How Publishing Is Rigged You thought it was a meritocracy??


MFA Stories

Most of the fiction out there today can be slotted into one of four categories, and in this examination of prominent story types, I’ll discuss what I call “MFA Stories.” The other types of stories are:

Please note that there can be a lot of overlap with these story types. An MFA Story can also be a Bauble Story, for example. But for starters, let's talk about the stories that fall into the MFA Story category. New Pages perfectly captures the description of an MFA Story in their review of stories they read in a new literary magazine. As described by New Pages, the stories in that new magazine were:

“Polished, refined, and serious.”

“Polished,” in Lit Biz terms, means something that is worked over, academic but not organic, with every comma in its place, and where every character has the vocabulary of an MFA grad. And in writing these stories, these MFA Story writers always choose the longest and least well-known words whenever possible—no matter that they frequently don’t understand the actual meaning of those words themselves. It’s like they're the kid trying to show-off in class, and they think that the use of such words makes a story “polished.”

“Refined,” in an MFA Story means: nothing indulgent, lacking in the quality of real life, everyone sitting in a room with the lights off and their clothes on. No outbursts please, emotions must be controlled!

And “Serious” means: humorless, and when there are attempts at humor, there will instead be irony (a Lit Biz person's definition of irony), or archness. They’re aiming for restrained guffaws, these people, not laughter.

Are you at the edge of your seat, craving the next “polished, refined, and serious” story in that magazine? No chance. I know; these stories sound awful because they are awful. But with the huge numbers of MFA programs churning out thousands of MFA grads annually, there are an awful lot of MFA Stories.

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Not only will the MFA Story be worked-over to death (editors would call the workshopped results “controlled”), it will be utterly devoid of any spark of emotion. The MFA Story will be set upon or near a University. Ivy League Universities are disproportionately represented in these stories, but any University will do, particularly if the author attended that University. These stories might feature a dorm room conflict. Or problems completing one's thesis. Often we’ll have an MFA student (or a younger version of the MFA student: the English major) as a central character. If the writer is a little older or has some teaching experience, the main character might be a professor, specifically an English professor, and will be confronted with some kind of scholarly task. Perhaps the professor is denied tenure—the drama! Maybe the author will attempt to go outside the standard “English professor” realm and write about a Biology professor who is tempted to quit her coveted tenured biology professorship to pursue a career in…can you guess? Publishing!

(Ranging outside of the English professor realm is considered very risky ground to the MFA degree-holder. As you and I can see, MFA story writers aren’t actually departing from the established forms at all; in the end, the author brings it right back to their own experiences; these stories are memoirs disguised as fiction.)

Within a single story, all characters will share the same vocabulary skills regardless of their station in life, and they’ll be from the same places the author is from. In other words, the characters are the authors themselves with the same limited life experiences as the authors themselves. Do realize that most authors today are cycled right out of the publishing business within a few years, and many of these authors are approximately the same age, besides. (In 1999, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a survey of recent MFA grads. The survey revealed that only 10% of graduates were actually working in the field of publishing—and most of them were doing some form of technical writing. Most of the remaining 90% were either teaching at the college level, or pursuing yet another advanced degree.) Without any powers of invention, these ex-students are all covering the same ground with their fiction.

With largely the same life experiences and no ability to be creative, is it any wonder that the MFA system cranks out so many MFA Stories with their identical plots and subject matters? The authors have attended secondary school, college, and then gotten an MFA degree—or some variation of that sequence of events—and they are using the lessons they learned in class to write what they know. The MFA Stories that come out of these people are all the same autobiographical stories, talking about the same Ivy League universities, English professors and pastimes. The authors try to assuage their fragile egos by having their characters use the biggest words possible in every situation, regardless of whether it is appropriate for that character to use those big words—and regardless of whether English is even the character’s native language. The writers avoid any content that might stir a reader's soul or ignite their passions and instead, they embrace phrases they're comfortable with, like “made love.” Finally, their characters all blend together as flat, substanceless players who are approximately the same age as the author at the time the story was written.

“Polished, refined and serious” sure doesn’t sound like any fun, but to the Lit Biz crowd who fears the unexpected and can’t handle the most trivial emotional conflict, these MFA Stories are comforting and familiar, with their interchangeable and boring themes and all-the-same boring plots.

Now, I went to college (an Ivy League college, which seems to mean a great deal to the higher-ups in publishing, who are big fans of class structures and keeping out the riff-raff, never mind that anyone who graduates from a community college has far more to be proud of than a typical Ivy League grad). But I certainly don't want to live my life on a college campus—much less spend my free time reading about one. That's not real life to me. Like most people who went to college, after I graduated, I left that University life behind. Once the rest of us got out of college, our degrees became commodities and University life faded into memory. Real life took over, just like it's supposed to. These MFA Story writers continue to focus on a University life with its academic constructs, even after they've graduated with their MFA degree. Why on earth do these MFA writers think that regular people want to read about their adult University-based faux-dramas?

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In an MFA Story, the language, with its forced high-brow vocabulary, is lacking in emotion. The language might even describe something approaching life, but in the end, the language is empty; life devoid of actual feeling. Dialogue is worded academically (not organically) and the characters stay flat on the page—and they're all indistinguishable from one another, all being versions of the writer. Again, the MFA Story is memoir, written as fiction. An MFA Story is underdeveloped, goes nowhere and you won’t be able to remember anything about that story an hour after you’ve finished reading it because there was no point to it in the first place. Let’s take a look at this New Yorker example below:

Example 1:

Love Affair With Secondaries” by Craig Raine, The New Yorker, June 1, 2009

It begins:

Piotr was forty-two, married to Basia, the father of three sons, a professor of English at the Instytut Anglistyki at the University of Krakow. Three things worried him.

University, check. Professor, check. But not just any kind of professor, mind you, the most MFA Story-favored kind of professor: a professor of English. A foreign University used as a cheap attempt to introduce “variety and authenticity” within the established MFA Story formula. Raine thinks that setting the story in a foreign locale and giving the characters foreign names is creative, but all he's actually doing is sticking to the same old MFA Story rules.

And a later excerpt from the same story:

One day he expected to read a poem about his eyebrows. Or a poem with his phone number or his address in the title: “Ul. Sienkiewicza 35 m.5.” Especially since his apartment was often the easiest place for the lovers to meet—as they were going to meet on this rainy day in June. He wasn’t teaching that afternoon, because his students had exams. Agnieszka walked from the nearby Film School, where she worked in the cataloguing department. His sons would be in school till four, and Basia, who worked for a foreign press agency, was never home before six o’clock, because of the time difference.

As soon as Agnieszka arrived, Piotr put the chain on the door, and the pair undressed quickly and silently on opposite sides of the sofa bed. Like a married couple in a cold room. But the thick curve of his erection was ready before they even touched. He could smell her genitals across the tartan blanket—the blanket with tell-tail [sic] tassels which she always brought in her tote bag.

This is an MFA Story through and through. Note that Raine has written about an affair between an English professor and a poet, the affair being an all-too-common subject in literary fiction these days. And while an affair can be disruptive and usually dramatic, why is it so often found in today's stories? I'm tired of reading about affairs. Question for the average reader: How many English professors do you know? And how many poets? Do these characters seem like the kind of people you might meet in your everyday life? I'm not saying that every character has to be someone you'd find at the diner on Main Street, but why the vast numbers of professors and poets (often writing their first book) in these MFA Stories? Raine is writing what he knows, and he knows English professors and he knows poets. He, like so many writers these days, is also writing for readers exactly like himself.

We’ve also got a reference to “the lovers” which is not a phrase that anyone in the real world would ever use to describe two people having an affair. And then we come to the part about the “thick curve of his erection” and the fact that the main character, in anticipation of “making love” to his poetess girlfriend, could “smell her genitals.” Look at how laughably unnatural these descriptions are. You could quote this section of the story to your friends and everyone would make fun of the kind of asshole who would actually talk and write this way. The author is trying to conjure up a heavy sex scene, but the language is so clinical, it could have been taken straight from Sex Ed course materials. This is sex that is dead, as a part of a dead story, written by an individual who is so uncomfortable with sex that he cannot bear to see it represented properly on the page. Hell, this guy can’t handle the sex jokes on Seinfeld.

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Example 2:

In 2010, a book published by an indie press hit the big time and won the Pulitzer Prize. What we’ll find is that said book, Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press, 2010) by Paul Harding, is exactly the same as everything else being published today, reminding us that the indie, university and corporate publishing worlds are all in the same sorry state. Just like most MFA-graduates, Harding had a “mentor” while he was getting his MFA at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. And like most MFA-graduates, Harding emulates his mentor in his work. And as an MFA Story in novel-length, his book goes on and on with loads of description, and his novel has no point.

(Regular people, out in the world, do not have mentors. The mentor-having relationship is unique to publishing. It keeps the University-style authority figure a part of everyday publishing life, and promotes cronyism too.)

Let's have a peek at what some Amazon commenters had to say about Harding's book:

One might be puzzled by my heading of “Formulaic”, as the term often applies to commercial literature of the Grisham / Steele variety. However, whether the New York critics and MFA graduates like it or not, there is also a certain formula for literary novels, one that is rigorously pounded into the head of every university student of creative writing. When I saw Harding was a product of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, I had a strong sense of what I was in for, and I was correct.

“Tinkers” is the classic case of a book that's all language and very little else. Many literary authors disguise their story and character shortcomings by adorning the pages in crisp and elegant prose, which is usually couched in fractured Faulkner-esque narrative techniques. Of course, I have absolutely nothing against elegant prose. I wish more authors could or would write with Harding's strive for musical fluidity in their passages. But just as with an inept genre piece, when something is lacking, nothing - not plot twists or beautiful prose - can aptly conceal it. Harding's pages slosh over with classic “melancholy sentimentality”. One gets the sense he is writing with the Iowa Workshop echoing in his ear, hoping to be a Great Important Author by employing the unspoken rule of literary fiction that all Great Important Work must involve depressing entropic principles, belabor sections of mechanical daily minutia and puzzle the common reader in presentation.

Wow. I couldn't have said it better myself. And this is for a book that won the Pulitzer which tells us as much about the terrible judgment of the Pulitzer Board as it does about Tinkers. The book is formulaic, reeks of its MFA origins, and is boring and confusing to a regular reader. Not to mention that the novel is lacking in plot and character development, two flaws that Harding attempts to hide in the self-conscious prose of the MFA grad. This next commenter asks an obvious question—but first I'll tell you Harding's mentor at Iowa was a woman named Marilynne Robinson:

Is Paul Harding a ghost writer for Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”)? This novel had her style throughout. I came into this work hoping to find a nice story to get lost in. The reviews I had read were so complimentary. I was disappointed. Harding's novel is 90% description and 10% story. The narrative is scattered, so the reader must pay attention when the changes occur. But, this was not my biggest issue with this novel. I enjoy stories that depart from a typical linear narrative. But even his non-linear narrative was not enough to keep my interest in this novel.

Harding was mentored by Robinson, and he wrote a book in her style. That sounds creative. Why is this “mentor-emulation” practice a good thing in the eyes of the publishing world? It's as though the goal of the Iowa Writer's Workshop is to create clones of the professors who teach there. Or in other words, Iowa compels their graduates to churn out story after story, works indistinguishable from each other's works, and indistinguishable from their mentor's work. (Do you have a mentor? Does anyone you know have a mentor? Not a chance. Again, nobody, outside of the realm of modern publishing, has a mentor. It’s a juvenile construct perpetuated by the publishing field and by no other. And not only do the Lit Biz types cling to this bizarre mentor-mentee relationship, it is a relationship that is prized and celebrated throughout publishing. Writers will often refer to their “mentors” in interviews. Children need guidance, yes, but adults should not require mentors.) Note also that this commenter complains about the over-abundance of description and lack of plot in this prize-winning work. What has become of the Pulitzer Prize Board? I'll tell you: they too have lost the ability to discern what makes good writing.

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There's a special kind of MFA Story that tries to trick Lit Biz people into thinking that it's not a stock MFA Story when really it's the exact same thing, wrapped in a slightly earthier veneer. These stories are MFA Stories, but posturing as though they were actually full of emotion. The trouble is that the writing is fake and put-on, just like any other MFA Story.

Example 3:

Wells Tower is a writer who specializes in these posturing MFA Stories. He throws a bit of grunginess into his texts, just enough to make an editor think that they've gotten their hands dirty—but not too dirty; just pretend dirty; after all, decorum must be maintained—and experienced something more substantial than a standard campus-set MFA Story. But in fact, real emotion is absent from Tower's words. Read on for an example of a Wells Tower metaphor. These sentences originally appeared in the story “Wild America,” included in Wells Tower’s story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (FSG, 2009).

The bell on the cat’s collar roused her. He’d brought her something: a baby pigeon stolen from its nest, mauled and draped on Jacey’s pillowcase. The thing was pink, nearly translucent, with magenta cheeks and lavender ovals around the eyes. It looked like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute.

Wells Tower loves to go on and on with lots of descriptions of objects. In fact, that's often all that he does in his fiction—and nonfiction too. He'll fill up a paragraph describing—in intricate detail—the surface of a common trash can. And while his descriptive stuff is busy taking up space in a story, Tower omits important details like plot. As a result, his stories are woefully underdeveloped. Often, his stories go along for a little while and then they just abruptly end as though Tower has reached his desired word count and simply signed off; duty served. In the process of writing his posturing MFA Stories, Tower likes to show off his vocabulary, throwing in his fancy words to bolster his fragile ego. I'm not saying that a writer can't use big words, but the vocabulary has to be done in context, and Wells Tower is not someone who uses his Columbia MFA (yes yes, we know you went to an Ivy) vocabulary in context. The descriptive content in the above excerpt is not the main problem though—it’s the last sentence that's the main problem in this particular excerpt. So let’s get to it.

It looked like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute.

An eraser that's been half-cooked. Aside: Erasers do not get cooked, let alone half-cooked. What an idiotic thing to say. But that’s not all that's stupid here. Was Tower trying to describe an eraser that had those prostitute dreams? Or did he mean to say that the coloring that resembled makeup on the bird’s head was what made the baby bird appear as though it had dreams of becoming a prostitute? I think he meant the latter, but the actual sentence structure implies the former—that the bird resembled a special eraser that itself had dreams of becoming a prostitute. Wells Tower actually thought that this was a good way to describe the dead baby bird in his story and the Lit Biz people, sheep that they are, ate it right up. The writing is so forced—Wells Tower is trying to insert visceral impact into his story, and he thinks a few gritty words is enough to set his work apart from the other MFA Stories that are out there. Any normal reader can see that the above excerpt is completely fake and contrived. But editors, unfamiliar with the everyday earthiness of real life, are tricked by Tower's attempts to capture emotional content in his works. “Dead birds! Prostitute!” they think to themselves. “Prostitutes are naughty. This is intense. Oh me, I’m overwhelmed.” Lit Biz people are tricked into thinking that Tower's work goes further than the typical MFA Story when really it’s just the same overworked MFA formula, albeit in a slightly different shape.

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The MFA Story is also chock-full of description for description's sake. I'm not saying that a story can't have a good helping of description to help set a scene or infuse texture into what would otherwise be a simply stated fact required to move a story along. But these MFA writers love to fill up their pages with careful details that do nothing at all to move along the story. The description eats up the word count, does nothing to advance the plot, provides no character insight, doesn't do anything, really, save take up space. I guess when you have no powers of creativity, that blank page looks pretty scary and you’ve got to find some way to cover it with words. For the uninspired talentless MFA Story writer, needless description can solve that daunting blank page problem. As readers, we read this needless description and dismiss it as filler, as it doesn't provide anything more than words on a page.

Example 4:

The following is a portion of a review of a novel by one of those “20 Under 40” New Yorker authors. The book is Swamplandia! (Knopf, 2011) and was written by Karen Russell. Because the Literary Business people wanted this book to be a success, the book got some reviews at decent places and could be found on the front tables at the bookstores. But take a closer look at what the reviews are actually saying: this book is all description and no plot.

Swamplandia! was reviewed in Entertainment Weekly by Keith Staskiewicz on January 19, 2011.

(I find that exclamation point absurd. It's supposed to indicate enthusiasm. Or, that the title of the book is copying the title of the musical, Oklahoma! To me, the exclamation point is annoying and fake.)

Russell's writing is crowded with vivid descriptions and near synesthetic similes — a birdcall is “a single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling” — and feels as densely organic as the swamp in which it is set.

The reviewer notes that the novel is full of—crowded with, even—similarly vivid descriptions of such scenes, which makes me wonder—amongst all of this description, where is the story in this novel? Again I'm imploring you to speak up and demand more of our writers. We're asking for writing that depicts beauty and honesty and truth and experience, not writing that is primarily description-for-description's sake. Unfortunately, we aren’t getting anything remotely resembling what we want from today's literature.

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What I don’t understand is why writers (and their professors/mentors) think that the people of the world want to read writing that is detached from reality. Because we sure and hell don’t want that kind of writing. You can have characters who are detached, but the story being told and the language being used has to give the characters life—the “voice” has to be engaging, and not detached. Detached writing is cold, dead, lifeless prose where things aren’t seen close up, but from a million miles away—which is to say that nothing is really seen at all. We don't want that. We want to read stories that feature characters who are interesting and loveable (or hate-able) but they don’t necessarily have to be good people or role models. The disconnect between what readers actually want and what writers and editors think we want is a huge problem. Emma Straub (daughter of horror novelist and sometime-Stephen King collaborator Peter Straub—yay nepotism!) writes autobiographical fiction of the most boring and detached type.

On top of the fact that her writing is detached (like Straub), her characters are young adults (like Straub), and they live in (or have visited) Wisconsin and/or New York City. (Straub has spent time in both places.) Is it any surprise that her characters are—shockingly—exactly like she is? Let's take a look at a recent interview with Straub in which she discusses her new book.

Example 5:

Taken from an interview at Full Stop, after publication of Straub’s short story collection, Other People We Married (FiveChapters Books, 2011):

Many of Straub’s characters are newly minted adults struggling with adult responsibilities – marriage, children, pets – but without the stable sense of self that supposedly comes with adulthood.  And not much happens in Straub’s stories.

Well that doesn't sound very interesting or fun, does it? Not much happens in her stories. Why would this description make me (or any other non-Lit Biz, regular person, for that matter) want to read any of these stories? Publishing is so backwards that the interviewer thinks he’s just paid Straub a compliment by revealing that there isn't any plot contained in her stories. The interview continues:

You [and Lorrie Moore] both write awkwardness really well. Your stories are interesting because your characters go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Instead of moving to resolve a conflict, your stories typically end with the recognition of a conflict. Your characters are somewhat aloof with one another, but especially with themselves.

Even when I was in college, that’s always what my professors would say: “your voice is so detached.” What does that mean? I don’t know! I don’t think you really get to choose the way your voice is on a page.

Not that every story has to tie up all loose ends or resolve every conflict that’s been presented, but the interviewer notes that Straub’s stories consistently avoid all notions of conflict—in fact, her characters go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Conflict is scary to someone like Emma Straub. Oh No, some problems, time to schedule an extra session with my therapist! Conflict terrifies her and Emma Straub goes to great lengths in her own life to avoid conflict. And as a person who fears conflict, she of course writes all of her characters in the same way; they are all mini versions of herself, anyway.

Why do editors think that a detached voice is a good thing? Sure, that makes a lot of sense; keep the writing and the language at a distance from the reader. We certainly don't want our readers to be emotionally involved in what they're reading! Or so goes the directives in the Lit Biz world. Sounds crazy, right?  And did you note the part where Emma Straub claims that you can’t control your own writing—doesn’t that also sound insane? A creative writer can control what they’re doing; only their imagination and their power of language need limit them. But the writer who is repackaging autobiography as fiction is not actually writing. There’s no invention in the MFA Story, but simply prose replication of who that person—the writer—is. Or sort of is, since these people have no self-awareness or ability to depict anything truthfully.

If you read the entire interview you’ll see that Emma Straub even admits that she got an agent easily through her father's publishing connections—and not through her ability as a writer. One can pretty much always count on identifying a cronyism angle in every aspect of modern publishing. But Straub notes that even in publishing, her crony connections only got her so far—her first three attempts at writing a salable novel failed miserably. (Which is to say, she got an agent and meetings with editors at publishing houses, which is more than anyone off the street would get.) The quality of her work was so lacking, nobody would take a chance on her, regardless of her father's career. In an industry where connections and cronyism are very powerful, Straub’s failed history tells us that those books must have been nothing short of unreadable.

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Here’s another story that places the utmost importance on clinical descriptions of a character—a character who is supposed to be very much alive. Talk about detached writing; it’s as though Karl Taro Greenfeld found a desk reference of children's mental health disorders, copied those notes into his computer and called it a story. What results is a character with no more life than the disorder that is described in the pages of the reference book. Have a look at the beginning of the story:

Example 6:

“Alpha” by Karl Taro Greenfeld, Commentary, February 2011

Cooper’s hegemony over the entire fourth grade was a fact just now beginning to be suspected by teachers and administrators, but virtually impossible to confirm and awkward to bring up in discussion with her parents.

Cooper herself did not recall when she began to take pleasure in shows of dominance over her classmates, only that it came about as soon as she became aware that she was indeed dominant.

Cooper had been among the top performers throughout her elementary-school career, and her teachers had to duly report this salutary progress during parent-teacher meetings.

Cooper carefully curated her friends. There were the girls she found physically appealing; there were some whose families had elaborate summer-houses; there were others whose parents occupied glamorous perches and whose last names promised entrée. To what, Cooper couldn’t even say, but she was already imbued with a notion that connections mattered.

That was the beginning of the story, remember. Would you, reader, read on? Did that draw you in? Well, settle in for yet more boredom, because the entire rest of the story is exactly the same as what you just read. The editor of Commentary, John Podhoretz, is apparently obsessed with finding the most tedious material out there and publishing it in his magazine.

Here's what Greenfield set out to do: Get the mental disorder desk reference. Turn to the section for mental health disorders among nine-year-olds, take notes on the details of disorders. Paste notes into word processor program, add an “unusual” first name and bam, the story is all done. I’ll also note that the all-seeing narrator in “Alpha” gives Cooper an abundance of characteristics more appropriate to an individual many decades older than she. Because Greenfeld gives all of his characters traits that are more typical of someone his age, not the ages of the characters as they appear in his story.

Think about what you’d do if you were trying to write a good story. Would you copy out pages from a medical desk reference and try to pass the results off as a work of art? This sounds nuts because it is nuts. This detached and lifeless fiction is not what people want to read, yet it’s what gets Karl Taro Greenfeld published in a top fiction venue.

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I am working on [an in-depth analysis] of a story that was published in The Boston Review February 2011 issue; it was an MFA Story in every aspect. It featured:

  • an English student (double majoring in philosophy)
  • a setting on the same campus where this particular author is a professor
  • MFA-style vocabularies granted to all characters, and used in constructing unnatural dialogue

and so many other MFA Story characteristics that I’m bored just thinking about them.

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How can we get the message to these decision makers that we are disgusted and fed up with their inability to select and publish literature of quality? How can we let gatekeepers know that they're isolating legions of deeply-passionate readers whenever they award prizes to works that simply aren't up to snuff, let alone exemplary? How can we let the world know that those with the power to do literary good are, in fact, the absolute worst judges of quality, and need to be ousted from their positions of power?

It's not enough that these stories are all coming from writers with a workshop mentality, or that they're written by people who have spent far too many years wandering around a college campus. The stories themselves are set within a University, they're about safe, boring University life, and the characters are often mini-replicas of the writers themselves, complete with first names that sound like (or at least have the same syllable count as) the writer.

With a cadre of uninspired, non-creative writers with more-or-less similar life experiences being taught more-or-less the same writing lessons semester after semester—all being told to write what they know, and not a drop of creativity among them—it's no wonder that the system churns out so many stories and books with the same MFA Story themes and in the same MFA Story style.