Friday, April 15, 2011

Self-pubbing vs. MFA ???

I love a good essay, and receive many emails I wish I could read more indepth containing marvelous thoughts and lessons from astute writers. This one, however, made my sprinting eyes slow down and reread. Not only is self-publishing a predatory environment, but those illustrious degrees called MFAs, Masters of Fine Arts, might be in the same category of entities that prey on hungry writers.

Jessa Crispin is otherwise known as Bookslut at and recently wrote "A Sea of Words - Publishing isn't dead. Smart publishing, well, that's a different story." Published in The Smart Set from Drexel University

...where once there were only empty rooms, lost potential, and would-be writers intimidated by the task of breaking into the conversation with a woman’s voice, there is now only din. A loud, swarming noise of hundreds of thousands of books published each year, one almost indistinguishable from the next.
Crispin isn't the only one I've read about lately who almost prefers to sink back into the classics to avoid reading the massive deluge of mediocrity that's evolved from self-publishing. Don't throw virtual tomatoes at me. I realize that some quality rises out of self-publishing here and there. It's still lottery odds, though. It takes platform to rise above the huge number of self-pubbed books out there. But let's say you develop a platform. Why should platform determine whether your book is any good or not? Somebody's savvy website shouldn't sell books. Quality should. At least that's what I hear over and over again. Trouble is, what's considered quality anymore?
So the righteous swarm to low-residency MFA programs, endeavoring to break into writing with quality, instead of hype. Having those initials should catch the attention of traditional presses, helping to preserve top shelf writing. Right?

Crispin: It’s a noble thought, that modern day MFA students are fomenting revolution in their workshops, fighting against the menacing capitalism that exploits our artists’ fantasies of fame and fortune. What these MFA candidates are really doing is forking over tens of thousands of dollars to Stony Brook, all in the hopes of attaining a lucrative book contract. They are not protesting against our age, they are actively participating in it.

With renewed interest in MFA programs, and with schools strapped for money, MFAs have become popular. Open a Poets & Writers Magazine or Writer's Digest and check out the ads. Self-publishing and MFA programs. Kissing cousins. Both are fighting to scoop up hungry writers for profit.

Chad Harbach wrote in the Slate article MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distict literary cultures. Which one will last? - MFA programs today serve less as . . . finishing schools for almost-ready writers . . . and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.

He also pointed out what will happen with this market glut of writers:

The lit-lovers who used to become editors and agents will direct MFA programs instead; the book industry will become as rational—that is, as single-mindedly devoted to profit—as every other capitalist industry. The writers, even more so than now, will write for other writers. And so their common ambition and mission and salvation, their profession—indeed their only hope—will be to make writers of us all.

Indeed it does seem that way--that there is a clandestine plan to make everyone want to write by creating an overabundance of writing instruction. Face it, we have a mushrooming supply of low-res MFA programs, self-pub companies, ebook formatters, writing coaches, freelance editors, and how-to books from writers we never heard of. In my opinion, writing has almost become a racket, and if you aren't careful, you'll fall prey to some of the not-so-honorable participants.

We have self-pubbing vs. traditional, MFA vs. NYC publishing, and when we look economically at the industry, self-pubbing and MFA programs suddenly become related.

I don't know what's right, or what's wrong with this picture.

For a long time, everyone wanted to write and nobody wanted to read. It saddened me. Then along came e-readers, and reading became faddish again.

Point is . . . everyone in this business is trying to make a buck, from the agent to the self-publisher, from the university MFA department to the freelance editor. The sooner you understand that the better. Nobody short of your readers love you for your writing; these companies love you for your sales or what you can purchase from them. The romance of storytelling is a distant  second place to turning a profit. But there's still one shining outcome from all of this confusion--from all of this clammoring for titles, bylines and sales.

More people are writing than ever before. In any stretch of the imagination, how can that be a bad thing?


Sophie Playle said...

I agree... to an extent.

I think there may be a slight difference between the MFAs in the US and the MAs here in the UK. The UK MAs are much cheaper, I believe, and I *think* there are fewer of them.

Thought the institutions are obviously gobbling up the money that students pay, if you're lucky, you have a tutor (or two) who really does care about your writing. And your team of fellow classmates, too. So though you are still forking out money, you ARE getting a fruitful learning environment.

Secondly, you say that students go on MAs/MFAs to improve the quality of their writing, but really with the agenda of getting a book deal at the end. Surely that isn't such a bad thing? As long as the MAIN agenda is to IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF THEIR WRITING. Surely that's a worthy agenda? A book deal is a nice bi-product of improved writing (with a marketable idea thrown in, of course).

But I think that is the main difference between vanity/self-publishers and MFA/MA programs. Yes, both businesses make money out of the writer. But it is the writer's choice to use them, and which service they choose will depend on their agenda. Do they want to learn and improve, or just see their name in print as quickly as possible?

Debra Mayhew said...

This is definitely food for thought. Makes me realize I don't want that book contract at all costs. I want to contribute something of value through my writing! Love you blog and I'll be back!

Hope Clark said...

Thanks, Debra. And Sophie, the cost of an MFA is so high compared to what you take away from it - at least in most cases. Isn't it easier to hire that special teacher for after hours tutoring or seek out a mentor? Don't get me wrong. I'd kill for an MFA. I just can't justify the exorbitant expense. I can get an MBA cheaper than an MFA.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Hope--I agree. I'd love to be able to afford the luxury of working on an MFA, but can't. I too fail to see the real benefit.

If you go to my April 13 post, I wrote about you...

Sophie Playle said...

Hope, possibly. I'm not sure how much MFAs are in the US, but in the UK an MA in CW is approx. £3500-4500 ($5700-7300). For my MA, we get 5 hours group contact time for about 20 weeks, plus around approx 15 hours personal contact time throughout the year, plus loads and loads of written feedback, plus around 20 hours contact time with a variety of industry professionals... So that's probably about £29 an hour, not including written feedback and the time tutors take to mark work. I would say that isn't too bad... I guess it could be better.

I think it depends a lot about how you work. If a one-on-one personally tutor works better for you than a group and a variety of tutors, then it would be better value to spend the money on that.

I is a shame that creative writing tutoring is so pricey. But I think we end up paying for a lot of out-of-contact-hours/behind the scenes knowledge and work, too.

Value vs Price is a tricky argument. Very subjective and flexible.

ShelbyandJosh said...

I realize I'm quite late in commenting here, but I thought I'd throw in a little contradiction. I went to a full-time MFA program rather than low-res,which I understand is quite expensive, but I didn't pay a dime. They paid me. Everyone accepted to the program I entered receives a graduate assistantship which usually consists of teaching one course per semester. Tuition is covered as well as a stipend. Granted it wouldn't likely be enough to support someone with a mortgage and three kids, but it was just fine for me. I have no debt related to my schooling, I acquired some teaching experience, and I got to spend three years focusing on my writing. Quite a gift in my opinion.