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John Scalzi opens up a can of whoop @ss on James Frey, MFA programs, and clueless cleverati students

Had to stand up and cheer for John Scalzi's Open Letter to MFA Writing Programs (and Their Students), which comes in the wake of this New York Magazine article about James Frey's...I don't even know what to call it. It's kind of like Amway, only books instead of laundry soap and vitamins. Scalzi and other writers have spoken out about the oppressive contract terms and general uncoolness of the whole thing, but Scalzi reserves some mamaslap for college writing programs.

Saith Scalzi:
I don’t blame Columbia University’s graduate writing program for inviting James Frey over to talk to its students about “truth.” ...It’s always a joy to see how a master of bullshit spins himself up; publishing and literature being what they are, the students should probably learn to recognize this species sooner than later, all the better to move their wallets to their front pockets when such a creature stands before them.

...Frey was no doubt counting on the students being starry-eyed at the presence of a real-live bestselling author (even a disgraced one) who was waving a movie deal in their faces, but one reason he could count on it was because he was speaking to an audience whose formal educations did not include learning how to spot a crappy deal.
And then he goes on to tell us how he really feels. (Read the rest here.)


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Where to begin. Oh where to begin. At 12:20 a.m., I don't even know if I SHOULD begin. But let me just say that I saw SO MUCH of this in my own program--cluelessness from both faculty AND students, and not only that, the idea that even discussing the business of publishing makes them look crass. Yes, "crass." That's what I was told once when I asked why we were never told about other genres, why we were never taught how to write a synopsis or how to pitch. And not only was I told that what I was asking would make them "look crass," but the insinuation was that *I* was crass for even bringing it up. Then when I was worried about protecting the intellectual property of my dissertation, I was quite literally met with laughter. People thought I was "so cute" to be worried about my dissertation getting published. At best, they said "well, if it gets published, it will be in a different form, and it will be a different work." I was angry. So angry in fact (and Joni knows this story) that I decided I would not get the PhD if it meant I had to give up my rights. Long story short, the school caved, but the whole experience left a very bad taste in my mouth and taught me that these professors have very little respect for the work of their students.

I understand that we are learning, and that the thesis and/or dissertation won't be the first thing that many of us publish. I get that. But by the time I got to that point, I'd been writing (and sometimes professionally) for 16 YEARS, and I was not about to give up my intellectual property without a fight! I think they forgot that I wasn't a naive 26 year old that they could push around and hit with their big aesthetic and institutional bats. Well, they thought wrong.

I don't know what will happen with my novel, but I'm really glad I fought to keep it off the web. I'm also glad that I fought to give the student more say so over her/his intellectual property, AND that I challenged their aesthetics. It may not have made me very popular there, but at least I came out having given MYSELF something. And I'm still angry about all the SELF education I had to do the WHOLE TIME I WAS THERE, because of the lack of guidance both artistically AND commercially.

In some ways, I don't regret the education I've had, because I did have, if nothing else, more time than most to write, but now I wonder at what cost?

Ha, Joni, you knew I'd get fired up over this. :)
Ronlyn said…
Kathryn, you were wise to be so concerned. When I sold my first novel and read the contract, I realized that my university's decision to post MFA theses on the web COULD BE considered electronic publishing. (Even today, I contend that I opted out for life--but the U said I'd only opted out for a year. That's what happens when forms are "signed" online instead of on paper...) Long story short, I had to go through a number of hoops to get the administration to take my thesis off the web for five years. Before that expired, after the work of several savvy faculty members, the university changed its policy. No more MFA theses available electronically.

Now whether someone's MFA thesis is his/her first novel (like mine) or fifth, it's safe.
I heart John Scalzi!

At one time I started working toward my MFA. And then I decided what I really wanted was to publish novels. Mass market original genre paperbacks (gasp!)

When I asked two professors how and neither had the first clue, I decided a self-education was the way to go. Plus, I wouldn't have to apologize for my aspirations or put up with disgusted looks.

I do think MFA programs produce some amazing, quality writers, many of whom can craft prose with surgical precision. But as working writers know, that's only half the battle. Without any sense of market and publishing realities, you're toast.
Joni Rodgers said…
I think RWA is the most powerful entity in publishing when it comes to educating and mentoring aspiring writers. There's not much navel contemplation and a whole lot of get-it-done. I truly believe that artistic philosophy and strong craft skills SHOULD come before any thought of publishing, but surely there's room for both at some point during the 6-7 yr slog toward that MFA. For the good of students -- and for the future of American publishing -- department heads need to swallow their pride and partner with working writers to mentor the next generation.
Totally agree about RWA. I've never been involved in a more business-savvy writers' group. And everyone's so great about helping newcomers avoid the worst of the publishing potholes. When possible!

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