The Creative Precariat, or Why Do People Keep Getting MFAs??

Over the past half century, the number of MFA-granting creative writing programs in the United States has increased rapidly, from 15 in 1975, to 31 by 1984, 64 by 1994, 109 by 2004, and then an astonishing 244 by 2016 (according to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), and graduate programs are proliferating internationally as well across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And yet the utility of the MFA, and the wisdom of pursuing one, remains uncertain. Conferring them is surely profitable for colleges and universities but receiving one does not guarantee success in the field and can frequently leave the recipient in considerable debt. Although the degree is intended to certify competence in creative writing, it actually, and more pragmatically, prepares one to teach creative writing in a field that increasingly relies on contingent labor. Indeed, if one measured the success of any given program by the number of successful writers it produced, even the best would rate poorly. As Kurt Vonnegut once proclaimed, “Virtually everyone’s going to fail.  If you ran a school of pharmacy like that it would be a scandal.”

So why do so many people pursue MFAs, and what do they do with their lives after they receive one? And what is their role, in aggregate, in the contemporary creative economy, where content is king? We hope to answer these questions by creating a database of information about recent MFA recipients large enough to generate valid statistics for quantitative analysis, and from which a selection of individual and representative stories can be extracted for qualitative analysis. The result will be a book-length portrait of a class fragment we’re calling the Creative Precariat.

In order to gather this data, we have constructed an IRB-approved online survey with questions about age, gender, race, region, nationality, and class, alongside educational and professional information about degrees conferred, jobs held, and writing published. This data will be entered into a spreadsheet from which we will generate visualizations to illustrate our quantitative analysis. As we proceed, we will select representative individuals for in-depth follow-up interviews to illustrate our qualitative analysis. The final project will integrate these analyses, starting with a statistical overview and then moving into individual chapters focusing on representative examples.  

Do you have, or have your pursued, an MFA in creative writing? If so, please fill out our survey:  It only takes twenty minutes.




Author: lglass

Loren Glass is Professor and Chair of English at the University of Iowa, specializing in 20th and 21st century literatures and cultures of the United States, with an emphasis on book history and literary institutions. He is the author of Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde, (Stanford 2013), republished in paperback by Seven Stories Press under the title Rebel Publisher: Grove Press and the Revolution of the Word, and the editor of After the Program Era: The Past, Present, and Future of Creative Writing in the University (Iowa 2016). He is currently working on a literary history of Iowa City. He is a member of the Post45 collective and co-edits their book series.