MFA OR NOT?
When I met Randy Boyagoda, I told him that I was pursuing an MFA in fiction and he genially disapproved: “No! Why?” I forget what I answered. But most MFAs, when surveyed, will say, “I want time to write.” Any MFA program worth getting into will give you a reasonable stipend for two or three years and little to do for it but write, read, and teach fiction. It’s a better deal than you are likely to get again—and one that seems compatible with Boyagoda’s prescription (“If you want to write, then write”) in “Write Away” (August/September).
Unless you fear the institutionalization of your creativity. I have to say, I don’t. Boyagoda is certainly accurate in his enumeration of the defects of today’s literary fiction: its mundanity, its straitened vision, its shying from “Big Questions.” But these surely are a subset of the broader, baffling trend whereby artists and writers have become monotonously secular, liberal, and (incidentally) shallow. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Boyagoda’s Exhibit A, is not an MFA product; it only looks like one. (Or is it that MFA products only look like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch?) Our literary fiction would be what it is in an America without MFA programs.
As Boyagoda notes, the great writers of the twentieth century worked in fields such as publishing and journalism—whereas today, he argues, our literary writers must make their way in the academic fiction complex. Within this complex, everyone has to worry about offending workshop classmates and (later) tenure committees, so no one wants to go big or bold like Bellow.
But most MFAs spend their working lives outside of the academic fiction complex (that’s why the two or three years are such a holiday!). In my program, with its five writers per cohort, current and recent students include a former attorney, a former Wall Streeter, a former author of instruction manuals for board games, and a former sex worker. No one went straight from the undergraduate creative-writing track (indeed, many did not pursue it) to the MFA. Heaven knows what everyone will do after graduation, since tenure-track creative-writing jobs remain impossibly scarce.
The most hermetically academic biography belongs to me (a former Ph.D. student in English). I am also the clearest throwback, aesthetically and socio-politically. I applied with a fifteen-page murder mystery narrated by a priest who grapples with Big Questions of guilt and innocence, truth and justice, God and Vatican II. I didn’t worry about spooking the faculty with my interest in these themes. What I did dissemble was my interest in novel writing over short fiction. MFA admissions usually favor writers of short fiction, since the workshop format is better suited to standalone pieces than to fragments of long works.
This may be important: The MFA form, short fiction, happens to be dead as a commercial genre. It lives only in little-read litmags. Not by choice, short fiction writers—thus, most MFAs—write for a coterie, one that is almost coterminous with the category “short fiction writers” (who are almost the only readers of litmags). If MFA programs exacerbate the monotony and straitening of literary fiction, they do so not through workshop dynamics and tenure grubbing, but through institutionalizing the short story form—and thus coterie writing, with its inevitable hermeticism and low stakes.
To the extent that MFA programs serve as gatekeeping institutions for New York publishing, this monotony and straitening may infect novels, too. (Whether MFA programs do serve this function, or instead anchor an alternative literary culture, has been debated hotly since Chad Harbach’s 2010 essay “MFA vs. NYC.”) Whatever the case, the fact is that sometimes MFAs do write novels—which sometimes are good, and sometimes are commercially successful! For my part, I intend to make my fortune this way.
So let’s make a deal: I will write the Great American Novel, Boyagoda will write the Great Canadian Novel, and we’ll see who gets there first.
saint louis, missouri
Randy Boyagoda replies:
Julia Yost’s response to my article is punchy and welcome. She speaks persuasively to the general situation I lamented, if mostly out of her own experience, in terms of both her personal entryway into an MFA program and the nature of the students in her cohort. I find little to disagree with, in terms of her observations about the reasonable justification for entering an MFA (to find time to write), or the predominant (and grading-related) preference for short fiction over the sprawling novel in MFA programs. Likewise, I agree with her lamentation about the larger and predominantly secular-progressive cultural situation, and how this determines the variously hermetically sealed nature of MFA programs and New York publishing alike.
But here’s where Yost inadvertently reveals the greater problem with MFA plans and ambitions: She writes, of her fellow students, “Heaven knows what everyone will do after graduation, since tenure-track creative-writing jobs remain impossibly scarce.” But I thought the point of an MFA was to find time to write, drawing on the varied and interesting life experiences that first inspired someone to find that institutionalized structure to write? What happened to those ambitions? Were they, in fact, rerouted into anxieties about securing stable employment as credentialed creative writing instructors?
And here’s where you see the symptomatic problem of pursuing an MFA: You might go in with grand plans to write the Great American Novel, but you leave with desperate hopes of a professorship with pension and benefits. As to Yost’s concluding invitation: I gladly accept. Now stop reading this and get back to working on that novel, Julia. I’ll do the same.
Given the theological and philosophical pedigree of the last two popes, a pedagogical component in encyclicals has become the assumptive norm. And yet Francis, to the (welcome?) surprise of many, has consistently shaken assumptions. So to fault him for not being true to the preceding encyclical tradition, as R. R. Reno does in his evaluation of Laudato Si as part of his “Public Square” (August/September), is ultimately meaningless; that is, we should give him the benefit of the doubt and concede that if explicit, practical teaching is missing, it is because he saw fit to leave it that way.
And really, who can fault him? Pope Francis is clearly a humble pastor unconcerned with providing neat answers; exhortation followed by example is what he does best. This does not, for one moment, mean that he fails to see the benefit of consistent, clear, verbalized teaching, but it does mean that for him, love takes precedence. No, creative love takes precedence. The joyous freedom given to us in Christ manifests itself differently in each life and culture. Those that see “too little teaching” are likely to suffer from a lack of creativity. Creativity is precisely what Francis desires to awaken within us. The creation that “groans in labor pains” does not have a one-size-fits-all remedy. Laudato Si honors this fact, albeit in a different way than we would expect.
Appropriately, and who can doubt the Holy Father’s intentions here, we look to the example of another Francis, this one a saint, who is supposed to have said, “Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.” Charity, as the former man from Assisi and the current man from Argentina have shown, is the ultimate teacher. Let us (myself and Reno included) give the current pope a break, and follow in his footsteps instead.
Nathan R. Arends
aquinas institute of theology
saint louis, missouri
R. R. Reno’s criticism of Pope Francis’s new encyclical Laudato Si seems to express Reno’s own ideological framework more than anything else, and offers little in the way of serious argument to disqualify the document.
A few disagreements arise that are worthy of further discussion. The first one concerns the supposed contradiction between a strong condemnation of technocracy, and expressions evoking technocratic parlance, such as “comparison of risks and benefits.” Pope Francis clearly states that while science and technology have provided many benefits to humanity, discernment is required concerning their use as absolute categories. Nobody can pretend—and the pope certainly does not—that a problem-solving approach to dealing with many challenges is a bad thing per se. Even if that language sounds technocratic, there is nothing new to it. What were the medieval masters suggesting with their rationality model but the comparison of means, risks, and benefits?
The second point regards the question of a broad management effort before the ecological crisis—something that, for Reno, could become a veritable “nightmare.” What the pope suggests is something too widely accepted to be called into question: that these issues require agreement and collaboration,and are, at the broadest level, international and interdisciplinary, given their extent and complexity. Using spontaneous market mechanisms or infusing strong values will not be enough, as it has not been in other recent crises.
The third point of contention is more significant and concerns the theoretical and practical foundations that are necessary to promoting a program capable of managing the current threats. Reno pleads for a return to natural law and a substantial understanding of values that could provide a true basis for action. The encyclical would seem to lack such a foundation and hence would seem to be building on sand. Reno seems to ignore that the papal document’s scope is to give rise to a broad consensus that could help better manage the problems described. This consensus would be unachievable, even inside the Church, by a simply formal reference to natural law, given both the lack of agreement as to how access to it is gained, and the radical challenge from outside of Catholic theology’s traditional conception of it and of how it can be known. Indeed, the deeper question of whether the loss of consensus on natural law philosophy entails the absolute inability to deal with the ecological challenge and other modern problems cannot be simplified.
It is a pity that Reno considers this just an “exhortation” lacking true instruction. We do not share that opinion, and find it a very instructive and illuminating magisterial document.
Lluis Oviedo, OFM
R. R. Reno replies:
As a former liberal Protestant of a certain age, perhaps I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. For when I read that “love takes precedence,” as Nathan Arends writes, I found myself having Joseph Fletcher flashbacks.
Fletcher promoted “situation ethics” in the mid-sixties, penning a famous book with that title. His approach promised to set aside “legalistic” approaches in favor of love—ahem, creative love. This allowed him to dispense with tiresome moral teachings that prohibit abortion, suicide, euthanasia, and adultery, among other things. Love, thought Fletcher, must not be constrained by a “one-size-fits-most remedy.”
Fletcher and situation ethics were part of the larger project of mainline Protestant re-positioning. After World War II, our society became more pragmatic and increasingly therapeutic. Traditional Christian morality seemed outmoded, especially in elite circles. In an effort to keep the faith “relevant,” theologians and church leaders downplayed “clear, verbalized teaching” and emphasized slogans like “creative love.”
I know less than nothing about Catholicism in Argentina. But I have more than a passing acquaintance with American Catholicism. In our cultural context, any rhetoric that sidelines doctrine and moral principles encourages the desire most of us feel to get in sync with our rapidly changing culture. It’s no fun to be the “judgmental” guy, the person lacking in “creativity.” Who wants to be the dreary party-pooper who won’t go along with our abortion regime, or who doesn’t affirm the misnamed mercy-killing? Parents today receive helpful memos from the local school board informing them that any behavior or statement suggesting less than full affirmation of homosexuality will not be tolerated.
In this culture—our culture—we’re under tremendous pressure to conform. Most of us are sorely tempted to conform to dominant opinion, and our tether to the Gospel, our evangelical lifeline, has been Catholicism’s remarkable tradition of clear, consistent, well-articulated teaching.
Lluis Oviedo and Alvaro Garre draw attention to this tension in Laudato Si. One the one hand, Pope Francis presents a theological and metaphysical critique of modernity, one indebted to Romano Guardini. It draws attention to the technocratic character of modernity. Francis and Guardini juxtapose a theocentric mode of existence to this technocratic mentality. We must recognize creation as a gift with its own logic and its proper demands, rather than as raw material to master and manipulate for our self-chosen purposes.
On the other hand, Laudato Si ends with ringing endorsements of global efforts to gain mastery over our culture of mastery. As Oviedo and Garre put it, a global effort requires achieving “a broad consensus that could help better manage the problems” caused by global climate change. A consensus to help better manage problems? That’s a phrase from a business school textbook, a theme for a TED talk.
Oviedo and Garre express pessimism about natural law, the foundation of Catholic social doctrine. How can we achieve the needed “broad consensus” when even Catholics doubt its metaphysical cogency, to say nothing of non-Catholics? The implication is that the Church must now play by the technocratic principles that set the global agenda.
Oviedo and Garre are right. Natural law arguments about the global common good, subsidiarity, and private property, and other key principles of Catholic social doctrine, do not make us good team players. The technocracy seeks a consensus keyed to its master value, which is utility. Giving precedence to human dignity and creation’s inherent dignity won’t fit into the technocracy’s categories.
By my reading of the signs of the times, we need to be dissidents in today’s technocratic empire. It’s not the Church’s role to be a meta-NGO that brokers global solutions. The Church needs to lead a rebellion against the spiritual and metaphysical poverty Guardini saw overtaking the West. This means making natural law arguments that remind us that creation has a claim upon us that we must honor and respect.
One of the temptations suggested by C. S. Lewis’s demon Screwtape is to make an idol of a crucifix, redirecting prayers toward an object that was only ever meant to be a reminder. In “Technocracy Now” (August/September), James Kalb falls into a sociopolitical version of the same trap. He contends that the divide between technocrats and conservatives is one of epistemology: individual preference and hard science versus common sense and cultural tradition.
Unsure how common sense has fallen out of favor, Kalb, like many Christian intellectuals, diagnoses our society with some sort of collective insanity, but I suspect the answer is more grounded: Common sense has let us down. After all, what is common sense but the inverse of Kalb’s critique of science: those things that match conservative Christian intuitions?
While those intuitions may, when well honed, point us in the direction of Truth, they’re no more proof than personal preference. Conservatives, after all, are not called to reject the work of Schrodinger because the conclusions of quantum physics feel “silly” any more than we should reject the Trinity simply because of its incomprehensibility. What ever happened to holding theology as the queen of the sciences?
The fatal mistake of the technocrat, which Kalb commits himself, is not rejecting Truth as such, but mistaking a proxy for the real thing. The health that drives our establishment to ban cigarettes is reaching out toward the same “psychosocial fullness” that Kalb sees supported by traditional marriage. Technocracy is the privileging of benchmarks, the declaration that natural law itself fits on a numerical scale. At the end of the day, though, the rate of divorce isn’t a measure of human flourishing any more than life expectancy; both may correlate, but good lives are impossible to capture in surveys.
With this epistemic ground ceded, Kalb’s standards look like an alternative, rather than the alternative; common sense and tradition may have a relationship with natural law, but unless (or until) time can demonstrate this, they’re doomed to exist as simply an alternative. Even his optimism, then, must be dark; the best chance he sees for conservatives is that if we survive our increasing marginalization, we might be able to influence the next regime after the current one collapses. Conservatives need to fight for Truth—to bring it back into the discourse, not simply to wait for Truth to win our fights.
new york, new york
James Kalb replies:
Brian Lagoda criticizes views I do not hold and did not present.
As he notes, I point to differences between progressives and conservatives that have to do with epistemology. My complaint, though, is not that today’s progressives accept technological understandings, but that they exclude all others. And what I oppose to that view is not its mirror image, pure reliance on the tradition and common sense that are our ordinary guides in everyday life, but an inclusive approach that draws on those as well as all other sources of guidance.
That is why I present as a weakness excessive reliance by conservatives on feeling, instinct, habit, and populist versions of common sense. It is why I comment on the effectiveness of technological understandings and the power of their institutional support, which I treat as the reason for their current dominance, and speak favorably of such guides to reality as history, natural law, public reason, the Catholic intellectual patrimony, and the ordinary human ability to recognize patterns. And it is why I call for new thinking among conservatives to help us deal with our current situation—and, if possible, to change the terms of public discussion as the flaws of progressivism and the way of life it underwrites become increasingly obvious.
As a Catholic who accepts natural law as well as revelation, it seems likely to me that our answers will ultimately prevail as more adequate to human life. We cannot foresee the extent to which that will happen because of reason, or because of necessity, or because of an evolutionary process that favors views that work better. Even if our arguments have no effect, we can draw some confidence from the reflection that a view that rejects basic features of reality, and thereby leads to a sort of insanity, will eventually stop working and disappear. I do not propose, however, that we simply wait for it to do so.