sense, considering that – with the exception of several notable high-ranked programs – the average graduate of a middle-tier institution is unlikely to have a book published by anyone but themselves in their lifetime, and therefore few teaching opportunities. But perhaps the strangest aspect of what has come to be known as the “MFA bubble” is the cynicism that accompanied its expansion. Professors have publicly deplored the “flattening” effect of the programs themselves, and we have been subjected to innumerable hand-wringing essays about whether “creative writing can be taught” – often by the very people who are currently teaching it. We’re faced with a curious contradiction: on the one hand, a profusion of essays by MFA professors about the tiresome distraction of teaching, the foolishness of the system that surrounds it, and the hubris of the students the system purports to serve; on the other, the students that continue to attend these programs in droves, heedless of their professors’ all-too-public expressions of bad faith.

The latest salvo in this ongoing war against the MFA system by some of its most complicit members came last Friday, when Ryan Boudinot, former professor at the low-residency MFA program at Goddard college, wrote an essay for The Stranger entitled “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” The essay, structured around a series of pithy pieces of advice for prospective MFA students, is primarily a regurgitation of old tropes. MFA students are entitled. They don’t read. They don’t write, or when they do they write poorly; their work is too sentimental, too concerned with intellectual posturing, or simply too sloppy. Boudinot seems particularly incensed about verb tenses.

What is novel about the essay is Boudinot’s tone: aggrieved, arrogant, even a bit disappointed, as if he’d hoped for better from his students, and was shocked by the myriad ways they’d let him down. He considers quitting on the spot when one admits to not liking The Great Gatsby; he finds their concerns over time-management to be “an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student.” Most importantly, he contrasts what he calls the “Real Deal” student – talented, hard-working, willing to read Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666, and Infinite Jest during the break between semesters – with the hopeless rank and file: the students who, simply by doubting their status as “real writers,” immediately reveal their fatal lack of self-confidence and drive.

One finishes the essay asking a very obvious question: if Boudinot disliked teaching so much, why did he do it? One answer, of course, is that he was paid to do so, and the money with which he was compensated came from the pockets (or future pockets) of the very students he categorizes as “hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.”

Clearly, Boudinot had few hopes for helping his students produce worthwhile work, but that didn’t stop him from taking their money.

There’s no law, of course, against taking people’s money in exchange for advice that, deep down, you consider worthless. It’s the time-honored province of snake-oil salesmen, TV evangelists, and the leaders of cults and Ponzi schemes. But the fact that Boudinot’s advice has come to represent the opinion of a certain section of MFA-land ought to make us question some of the most taboo issues at the heart of graduate creative writing, namely: what responsibility do teachers bear their students – considering that they aren’t the ones coming out of programs with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt? Or is this a matter of the students’ own unrealistic illusions, for which they bear no responsibility whatsoever?

2.

I spoke semi-facetiously, a paragraph earlier; I know a professor like Boudinot comes to creative writing looking for more than a paycheck. There are other ways to make money that require, if not less time, than certainly less energy and interpersonal stress. I imagine that many MFA professors come to teaching for the same reason that students come to be taught; they’re looking to meet like-minded people, to talk about literature in a society where literature is not a particularly popular topic of conversation.

Indeed, Boudinot’s essay makes the most sense when he defines what made his own teaching worthwhile in exactly this fashion. “I had a handful of students whose work changed my life,” he writes, and later: “[t]he MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty advisor more than discovering one.” Clearly, Boudinot embraced these Real Deal students with the zeal of a new friend, a comrade in arms. He references them in nearly every section of his essay.

But this is the sort of language that one expects, not from teachers, but from A&R men: the thrill of a fresh sound, the rush of recognition. A&R men are free to skim the cream, avoiding the unlucky majority of artists who don’t provide them with immediate neural satisfaction. Teachers have a different responsibility. They cannot wait for these life-changing bolts of lightning; they cannot concern themselves with only the top one percent of their class.

What about the other ninety-nine percent,? One would hope that a professor would do his or her best to give them as much attention as the Real Deal students, rare as unicorns – since, it stands to reason, they need the help much more. Certainly a teacher should not be allowed to get away with the sort of calumny Boudinot heaps on his own students, accusing them of narcissism, philistine tendencies, and simple laziness. “My hope for them was that they would become better readers,” Boudinot writes – but shares no strategies by which he hoped to help this process. Considering his cavalier dismissal of students who manage to admit their difficulties, I doubt it was much of a priority.

3.

To call Boudinot a teacher, however, is to apply a fundamentally misleading label. Although the MFA bubble is probably as large now as it will ever be, most MFA professors from the last forty years would admit that creative writing pedagogy is still very much in its infancy, and most professors who currently hold MFA jobs have had very little training in how to run a classroom. They were expected to simply know how to teach, by virtue of being writers – as if an engineer were qualified to teach mathematics. No wonder many of them quickly grew frustrated, and threw up their hands in dismay, once they discovered just how difficult a task it would be to provide instruction to pupils less naturally gifted than they were.

This practice of hiring professors for their professional accomplishments, not their teaching, stretches back to the roots of the graduate-level creative writing. The MFA program began harmlessly enough, as a minimally exploitative mutual benefit society for working artists and eager students. The proposition was simple. A well-known author, interested in a few extra bucks and the glow of having helped young writers, could shine the light of his or her (usually his) genius on a class of willing graduates. This was the legendary first wave of MFA professorship: John Cheever, drunk as a skunk, proffering patrician wisdom and making passes at his male students. The professors might have been befuddled by the very idea of teaching, but at least they were fascinating – and this fascination was, in fact, the chief reason they were hired.

It’s helpful, therefore, to look at the first wave of MFA programs not as a paradigm for education, but as a kind of prestige patronage system: a way to provide (again, mostly male) geniuses with a living wage commensurate to their stature, in exchange for which they were expected to share their light with the universities that housed them.

All this changed, of course, when universities began to see MFAs (and, to a certain extent, undergraduate creative writing) as a significant draw for students, and therefore something of a cash cow. The expansion of MFA programs meant that there were more positions to teach in said programs, which also meant that the MFA could advertise itself as a professional degree, as well as an artistic one; succeed, and you might get fame and fortune. Fail, and you could at least teach Creative Writing to undergrads.

Now the patronage system was greatly expanded – just in time, too, for the massive cuts in national arts budgets. Indeed, the MFA bubble served as an unofficial assistance program for literary artists for several decades, for which the state of literary writing in America has much to be thankful for.

It couldn’t last, of course. It was a matter of simple math. With the expansion of MFA programs – delightful in small doses, but highly intoxicating in large quantities – there were simply too many MFA graduates, and prospects for employment quickly went sour. Slowly the qualifications for any full-time post teaching creative writing began to rachet upwards, to compensate: one book, now two, now three (preferably from a major house, of course).

This is the third wave. If you got in when the getting was good, more power to you. For the rest of us, the adjunctification of the modern university continues, full steam ahead.

But the important thing to realize, no matter the wave, is that the actual teaching of creative writing has always been of secondary importance within the MFA system. This is not to say that there are not many wonderful teachers within it: people who consider their pedagogy deeply, and who give their students’ work careful, objective, and intense attention; I’ve known many of them, and appreciated them deeply. It is only to point out that these people exist in resistance to the prevailing attitude that MFA professors are not expected to devote themselves to their classrooms. Many of us still labor under the genius illusion: that those who write are necessarily capable of teaching. Like the research professors they mere modeled after, the work of these geniuses always comes first, with the work of their students a distant second.

Those in the first wave had an excuse. After all, they were thrown into the deep end, without time to plan; they survived mostly on charisma, and on the religious belief in writing as an incandescent act – or else they disappeared in a puff of whiskey-laced smoke. But what about those in the second wave, of whom Ryan Boudinot represents the last meager gasp? What about those who treated teaching as an auxiliary to their own work, who expected their students to either astonish them or fade quietly into the night? They were the product of MFA programs themselves. They had a chance to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. They have no excuse whatsoever.

4.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the conversation around the MFA bubble has been its insistence on punching down: of blaming the failures of the system on the very people who have been most exploited by it – namely, the great majority of students who do not qualify as the Real Deal, but who nevertheless provide the cash by which the system continues to function. Seduced by promises of mentorship and community, only to be judged as untalented, entitled, and unworthy of attention, they are too afraid of retribution by the professors they must rely on for recommendations and (joy of joys) a thoughtful blurb to risk complaining about the quality of their instruction. Ryan Boudinot can tear these students down with relative impunity, knowing full well that they have no platform from which to strike back.

Luckily, the sloppiness of Boudinot’s arguments – the bedrock foolishness of his attempt to provide straight talk about every aspect of the MFA system except his own failings – has inadvertently shed light on the cruelty to which professors like him subject the great majority of their students. He has exposed a side of the process that some of us would prefer remain hidden: the dismissal of the “untalented” majority as nothing more than a glitch in the system, something to be worked around. For this we should be grateful.

We have been languishing too long in the land of the false binary. It does not fundamentally matter, anymore, whether writing can be taught. It is being taught, around the country, with differing levels of professional commitment and in settings too diverse to tolerate someone like Ryan Boudinot, for whom the thrill of meeting someone whose talent reminds him of himself outweighs the admittedly difficult task of teaching complex, conflicted, and compassionate human beings. He was expecting the first wave: to shine the light of literature on a crowd of willing would-be geniuses. The fact that he was born too late to participate in this genius illusion is obviously a source of great distress for him. Luckily, he was able to unload this distress onto to his former students, who will be forced to spend far too much mental energy wondering what sort of evil thoughts he harbored towards them, under the guise of providing them an education.

5.

So what now? Now that Boudinot has reminded us of the sort of cynicism we would prefer to forget, how are we supposed to respond?

We can ignore him, of course. Bad essays have a way of fading into obscurity, once their self-promotional purpose has been achieved. Why bother, since the MFA community is rid of Boudinot, for now – and hopefully forever?

But what should concern those of us who teach creative writing is a not-insubstantial segment of our community that shares his views. Whether out of self-interest, ignorance, or simple lack of skill, they cannot teach creative writing effectively, but they comfort themselves with the commonplace that this is not their fault. The students are fools, the academy is broken, and anyway, creative writing cannot be taught. Therefore they are free to continue to accept compensation, conscience-free, for a task everyone knows is impossible – and, when they tire of the impossible task, they can gleefully present their own bad work as evidence of its fundamental impossibility.

I do not think these people are the majority – not anymore. But there are far more of them than any of us should be comfortable with.

There are tens of thousands of students currently getting an MFA degree in America. It is perfectly possible to view this situation completely cynically: to call the system broken, and yet profit from it. It is also possible – and, I think, preferable for the soul – to view it as a vast opportunity to discuss and practice literature, not as fellow geniuses, but as members of a fundamentally democratic literary society. This is the more difficult path, of course; far too difficult for someone like Ryan Boudinot to be expected to follow. It requires actual engagement with teaching and a genuine attempt to reach as many students as possible, Real Deal or otherwise. It requires forthright criticism, as opposed to retroactive blame, and it will not provide you with a great deal of incendiary material to fuel your self-righteousness. What it does provide, however, is an escape from cynicism, a sense of self-respect, and the clear upside of not alienating, or even harming, the population you purport to serve.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s