Innovators and sorcerers need not apply

In the current (print) issue of Poets & Writers, David Hollander (L.I.E.) takes a hard look at the MFA system that rejected one of his most talented undergraduate writing students.

“What is it, Hollander?” the student wrote. “Because I just got my last rejection notice, and I’m sick of digging holes for a living.”

“Within minutes,” Hollander says:

my guilt metamorphosed into rage. I’ve worked with nearly fifty graduate students, and I feel confident saying that not a single one has possessed Derek’s raw talent, his courage, or his willingness to write about the scary stuff that most people refuse to look in the eye. It’s safe to call Derek a “dark” writer. His stories are relentless and terrifying, despite the fact that he writes about the mundane — about manual labor and emotional exhaustion and bad relationships and the like. He’s an innovator, a sorcerer with a sentence and a writer with a vision. In short, he’s not what MFA programs are looking for.

The program in which I teach is stocked with competent students writing competent prose, crafting competent stories modeled after the stories they see published in the major trade magazines and placed front and center in their local bookstore’s atrium. Their teachers (my peers) extol the same compentent, well-crafted stories, written by the same set of writers lionized by booksellers across the country. The students, in short, are bcoming what they’ve been taught to become, and their acceptance into the MFA program is based less on how talented they are than on how well they adhere to this standard model of fiction writing. If Faulkner had submitted the first twenty-five pages of The Sound and the Fury as part of his 2005 MFA application package, he would have amassed a collection of rejection letter to make poor Derek’s stack look wafer-thin.

It’s worth buying the magazine to read the rest. The arguments aren’t new, but here they’re launched from the inside. Hollander concludes by suggesting that many writers will benefit more from small, independent critique groups than from institutionalized writers’ workshops.

If you can’t make it out to the bookstore, Daniel Nester‘s piece on political fiction is available online.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.