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    MFA: Art or Business?

    Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

    MFA programs are art programs. They exist to help students learn to create the strongest stories and the most beautiful writing they possibly can. But do they also have a responsibility to teach students about the business end of the literary industry so that one day, after all the money we’ve spent on grad school, we can fulfill our dreams of publishing success?

    This was a conversation I had the other night when I met with an agent that was introduced to me through Columbia’s Storyweek. He told me it was always a surprise to him that MFA programs do so little to help their students learn about the business end of the writing enterprise. In my experience, while I can certainly say I know more about it now than I did when I first started grad school, most of the practical information I’ve gathered about agents, publishing, querying—the marketing process of a manuscript—is picked up informally from conversations with professors and guest speakers. So I’m curious about how many programs offer students a formal schooling in how to market and sell their completed manuscripts?

    Should it be part of these programs’ responsibility, or should the focus of an MFA be an exclusively artistic one? Is it up to the writer herself to make contacts and seek opportunity and educate herself about the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry? I’m curious to hear your thoughts and experiences with this question!

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    2 Responses to MFA: Art or Business?

    1. Dana says:

      They should teach you enough about art so that you can approach publishing as an art that is similar and related to writing.

      Of course the agent thinks MFA programs should teach students his vision of the publishing business–that would be good for his revenue. Maybe they would even invite him as a guest speaker, so he can pimp traditional publishing to more than one person at a time.

      Of course, the school arranged for you to meet with this agent… Well you wouldn’t have met him if you weren’t in the program, right? So, even if they are not explicitly teaching the business, they are addressing it with all those informal meetings and discussion you mention. You are paying for those, as well.

      It seems to me your program is geared toward helping students produce commercially viable work. That is not the focus of all MFAs. Some MFAs are more geared specifically to the art of writing–CalArts, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, etc. Students at those schools may be better positioned for applying for competitive grants, I imagine. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of art school because students are supported to go way out there, can learn to get out of the mythologies of commercial enterprise.

      Other programs, like Columbia it seems, are more geared toward helping MFA students become commercial artists. Since I work in commercial art to earn my living, I would be more inclined to study the non-commerce side of art. Except, as mentioned, the costs are prohibitive, so I continue to try to teach myself. :)

      Good topic, thanks for posting.

    2. I can see the value of focusing an MFA exclusively on creative matters. After all, the people teaching the MFA and the students taking it are doing it primarily for artistic reasons.

      But there are two reasons why I think they owe it to their students to help them with the business side of things:

      1. The cost of the MFA is prohibitively expensive. So the students really need some help in figuring out how they are going to repay their loans.

      2. In this day and age, it is not enough to write a brilliant book, or do wonderful research that allows your imagination to run wild. You, as an author, have to sell your books yourself. Big publishers typically will not help you unless they believe your book to be a blockbuster. And if you self-publish, you have to learn how to market yourself.

      Thanks for raising such an interesting topic!

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