Teaching writers the business of writing

>> Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Heard about this James Frey business, where he offers writers next-to-nothing amounts of money to authors to write YA books anonymously for him (or worse, let him claim, legally, that he wrote the books himself) and not earn a dime of royalties? All for the opportunity of being published and reaching a larger audience?

Maureen Johnson has a great piece on her blog about all this. She talks about what a horrible, horrible thing this is for one writer to do to another, but also about what a horrible thing it is that people actually say yes to bad deals like this. A reader says, "What's the big deal? Nobody has to say yes to deals like this." True. And yet most of the students Frey spoke to in the Colmubia MFA program admitted they submitted something to him!

Why? Maureen Johnson takes MFA programs to task for teaching people how to write, but not teaching them how to make a living at writing. I agree. This is something I've been saying during Q&As for years, usually right after a student asks me how much money I make. I always tell them--I'm happy to talk about how much I make and the realities of the writing life, mostly because nobody told me the same thing when I was in school, and it would have been really useful!

I'll be up front here too and say that I don't have an MFA, so I can't honestly scold MFA programs the way Marueen (who has a Columbia MFA herself) can. But I did take lots of graduate-level writing courses in school, both as an undergraduate (with special permission) and as a graduate student studying English education. Every one of those classes focused on the craft of writing, but not one ever discussed the realities of making a living as a writer.

Why? Well, I will make what is certain to be an unpopular argument among college writing professors: most of them have never made a living at writing themselves, so they can't tell their students how to do it. When I was in graduate school, I took a novel-writing class with a professor who had a number of books out, but they were all literary tomes with small university presses, which I'm sure paid very small advances and had very limited print runs. These are not the kind of book deals that earn you a living wage. They are the kind of book deals that fulfill the publishing requirements that come with being an MFA professor. They are books that keep you teaching.

There's nothing wrong with writing books for small university presses, books that are going to have very limited, literary audiences. Aspiring writers just have to remember that's not the only kind of publishing there is. But to take a graduate writing course, you'd think that's all there is. Rarely, if ever, do you find a graduate writing course that discusses or--heaven forfend--actually encourages the writing of genre fiction. Or fiction for young readers. Graduate programs are designed, on the whole, to turn out National Book Award winners. And that's great for the one percent of writers in those classes with the chops to do that.

But what about the rest of us? And what about all those other books on the shelves--the ones in the mystery and detective fiction section, or the science fiction and fantasy section, or the romance section? You know, the books that actually sell? You've got to take specialized courses for "lesser" stuff like that. Go to Vermont College to learn to write children's fiction, or Clarion to learn how to write science fiction. But don't look for topics like those in most graduate writing programs. Genre fiction is too proletarian.

This disdain for genre fiction is like the ancient Japanese samurai who were taught to live well but at the same time to disdain money and business affairs. We're teaching people how to write, but then we're telling them it's barbaric to make money off of it. Pfui.

I was lucky as an undergraduate to have a professor who had published genre fiction. Who had actually made a living off his writing, not just the teaching of writing. Looking back at it now, I realize one of the reasons why: he was older. He didn't have this modern prejudice against genre fiction, this prejudice against talking about proletarian things like selling our fiction for money. His attitude toward earning a living as a working writer has been a model for me all of my professional life. Graduate programs would do their students a great service to provide similar models--if for no other reason than to keep them from jumping at bad deals like the one James Frey offers because they don't know any better.

(And here's another great post on this by SF writer John Scalzi.)


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