We’re currently in the middle of college application season, and that means many young writers on the verge of nervous breakdowns are applying to Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs in creative writing. I’m in one of these programs myself, and although I could devote my post to commenting on the perpetual debate about whether an MFA is worthwhile, I’m not going to do that for several reasons—first, I’m not finished with the program yet and therefore lack the necessary perspective; second, there are better and more authoritative discussions/debates out there. Someday I may possess enough gravitas to actually make a meaningful contribution to the ongoing MFA discussion, but that time is not yet.
Rather than chiming in on the “Is an MFA worthwhile?” discussion, I’ll instead offer my brief interpretation of how we got here. In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, a curious thing happened in the United States: beginning with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1936, creative writing became something people could actually study in school. Up until this point, creative writers came together primarily through personal or professional acquaintances. Literary clubs were the norm, such as the London-based Rhymer’s Club founded by William Butler Yeats in the late 1800s. These writers learned from each other, commented on each others’ work, and performed private readings.
But academia formalized this good-old-boys type of environment through the MFA program. The college admissions process replaced informal club votes and letters of introduction, with the professors in charge of each program acting as gatekeepers to determine who was good enough to get in the club. In addition to meeting in bars and cafes, the workshop classroom became a focal point of activity; commenting on literary work was performed primarily for academic credit; and literary readings were often reserved for the creative-writing professors who invited each other to read at their respective universities in quid pro quo arrangements. By the 1960s, MFA programs were becoming commonplace. Like an artistic pyramid scheme or chain letter, MFA graduates were groomed to start MFA programs at other schools. New programs created additional tenure-track jobs for recently graduated creative writers.
The government significantly aided the growth of MFA programs, which also coincided with the general broad-based growth of the university system throughout the second half of the 20th century. With the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) providing millions of dollars each year to fund writers-in-residence, independent presses, magazines, readings, and literary festivals, by the 1980s a whole miniature creative-writing industry had formed with MFA programs at the center.
The university system is now saturated with MFA programs and the workforce with MFA graduates. The NEA has cut back significantly on its funding to literary activities. Though the Internet has created a revolution in publishing opportunities, general readership and literacy is declining. I don’t know what the future holds for MFA programs, but I know that undergraduate fiction classes are very popular at my university. Will people continue to see the MFA as a serious degree—enough to invest money in beyond undergraduate classes? Probably. But whether interest in MFA programs remains high enough to reach a sort of equilibrium after years of rapid growth is another question entirely.