Science fiction writer Rahul Kanakia, already featured previously in TeleRead, has penned an acid-etched portrait of the U.S. creative writing establishment that should be required reading for any new or aspirant writers, so that you know what you’re getting into – or struggling against.  You can get the tone from the title: “Why you should hate the creative writing establishment (…as if you needed any more reasons)”

Not only does Kanakia draw attention to the class divide between the kind of fellow writers he has met in the Master of Fine Arts program and the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UC San Diego, he also highlights the kind of financial and institutional firepower lined up behind the former. “At my MFA, most of us are very young–rare is the person who is over 30–and most of us didn’t have careers before coming here. And almost all of us went to an elite college: Stanford and Yale are overrepresented,” he notes. The science fiction writers, meanwhile, “always have jobs: often career-track jobs. Their degrees are generally not in English. They tend to be older. Oftentimes, they didn’t pursue writing seriously when they were in college. They’re not as polished and don’t seem to be from as affluent of a background.”

Where the serious concerns from a purely literary, as opposed to social, perspective starts to creep in is in the sameness of voice of those budding young MFAs. “It’s something I noticed at Stanford: no matter your class, race, or country, within a few semesters we all started sounding the same and acting the same and operating according to the same values and principles,” Kanakia notes. It’s almost as though the MFA programs are actually weeding out individuality and unique voices in order to build conformity to a supposedly elite norm.

And worst of all, “there’s a whole system of grants, fellowships, professorships, etc, that only go to people who exist within the creative writing industry (i.e. not science fiction writers),” he continues. “The people who DO get them tend to be people like me: very privileged, very upper-class people. Which is absurd. And it seems like exactly the wrong way to design a system that’s meant to support art which isn’t commercially successful. Because, beyond even the genre / literary distinction, the creative writing industry systematically shuts out would-be literary writers who are from less-wealthy backgrounds.”

It sounds like all your worst fears about Jonathan Franzen and the Dull White European Male syndrome confirmed. Not to say that all beneficiaries are DuWEMs, but that may be no help: “The literary world  (to my eyes) seems to have many more women and people of color than the SF world. But even this has something of a class-based tinge to it, ” observes Kanakia.

An MFA qualification, he adds, is a minimum requirement to many academic and funded positions ostensibly for writers. So the whole apparatus is feeding itself, on quite a well-funded basis ($43,000 p.a. is the figure Kanakia quotes fairly freely for a typical MFA beneficiary).

The one silver lining, if there is one, seems to be that the MFA graduates don’t show up on bestseller lists any more than genre writers. Perhaps the reason is that the end result of the system is writers who can only produce “a sensitive novel about what it was like to be a sensitive kid who grew up in insensitive surroundings.” Which raises an even bigger question as to what it’s all for.

“Whether you are rich or poor or black or white or Democrat or Republican, this whole set-up is probably, on a visceral level, quite repulsive to you,” Kanakia concludes. I certainly endorse that attitude. But don’t despair, would-be writers. All that money doesn’t appear to buy much originality or broad human sympathy. So your own personal voice is probably still safe.


  1. Traditional learning institutions are, by demand and design, cookie-cutter systems; it’s no surprise that their graduates all think and talk alike, because they are all required to meet specified requirements for graduation and later employment. Money-handlers also use rote requirements to dole out their money, making originality and unconventional thinking a detriment when going after their funds and opportunities.

    Whereas science fiction writers never went through a traditional learning system, SF being considered a “bastard genre” by most institutions, and forcing them to learn on their own or by informal instruction (apprenticeships).

    Fortunately, that also means that SF writers, having had less of a formal education tailored to their chosen profession, tend to have a more varied perspective on their subject, and can produce authors as varied as Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick, Andre Norton and Stanisław Lem. As far as the genre is concerned, SF writers might have a tougher time at it, but the genre itself is better off.

  2. I’m constantly surprised to hear that the SF genre is a “bastard” genre, in short that it is thought of as the lowest of the low, and not frequented by well-learned, well-heeled writers armed with shiny MFAs.

    To me, SF is one of the best “genre”, indeed it has spawned off classic masterpieces of world literature – and I’m not speaking of the authors mentioned by my esteemed fellow commentator here, though I totally agree with him, those authors are superlative – I really mean world class masterpieces like “Brave New World” and “1984”, one the work of a reknowned scientist (Aldous Huxley), the other of a famous (and controversial) journalist (George Orwell).

    That is what SF is about (or should be about): philosophical meditations on the future of humanity in the form of novels. If it has been bastardized by writers who think that SF is a ticket to explosive fantasy divorced from reality, so be it, that is the way most great ideas tend to end up, in bubbles of fantasy. But that’s all they are, bubbles.

    Clearly, MFAs have a small role to play in all this. The best writers in any genre are those formed by life and who come to writing from a compulsion to share with their fellow human beings what they have found about life on this planet. Because good writing is shaped by one’s experience in life, not by what one learns at school at the beginning of one’s life!

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail