Are Creative Writing MFAs a “Ponzi Scheme”?


A Master of Fine Arts in creative writing in America is a curious piece of paper, one that says something about the person holding it — mostly, that they survived an MFA program without killing themselves, which apparently isn’t easy — and also, in some circles, acts as a certification that the MFAs holder is a writer of a specific, high regard. But as the debate as to whether or not an undergraduate degree is losing its value in America rages on, the question as to whether or not post-graduate writing degrees are actually worth anything — in fiscal amounts, craft, or otherwise — remains a lesser-asked inquiry, because only people who think they can become writers actually give a shit. But it’s a question that remains, no less.

So, is it?

An essay on The Rumpus by Anelise Chen entitled “On Blowing My Load: Thoughts From Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme” certainly poses it well. SPOILER ALERT: The conclusion is that MFA candidates generally find “this debate about whether to MFA extremely dull” — perhaps because they’ve already paid their price of admission, and rubbing it in might hurt — though Chen cites the idea that for anyone “who really wants to become a writer, none of this matters. She will go to school if she feels it will help her become a better writer; she will not go if she feels it will harm her.

Most interestingly, however, is when Chen breaks down two different lists of books by whether or not the writers on them have MFAs. The first, the New York Times bestseller list:

New York Times Hardcover Fiction Top Five

1. SAFE HAVEN, Nicholas Sparks — No MFA
2. FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen — No MFA
3. WICKED APPETITE, by Janet Evanovich — No MFA
4. THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, by Stieg Larsson — Swedish, therefore, No MFA
5. THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett — No MFA

So you’re telling us Nicholas Sparks doesn’t have an MFA?! But interesting to know that Franzen, whose book has been slapped with the dubious marketing label and cookie-cutter narrative for book critics and commentators as “The/A Great American Novel,” doesn’t have one. And then, there’s The New Yorker‘s list of 20 under 40:

New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 List with Age and MFA Breakdown

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32 — Johns Hopkins
Chris Adrian, 39 — Iowa
Daniel Alarcón, 33 — Iowa
David Bezmozgis, 37 — No Writing MFA
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38 — Iowa
Joshua Ferris, 35 — UCI
Jonathan Safran Foer, 33 — No MFA
Nell Freudenberger, 35 — NYU
Rivka Galchen, 34 — Columbia
Nicole Krauss, 35 — No MFA
Yiyun Li, 37 — Iowa
Dinaw Mengestu, 31 — Columbia
Philipp Meyer, 36 — Michener Center
C. E. Morgan, 33 — No MFA
Téa Obreht, 24 — Cornell
Z Z Packer, 37 — Iowa
Karen Russell, 28 — Columbia
Salvatore Scibona, 35 — Iowa
Gary Shteyngart, 37 — Hunter
Wells Tower, 37 — Columbia

Only 10 percent of the list doesn’t have an MFA. The true worth of an MFA is obviously somewhere within the operating spirit around any potentiality insufferable, optional institution, like the gym or a cooking school — you get out what you put in — but the point that really resonates is that these institutions might be churning out too many incredible writers, who are over-saturating their own market:

….one of the faults of MFA Programs is that it has helped teach technique so well and made so many good writers that we simply can’t read them all. It’s not that the Program has made us worst writers, it’s that it’s made us so good it’s impossible to tell who is bad anymore.

In which case, you’re probably just better off being different, and special, like the literary snowflake you actually want to be, and foregoing any proper education at all. In which case, you might risk sucking, but at least you’ll be unique? It’s probably better than being Nicholas Sparks either way, that whole “multimillionare” thing aside.

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