Nick Becher's picture
Nick Becher from St. Louis MO is reading Nonzero by Robert Wright April 7, 2019 - 2:21pm

The following is the first entry on my website that I hope will interest some of you. If you are intrigued by my ideas, please visit my website directly

MFA Postmortem: The Case for a Formalized Philosophy of Fiction

By Nicholas Becher

Why a Philosophy of Fiction?
Upon graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing, I was given an exit survey meant to gauge the efficacy of the program, determine what areas they might improve, and probably get a sense of the quality of our experience. I will preface this blog post by saying that my experience was unquestionably life-changing and valuable in ways I never could have anticipated; I was introduced to serious, talented, skilled, honest writers from various backgrounds and was exposed to challenging ideas about what it means to be a writer in the modern world. Long story short: I am an advocate for MFA programs. I think anyone who wants to take their writing seriously should pursue their MFA and they should do it now. You will get better at writing, no doubt in my mind.

That being said, the primary focus of my comments on the MFA exit survey dealt with the moral and ethical conversations we were having outside the classroom. I realized quickly that much of the progress I made in my writing stemmed more from informal conversations on taboo subjects, conversations made possible because of my cohort’s shared interests. My guess is that most MFA programs function similarly, where the workshops offer you a platform to create new work and receive immediate feedback on that work, yet the larger social, ethical, and moral conversations about this work take place primarily outside the classroom where students feel freer to step on toes, challenge norms, and pose the question seriously of who gets to write what.

This is not to say these philosophical conversations (as I viewed them) happened exclusively outside the classroom. Rather, the conversations I did have in the workshop that touched on issues of depiction, perspective, or sociocultural norms took place circumstantially. That is, we only held these discussions if they came up organically, while observing someone’s work that may have struck a nerve in one reader but not in others, for example. Many of my peers saw no real problem with this as we usually ended up continuing those conversations after class over a few beers.

Degrees in creative writing are incredibly undervalued in the job market for a variety of reasons. In my view, one remedy to this is to be deliberate in building curriculum for MFA candidates that challenge them in ways other fields cannot. Namely, introducing a formalized Philosophy of Fiction (as well as Nonfiction and Poetry) that addresses moral, ethical, and sociocultural concerns deliberately, directly, and explicitly, as opposed to leaving important conversations up to circumstance.

This blog will function primarily as a place where I will build the case for a formalized philosophy addressing the implications of fiction in the real world. In my view, the creative writing workshop space provides a unique forum where intentions can be evaluated in real time, something that would all-together be rejected in literary discourse and other fields that focus on literary criticism (after all, the only good poet is a dead poet).

Intention is key. Our ability to discuss intention in the workshop is the backbone of what makes the MFA valuable. Why? Because very rarely are someone’s motivations assessed and analyzed so immediately through the current social, political, and cultural lens. When we talk about adding value to the MFA, I believe that a formal study of creative intention could help legitimize the field and simultaneously prevent the field from being consumed by identity politics. In an ideal scenario, understanding creative intention could pave the way to a much better understanding of talent, another aspect I will elaborate on in future blog posts. The implications of a formalized Philosophy of Fiction are vast, especially when considering the reality of changing technologies, the growth and immediacy of small press publications, and the highly polarized sociopolitical landscape in which modern authors create their work.

Establishing classes designed around deliberate philosophical conversations will provide MFA candidates a platform to discuss the ethical and moral implications of depiction. Consider the impact a conversation focused on depictions of race, gender, sexuality, class, age, etc., would have on your own writing. At minimum, these conversations can only enhance the value of the MFA by challenging candidates outside of their comfort zone, encouraging them to more confidently take risks in their writing because they are aware of the implications of their work. If these conversations are held only in an informal capacity, then we cannot guarantee MFA candidates nearly as much confidence in their own writing. These conversations cannot be left to circumstance; a formal incorporation of philosophy into the MFA model will avoid a fall into identity-driven biases and it will equip candidates with confidence, perspective, and foresight that will inevitably enhance their creative work.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 12, 2019 - 9:23pm

I think you raise some interesting points and I wish you luck in continuing.

I don't have any stake in MFAs becoming more valuable.

I have always thought the elimination of "intent" from critical concern is itself problematic, though I understand at least some of the reasons for avoiding it.

People still say books can promote sympathy, but we're expected to sympathize with imaginary individuals and then supposedly extend that to real people—except the author, a real person—unless the author is a marginalized person, in which case the very act of reading their book (regardless of its contents) is perceived to be an act of solidarity... and so on. I find it convoluted.

Which doesn't mean that I think people should go back to reading more books by white heterosexual males. I don't. But I also never felt proud of myself for reading a book written by a woman, or a homosexual, or person of color, or foreigner—that is to say, for the mere act of having read a book produced by a person falling under some designation.

That's not 100% true. When I was fresh out of high school, I felt good about reading books by Europeans. Perhaps some younger people purposefully reading marginalized voices feel good about it in exactly the same way I did. Perhaps for others, it's an entirely different thing.

I think it's possible for a minority-identifying person to write a mainstream blockbuster; and I think it's possible for a white heterosexual male with an unremarkable background to write a countercultural firestarter.

Sometimes people attribute value to a thing because of its relation to other things. Other times, there are no calculations.