Screw MFAs; we need to tell richer stories.

by Kendra Phillips

badass image by Kendra Phillips

Rahul Kanakia has written an awesome post over on his blog about the tyranny of privilege inherent in the creative writing industry, especially the bits of it centered in academia. Go read that first. I’ll wait.

Back? Great. There isn’t much that I can materially add to this besides a huge PREACH but I like to talk about things that bother me, so allow me to go into some detail regarding why this bothers me so much. It’s not just that it’s obnoxious, all this whining about how hard being a creative type is, and it’s not just that I’ll probably never get a creative writing job in academia since all my published work is lowly genre fiction ( a. why would I even want to be around creative writing people anyway given that I’ve actually met some, and b. I’m also already in academia and I’m starting to keep an eye open for exit strategies). It’s not just that it’s monstrously unfair, this system that privileges a certain way of being a Writer that certain demographics find waaaaaaaay easier to adopt than others.

It’s that it results in a literary culture that is massively impoverished.

The stories we tell describe us as a people, as a collection of people, as a collection of cultures and beliefs and identities. But as a society we’re persistently bound to hierarchy, to systems of power and privilege that benefit some at the enormous expense of others. That means that our stories are bound to the same – the stories of some are privileged and the stories of others are lost in the shuffle. Stories by poorer people, by less formally educated people, by women and People of Color and queer people of all kinds, by people with disabilities and people who are neuroatypical and anyone who exists on the margins. Those stories, if they’re told at all, reach few. Those creative voices aren’t heard. Still.

And our genres are hierarchically valued. There’s literary fiction – inherently worthwhile, true, beautiful, valuable, possessing tremendous cultural capital. It’s a great thing to be seen to be a reader of literary fiction; it’s an even better thing to be a writer of literary fiction and get to whine about how hard it is. Genre fiction is low, unrefined, and the territory of the proles.

Those of us in SF&F know that it’s had its share of major problems with inclusivity. Even now we’re struggling to deal with the under-representation of anyone who isn’t white/straight/cisgendered/male, and the genre’s environment is still often hostile to people at the intersections of marginalized identities. But romance, which often seems to have it even worse than SF&F in terms of general disparagement, is overwhelmingly written and consumed by women and extremely popular, two things that don’t work in its favor.

And horror? How can horror writers ever produce great fiction?

So genre is frequently locked out of the academy. But again, this isn’t even just about genre, but about who can afford the luxury of being heard, of doing what it takes to be heard. If MFAs are a requirement in the academy’s gateways into the creative writing industry, that has some very problematic implications, as Rahul points out:

[T]he fact that MFAs are used as such a gatekeeper in the literary world adds several major biases into the whole pool of literary writers. It excludes all kinds of people can’t really afford to leave their lives for two years to get even a very well-funded MFA: people who have kids, people who have careers, people who discover writing late in life, people with disabilities.

Those people all have stories that deserve to be told. That need to be told.

This isn’t just about writing, even. This is a problem in any academic field, in any discipline, and it’s been a problem since the beginning of those disciplines: Who is producing our knowledge? What assumptions are they operating on? What standpoint are they working from? My field is sociology; what use is our research on race and class and gender and identity if the people doing that research don’t come from a multiplicity of lived experiences? How can we work to overturn power structures if our own institutional structure maintains the status quo of social power?

But this is about stories.

I love stories because they’re fun, because they’re escapist, because they’re beautiful, because  they’re joyful even when they’re crushingly sad, because they give me glimpses of what might be, because they teach me about who I am, because they teach me about who others are, because they have the potential to be uniquely revolutionary.

Stories change things.

But if stories are going to change anything, they need to be vital. They need to be alive. They need infusions of new blood and new knowledge and new ways of producing that knowledge. I don’t see how that’s likely in the world Rahul is describing. When you’re dealing with a system of gatekeeping that produces the same kinds of work from the same kinds of people over and over, then you have a literary world that’s impoverished. You won’t find the truly interesting things there. The people doing the interesting things are, as usual, on the margins, but they don’t get to complain about how hard the Life of a Writer is. There’s no romance in what they’re doing. And if they’re genre writers, even successful ones, no cushy academic job for them, unless – like me – they’re privileged enough to get into the academy another way (and cushy jobs ain’t looking too good there anyway at the moment).

So no, white middle class MFA student – with whom I share at least two things in common – my sympathy is not with you. And I think maybe you need to step aside and let someone else’s story get told.

Especially if that story is about cyborg dragons in love.

(Please allow a plug for a couple of antidotes to this kind of thing: We See a Different Frontier, a collection of post-colonial spec-fic that both I and Rahul have stories in – his is amazing – and the forthcoming Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. I also have a story in that but that’s not why you should check it out. Look at that ToC. Look at it.)

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