Flannery O’Connor Explains the Limited Value of MFA Programs: “Competence By Itself Is Deadly”


Flan­nery O’Connor once wrote, “because fine writ­ing rarely pays, fine writ­ers usu­al­ly end up teach­ing, and the [MFA] degree, how­ev­er worth­less to the spir­it, can be expect­ed to add some­thing to the flesh.” That phrase “worth­less to the spir­it” con­tains a great deal of the neg­a­tive atti­tude O’Connor expressed toward the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of cre­ative writ­ing in MFA pro­grams like the one she helped make famous at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa. The ver­biage comes from an essay she wrote for the alum­ni mag­a­zine of the Geor­gia Col­lege for Women after com­plet­ing her degree in 1947, quot­ed in the Chad Har­bach-edit­ed col­lec­tion of essays MFA vs. NYC. Although fresh from the pro­gram, O’Connor was already on her way to lit­er­ary suc­cess, hav­ing pub­lished her first sto­ry, “The Gera­ni­um,” the year pre­vi­ous and begun work on her first nov­el, Wise Blood. Nev­er­the­less, her insights on the MFA are not par­tic­u­lar­ly san­guine.

On the one hand, she writes with char­ac­ter­is­tic dark humor, writ­ing pro­grams can serve as alter­na­tives to “the poor house and the mad house.” In grad­u­ate school, “the writer is encour­aged or at least tol­er­at­ed in his odd ways.” An MFA pro­gram may offer some small respite from the lone­li­ness and hard­ship of the writ­ing life, and ulti­mate­ly pro­vide a cre­den­tial to be “pro­nounced upon by his future employ­ers should they chance to be of the acad­e­my.” But the time and effort (not to men­tion the expense, unless one is ful­ly fund­ed) may not be worth the cost, O’Connor sug­gests. Her own pro­gram at Iowa was “designed to cov­er the writer’s tech­ni­cal needs […], and to pro­vide him with a lit­er­ary atmos­phere which he would not be able to find else­where. The writer can expect very lit­tle else.”

Lat­er, in her col­lec­tion of essays Mys­tery and Man­ners, O’Connor expressed sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments. Con­clud­ing a lengthy dis­cus­sion on the very lim­it­ed role of the teacher of cre­ative writ­ing, she con­cludes that “the teacher’s work is large­ly neg­a­tive […] a mat­ter of say­ing ‘This doesn’t work because…’ or ‘This does work because….’” Remark­ing on the com­mon obser­va­tion that uni­ver­si­ties sti­fle writ­ers, O’Con­nor writes, “My opin­ion is that they don’t sti­fle enough of them. There’s many a best-sell­er that could have been pre­vent­ed by a good teacher.” Cre­ative writ­ing teach­ers may nod their heads in agree­ment, and shake them in frus­tra­tion. But we should return to that phrase “worth­less to the spir­it,” for while MFA pro­grams may turn out “com­pe­tent” writ­ers of fic­tion, O’Con­nor admits, they can­not pro­duce “fine writ­ing”:

In the last twen­ty years the col­leges have been empha­siz­ing cre­ative writ­ing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nick­el’s worth of tal­ent can emerge from a writ­ing class able to write a com­pe­tent sto­ry. In fact, so many peo­ple can now write com­pe­tent sto­ries that the short sto­ry as a medi­um is in dan­ger of dying of com­pe­tence. We want com­pe­tence, but com­pe­tence by itself is dead­ly. What is need­ed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writ­ing class.

O’Connor prob­a­bly over­es­ti­mates the degree to which “any idiot” can learn to write with com­pe­tence, but her point is clear. She wrote these words in the mid-fifties, in an essay titled “The Nature and Aim of Fic­tion.” As Harbach’s new essay col­lec­tion demon­strates, the debate about the val­ue of MFA programs—which have expand­ed expo­nen­tial­ly since O’Connor’s day—has not by any means been set­tled. And while there are cer­tain­ly those writ­ers, she notes wry­ly, who can “learn to write bad­ly enough” and “make a great deal of mon­ey,” the true artist may be in the same posi­tion after the MFA as they were before it, com­pelled to “chop a path in the wilder­ness of his own soul; a dis­heart­en­ing process, life­long and lone­some.”

via Every­thing That Ris­es

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Teach­es a Free Course on Cre­ative Read­ing and Writ­ing (1979)

Toni Mor­ri­son, Nora Ephron, and Dozens More Offer Advice in Free Cre­ative Writ­ing “Mas­ter Class”

Flan­nery O’Connor: Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Ayn Rand (1960)

Flan­nery O’Connor Reads ‘Some Aspects of the Grotesque in South­ern Fic­tion’ (c. 1960)

Flan­nery O’Connor’s Satir­i­cal Car­toons: 1942–1945

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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