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To MFA or Not to MFA, Behaving Like a Gentleman

July 30, 2010 | by

To MFA or not to MFA. That is the question. —D. G.

It depends on how you feel about putting off the inevitable. That’s what writing programs are for—to give young writers one or two years of camaraderie before they face the market, where writing lives or dies according to whether people will pay to read it. You can learn things in a writing program, of course. It can give you the sanction to spend your days reading and writing, if you need that kind of sanction. More important, it can offer a stipend. This is probably the best thing a program can do, beside helping you to realize if you have no talent. (This service tends not to be advertised.) But I find it hard to believe that spending so much time with other young writers—people so much like you—is good for the spirit, or makes you a more interesting person. Most living writers I admire (and most I don't) have spent some time either studying or teaching in writing programs. So have I. And some, like the excellent Gary Shteyngart, seem to find them useful. At this point, I think, it’s hard to tell: so few young writers go it alone.

According to my girlfriend, I need to learn how to behave like a gentleman. Any characters I could follow? —Chris M.

As far as I know, the most perfect gentleman in literature is Charles Swann. The son of a stockbroker, Swann is equally at home with his father’s bourgeois neighbors, with seedy bohemians, or with the Prince of Wales. None of whom know about the other worlds through which he moves. Swann, a Jew, is somehow more aristocratic than any aristocrat. Alone among Proust’s male characters, he is free of snobbery. He has beautiful manners. He is a friend to all men.

As a boyfriend, however, Swann leaves much to be desired. In his dealings with women he is guilty, as Proust puts it, of “une certaine muflerie”—boorishness, in the Lydia Davis translation. “Swann did not try to convince himself that the women with whom he spent his time were pretty, but to spend time with women he already knew were pretty.” There tend to be a lot of these. Swann will often use his connections with a duchess, for example, in order to pick up one of her servants. But the real trouble starts when he falls in love. He is pathologically jealous, controlling, obsessive, bullying, and a sneak. Worst of all, he has terrible taste in life-partners. As he famously sums up, “To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!” (Reader, he married her.)

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  1. Heather | July 31, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    It’s reassuring to think that it might be okay not to do the MFA thing…although Shteyngart seems pretty for it.

  2. Kathryn | August 1, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    I really think it depends on what it is you’re writing. If you’re writing genre fiction, an MFA is the last place you’ll want to be. The other thing is that I’m not sure where this myth that writing programs give chunky fellowships and lots of camaraderie has come from. I’ve been to two programs and learned A LOT, but I pretty much hated every minute of workshop. I never felt people were addressing the real issue of whether people would actually want to READ the stuff. To me they focused on fairly incidental issues. And I had to work three jobs to put myself through. Make sure if you go, you find a program that does offer a fellowship, because most of them actually don’t.

  3. Lorin Stein | August 1, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Thank you for these comments. Kathryn, I think readers might be curious to find out what sort of thing you learned in your programs. (It’s true that most writing students are asked to pay their way–which, I agree, makes the prospect much less attractive.)

  4. Sparkle | August 2, 2010 at 11:53 am

    How to be a gentleman is less than half answered. It is unlikely our friend Chris M. dislikes his girlfriend enough to emulate this fellow you’re suggesting if he cares enough to write in hoping to learn how to please her.

  5. Sparkle | August 2, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    In other words, are you familiar with a fictional character who has nice manners and/or the courage to choose to be with someone he respects?

    Swann, though polite, is clearly filled with self-loathing and therefore not a worthy role model. Or is it too much to ask that life imitate art?

    (Jump in here any time Chris M.!)

  6. Lorin Stein | August 2, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    I doubt anyone has ever described Swann as self-loathing. It would be news to Swann! I mention him only to point out that manners, even beautiful manners, don’t always spell domestic bliss …

  7. Sparkle | August 2, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Surely Swann does hate himself. Why else would he choose to spend his life with someone who makes him “want to die”?

    Perhaps Chris M. will allow me the liberty of assuming his non-fictional psyche is somewhat less complicated. My assumption is based on dear Chris’s patent willingness to change if not himself, then at least his manners, with the aim of making another person, if not happy, at least happier.

  8. Sparkle | August 2, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Forgive me Lorin, if Swann is indeed your final answer, who am I to reject it? Perhaps Swann over- rather than under-answers the question after all.

  9. Maggie Mayer | August 3, 2010 at 8:51 am

    A gentleman isn’t someone with nice manners, it’s someone with integrity. It can’t be learned and is seldom written about.

    Chris M. If you need a hero it’s going to have to be you.

  10. Alex | August 5, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Peter Carey said once that getting an MFA is the equivalent of what you would learn in 4 years on your own. I pretty much subscribe to that. These programs are expensive. The money involved in tuition is money like you never dreamed of spending. I remember I got into Sarah Lawrence with a small stipend, and I still needed to come up with 40K. I couldn’t go. So if you have 40K-100K laying around, live on it! write your book! join a writing group or attend a colony. Or, as Lorin Stein suggests, seek out the programs that offer funding. There are some real MFA gems out there if you look hard enough. If you’re going to make art for a living… there’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic at the start.

  11. Molly | August 13, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Wouldn’t you say that Dr. Philip Carey was a gentleman in every sense of the word?

  12. Lorin Stein | August 13, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    This probably says something terrible about me–but I just have never liked Somerset Maugham. I’ll have to take your word for it!

3 Pingbacks

  1. […] (though I fear it’s making me a better writer of prosy academic verbiage). The Paris Review had something to say about it today. I guess I’m going it […]

  2. […] Lorin Stein questions whether the environment is enabling in the right way.  He acknowledges potential benefits of an MFA program (money, time), but concludes:   “I find it hard to believe that spending so much time with other young writers—people so much like you—is good for the spirit, or makes you a more interesting person.”  Catch the article here. […]

  3. […] To MFA or not to MFA: the Paris Review attempts to answer this question plaguing many a young writer’s mind. For a more in depth look at the topic (whatever your stance, the Paris Review’s answer to this question is cursory at best), head over to Maureen Johnson’s blog post Ask MJ: How to Get an MFA […]

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