Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In with the in crowd (MFAs, part 3)

There's a whole other aspect to the university writing scene and in particular the world of the MFA program that was mostly not addressed in Louis Menand's piece in the June 8/15 New Yorker. I don't know whether Mark McGurl attends to it in his book The Program Era, whose publication occasioned the Menand essay. I can see why no one might want to bring it into the light of day. It's unseemly. Those on the inside, the MFA faculty and students, might feel squeamish or defensive about it, or just say it's a non-issue. Those on the outside don't want to come off all sour-grapes, resentful, whiny--don't want to come off as losers.

I'm talking about what just might be the biggest single advantage of studying in an MFA program and getting that degree. Bigger than all you might learn about the literary arts.

Connections. The doors the MFA opens.

I know it's not supposed to be this way. Literary journal editors are supposed to treat the slush pile as sacrosanct, a potential lode of undiscovered treasure. Publishers are supposed to be dying to find and bring to the world the next great novel written by an obscure unlettered wretch. Agents are supposed to take every query seriously, read every submission and take on clients based solely on the merit of their work.

Come on. Get real. This is not what's happening. I doubt that it ever was, but certainly in these times and for much of at least the last couple of decades, it is simply not true that doors are wide open for any and every writer of promise. As far as I can see, the opposite is true. Most doors are shut. If you don't have the credentials. More important, if you don't have the connections that come with the degree.

Now, I've had some recent good luck having my stories plucked from the slush pile. So on the level of the individual lit mag, I'm happy to testify that there are at least some where a nobody with no scholarly chops still has a chance at getting published. However, I also know that for every such journal there are several others where this is not the case. The policy is either explicit -- as with the interview with a top lit mag editor who said that if your cover letter says you have an MFA from a good school your submission goes to the top of the pile, other MFAs go in the middle, those recommended by a famous writer go on the top, those with neither MFA nor famous connection go in a separate pile altogether and may or may not ever eventually get read. This is not my paranoia; the guy said it. Or the policy is implicit: the journal's submissions policy says they love hearing from new, unknown, unconnected writers and give them all consideration, but then you look at who they publish, issue after issue, and there's not an MFA-less soul to be found.

Don't get me started on agents. Poets and Writers has been running a series of interviews with agents and editors for the last several issues. I've found the whole series tremendously discouraging. There are lots of reasons, but the clearest came through in the installment in May/June issue, which was a conversation with a number of prominent agents. In response to questions about how they find their clients, these agents to a person replied with every possible variant of "through connections" and made it clear that it is nearly unheard of for them to actually take a client who approached them via a blind query with no connections and no credentials. Mostly, they said, they get new clients via referral from other clients of theirs, from other authors, from editors. And from MFA programs. They said they love going to MFA programs and meeting the students and reading their work, and picking out the brightest prospects and signing them up, often well before they have anything close to a finished book ready yet.

In a sense all this makes me feel better. I tried very hard for several years to find an agent for my first novel, to no avail. Only one agent even read it. (Two others asked to read it, put me to the expense of printing and mailing it, but then never responded to it or to my meek, humble follow-up letters.) Tell me that it's the fault of my query letter: I don't buy it. Tell me it's because of the subject of my novel, and well, yes, that's much closer to the truth, perhaps most of it. But tell me that virtually no agents (and believe me, I approached just about all of the reputable ones) were interested in even reading my novel, even giving it a chance, largely because they're more interested in the non-political work of a bright blond young MFA and -- no, no, don't say it Shelley, you'll come across as just another talentless witless know-nothing flailing about for someone to blame for your own literary obscurity -- yes yes I've got to say it: I believe you're right.

But this is not a good kind of feeling better. Believe me, I would much much rather have these folks read my novel and reject it on its merits, tell me it stinks, that it's gobbage -- gobbage I say -- than to never get a shot at such rejection. So I have to confess that one of the reasons I did try a couple times to get into the MFA program here at the university where I work and where it would have been almost free is because I knew that, along with whatever I might learn about writing, being in that program would open doors in the literary world that are otherwise closed to me. Not that it's easy even for MFA folks to get published, I know. But being there, being part of that scene, does provide a step up. What's the point in denying it? The programs do a great job of trying to aid their students toward getting published, as well they should.

Look at any major MFA program's web site. You'll see that along with the craft classes, writing workshops, and so ons, there are also lots of other goodies. Literary agents come and meet with the students. Editors do too. The faculty, permanent and visiting, takes an interest in the students, introduces them to their own agents and editors. And so on. It's a way in. This is seems to me to be undeniable. The MFA program is not only about teaching. It's about entrée.

Where does this leave the rest of us? Knocking harder, I guess, and perhaps on less obvious doors.