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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Deprogramming the MFA

Most of us, looking around at the flailing anemic narcissism bred by creative writing programs, will regard Professor McGurl’s book with a combination of wonder and impatience, not to say contempt. The canny Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times about Professor McGurl’s book, gently mused about the “Ponzi element” that might help explain the explosion of degree-granting writing programs in American higher—or perhaps we should say “higher”—education. There were, he says, fifty-two such programs in 1975. As of 2004, there were 300. Doubtless there are even more in 2009. Why? Here is where Mr. Ponzi comes in. Such programs have proven to be tremendous sources of revenue for colleges and universities. They cost next to nothing to run. The facilities are all in place, as are many of the teachers. Inveigling semi-literate dreamers who wish to postpone their entry into adulthood and whose indulgent parents are willing to shell out $30,000 to $40,000 two years running for a piece of paper embossed with the letters MFA is money for jam for cash-strapped universities. Hence the proliferation of the programs. For what do you do with an MFA? Why, you turn around and teach others the art and sullen craft of being an MFA. You write poems and stories whose sole audience, most often, is your peers in the program. The success of the scheme, as Mr. Ponzi understood, requires a constant supply of fresh recruits. Absent them, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.


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