This spring, for contemporary literature (after 1945), I'm finishing the semester with the documentary film The Stone Reader which connects so well to so many of the challenges faced by novelists in the current marketplace. It also provides an enthusiastic "talkie" look into some of the great literature from the 20th century that proves impossible to assign in bulk for general-education courses. It's also a look at the very real life of Dow Mossman, and how a big fat book from his young adult years almost killed him in order to get written, and then how he survived and endured the rest. To the best of my knowledge, he is still enduring.
The contrast between the happy elderly thesis advisor from Iowa and the nearly broken writer-student is not one to be taken lightly, and certainly connects to all the online chatter about the value of MFA degrees (a degree I don't have, but one the protagonist of Fight for Your Long Day does possess as his highest and doesn't think much of although it should be stated that Cyrus doesn't think much of most anything he has, so at least in that way he's consistent). I only wish we lived in a world where the tenured professors in such programs would do more to show they understand the extent to which they are complicit in "something of a Ponzi Scheme" that is the AWP hierarchy that leaves some writers reaping huge rewards and lifetime security while the Dow Mossmans of the world are lucky to find a night gig delivering newspapers.
But on the other hand, over half of all college degrees aren't leading to much of anything, at least not by age 25 for recent grads, so perhaps we shouldn't isolate the MFA profs as so much more complicit in this economic problem faced by an entire generation (a sort of "damned if you go to college, damned if you don't," but it seems like the solution has to be to make college more affordable, not to discourage students from attending).
I, of course, would love to be a tenured professor of creative writing, but I also enjoy knowing that my general education courses are being taught to at least some students who will get a decent job (engineering, nursing, etc.). There's a Sam Lipsyte interview somewhere in cyberspace, where he pretty much concedes that the MFA isn't necessarily going to make any grads any money, and possibly it will lead to another chunk of student debt, but it is a degree that can help improve one's writing.
For this reason, and just for the general pressure a thesis deadline would provide as well as a chance to teach fewer courses for two or three years, I still consider applying to writing programs. A low residency (maintaining a full time job while working toward the MFA) might be my best option, and the ads for MFAs in AWP's The Writer's Chronicle are almost pornographic in their depictions of laptops by the water and award-winning everybody on the faculty. Last night, I positively salivated over the possibility of a low-residency program solving my problems, and I even saw one with a rocky coast, star faculty (I'd never heard of), and "scholarships" (a rarity for low res as best I can ascertain).
Of course like many others who loathe application fees and paperwork, I'd prefer to just publish a second award-winning novel (no doubt, a winner of a bigger, badder award, one that comes with a huge gold necklace, a hip hop album contract, an entourage, and 50,000 blocks of friends and followers for all the newest new media), and become a Ron Rash or Pam Duncan, a tenured professor with nationally published novels whose highest degree is the MA. To my mind, the MA is a fine degree, and for creative writing, can often expose students to more literary analysis than some MFAs do.
But also, filmmaker Mark Moskowitz includes Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes as one of his top ten novels of the American 20th century, and it reminded me of my three interviews, all with debut novelists, on Frederick Exley and his best novel. Eleanor Henderson, John Warner, and Joseph Zeppetello were the authors who were kind enough to respond to my questions, and if I can ever find the time or ability to concentrate I hope to interview more writers about Exley.
And by the way, the first writer with whom I remember having that conversation about Exley would be Michael Leone, and he has placed some nice work recently, including this essay called "The Day I Realized My Mentor Was Crazy."
Okay, I hope you survived all this Exley, uncertainty, and meandering on Mossman.
I can't wait to quit this month of blogging, finish the semester, and get into some sustained novel writing and revising.
Wish me luck. I'll need it.
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