Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Do writers need an MFA to get published?

On Fresh Air yesterday, Terry Gross interviewed James Franco, whom I remember as the good-looking stoner on Freaks and Geeks. Franco, it turns out, is pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia.

Gross asked him why he is going to school to learn to write. Franco answered:

"I felt that if I wanted to be serious about writing I should be around other writers. There's a romantic notion, like, uh, 'well if you want to be a writer just write.' But I don't know if this is true, but I had a professor at UCLA who just wrote a book on this very thing. And I think it turns out—I could be wrong—but I think 90 percent of fiction authors that are being published today went through MFA programs."

This gave me pause—enough to look up the podcast and transcribe the passage above. I have no intention of pursuing another graduate degree, mostly for reasons of time and money, but also because I don't want to go through the trauma of taking the GRE again. (It turns out your GRE scores are only good for 10 years; just thinking about taking another long, standardized test makes my palms sweaty).

I wasn't sure how to test this premise—most published fiction writers do not put "MFA" after their names. But, of course, it turns out, other blogs and web sites have addressed this issue so I don't have to do any original research here. 

I googled: (do fiction writers need an mfa?) [without quotes] just now and found the following answers*:

• Everywritersresource.com - Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing? The Good, Bad and Ugly. The answer is "maybe," but only if you write literary fiction.

• afterthemfa.com - A short post says: You don't need no stinkin' MFA, which links to a web site devoted to this idea, http://www.youdontneednomfa.org (Unfortunately, it hasn't been updated since Feb. 2007).

• A link to a book listed on Amazon, Portable MFA in Creative Writing, which purports to offer the "core knowledge of a prestigious $50,000 MFA program without paying tuition."

Most of the other hits, especially on the following windows, seemed to be links to specific MFA programs. So I tried a new search question,  (do fiction writers need an MFA to get published?) This brought up such titles as: 

• I Say "Phooey!" to the MFA in Writing: Let's Write Our Hearts Out Instead (from associatedcontent.com)

• The importance of MFA creative writing programs for writers (from helium.com)

• How to make a living writing short fiction (idea) (from everything2.com)

What's depressing is that many of the articles that weren't links to MFA programs were found on non-paying, freelance-written web sites, or posted as questions on user-driven forums like Yahoo! Answers.

So, based on this short Internet survey, whether you have an MFA or not, it looks like the chance of your being a struggling, unpaid writer are still very good.

* I know Google isn't AskJeeves, but plugging in random questions is sometimes a cool way to discover new web sites—I'd never seen any of these web sites before now.


Jo said...

90%? It simply can't be true. And I wonder what percentage of MFA writing program graduates are published fiction writers. Perhaps a padded resume counts as fiction?


Anonymous said...

I always check author bios. when I read a story or poem in a literary journal. It does seem that most (if not 90% )writers getting published have the mfa credit. Indeed, many literary journals are in fact academic journals in which students and professors in the "field" of creative writing write for each other.

Cath Lawson said...

Hi - I've read about so many authors having an MFA. I am from the UK and I was on a one week writing course last year and one of the tutors suggested that we try to get MFA's.

But I don't know if an MFA is necessary to get a novel published. I got the impression that many writers take it because it's tough to make a living actually writing, so they need to teach too.

Karen Hamilton Silvestri said...

If you check the bios of new authors in Poets & Writer's, almost ALL of them have MFA's. It is depressing, but I am thinking of ditching my quest for an MA and switch to an MFA program.

Anonymous said...

I didn't really see the point vs time investment. Why? B/C I value my independence and didn't want to take on all of that debt, two, being independent, I would rather DIY....Plus, I already did my BA in Creative Writing in which most of my clases were already workshopped.
You know, it still has itched at me to do it, and I have even taken a random class here and there and gone to writers workshops, I just can't bite the 3 year commitment more so than the money thing. I'd have to stop what I am doing already making money, to take a risk on "getting better and published" then, hopefully still have some kind of income when I am done... That is a huge risk to me.
I am not sure about writing workshops where some people are, or how much family support some people who do these have... but the writing workshops I have been to in Chicago, San Francisco and Denver/Boulder have been excellent. Now, if you live in the middle of nowhere and don't have access to this, then an MFA might seem like more of a deal to you.
But I think that money might be more wiseley invested moving to a city that has a big literary crowd and networking/workshopping.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting and important question. I think good writing is what gets you published; I have four poems published in prestigious literary magazines, and no MFA credit. An MFA seems to be a way to make money by eventually becoming a professor of creative writing. And, to spend an intensive 2-3 year effort to focus entirely on your writing. You don't need one, but it helps to be in the academic arena.

Unknown said...

When you read a literary magazine, look at the bios of the writers included in the issue. They have MFA's.