Sonora Review

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