I have a new piece out in The Atlantic with Richard Jean So. The piece addresses recent debates as to whether MFA programs have had a major impact on contemporary novels. The short version is that there is very little evidence to suggest any major differences between novels written by authors with MFA degrees and those without.
This is an important finding for two main reasons. First, it questions the often hyperbolic claims of critics who have said that nothing is more important than the MFA today in shaping creative writing. And second, it shows the very real limits that institutions have in impacting creativity, despite their best (or perhaps worst) intentions.
People spend over $200 million/year on getting creative writing degrees and yet these programs appear to show no discernible impact on the novel’s trajectory. While they may be useful at the individual level — creating high personal satisfaction or transformative individual experiences — at the level of changing what the novel can do as a literary art form they have little to show. It suggests that rather than focus on whether or not the MFA has changed “everything” we should be focusing on other issues that we discovered in the process — like gender or racial inequality in the publishing industry as well as university’s incentives to make money off of students and deliver little in return.