Every now and then you get a reminder that MFA students are perceived as scum. I'm not trying to be hyperbolic, here: I am trying to draw out the logic of the blog post currently making the rounds wherein Passages North editor Jennifer A. Howard assures submitters that they are never rejected by MFA students. Do the students get input in editorial decisions? Of course they do. But they are reversed often, and they never get the final say. A real editor reads every submission. (Okay, so she doesn't call them "real editors." But that does seem to be the idea. Update: Uh, okay, actually she does, as anonymous points out, call them "actual editors." So.)
I sincerely doubt Howard would argue that you need to have an MFA to be a great writer or editor. The MFA in creative writing is an extremely new degree -- a blip on the historical radar. Kafka didn't have an MFA. Melville didn't have an MFA. Conrad didn't have an MFA. The Brontës didn't have MFAs. Shakespeare didn't have an MFA. Homer didn't have an MFA. Practically nobody ever had an MFA until like five minutes ago. It's self-evident that the degree is unnecessary. (Not worthless: I got one, I'm glad I did, it was very helpful. But completely unnecessary.)
What is an MFA student? Well, it's a person who, like Kafka or Shakespeare or etc. before they were the writers we know them as today, wants to learn more about writing. MFA students are people who have decided to dedicate several years of their lives to improving as artists. They are not necessarily people who have no idea how to write a story, poem, or essay, although some of them might be. Rather, they represent as wide a range of innate talent and knowledge as do all of the writers who choose to study and practice writing outside the academy. In fact, one of the great causes of tension within MFA programs is generally the combination of great disparities in practice/talent (some students are necessarily much better than others and have written much more) and the inevitable difficulty of discerning who has the advantage (most everyone thinks he or she has the advantage).
As Howard acknowledges (without seeming to take exception), MFA students are also imagined as "kids," as in, "Did some kid reject my story?" This is weird. To start an MFA, you need to have at least completed an undergraduate degree by definition. In other words you are almost certainly at least 21, more likely 23-24 even if you came straight from undergrad, which a healthy proportion of MFA students (most?) do not do. My MFA class was quite young -- at 22, I was the second-youngest incoming student -- but most years seemed to average 27 or 30. Some MFA students are parents. Some are grandparents. I wouldn't object if you called the 22-year-old Mike Meginnis a "kid" and in fact at 25 I still wouldn't really object. (I expect to feel like a child until I hit 40 and possibly after.) But we don't generally think of young writers outside the MFA system as children, and I think it would generally be seen as in poor taste if we did.
There's a truly debasing quality to the way we think of and talk about students, and only students, that I find sort of upsetting. And the fact that it's not an issue of age or experience but strictly one of whether or not one has enrolled in a program really clarifies the issue. What we dislike, I think, is anyone who wants to be a writer. In fact, we often hate it.
The aspiration to write and publish is generally frowned upon by writers, of course. We constantly complain about the flooded marketplace, about the talentless hacks in the slush (and on store shelves). Self publishing is not allowed. If we see you trying, it makes us furious. And the MFA student, more than the writer outside the academy, more even than the self-published writer, is purely and always trying. It makes us feel all icky. What we want is for everyone else to give up so it can be just us and the writers we admire. (In the purest cases of this sickness, the writer admires nobody living: it should be him and the dead white men alone.)
For my part, I think that the humility of choosing to be a student -- of saying, "I know that I need to learn more and I'm going to dedicate several years of my life to doing it" -- is an admirable quality. And to me, the way we frown on people who want to be writers, jealously guarding our work and our publications and our everything from them, is really quite unfortunate.
The second ugliness here is that which raised the issue in the first place. Writers are upset about the idea of a student rejecting their work (in spite of the fact that many of these writers have not received degrees themselves, or ever formally studied writing -- incredible hypocrisy). This is silly. If your story was rejected that was because the publisher didn't feel like publishing it. There are better reasons for this and there are worse, but not liking the story seems like a pretty solid one. And it doesn't take much education to dislike a story. I've been doing it quite well for some time.
If you think it takes an MFA to understand what you've written, or to know that it's good, maybe you need to write better stories. Maybe you need to stop trying to publish what you've got. Maybe you should send it to your friends -- and only the ones you are sure will really get it. Maybe you should bury it with Beckett.
What makes you so special?
And why are students scum?