The Victorian MFA Debate


The next time you get into a debate over the value of a creative writing MFA, try this handy visualization exercise: imagine that everyone involved is wearing a monocle.

As I realized while researching a new Slate article on Victorian writing advice, you wouldn’t be too far off, historically speaking.  Granted, arguments over their value almost invariably take their starting point as the postwar era – that Cambrian explosion of disciplines and sub-disciplines that followed the flood of GI Bill students and then Boomers into the university system.  So it’s tempting to see the MFA debate as inextricably linked to arguments about modern aesthetics, or to the latest financial and job-market miseries that the profession staggers under.

But the origins of the MFA debate are older… much older.  They date to around the same time as the beginnings of the English degree itself, in the nationalist literature movements and land-grant university boom of the Victorian era.  And the rhetoric has hardly advanced since then.

A fair starting point would be The Art of Fiction, an 1885 literary two-fer by Henry James and British critic Walter Besant.  Its fundamental assertion is that fiction is one of the fine arts—a trainable art—despite the fact that stubborn “amateur novelists alone regard their Art as one that is learned by intuition.”

As I point out in Slate, the next step wasn’t hard to predict:

….the whole discipline had been gestating for a decade, beginning with novelist Walter Besant musing in 1884 over “Professors of Fiction”—something then as fantastical as a steam-powered robot. It was a vision that at least one critic found “Appalling. As if there were not enough novels already… [Now] we are to have our young maidens trained to the business, and let loose upon the world, in batches, every year to pursue their devastating calling, as if they were dentists or pharmaceutical chemists.”

Others, though—namely, the maidens blocked from those dental and chemist careers—were delighted. Writing novels offered women advancement, if not quite critical regard, a complaint that still haunts the profession. The London women’s magazine Atalanta launched a regular “School of Fiction” column, and its advice from 1893 on pitching remains as useful and unheeded as ever: keep your pitch short, nail down a tangible story first, and for god’s sake read the magazine before you submit to it. Ladies were then invited to try such spry writing exercises as an imagined 500-word dialogue “on the Equality of the Sexes, between Miss Minerva Lexicon, M.A., an apostle of Progress, and Miss Lavinia Straightlace, of the Old-Fashioned School.”

To be fair, Atalanta wasn’t the first to pick up on Besant’s idea; the Philadelphia-based Arthur’s New Home Magazine beat them to the punch by a few months, and featured a crit element that asked readers to submit their work for feedback.  The author of a manuscript (or MS) titled “Listen to My Tale of Woe,” for one, did not fare well:

We wish to state that we have resisted the temptation to impale the author of the “Tale of Woe” on our editorial spit, where we might have roasted her before a slow fire and served her with sauce piquante to the pupils of the School of Fiction.

In the letter which accompanies her MS., the perpetrator of this literary offense tells us that she “has not written much.”

We advise her to write less.

Arthur’s, though, was a relatively modest experiment.  It was Atalanta publisher L.T. Meade — a one-woman literary juggernaut with 280 books to her name — that saw the full implications of Besant’s idea didn’t just mean magazine contests, but full-fledged institutions.  Quoted in Pall Mall magazine in 1897, she is as weirdly prophetic as a Jules Verne novel in imagining the MFA programs of a century hence:

“The teachers should all be novelists or journalists themselves, and the leading artists… give lectures from time to time on subjects within their special domain.  Scholarships would be offered in competition, and diplomas would be conferred on the scholars, which would enable them, when they completed the course of their training, to offer manuscripts to the different publishing houses… devoid of the crudities which now disgrace the productions of the amateur.”

It’s difficult today to grasp just how radical this proposal was.  “Mrs. Meade’s School of Fiction is certainly not designed for Cloud-cuckoo-town, but for the banks of the Thames,” Pall Mall marvels.  And this kind of formalized training – the professionalizing of fiction – struck them as a poor idea indeed: “The calling of letters is not yet a profession in this country, and at least cannot be called so without risk of misleading…. I honestly believe that their success would damage literature itself.”

Creative writing classes — and the backlash against them — have been with us ever since.

Paul Collins teaches writing at Portland State University, and his work appears regularly in New Scientist, Slate, and The Believer. His next book, The Murder of the Century, will be published in June by Crown. More from this author →