Ryan Boudinot and the Peril of MFAs

Posted: March 1, 2015 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Trigger warning: references to child abuse.

For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.

– Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One 

Christ on a fucking bicycle.

Y’know, for all that I’ve taken issue with Penny Arcade in the past, on this occasion, I don’t think I can muster up a better response to the absolute, jaw-dropping ridiculousness of Ryan Boudinot’s remarks than to quote this strip and say, with feeling:

Penny Arcade - Who Let Him Command A Pencil

I mean, really: if you’re going to set yourself up as some literary Yoda by lambasting the inherent mediocrity of the vast majority of MFA students, complete with sweeping generalisations and thinly-veiled contempt for writers in training, then the absolute least you can do is demonstrate a cogent awareness of language and its implications, the better to suggest that you know what you’re doing. Because when you say that reading badly-written memoirs of childhood abuse makes you wish the writer had suffered more, and then go on to say that child abuse deserves to be treated with the utmost respect, not as a topic in its own right, but for writing craft – implying, if not outright stating, that you think it’s more important to respect the skill with which abuse narratives are crafted than the personhood of actual survivors – you come off sounding like a callous, oblivious douchecanoe who doesn’t understand basic fucking empathy, let alone the power of words, and that might, you know. Undercut your point.

I’m never sure quite how to feel about MFAs. Not being American, the regard in which they’re often held is alien to me, and every so often, you hear horror stories about the more exploitative aspects of the MFA system, as per the whole James Frey debacle. Certainly – and as Boudinot himself admits – you don’t need one to get published in any format, and with the advent of ebooks and digital self-publishing, the rise of commercial fanfiction and the slow death of traditional print media, the publishing landscape is undergoing active, even radical changes. That being so, I’m disinclined to view Boudinot’s status as a former MFA teacher as evidence that he possesses either literary competence or industry insight above and beyond the norm, and given the disdain with which he seemingly views his former profession – hello, Goddard College! What a stellar employee you’ve lost – I’m not sure he’d disagree with me.

Well. About that one thing, anyway.

Because as far as I can see, the rest of his argument is little more than a stereotypical, self-indulgent, self-fulfilling exercise in Special Snowflakeism, and while I generally prefer to avoid cliches, as Boudinot is apparently determined to embody the archetype of the Pretentious White Male Writer, I’m going to shore up that assertion by selectively quoting his Twitter feed, which reads like the Poe’s law version of a Mallory Ortberg column. I mean, honestly:

That ‘real deal’ moniker is a reference to his MFA piece, wherein he laments the lack of genuinely talented writers to be found in such programs:

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others. That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

What I find so bizarre about the idea of innate talent as a relevant, identifiable factor in this context is that, by lauding it as he does, Boudinot is effectively copping to being a mediocre teacher; at absolute best, he’s claiming that the success of his students is ultimately beyond his control. If you believe that a certain amount of inborn skill is requisite for greatness – and if, as Boudinot seemingly believes, it’s a rare commodity – then what’s your incentive to teach the great unwashed mass of students who, in your eyes, lack potential? And how, exactly, does one go about differentiating innate talent from learned ability? An MFA is a postgraduate qualification: given that Boudinot also believes that the majority of great writers start as teens, any students at his level may well have been writing, or reading with the intention of writing, for years, while others might be just starting out. That being so, and lacking any impartial mechanism for distinguishing which is which, one suspects the real complaint here isn’t one of ability, but timing. Namely: if a writer is already sufficiently skilled on starting their MFA to constitute a Real Deal, then someone like Boudinot can take a mentor’s credit for their success without necessarily contributing to it, while anyone who requires greater encouragement won’t reach their apogee soon enough to suit his vanity.

Either way, I fail to see how any teacher can possibly do justice to either their students or their own methods if they believe, from the get-go, that a majority are born inferior.

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

This is, to put it succinctly, bullshit. While it’s certainly true that our brains are more plastic the younger we are, and that language acquisition is easier for children than adults, human beings were telling stories long before we ever learned to write them down. The ‘neural architecture’ we develop in order to learn to read at all – reading being a human invention distinct from speech – is not synonymous with our ability to comprehend narrative. You can be illiterate, and still a consummate storyteller; or, conversely, you can spend a lifetime reading books without ever understanding how to write one. By conflating a ‘lifelong intimacy with language’ with a childhood spent reading, Boudinot is not only doing a grave disservice to oral storytelling, but is actively insulting every literary adult who learned to read late, or who struggled with dyslexia in childhood, or whose love of reading was otherwise delayed for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their appreciation of stories.

Creative writing is a discipline that requires effort, yes, but claiming that it’s ever too late to start is just as patently absurd as the idea that only some people are born with workable talent. No wonder Boudinot’s Real Deal students are such unicorns: not only do they need the right genes, but they have to act on their inclinations within the first three decades of life to properly qualify. (The irony of believing that immutable, inborn talent can still have a fixed expiration date is apparently lost on him.)

If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.

I went to a low-residency MFA program and, years later, taught at a low-residency MFA program. “Low-residency” basically means I met with my students two weeks out of the year and spent the rest of the semester critiquing their work by mail. My experience tells me this: Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student. On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.

See above, re: Boudinot is clearly a shitty teacher. How dare his students want advice on time management! How dare they feel insecure about their work! God, it’s not like professional writers struggle constantly with weighing deadlines and the prospect of creative burnout against the demands of parenthood, family commitments, day jobs and the restrictions of illnesses – oh, wait, it actually is, because time management is both a difficult skill to learn and an integral part of being a writer; as, for that matter, is wondering what level of professionalism you have to attain before you “really” count as one, and whether that status can ever revert.

But because, once upon a time, Boudinot’s favourite Classic Authors were all sat ’round in a squalid garret enacting the literary version of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen Sketch, he thinks his modern-day students should all just shut up and figure it out themselves, which logic is roughly commensurate with saying that, since people in history used to suffer and die from causes that are now wholly preventable, nobody with access to modern medicine has the right to complain about feeling sick.

Or – hey! I know! Let’s extend that reasoning to Boudinot himself, and contend – as seems only fair – that his complaints about the difficulties of teaching a 21st century MFA course, online, with only two annual weeks of actual student contact, are an insult to educators who worked tirelessly in warzones throughout history. For shame.

Conversely, I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.” I almost quit my job on the spot.

So, let me get this straight: in one breath, Boudinot chastises his students for having limited taste, and in the next is shocked and appalled when their tastes don’t conform to his own, as though having read The Great Gatsby is somehow proof of anything other than having read The Great Gatsby. And while I don’t want to leap to conclusions about Boudinot’s views on gender, it strikes me as relevant that not only does he exclusively cite male authors – Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolano, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Jason Shinder – but, in discussing his students, every Real Deal writer has a male pronoun, while the two negative examples both refer to women.

Sufficed to say, there’s nothing in this article that lends me faith in the man. In fact, he comes across as a walking cautionary tale about everything that’s wrong with the MFA system: judgemental, disinterested, disengaged teachers with a suspected male bias who, by their own admission, don’t believe that most of their students will ever amount to anything, who openly profess their own inability to help the rest achieve publication, and whose best advice is to toil in obscurity for a few years before self-publishing. All that being so, I can’t help feeling that Ryan Boudinot’s biggest hurdle to enjoying work as an MFA teacher was Ryan Boudinot. What a lovely man he sounds. He’s certainly taught me a lesson.

 

Comments
  1. Clive Tern says:

    a blog post that beautifully lances the frustration and contempt I felt on reading Boudinot’s narcissistic whine.

  2. morgan sheridan says:

    I understand there is a website that allows people to purchase different kinds of manure that can then be sent to the object of one’s disdain. After reading this, I think Boudinot may be an apt target for such a ‘gift’.

  3. Lurkertype says:

    Actually, he exemplifies the MFA world perfectly. To a degree that if he didn’t actually exist, you’d say he’s a two-dimensional stereotype. He’s a walking Poe’s Law. The pendulum has swung mightily against the MFA and all it represents, because of twits like him. Having one of these is looked at askance by all except in the tiny “white men writing lit’rary fiction” group.

    Plus, he sounds like an incompetent asshole. His examples are so offensive it ruins the teeny tiny bit of sensible ideas he might have. People of whatever age who aspire to be writers should know how to stick to tenses, and that they shouldn’t be afraid of books that stretch their thinking muscles. I don’t care about the student who hadn’t read “The Great Gatsby” before — I do kind of wonder about her thinking it’s a “difficult” book… what does she usually read, Twitter?

    This douche is not the one who will encourage improvement, however. Everyone who took his classes should get a refund, and use it to take classes in time management, stress relief, and how to read contracts and do budgeting. Although not having to put up with him any more has probably lowered their stress.

    (You can’t diagnose a person from this small amount of material, but the hairs on the back of my neck are telling me this jerk is also a little iffy on what constitutes consent. Off-topic, but yikes.)

  4. luvtheheaven says:

    I’d never heard of the man, but damn… he’s awful.

  5. Lurkertype says:

    (Also, if you don’t mind indelicate language, Chuck Wending does his usual thing. This article has him “peeing bees” and postulates “literary Midichlorians”.)

  6. priyanka says:

    What a brilliant post . Very powerfully written . The amount of frustration and disagreement is so perfectly managed.

  7. John Brown says:

    Yup. What Foz said.

  8. […] There have been other responses. Chuck Wendig has a one, as does Foz Meadows. […]

  9. […] is another response to that article by (thankfully, former) MFA professor Ryan Boudinot. See also Foz Meadows, Laura Lam and Chuck Wendig for some further context. At first glance, I might seem an odd person […]

  10. jazzbaby1 says:

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this takedown. The level of asshattery it takes to call an abuse survivor a narcissist without getting that the underlying pathology of many abusers is narcissism and to THEN give the weak defense citing “craft” is just mind boggling. Part of the craft is using words correctly, knowing the implication of what you’re writing. I can only take him at his word that he knows what he’s doing and if that’s the case then that passage wasn’t just tone deaf, it was deliberately cruel.

  11. Brilliant article. Great takedown.

    Also I wish to impose a moratorium on the phrase ‘neural architecture’ and all related neuro-bollocks phrases being allowed in any form of writing without at least 2 peer reviewed citations. At least then when people spouted offensive nonsense they’d do it without mangling my field.

  12. Oh, this was a lovely lil’ rant. “Stereotypical, self-indulgent, self-fulfilling exercise in Special Snowflakeism”… “callous, oblivious douchecanoe who doesn’t understand basic fucking empathy”… I’m cracking up over here.

    I wanna thank Ryan Bourgie-oh for inspiring such fabulous responses and counter-responses throughout the Internet he advocates avoiding, and also for bringing attention to the low-residency MFA at Goddard College, which was (I think?) the first such program in the States. I attended a different program at Goddard, and when I showed up at the first residency, I had nearly as much elitist baggage to tote as Boudinot apparently does. I still have some of it, but Goddard (and later, teaching via another low-residency college) helped me let go of at least one wheeled pilot’s bag and a steamer trunk’s worth.

    If you’re interested, my own take on the piece is on PLAZM magazine’s urbanhonking blog right now: http://urbanhonking.com/plazm/2015/03/05/bitter-mfa-dude/

  13. MawBTS says:

    What I find so bizarre about the idea of innate talent as a relevant, identifiable factor in this context is that, by lauding it as he does, Boudinot is effectively copping to being a mediocre teacher; at absolute best, he’s claiming that the success of his students is ultimately beyond his control. If you believe that a certain amount of inborn skill is requisite for greatness – and if, as Boudinot seemingly believes, it’s a rare commodity – then what’s your incentive to teach the great unwashed mass of students who, in your eyes, lack potential?

    Have you never seen an incurably bad writer? An author with 500,000 words on fanfiction.net who still writes stuff like “the detective’s well-honed eyes rolled around the room, taking in the sights and sounds”? A romance author with 150+ published books who still uses “either” for a set of more than two options?

    To be honest, I don’t think he went far enough. He says that somebody with no talent can work hard and write a great book. I wonder if he really believes that, or if it’s a sop to keep people happy.

    • I actually don’t think that everyone can be a writer, or even that every writer has a novel in them. But frankly, I don’t think either of the scenarios you presented are ‘incurably bad’. A lot of fanfic writers are very young, especially on ff.net, which as far as I know still skews a bit younger than AO3, that writer with 500,000 words you’re making fun of might well be 15 and have little to no formal training. I bet they could improve tremendously with a few classes on writing composition and language. And using either for 3+ options is a minor grammatical issue. Your romance author can’t possibly be that bad or no one would have bought 150 of her books, she probably just needs a new copy editor.

      But beyond that Boudinot isn’t teaching either of these people. He’s teaching people who got into a prestigious MFA program, which is a much more highly selected group who probably already have some educational background as writers. So what he’s saying isn’t ‘not everyone can be a good writer’ which is probably true, but ‘I am incapable of teaching highly educated and selected writing students working in a set framework’.

      Because that’s another point you missed. MFAs focus on literary fiction (at least as far as I know). He’s not trying to teach genre or romance writers, which have totally different conventions, or fanfic writers, which are also a separate group. And I do think its kind of telling that both of the ‘bad writer’ examples you picked are not only genres not covered by most MFA programs but two that are among the most heavily marginalized and written by women.

      • MawBTS says:

        You seem to think it’s impossible for a bad writer to end up in an MFA program. Ryan Boudinot disagrees. Without sounding like a jerk, why should I believe you instead of Boudinot? The guy’s been doing this for eight years. Do you have any experience teaching these kinds of classes? Maybe you do. I don’t know you.

        Hasn’t it always been a joke that MFAs are a home to a certain class of writer: delusional narcissists who think they’re undiscovered geniuses? That’s the basis for the GuyInYourMFA twitter feed, after all.

        https://twitter.com/guyinyourmfa

        • I absolutely think its possible for a terrible writer to end up in an MFA program, and I’m sure that when that happens its very frustrating for their instructors. But Boudinot didn’t say that sometimes he gets terrible students (although I’m sure he did) he said that the vast majority of MFA students lack innate talent, and aren’t worth bothering with. From the original article:

          “The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. ”

          And I just don’t believe that. Really, if this is the case then the entire concept of a creative writing MFA is so fatally flawed that creative writing programs should be shut down in their entirety. But that’s ludicrous. I don’t know the details of what makes a good MFA student or even a good literary author, maybe it is really rare. But I’ve read enough blog posts, and fanfiction and genre novels and goddamn facebook statuses to know that many many people have interesting thoughts which they can express in interesting ways. And since that’s obvious tripe, it puts the rest of his analyses of his students into doubt. How can I trust the analysis of anyone, no matter how experienced, if they view the majority of people as uninteresting and incapable of expressing themselves. Boudinot is more experienced and has more detailed knowledge of the subject than me isn’t enough to make me take him seriously when he’s spouting obviously flawed statement like that (blame STEM education if you want, we take whole classes in how to pick apart the thoughts of our elders and betters).

          And also neither Boudinot in his original article nor you in your original comment refer to MFA students specifically. Boudinot draws on his experiences with his students, but he doesn’t say ‘MFA students’ he says ‘writers’, he consistently uses ‘you’ to refer to the reader in an article aimed at the general public. Given the context if you claim this is just sloppy language, I will laugh. And you didn’t bring up snotty MFA stereotypes originally either, you picked on fanfic and romance authors to make your point who most definitely exist outside of the boundaries of just MFA students. Although if you want to talk about the denizens of MFA programs specifically, I’ll stand by my above statement. If its true that the majority of MFA student writers are unsalvageable then the problem is with the program selection criteria, curriculum and teachers.

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