Category Archives: MFA Programs

Funding the MFA: A New Approach

25 year-old Denis wants to attend the MFA program at Hollins in the fall, but can’t afford to go. Sound familiar? Denis’s solution, though, is new. He decided to do some internet fundraising. He writes on his blog:

Instead of asking people to loan me money for school, I’m now asking them to simply give me money. To that extent, I’ve created a fundraising page on fundable, and if you can spare $10, please pledge towards my goal. Since I can’t get a loan and there is no way my parents can pay my tuition, I’ll have to rely on the kindness of strangers.

You can check out his fundraising site directly here. At time of writing, Denis only had $10 in contributions. Is this because his campaign is brand new (launched 7/13/09) or because there’s a recession on, or because this idea simply isn’t going to work?

There’s also this article, over at Publisher’s Weekly, about writer and blogger Dianna Zandt, who, after signing a deal for her first book that provided no advance, decided to “crowdfund” the money she needed to write over the summer. It helps that her topic is “…writing about the power of social media to shift perceptions and cultural values.” She’s been pretty successful so far, it seems – you can read her thoughts and feedback on the process (plus tips for others who are considering going the the same route) here.

What do you think? Are Denis and Deanna smart to try this approach? Is their initiative laudable? Do their requests for funds seem justified to you? And is this a sign of things to come?

MFA Lit Mags on the Chopping Block

Anyone about thinking about applying for an MFA in the next season (or, for that matter, those about to start a program) would do well to check out a couple of posts over at the Virginia Quarterly Blog about how the current publishing and financial shake-up is affecting university presses and university sponsored literary magazines. VQR editor-in-chief Ted Genoways reports that times are hard. LSU’s Southern Review is under threat of closure, as is Middlebury College’s New England Review, and other venerable titles — The Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Oxford American — might have folded if not for emergency fundraising.

Genoways argues that these literary outlets are essential for academic depth and breadth, as training grounds for future writers and editors, as homes for innovative writing, and, not least, as valuable PR for the institutions that create them. “If not for Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, and The Oxford American,” he writes, “I would never think of Kenyon College or Washington & Lee University or the University of Central Arkansas. The excellence of these publications gives their universities a national profile.”

University sponsored lit mags are also MFA recruitment tools. LSU’s MFA website states: “LSU has an extraordinary English Department, and LSU Press has made important contributions to American poetry and fiction. The MFA program offers opportunities to gain editorial experience by working for our many magazines and publications. The New Delta Review, The Southern Review, and The Corpse . (If you are interested in editorial experience and would like to be considered for an assistantship at a particular review you are advised to make your interest clear in your application letter.)”

And if The Southern Review folds, LSU? Then what?

You can read the original posts here and here.

The Tubes

That’s where the publishing industry is going, apparently. As in, down. Way, way down. Deep into them there tubes.

Massive lay-off and some resignations, and entire trade divisions being wiped out. As gloomy as this might seem — especially for young writers, signing up for MFA programs and laboring over yet-to-be-sold first books — you can be sure of one thing: The human need for story will never diminish. How people buy and consume those stories, though, is likely to change, perhaps beyond recognition. This metamorphosis is going to be painful (what metamorphosis isn’t?) but whatever emerges might well be stronger, more efficient and actually better for writers.

In the meantime, information is power, people! KNOW what you are getting into. Be informed. To that end, here’s a helpful links round up. All hail the death of book publishing as we know it!

Read Galley Cat for breaking news. In particular here, here and here.

Things are not much better in the UK, in case you were wondering.

The Times weighs in, with some good common sense, about what new technologies mean for the demise — or not — of the book.

Booksquare has their own, ballsy take on the situation.

Then, if you really want to shock yourself, read this:

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Juicy Links. And the End of Book Publishing as We Know It.

Why hello! Thanks for visiting. You are looking great, by the way. Younger every time I see you.

I’d like to serve up, today, some luscious literary links.

First up, David Gessner, in the New York Times magazine, on what it’s really like to be an MFA writing professor. Times have changed since his day:

I attended graduate school at the University of Colorado in the early 1990s, and only one professor there ever learned my name; the rest, most of whom were granted their positions in the 1960s after the publication of a chapbook or two, approached their jobs with all the liveliness and enthusiasm of members of the Politburo. Iowa, of course, set the standard for the genius approach to writing in which the great man or woman allows the eager young to gather round, where they are to learn by osmosis.

Gessner teaches at UNC-Wilmington, in case you are interested. At the end of the piece, Gessner worries that he might be intentionally sabotaging his teaching career by publishing his thoughts about it, especially a few weeks before he goes up for tenure. But if I were applying for nonfiction programs right now, his essay would make me add Wilmington to my list, if it wasn’t already on there.  Just so you know, tenure committee.

Then there’s New York magazine on the end of book publishing as we know it. Cheery!

Lately, the whole, hoary concept of paying writers advances against royalties has come under question. Following their down payments to authors, publishers don’t have to pay a cent in royalties, which are usually 15 percent of the hardcover price, 7.5 for paperbacks, until that signing bonus is earned back. The system is supposed to be mutually beneficial; the publishers guarantee writers a certain income, and then both parties share in the proceeds beyond that level. But it only works for publishers if they’re conservative in their expectations. As auctions over hot books have grown more frequent, prudence has gone out the window— paying a $1 million advance to a 26-year-old first-time novelist becomes a public-relations gambit as much as an investment in that writer’s future.

That money has to come from somewhere, so publishers have cracked down on their non-star writers. The advances you don’t hear about have been dropping precipitously. For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.

That’s it! It’s all Jonathan Safran Foer’s fault!

Finally, Wired magazine is blogging the development of one of their stories, from the pitch to the “get” to the copy edit, with all the emails in between. It’s a great primer for anyone interested in the actual process an idea goes through to wind up on the pages of a mainstream magazine. Read it here.

Man Booker Prize: Not About Literary Value?

Like every other book blogger in the Western Hemisphere, I’m here today to chew over the Man Booker Prize shortlist, announced yesterday. Here it is:

Aravind Adiga — The White Tiger
Sebastian Barry — The Secret Scripture
Amitav Ghosh — Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant — The Clothes on Their Backs
Philip Hensher — The Northern Clemency
Steve Toltz —  A Fraction of the Whole

Two first time novelists, one woman, and no Rushdie.

The two first-timers, Aravind Adiga and Steve Toltz, are currently getting the best odds, though how the bookies calculate these things I have no idea. Here’s a link to The Guardian’scondensed read” version of the books. And here’s an absolutely fascinating article, also from The Guardian, in which Man Booker judges from previous years talk about their experiences. Warning, folks: It ain’t pretty.

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On Slush Piles, MFA Programs, and Becoming Who You Are

One of my students sent me a link to this Q & A by Salon advice columnist Cary Tennis. The question comes from a writer who got writer’s block after reading the slush pile at a publishing company. The writer asks:

How do you believe in your own writing? I don’t mean after it’s finished, but while you’re writing it? Is there a way to work with the imaginary reader instead of fighting with him/her?

Tennis takes the opportunity, in his answer, to wax rhapsodic about releasing yourself from your own judgment, and while he has certainly been taken to task for completely failing to answer his readers’ questions in the past, he has something valid to offer here, I think. You have to enjoy the exuberance of his response, at least.

We cannot judge harshly without also living in fear of being judged. And it is that creeping fear of being judged ourselves that can prevent us from writing fluidly and with ease and courage. So I say step out there and be really, really bad if you want. Who cares? Step out there and write the worst prose imaginable! So what? There’s no law. Do it with gusto. Write the worst possible prose. Write poems that are so bad you can smell them. Do it. Look around. Have you been arrested? Have you been fired? Are you being held up to public ridicule? No. It’s safe. It’s safe to write whatever you want. And you never know. Some of the most awful stuff might be the best. You don’t know. You can’t judge your own work or control how others respond to it.

I have to disagree slightly with the last bit, though. It certainly is hard to see your own work with any degree of objectivity, but with enough careful attention to craft I believe you can tell, in general terms, if your writing is hitting the mark or not. You’ll still need some trusted external readers to be sure, but your own responses will be truer and more reliable. That’s been my experience anyway, and it’s something I try and instill in my students. Through workshopping, writing, and reading great work, you are effectively educating your own internal imaginary reader, to phrase it in the letter writer’s own terms. Turning him or her into a useful friend, instead of a foe. There’s nothing more enabling than that. It’s practical and learnable and it works.

Which is not to say that there isn’t room, sometimes, for a more esoteric response. Looking through some other Cary Tennis columns for this blog post, I came across this one, from 2007, in which an MFA student from “a certain rather prestigious MFA program” asks: what am I doing here?

Cary’s response, in which he confesses that he was once an MFA candidate too, is rather brilliant:

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The Brief, Wondrous Words of Junot Diaz

“Yo, dude, I think you might have won a Poo-litza!”

This, apparently, is how Junot Diaz received word of his big win.

I used a Junot Diaz story in one of my workshops last week — “Fiesta, 1980” from the story collection Drown. It chronicles the experiences of an adolescent Dominican boy as he navigates his nausea and family life during a trip to a party in the Bronx, with flashbacks that reveal the deeper dynamics behind the up-front action. We spent a lot of time talking about point of view in the workshop. It’s a first person retrospective piece that sometimes brings the reader in close to the 12-year-old protagonist’s experience, and other times privileges the adult narrator. The shift between the two is sometimes smooth, sometimes jarring. Diaz gives us a few lines of the protagonist’s dialogue, only to puncture the illusion of our closeness to the character by throwing in adult words or perceptions. In this way, we are both inside and outside of the protagonist’s mind at the same time. The narrator is effectively treating his younger self as a character. This is a technique called indirect interior monologue — and in the first person, it’s more often employed in memoir and personal essays, when writers often have to recreate some version of their younger selves on the page. See this great essay by David Jauss for more on indirect interior monologue and other techniques of point of view. It’s technical, but worth it.

In the meantime here’s a link to an interview with Diaz, (from which the opening quote of this blog entry is taken) conducted by Meghan O’Rourke, Slate’s culture editor, and Deborah Landau, the director of NYU’s MFA writing program. (Try as I might, I couldn’t embed the damn thing. Anyone with the know-how, please help me!)

O’Rourke looks comfortable on camera. Landau, not so much. But it’s still a good interview, not least because it gives a good feel for how Diaz really thinks and talks. Just how autobiographical is Diaz’s work? That’s something else we discussed in our workshop. The point of view in “Fiesta, 1980” certainly leads us to read it as nonfiction, and “Junot” would seem to have so much in common with his protagonist “Junior” (also the protagonist of his Oscar Wao book?) that it’s not hard to make the imaginative leap and think it’s as much memoir as fiction. But, of course, that’s pure speculation.

It’s interesting that NYU is teaming up with Slate to produce this kind of content: a service to writing students and interested Slate readers alike, and an indication that NYU’s program is at least trying to utilize new media technology as part of its offerings, which is more than can be said for some other MFA programs.