How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?

We wrote a program to analyze hundreds of works by authors with and without creative-writing degrees. The results were disappointing.

Published in the Atlantic by Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper

This year, about 20,000 people applied to study creative writing at MFA programs in the U.S. It’s a funny fact to consider, given that the idea creativity could be taught used to be widely mocked—the literary scholar John Aldridgeonce said the programs produced “clonal fabrications of writers.” For a time, MFA programs were oddities on college campuses: In 1975, only 52 existed. Much of this has changed in the last two decades. Today, there are more than 350 creative writing programs in the U.S. alone, and that number doubles if you include undergraduate degree programs.

The rise of the MFA has changed how both writers and people in general talk about creativity. The debate has shifted from whether creativity could be taught to how well it can be taught and whether it should be taught. The stakes are real: Creative writing has become a big business—it’s estimated that it currently contributes more than $200 million a year in revenue to universities in the U.S.

Today’s debate falls along predictable fault-lines: One side eyes the teaching of writing suspiciously, and concludes that MFA programs may produce some good fiction, but they don’t produce enough “great literature.” The other side defends the institution by saying, if nothing else, that programs give aspiring writers the time to “dedicate oneself” to the craft of writing. But there’s an underlying assumption that the MFA does something. There’s a widespread belief that if you get an MFA, at the very least, it will change your writing in some discernible way.

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