David Moles linked to a…

David Moles linked to a rant about MFA poetry programs, by a Briggs Seekins, and it reminded me of some of the frustration I felt while visiting Utah for my defense. I'm going to speak primarily about fiction here, rather than poetry.

The piece quoted above is a long screed by a bitter poet who feels that the academic system encourages (nay, practically demands) mediocre, conventional writing, in exchange for job security. This may be the case in some MFA programs. It has not been my experience. In fact, I would make the opposite claim -- that students in MFA (and PhD) programs are so concerned with their artistic vision that they often shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to actually getting published. (Which my current job search has shown is the key to actually getting the academic job they want...a national-level book publication is pretty much a requirement for an Assistant Professor job in Creative Writing these days.)

The people in my program are really talented writers. They write great stuff -- interesting, innovative, engaging. I love their prose. I love their stories. It was, for the most part, a pleasure to read the work they brought to workshop -- sometimes raw, sometimes close to finished, but generally very well-written. I think any one of my classmates has the capability to write a book that would sell at the national level.

The problem is, they aren't thinking about that. During the program, they're thinking about the writing, and are drowning in teaching, or editing one of the literary journals, and almost never while I was in Utah did I hear any fiction people having a conversation about how to pitch their work to an agent, or how to even decide which of the various projects they were working on would be the most likely to get published.

Partly this is due to a disconnect in types of publication. During the program, you're likely to be primarily writing short stories in your workshops, and thus trying to sell short stories to literary markets like The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House,, etc. Which is a fine thing to do, but unless you actually manage to sell several stories to those markets (extremely rare), that isn't going to be sufficient to get you a job. So somewhere in your last year at the program, you realize this, and desperately try to cobble together your short stories into a collection. More often than not, I think, the stories do generally have some thematic connections at least (because writers tend to write what they're obsessed by, sometimes in story after story). So you can put together a semi-plausible collection, with perhaps a few of your stronger stories, and a few weaker ones. But rarely is that collection coherent, because it's really just an assortment of the two stories you wrote for workshop every semester while in the midst of your teaching, your editing, your life -- without any real forethought as to how they might work together, speak to each other, build on each other.

And besides, no one buys collections from unknown writers.

You may be saying, "But Mary Anne, HarperCollins bought *your* collection." And this is true, but here are some factors in that decision:

  • I am not unknown -- I was able to come to them with stats like 2 million+ visitors to my website

  • My collection was far closer to a novel than most, with stories that constantly referenced each other and (after Katie and Bob both advised me to go this route) a coherent chronological timeline

  • They only bought the collection in order to get a novel I hadn't even written yet -- and they paid me three times as much for the novel, making it clear which they valued more
Given all of this, it's clear that fiction writers in academic programs should be working on a novel if they hope to get that national publication and corresponding academic job. It doesn't need to be especially lucrative national publication, btw -- a book from a well-respected literary press like Graywolf may not sell more than 5000 copies, but it is sufficiently reputable to get you an academic job. We're not talking about selling out and writing "commercial fiction" instead of "literary fiction" -- go ahead, make your fiction as literary as you want. Just do it in novel form. And rather than starting that novel in your last year when you, panicked and desperate, realize that's what you need to do, come into the program with this in mind -- that you're working towards a novel, that you should be thinking about your novel all the damn time, and everything you do, from exercises to short stories to random scenes should in some strange way impinge on your consciousness in relation to the novel. That's the first rule.

The second rule has to do with marketability. Now, look -- my book is super-marketable, clearly. It's got sex. It's got South Asian stuff, which is hot in America right now. It's got the hook that I'm the first Sri Lankan-American woman writer who's at all well-known at the moment, which attracts a certain kind of academic folk. It is, I hope, a page-turner. And it is, at the same time, literary. Complex, subtle, layered, resisting easy answers. That was what I was trying for, at any rate.

You don't have to write that kind of book. You should write the book you're obsessed with, because otherwise, your book will be just the kind of mediocrity Seekins was complaining about. I was obsessed by my book -- I said to Katie at one point that I was afraid I was in a rut, because I kept writing about the same things: sex and mothers and daughters and children that sometimes didn't quite happen and the intrusion of violence into everyday life. And Katie said that that wasn't a rut -- those were my tropes. And I said oh, okay. And it's more than okay, it's exactly right -- you have to write what you have to write, what you feel utterly compelled to write. Never compromise that for some supposed commercial or literary outside value. That's the second rule. (This is where I agree with Seekins above).

But that said, sometimes you don't have to compromise your artistic integrity or vision in order to produce a more marketable novel. Sometimes you just have to take some time and think about your book or books. Especially if you have books, if you have more than one idea for a book you desperately want to write. Think about which one is worth focusing your immediate attention on. And I think the calculus there is exactly the opposite of what the screed-writer suggests -- that what is most marketable, for the kind of market you want here, is not the safe sort of story that everyone seems to be telling. No, what gets agents and editors excited, what will sell your book to them, is something new. Something unusual, something particular and specific and very much individually yours. When an agent sees a manuscript that is nothing like anything he's seen before, he gets up on his desk and does a little dance. Because the vast, vast majority of what comes across that desk are novels that are just like the one he read last week, that are indistinguishable.

So here's the third rule -- write an interesting, original book, that is also marketable. And for god's sake, practice marketing it. Tell your friends about your book. Tell them why it's exciting, why they have to read it. See how they respond -- and if they don't respond with eagerness, with excitement, then you know you need to work on your pitch. Because if you can't convince your friends that your book is exciting, how in the world are you going to convince a stranger?

And yes, there are quiet books that are brilliant and very hard to pitch in terms that will make at all clear what makes this book exciting. Sometimes you just have to read them to understand. If your book is one of those books, good for you and good luck -- you're going to have an even tougher time than most finding an agent/editor who gets it. But even there, it's not impossible, if your book really is that good. It'll find a home. I honestly believe that's true across the board, whether your book is the sort that will be appreciated by 5000 people at most, or whether it has a chance of becoming a raging bestseller (ideally accompanied by glowing reviews in the New York Review of Books).

The key is to write a novel that you're passionate about. And if you really can't manage a novel -- if you're in the last year of your program and there's just no way that you're going to write a decent novel in four months, which there probably isn't, to be honest, then go back and look at those short stories. Pick the three that are the most thematically coherent -- and ideally, also the best ones of the bunch. Think about how they might be shaped into a book, with other stories that you will write, a book whose stories are in conversation with each other, each individual piece adding to the weight of whole.

There are all sorts of ways in which academic writing programs can be counterproductive, can be bad for your writing. No argument there. But I think more than anything else, it's the writer's attitude and choices while in the program that determine whether they end up getting something truly worthwhile out of it in the end.

In summary, here are my Rules for Getting a Literary Book Published and Hopefully a Corresponding Academic Job:

  1. Write a novel, or if you absolutely can't do that, at least write a tightly-connected short story suite.

  2. Never compromise your artistic integrity; write about your obsessions, in as intelligent and perceptive and yes, literary, a manner as you know how.

  3. Write an interesting, original, exciting book, and then practice pitching that book, until you can, with just a sentence or two, get people excited about reading your book.

Good luck.

6 thoughts on “David Moles linked to a…”

  1. Two thoughts:

    1. Maybe this is a course you can teach! since you have strong feelings about it.

    2. Maybe you’re downplaying the amazingness-of-Maryanne. You Can Write, but also you Have Something to Say. I find that pretty rare. On top of this is that you are willing to forego the 900 other jobs that could net you more money, more security, etc. (I do honestly know people who are as genuinely interesting and are good communicators, but money matters more to them).

    I wish, in particular, that there was a better way to have more writers like Studs Turkel, who don’t rely on Having Passion, but simply in being able to ferret it out in people they know and sometimes in complete strangers. Not to imply that you don’t do some of this yourself, but I think the skill of Listening may be the rarest of all.

  2. Heh. I don’t think it’s worthy of a full course, but if I do end up teaching in a creative writing program, I would certainly encourage some sort of professionalization workshop. Perhaps a weekend retreat — we did that at Mills.

    I actually think pretty much everyone has something interesting to say, whether generated from their own stories or those of others (or pure invention). But figuring out what it is, and then translating it to your fiction — that’s the trick. A lot of writers just flounder in that intermediate stage.

    I don’t think forgoing the other jobs is the issue — that rant was pretty much addressed to writers who have already made the choice to pursue writing seriously, giving up other likely more lucrative possibilities.

  3. I think many people have had interesting things happen to them. I’d say that having the intelligence to notice it, understand it, and present it, is the essence of what being a cultural commentator is. That “intermediate stage” is what makes a writer, not the experiences. Except I’d add that being able to present other people’s stories is an important – and far more difficult skill.

    I wasn’t suggesting that your rant was addressed to those choosing other jobs. I’m simply disagreeing that most people in MFA programs “have what it takes” to be as amazing as you in their own way. I think many, many people who have such skills – choose other places to apply them than in being a writer.

  4. This is invaluable advice, Mary Anne, especially for me, getting ready to start a PhD program next year (hopefully).

    I haven’t had nearly the same experience that Seekins did either, in my MA program. Almost all the graduate students were open to reading the kind of slipstreamy stuff I write. Plus, I was encourage by both John Kessel and Wilton Barnhardt to write fantastic fiction. And the more unusual it was, the more they liked it. There were a few students in my workshop who kept writing the same stories over and over, but they were counseled to try something new and original.

    Wilton also recently told me that the best way to get an academic job is to sell a novel, which agrees with what you say. I’ll be going into whatever PhD program I’ll be at focused on writing a novel, and have had that plan from the day I decided to go on beyond the M.A. But I think your advice is great for people who are writing nothing but short stories and hoping to land a university job.

    So thanks for writing this, professor.

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