That E-mail About That MFA

I’m sure many here are aware by now of the email sent to USC MFA students by former prof Janette Turner Hospital (she of the television-y surname), who is now an instructor in Columbia’s MFA program (as her email makes abundantly clear). Her message, of course, is a masterpiece of insularity, hysterical in its utter lack of self-awareness; it sounds like the kind of email Lindsay Funke might write to her maid on Arrested Development. An up-and-coming conservative politician wanting to illustrate the mendacious stupidity that can accrue with advancement in “liberal academia” probably couldn’t have done better. Others have commented on the email and what it both represents and doesn’t represent about writing instructors far more perceptively than I could (Kevin Lincoln’s post here on HTMLGIANT is especially good) but nothing in that email disturbed me as much as Seth Abramson’s tone-deaf, self-serving response, published shortly afterward in the Huffington Post.

Abramson, in case you didn’t know, is the self-proclaimed oddsmaker of today’s MFA world, a kind of Frank Rosenthal of poetry who has taken it upon himself to contrive a convoluted system of cost analysis, student polling and, for all I know, extispicy to make up a set of rankings of MFA programs. Now this in particular doesn’t bother me much. Any program that costs money (and MFA programs do cost money, oh boy) is by its very nature going to be analyzed and thrown on some graph somewhere for the alleged aid of its clients, and despite AWP’s assertion that such rankings do for literature what pornography does for love (which, as a comparison, probably isn’t quite as damning as they intended it to be), stating categorically that Seth’s rankings are useless without providing any sort of alternative isn’t doing anybody any favors. Writers looking to apply to an MFA program have to start somewhere (and please God I hope they don’t follow my strategy of stroking my beard creepily and asking “Hmm, what program did David Foster Wallace go to?” and applying there).

No, the problem with Abramson’s response is the uncomfortable aura of childishness and subsequent desperation it gives off, like the omnipresent middle-aged man at the college party. His whole essay brings to mind a blustering nerd, feverishly pushing his duct-taped glasses upward on his nose with his left forefinger and grasping a pile of notebook paper upon which is printed great swaths of sweat-smeared calculations and general graphomania with his right, saying “But…she’s wrong!! Just look at the facts!!” What? The only conceivable response that I can see to Hospital’s (hee!) letter is incredulous laughter, and to any serious writer the ridiculous assertions of worth that she describes matter not a bit. When a jogger’s dog shits on the ground you don’t jump up and down around the shit and pick it up and point at it so as to shame its owner; you walk around it and carry on. And it sure doesn’t help to brandish a page of facts and figures at it that prove why it’s bad to shit on the ground.

The world of academic writing prides itself on being unaffected by such transient, distasteful things as money and social status, but don’t kid yourself: this is a world of currencies, of indicators of worth both obvious and hidden, and the value of those currencies left behind in the absence of the most obvious one—money—become all the more intense, taking up the slack. What I’m trying to say here is that writing is a game around the perimeter of which stalk cranks, those who ceaselessly place meaningless things like fashion and location above the quality of the writing itself (just go to any book festival if you don’t believe me), and any business transacted with such people—for example, taking their ridiculous missives seriously enough to formulate a self-righteous response—will only hurt the one foolish enough to take the original message seriously.

The problem is not that the original email was ill-considered and stupid—anyone can see that—but that people were somehow offended enough by it to actually make an issue of it. It should not have even been dignified with a response. Abramson’s essay offends me not because it is in any way inaccurate—it most likely is perfectly well-reasoned and true—but because it takes her statements seriously enough to rebut them with facts and thus give them an importance they in no way deserve. It does not, frankly, set a good precedent. The fact is that the numbers of editors and agents floating around are not what make one MFA program better than another; Hospital was erroneous in saying so, yes, but Abramson was equally erroneous in proving her “wrong”—as the point was irrelevant anyway. It’s like arguing the specifics of creationism; all minor differences between arguments have no relevance if the underlying concept is fallacious. I can’t help but think that the point of Abramson’s essay was less to mollify offended USC students than to show off his magical number system—in the Huffington Post, no less. The best response to egotistical rambling like Hospital’s is to laugh at it, forward it to friends so they can laugh too and then delete it, never thinking of it again. And then go forth to read more and write better than she or her alleged posse of genius protégés ever could, which is the only real way to give the lie to the self-aggrandizing nonsense that has been around since Robert Greene’s dismissal of the “upstart crow” and will probably never leave us.

-Jon Walter

10 thoughts on “That E-mail About That MFA

  1. Jon,

    I can’t walk in your shoes, nor you in mine. The ranking system I developed was intended to move the MFA closer to full transparency for all applicants and full funding for all students, and by all accounts is helping to achieve that long-term goal. I don’t give a damn about prestige, and I don’t give a damn about numbers except and only to the extent those numbers help real people live better lives. If you walked in my shoes you’d also have access to my e-mail account, where nearly every day I read accounts from real people about how assessing MFA programs based on factors that actually change lives for the better rather than empty analyses of “prestige” by under-informed faculty has helped them personally in a way they can actually track. They track it in tens of thousands of dollars _not_ wasted; they track it in the years they _might_ have lived in places whose programs aren’t as selective as they’d once been advertising, and the years thereafter they _might_ have lived in crippling debt. The rankings are an act of activism, not academia, and as all the data is taken from the programs themselves or the opinions of applicants I don’t see how I’m putting myself in the position of “oddsmaker.” Nor did I publicly declare myself to be anything or anyone except someone who had done that work (for free) where others had not–and someone who, having seen that work, P&W wanted to work with. That’s how freelance jobs work, Jon.

    I have absolutely zero control over the data: I collect it and I report it, because doing so helps people and I like doing that. Nor does doing this bring me any appreciable income. Nor does it bring me any public accolades, just hit-pieces (apparently) in literary magazines by people who are total strangers to me and who I know are total strangers to my motives and values. So how does this hit-piece help anyone, Jon? Maybe _you_ should engage yourself in a years-long pro bono campaign to help find more money and more justice for thousands of people you’ve never met who ultimately won’t appreciate it except to cruelly question your motives and ridicule you ham-handedly in public? Just a thought.

    I responded to Hospital’s e-mail because, as you don’t know (or, apparently, care) and I do, lies of just her sort have and do hurt real people–many of them just kids right out of college. For years such lies about program quality, which could always be disseminated with zero accountability until the P&W rankings, prompted unsuspecting young people to spend $100,000+ for an unmarketable degree at a program (Columbia) with a fairly depleted cohort quality-wise. And do you know who those miserable, dissatisfied Columbia grads then e-mail with their stories? Do you know who they thank for spreading the word–and, yes, the data–that maybe convinces today’s young applicants not to make the same mistakes they do? Well, now you do.

    I took on Hospital based on facts; you’ve taken me on based on absolutely nothing but cruel, uninformed speculation of who I am. That’s a difference I would have thought The Sonora Review would understand.

    S.

    • I’m a student at Florida State University. Down in Tallahassee, we get up early to write. Maybe Seth heard about that and that’s why we got a nod from him as underrated. How fortunate for us. When I bring up Seth’s name, usually to enjoy one of his YouTube readings, people often ask to whom am I referring (see how I used “whom” their? were reel good righters). Writers, a group to which Seth doesn’t belong, don’t really care what a failed attorney in a sweater has to say to his webcam and are unaware of his existence. Academia is pretty content to ignore his ramblings as well. Students aren’t though. Students are on Google and they’re looking for help.

      One day a guy decides to become a writer and he’s a little nervous about that idea, the ambition of literary fiction only heightening this anxiety, he makes that decision though, and then gets an Amazon Prime membership and starts saying things like Chekovian and Borgesian. He grows out of that though and learns that one can just rent books from the library, although the people there use the phrase “check out,” and he stops referencing Chekov and Borges and compares Diaz to Jin and Lahiri.

      Some professor, who won a Pushcart Prize (Literature’s Golden Glove) in the 1990s, tells that student that he should apply to an MFA because he really has talent and his interest in craft would make him an excellent teacher while he works on his manuscript. He starts trying to figure out where to go, he gets on Google.

      Here’s where Seth comes into the story in a malicious way. Seth makes his posts, puts his results in a mediocre magazine, and his list is really the only one out there. Seth would tell you, “Well, uh, who else is gonna do it?” He’s right in thinking that no one else will take on the task, but that doesn’t give him the right to mismanage it so profusely.

      Seth says in his methodology that he makes no effort to rate programs on the quality of writer they produce, which he indicates is an obviously impossible task. The problem is that the only reason these kids care about the rankings is that they, rightly, assume that the rankings would be an indication of value. The rankings should indicate the value of a program to the development of a writer. If Seth doesn’t think he can quantify that, he shouldn’t rank programs because doing so would then be deceptive and malicious.

      As far as I’m concerned that guy is quicksand.

      Referencing his own arbitrary rankings in HuffPo posts to defend his argument is really sickening. He should know better. That is rhetorical bullshit. It’s malicious and irresponsible.

      I’ve two requests of Seth:

      Please mention at the top of your rankings that they are make-believe.
      Please go to the mall and buy something cashmere, maybe merino wool, because you’re too old for a hoodie.

  2. The issue here is certainly not the value of the rankings, which I find to be both useful and valuable, as stated above. I am sure everything is accurate and well-quantified and has helped a great many people. The issue is in the response to Hospital’s email, that email of course being symptomatic of a great many myths about writing and art and all sorts of other undoubtedly deep things (you need to live in a big city, you need to be fawned over by agents, etc). Engaging the email on the level of numbers and quantifiable data does nothing to erode the antiquated attitudes that produced it.

    As for the “oddsmaker” thing, it was a joke, and on reflection a kinda stupid one. Apologies.

  3. so i’m way charmed by this blog post, for a number of reasons. i’ll say first and foremost that i appreciate knowing that the staff members of the sonora review all agree with your blog post, as you’re posting it on your official website (also, doesn’t the arizona creative writing program fund you guys?). generally i thought that literary journal blogs posted information on news and events in their communities, not ad hominem attacks, but i’m happy to be enlightened on that front!

    abramson is clearly using the hospital article as a jumping off point — and yes, to bolster his argument. which is that if you’re going to pour, i don’t know, $100k worth of your money into getting a grad degree, you probably want to know exactly what you’re getting into. and seeing as hospital’s letter is the most publicized bit of MFA (mis)information i’ve read in a long time (gawker etc), i don’t see what the issue is with setting the record straight.

    finally, your description of seth in the third paragraph is just straight-up insulting. the guy is doing his job. i love that you read his article, admitted that his facts were right and THEN decided that your nuanced, thoughtful opinion than abramson is a ‘blustering nerd’ (that’s so right – i totally forgot that all of us writers were so incredibly cool) for commenting on a situation that the rest of the writing blogosophere had already commented on warranted a blog post.

    way to provide some necessary commentary!

    • so i’m way charmed by this blog post, for a number of reasons. i’ll say first and foremost that i appreciate knowing that the staff members of the sonora review all agree with your blog post, as you’re posting it on your official website (also, doesn’t the arizona creative writing program fund you guys?). generally i thought that literary journal blogs posted information on news and events in their communities, not ad hominem attacks, but i’m happy to be enlightened on that front!

      abramson is clearly using the hospital article as a jumping off point — and yes, to bolster his argument. which is that if you’re going to pour, i don’t know, $100k worth of your money into getting a grad degree, you probably want to know exactly what you’re getting into. and seeing as hospital’s letter is the most publicized bit of MFA (mis)information i’ve read in a long time (gawker etc), i don’t see what the issue is with setting the record straight.

      finally, your description of seth in the third paragraph is just straight-up insulting. the guy is doing his job. i love that you read his article, admitted that his facts were right and THEN decided that your nuanced, thoughtful opinion than abramson is a ‘blustering nerd’ (that’s so right – i totally forgot that all of us writers were so incredibly cool) for commenting on a situation that the rest of the writing blogosophere had already commented on warranted a blog post.

      way to provide some necessary commentary!

  4. Jon, I love you buddy, but you’re criticizing Abramson for bringing attention to a sort of tragic, not particularly surprising little gaffe, and in doing so, you’re doing the *very same thing.* I didn’t know about the kerfuffle until you posted about it; lo, you are the man pointing at the man pointing at the poo.

    You and I are friends, but I must say your post here is far more full of bitterness and bile than the good Dr.’s unnecessary crowing. I can’t speak for the rest of the editors, but I feel the need to state that I’m the current Nonfiction Editor of the Sonora Review, I hadn’t read this post until tonight, and it doesn’t represent my opinion about either Hospital’s email or Abramson’s rankings, which I found invaluable during my application process.

    Emily DePrang

  5. I’m the Fiction Editor for Sonora Review. I read Jon’s piece after it was published too. I didn’t give it my “stamp of approval.” I find Abramson’s work to be extraordinary and extremely generous. I also feel that Jon’s blog entry was very well-written and that he made some great points– a response to Hospital’s piece was to have no response at all. You could argue Abramson’s piece didn’t warrant a response either. But, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I don’t doubt that our literary journal stands on its own merits without the blog, which lately has been posting some amazing stuff. I don’t feel the need for a chain of command (not that you’re demanding one, Emily) and I would hope it’s obvious that what goes on the blog (such as opinions) is not a reflection of the amazing writing that goes into the journal.

  6. I’ll throw in my 3 cents – not that anyone asked for the opinion of a former editor or that anyone will care. That’s the joy of the chaos that is the “internets.” Jon’s post might have been a bit heavy-handed, but he’s free to say what he wants to say – nobody got called a fascist or any other libelous epithet. And kudos to Seth for turning around and putting the smack-down on Jon’s post. I appreciate Seth’s work (how can I not when the UA Nonfiction program comes in at #2) – just as I appreciate people’s freedom to post and generate content on our fair Sonora Review blog.

    My only annoyance with this whole episode is courtesy of “Sadie,” who says the following:

    “i appreciate knowing that the staff members of the sonora review all agree with your blog post, as you’re posting it on your official website (also, doesn’t the arizona creative writing program fund you guys?).”

    Uh, no. We don’t get a freaking dime from the MFA program. We get a tiny grant from the Humanities Department here – a paltry total which is less than the prize money for most lit-mag contests. Sonora Review is almost completely self-financed and IS entirely student-run, which is something we’re quite proud of. But more importantly, Sadie’s argument is the most annoying brand of juvenile “gotcha-politics” – similar to the partisan for candidate Y who sees an “I hate apple pie” bumpersticker on the car of a volunteer for candidate X and then goes around screaming “Candidate X hates APPLE PIE!”

    Nobody needs permission to post on this site – if something really and truly crosses acceptable lines, then it can be deleted. And, for what it’s worth – even though Sadie’s argument isn’t worth responding to – Jon posted as Jon. Not as Sonora Review. There is no official Sonora Review position. This isn’t a corporate site that cowers in fear of damaging some safe milquetoast brand. We are not a top-down organization. We are in fact most closely related to the “Autonomous Collective” of Monty Python’s Holy Grail. And I mean that in the best possible way.

  7. I’d like to address the main point of conflict between Mr. Walter and Mr. Abramson. It resides in the following area, which I consider myself an expert of, and am more than happy to lend my insightful commentary: Footwear. Mr. Abramson states “I can’t walk in your shoes, nor you in mine.” Now, I happen to know Mr. Walter is not a particularly fancy footwearer. If I can recall correctly, in our days spent together in the holy matrimony of co-editor-in chiefdom, he did not, not even once, impress me with his casual collection of foot protection. He did not adorn a boot or rock a stiletto. I never dared to gaze below his waist, as I would take great offense and would surely vomit. His disgraceful shoe collection borders on being horrifically mundane. As for Mr. Abramson, who I do not know, the man has got to own a great deal of fancy pants shoes. This division must be mended and an agreement will be made. The question is not “how” but “why” and to this I answer, shitkickers. Good cowboy boots can be purchased very cheaply at your local boot barn. This intellectual bout of ‘look at me, i’m so great, and all the more, for no money! i’m the patron saint of letters’ is trite compared to the sheer incompetence of most writers’ ability to rock out with their socks, not out, but inside a fine pair of wingtips or snakeskins. we must not take this situation lightly, the future of literature and the word depends on it. as for the original letter and yada and what not, well, i am not familiar and can’t comment. the only thing i know is that writers should spend more time thinking sexy feet rather than thinking about thinking about the mfa factory and its economic policy. after all, racism is everywhere. who cares if columbia is expensive and richard dreyfuss is teaching a poetry workshop in tuscaloosa. the ghost of alan dugan lives inside the university of arizona poetry center and he has brilliant things on his feet.

  8. Pingback: That Email About That MFA | Sonora Review

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