4 Things You May Not Know About the MFA in Writing

It’s that time of year again when I begin to hear from former students, looking for letters of recommendation for MFA programs, or advice about it. When I first began blogging, it was in part to cut down on some of these emails and to answer some questions en masse. Here is a link to an FAQ that I put up a few years ago, reposted here.

And here’s the update:

1. As of this summer, you do not need an MFA in order to be published so please stop saying it. Two of the most exciting young talents I met at Bread Loaf, Paul Yoon and Justin Torres, do not have MFAs. Paul Yoon has a story in last year’s Best American, edited by Ann Patchett, and one in the current Ploughshares, edited by Andrea Barrett. Justin Torres was a New Voices pick in issue 30 of Tin House. If you need an MFA to be a writer today, no one told them.

2. You should, however, consider getting published before applying to the MFA. All of the school sites will say it isn’t necessary and it isn’t—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help. Consider that more and more, students are showing up with agents and book contracts already, much less journal and magazine publishing credits. Step up your game. You might still get in if you aren’t published yet, but keep in mind that applying for an MFA isn’t how we get serious about writing. Publishing is how we get serious about writing, and the committees who read application reward these signs of seriousness. Students will always get in with no publishing credits but it will only be a few—not the majority.

3. Applying with an excerpt of long fiction puts you at a basic disadvantage over applying with short fiction.

In general, over the last ten years, my former students who’ve applied with novel excerpts are rejected or waitlisted, and my students who apply with short fiction are given fellowships and priority admission. Students who apply with an excellent, memorable short story will usually get in over students who apply with a novel excerpt, because if you’re doing your work right, every part really does connect to every other part, in order to achieve its effects. So you’re at a handicap.

I’ve asked other writers since coming to this conclusion, and no one’s disagreed with me yet, so take it as it is offered, with a grain of salt. Iowa is aware of the problem, for example, and allows 100 pages in the submission manuscript.

In the meantime, do some homework: study successful excerpts, when they appear in the New Yorker, for example, like the Junot Diaz, Chris Adrian and Michael Cunningham excerpts that have appeared there, and read them against the novels in question (in this case, The Short Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Gob’s Grief and for Michael, both Home At The End of the World and The Hours) and try to figure out how to do it. You’ll need to excerpt your novel eventually anyway, so you may as well learn now.

The novelist’s revenge, for now, comes after school, when publishers and agents then tell story writers in as many words that they won’t publish the collection without a novel.

4. Do your industry research. Read literary journals.

Bernhard Deboer, a leading distributor of literary journals in this country, has gone out of business as of last week. I found out this morning when I went into Amherst Books to get a copy of the Ploughshares featuring Paul Yoon. It went a little like this:

Me: Do you carry Ploughshares?

Bookseller: Normally, yes. Let me see. . .

Voice From Around Corner: Well, there’s a story about that.

The Voice was one of the owners, who then told me the distributor had closed operations. Most of what you see here, he said, you won’t see anymore unless someone else figures it out. The magazines with the green stickers, he said, and gestured at the literary journal rack, where, with two exceptions, everything had a green sticker.

In the years before I applied to MFA programs, I developed certain habits: I got the Best American Stories and Best American Essays, and I read them. I looked at the names of the magazines where the selections first appeared and I tracked down those magazines. If I liked them on a random sampling, i.e., flipping them open in the store to a few random pages and reading what I found there, I bought them. If I liked the issue, I subscribed. Annie Dillard trained us to do this back when I was a student at Wesleyan. Know your target magazine, she said. Figure out what they publish, and figure out if you are it.

Back then, the big magazines we all read and sent stories to were the New Yorker, Granta, Grand Street, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Bomb, Zoetrope, Story, The Black Warrior Review, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Witness, The Michigan Review, Antaeus, Conjunctions, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, The Agni Review. There are many new magazines. Antaeus is no longer in print (this journal was amazing and nothing’s really replaced it for it’s particular sensibility). Add to the list McSweeney’s, Tin House, n+1, A Public Space and Fence.

Given the number of students who profess to want to be writers and who are applying to MFA programs, if everyone was doing their homework, these magazines and their distributor would be fine. It’s safe to say the majority of are not doing their homework, and, I should add, are not supporting their industry. How can you aspire to be a writer if you don’t start participating as a reader of literary journals and literary fiction? One of my most talented students last year confessed to me she never read literary journals but she wanted to get published—could I recommend some? I can, but she had to go do her homework.

If you’re not reading any of these already, then you really are arrogant enough to expect you can get published by a magazine you won’t read, and you haven’t realized it yet.

So if you are a former student of mine, and you want a letter for me for grad school, and you haven’t sat down to read at least half of these, reconsider until you have—you have no idea what you’re up against, and no sense of if you’re ready or not, in which case you may be wasting my time and yours. If you can’t imagine something of yours placed in one of these magazines, you should know you are going to be applying against an applicant pool that includes students who’ve placed stories in one or more of these publications—students who’ll be ahead of you. And if you haven’t submitted work to at least half of them, at least getting rejected, you aren’t taking your writing career seriously before getting some sort of institutional approval—and thus you may not get the institutional approval.

Or, as Denis Johnson told my class at Iowa, If you’re in this to get rich, get famous or get laid, try something else.

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12 thoughts on “4 Things You May Not Know About the MFA in Writing

  1. Jane K. says:

    Alex, such generous and shrewd advice. It’s not just useful for MFA hopefuls. It’s useful for anyone like me, who wants a primer on literary publishing. And now I have it, and it’s plenty. Thank you.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Alex, what do you think about finding an agent – should a new writer be sending his submissions to literary journals and agents at the same time, or is it better (safer?) to make sure you have representation first?

  3. koreanish says:

    You should try to get an agent only once you have a complete manuscript of stories or a novel. Not before. Signing with an agent before you finish a manuscript can leave their approval meaning too much to you, and it will negatively effect your ability to finish your book.

    Until then, it’s fine to send stories to journals and magazines on your own. An agent may not be willing to send out a story for you unless the fee for the story is high enough. 1500 used to be the old standard for that. Not many literary magazines pay more than that.

  4. John says:

    Alex, this is great advice and totally transferrable. When I advise students having early interest in graduate school in Philosophy, my discipline, I send them to journals. See what is being talked about. What a journal article looks like. What a reasonable – neither sparce nor pretentious – works cited page looks like. And so on.

    I am always surprised to not see more of this sort of library-ness about a craft from students. Just browsing the lead journals, seeing the layout, the titles, the works cited, and so on – there is a lot to be learned just through absorption. I think of it as smarty professionalization (as opposed to the crass professionalization of having the right turtleneck or leather jacket).

  5. koreanish says:

    Jane and John: Thanks. I agree.

    Lindsay: PS, good to ‘see’ you. Akira Vol. 6 is out of print and I’m in crisis.

    JD: It’s very different, depending on the student. A good guide for making your decision is the Atlantic Monthly’s summer fiction issue, which has a breakdown on the top programs.

  6. jeffreyricker says:

    Even when you know most or all of this, it’s always reassuring to see it put down in words. Many of my friends tried to tell me #1 (one of them even sent me an e-mail saying. “I think grad school is A BAD IDEA” — the capitalization was his), I feel like I was at a disadvantage because of #2, and #4 is a lifelong process, I think. If I ever decide to apply again, I’m going to reread this post. Thanks, Alex.

  7. koreanish says:

    In an update on this, Justin has decided to go and get an MFA. And he’s excited about the idea of getting some support for his writing in a whole different way.

  8. Grace T says:

    Thanks for this!

    When it comes letter writing time again next year, I will be giving all my prospective MFA students this posting.

    Congratulations on all your success!

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