Sunday, October 23, 2011

The idea is that students suck, I guess?

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?

20 comments:

  1. Oh amen on this! I've heard the complaint with undergrads at journals raised before but I'd never balk at an mfa student reading my work at a journal!

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  2. She actually does call them "real editors!" (The phrase she uses is "actual editors," which means the same thing.)

    How strange and insulting to suggest that the college graduates who volunteer their time to work on university-affiliated literary journals are not "actual editors." I'm EIC of a journal that relies heavily on volunteer reading and editing from students at two nearby MFA programs. They're not just real editors; they're very good ones.

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  3. Huh! Good point, Anonymous. Will revise to point that out.

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  4. Have to disagree with you. I'm four years out from a MFA program, and worked on a literary journal during that time, and my fellow readers often read quite badly. They simply didn't have the experience to be able to judge when a text was quality. It was a hit or miss journey, and we missed a lot of good stories in that slush pile.

    As a submitter, It's really disheartening when you get rejected by a first year MFA student or (God forbid) an undergraduate, because you've gotten short thrift. The MFA student, likely because of poor taste, didn't pass your story up the chain to where it would have gotten attention by an editor. And the undergraduate -- please, I've been teaching kids your age for 9 years and I'm only 32. You have no business passing judgment on anything I write, only learning from it.

    I really want real editors -- which sometimes mean MFA students in their second or third year who are the best in the program -- to read my work. Those cream of the crop MFA students, or professors with books or significant publications, are the real editors and everyone else is a mere apprentice with faulty taste. (Which is not to say that real editors don't make mistakes as well -- I know they do -- but I can at least handle their mistakes because my story got a real shot).

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  5. Of course most of your fellow readers read badly. (You probably did too. Most people do.) Do you think they mysteriously stopped sucking when they graduated? Editors at every level of every literary magazine and every publisher, regardless of their level of education, suck -- not all of them, but plenty. That's why most magazines suck. That's why you send your work to the places that don't suck. Because apparently, they have a system and a staff that combine to prevent sucking.

    "You have no business passing judgment on anything I write, only learning from it."

    That's a... really great attitude, man. I bet your students benefit a lot from your confidence that they don't know anything you don't.

    "I really want real editors -- which sometimes mean MFA students in their second or third year who are the best in the program -- to read my work."

    Then why do you publish?

    Still comes down to this: I doubt you would say you don't want anyone without an advanced degree evaluating your work. (If you would say that, you're a huge prick.) So by what logic does having started a degree but not having finished it make a person uniquely unqualified to read you? It's nonsense.

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  6. Anonymous #2: I'm weirded out by your comment. It seems to say that only time makes a good reader. But, really? I, too, went through an MFA program a while back, and there were certainly some misses in the slush. But to write off first-year students as incompetent just because they are first-year students is silly. Several first-years in my class came in with more publishing credits and experience than others have five years later. Are they inherently ill qualified to read slush? No, they were better off.

    "The MFA student, likely because of poor taste, didn't pass your story up the chain to where it would have gotten attention by an editor."

    I think you know that's a ridiculous thing to say. Most stories that MFA students reject would be rejected by an editor. Most likely they are rejected because they are not quality stories. About 2/3 of all submissions I've ever read were pretty clearly not very good and I would have no qualms allowing someone with moderate experience to reject them outright.

    Over the last 10 years or so I've read for half a dozen journals in various capacities. The good ones have a system in place such that one reader cannot reject a story; it must be seen by two or more unless that first read is by a lead editor, and even then it's usually encouraged to have someone else verify.

    The issue I'm seeing is not that MFA students are allowed to reject, it's that journals aren't handling submissions responsibly and ensuring that no one hand goes unchecked.

    MFA students aren't idiots, and they're not by default incapable of judging a story's quality.

    If you only want "real" editors reading your work and judging it, what are you going to do when somebody who doesn't have a degree reads your story? Will you be upset that someone who hasn't been vetted by the system reads it and doesn't care for it? Journals have a broader audience than just cream of the crop MFA students and faculty with books. If you're really focused on only allowing those people to judge the work, you'll need to be very careful about which journals you submit to and make sure their audience is just as carefully selected.

    Anyone who's ever read for a journal knows that it's more or less impossible for the lead editors to read all the stories. The goal is to have a system and training in place such that you don't dismiss works without cause. When in doubt, send it up the ladder.

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  7. I like Anonymous #3's attitude more but I'll still go ahead and disagree on several points!

    A good editor can reject most submissions in about a page. A great editor can do it in less, and his or her judgment will be so close to perfect (according to that editor's needs) that it's not worth freaking out about. Tracy and I are the only readers for Uncanny Valley, neither of us ever reads more than we feel like reading, and most of the things we reject were only read by one of us. This is not a big deal. Nobody owes anyone a careful reading.

    After all, readers will not hand your book to their friends for confirmation that it isn't very good before they don't buy it. They flip it open and unless something surprises them they close the book. I'll read more diligently than they usually will, but I won't read much longer -- and if some days I fall down on the job, if sometimes I reject something good, that's not any kind of problem. It's just a thing that happened. I am not obligated to publish anything ever. Nobody is.

    It seems like a lot of people worry about fairness in publishing.

    I don't know who told them it was going to be fair.

    Publishers that try to be fair tend also, in my experience, to be pretty boring. It's one approach, but it's not mine.

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  8. Interesting comments. It's difficult to pigeonhole anyone as either a "good" reader or a "bad" reader based on their years in a program, but I'd like to think that those with the most real world writing and editing experience would be the best qualified to read my work. How did they get that experience? By reading alongside better qualified teachers and editors who make suggestions and give them feedback about shared stories and poems so they learn to have a better eye for quality, or from years of submitting to different journals and editors, some who offer feedback. I would still not want unqualified "learners" to be the sole arbiters of my submissions, and as an MFA who was once one of those readers, I know I wouldn't have trusted me to make those decisions by myself. I hardly think most programs just leave vetting to the new MFA candidates. I'm sure most are like mine was,a mixture of seasoned creative writing professors who had many publications, some MFA's with a ton of experience, and baby MFA's like me.

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  9. Are you not an unqualified learner?

    Why not?

    What makes you special?

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  10. why is everyone but mike and jessie cartie anonymous?!

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  11. No kidding. I've been wondering this all day. It's okay, everyone, we can't hurt you and it'd be nice to know who we're talking to and when we might be talking to you again.

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  12. I know the editor in question and she greatly values students. I have seen, first hand, how she mentors creative writing students in her department. I just feel like that needs to be said. You raise a lot of interesting questions here, Mike. I appreciated this post and I definitely understand where you are coming from. I do not believe students are scum but I do believe that it is useful to have a system of checks and balances in place. Students are there to learn and experiential learning is valuable. I was once one of those students who worked as a first reader for a magazine. I did not know my head from my ass. I meant well and I tried hard and I read carefully but I did not know shit. I don't think it's a bad thing to say that students maybe don't know everything they need to know to make final decisions about creative work. I don't get my back up about being rejected by students. I have no problem with students being editors. I also respect that there are magazines where students don't make final decisions. It's not a malicious policy. It's one that recognizes that students are still developing as editors. I find that it offers a good safety net. Anyone can be an editor. All you need is a computer these days, so who is to say that Joe Blow who starts the Joe Blow Review is any more qualified to run a magazine. He may or may not be so sure, there's that wrinkle. You say that the humility of being a student is an admirable quality. Why don't you admire the humility of student editorial staffs that acknowledge, we don't know enough yet to make these final decisions? I'll give you another example. I wrote a story, liked it, submitted it to a student run literary magazine. They rejected it, no problem. I submitted it somewhere else, it was accepted. I read that story at a reading where the faculty editor of the rejection magazine was in attendance. After the reading, he came up to me and asked if my story had been published yet because he wanted it for his magazine. I laughed and said his magazine had rejected the story. He said, "This is awkward," and then we both laughed and had a great conversation about subjectivity and editing and other things. I am not saying my story was genius but I am saying that there is, at times, a disconnect between what student readers and more experienced editors consider good writing. And sure, part of the distaste some writers have for student run magazines is ego. The older you get, the harder it is to not get a little salty about someone in their twenties rejecting your work. It's not right. It's not wrong. It's human and you do have to allow for that.

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  13. Anonymous #3, or MarcoOctober 25, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    "A good editor can reject most submissions in about a page. A great editor can do it in less, and his or her judgment will be so close to perfect (according to that editor's needs) that it's not worth freaking out about. Tracy and I are the only readers for Uncanny Valley, neither of us ever reads more than we feel like reading, and most of the things we reject were only read by one of us. This is not a big deal. Nobody owes anyone a careful reading."

    I'm Anonymous #3, and Mike, you and I agree on this, don't we? Since you and Tracy are the editors, of course you can reject quickly, because you know the style. I think the only part where I said anything different was where it's encouraged that even reads by lead editors pass off for a second look. That's not always necessary, and I don't know why I used the word "lead" yesterday so much. Obviously if the reading staff is only two people, then it would be silly to have multiple reads on anything that isn't promising. It's not really different, just more condensed than the systems I've worked in.

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  14. I have no problem being rejected by an MFA student. It's being rejected by an undergraduate that really stings.

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  15. A few things. Two of my favorite (well-published) poets are women without an MFA, in fact without an undergraduate degree. They've served as readers and editors and were terrific. As for first-year MFAs, a friend of mine entered the Iowa WW MFA program with a book, three dozen outstanding publication credits, and two years running a lit journal. He's not typical, of course, you get my point.

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  16. Great post, Mike. You make a lot of interesting points. I personally find it annoying how often people imply that MFA and English undergrad students are all clueless children, when in fact they're ALL ADULTS of wildly varying ages and wildly varying experience levels. There may be a 36 year old MFA student with no publishing credits and zero editorial experience sitting next to a 22 year old MFA student with two dozen publishing credits and a couple years of editorial experience. Student status implies very little about what one can or cannot do--it just implies that the person has the desire, ambition, financial ability, and time to pursue their craft in a way they believe is beneficial. I think most of the people who complain about "some kid" rejecting their story are just salty their story was rejected at all.

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  17. Roxane: Thanks for the comment (and the link)! I like how even when you sort of disagree with me I sort of end up agreeing with you. Want to reply to a couple things specifically.

    "I know the editor in question and she greatly values students. I have seen, first hand, how she mentors creative writing students in her department."

    Cool! Fair enough. I don't like her language here but it's mainly for the way it seems to buy into the idea that students aren't real or legitimate editors, and some of the underlying weirdness in our community this attitude reveals. Certainly don't mean to declare Fatwa.

    "I do not believe students are scum but I do believe that it is useful to have a system of checks and balances in place."

    I think it's a good system for some publishers. I think that in most cases it produces forgettable mediocrity, but that's really less an issue of checks and balances and more an issue of the fact that probably the maximum number of people that should be making final decisions about art in any organization is four. (Not a practical number, always -- we certainly didn't do it at Puerto -- but I do think low numbers are best.)

    "I don't think it's a bad thing to say that students maybe don't know everything they need to know to make final decisions about creative work."

    Some don't. Some do! If we were talking about undergrads I would have less of an issue because that is a much more demographically limited group: some are a lot older, but most are 18-22. But when we start talking about MFAs, we have to acknowledge that it's a very diverse group of people. And then we have to ask ourselves why we're comfortable generalizing about them.

    In response to your comment more generally, I want to be clear that I'm not furious that students don't get to make editorial decisions at Passages North. They can have everyone on the staff and an ombudsman read every word of every submission if it works for them. What I can't stand is that some people apparently feel entitled to be rejected only by special readers of their choosing.

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  18. Marco: Fair enough! Maybe we disagree less than I thought. It was the bit you said about "no hand going unchecked" that I found odd: maybe some hands need checks, but surely a lot of us can manage it on our own, more or less.

    Whimsy, Dawn: Thanks!

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  19. Mike, this is a great post. though I finished in May, I still read poetry for LIT (New School's mfa-run journal). Everyone making decisions for the journal is either in the program or a year-or-so out and, as biased as I may be, you'd be hard-pressed to say it's not a quality journal.

    Also, I like what Dawn said.

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  20. I don't want little unexperienced brats who know nothing bout plots, story structure, nor characters, to read my stories.

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