By Elise Blackwell
The Internet is popping with outrage over James Frey’s new publishing entity Full Fathom Five, a stable of writers assembled to produce mostly young-adult novels with film potential. The fact that his recruiting has targeted students in top New York M.F.A. programs has caused some observers to question why young talents would sign the ridiculously exploitative, nonnegotiable contracts that Frey demands. Many writers are dismayed but unsurprised. Some observers blame the M.F.A. programs involved, offering good practical advice but perhaps missing the point.
Shortly before I entered the M.F.A. program at the University of California at Irvine, 23-year-old student Michael Chabon sold his first novel for a six-figure advance. One of our professors there had sent the manuscript to his agent, launching an enviable career that would have happened anyway. The event turned heads, spiked applications, and raised expectations. Then came the swooping: agents contacting students, editors asking to sit in on workshops, and the guy from Lucasfilm. This last creature materialized at a party populated by inebriated Earnest Young Writers to express his outfit’s interest in our concepts for straight-to-film treatments. Mentions were made of the amenities at Lucas ranch. The professor who’d sent Mysteries of Pittsburgh to his agent warned us to be careful. In fact, he looked disgusted.
I remember feeling tempted, but I can’t remember whether anyone pitched to Lucasfilm or sent a manuscript to the brassy West Coast agent also hinting at fame and fortune. At any rate, nothing came of it. It’s worth noting that the poets sat this business out. Then we all toasted Michael and got back to work. Many of us went on to publish—a few famously—the old fashioned way.
Later the program would go so far as to refuse workshop access to respected editors. The idea was not to grow hothouse flowers but to protect writers for two or three short years so that they could write a book without distraction. At the end of that time, the writer was sent, manuscript in hand, to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers to schmooze with agents, editors, and published writers. (Snobby if you say so, but Irvine’s publishing record is hard to fault.)
Some of my students want quicker assurances, or at least to plan ahead, and I’m sympathetic. Taking it too far was one incoming fiction writer who arrived with a query letter seeking representation for a novel he planned to write. (He seemed a little hostile when I suggested that he start the book and then revisit the query.) But most of my students have fair expectations. They want to know how to secure a legitimate agent, the relative benefits of large and small publishers, whether entering contests is a good idea, which conferences are worthwhile and which ripoffs.
Most programs offer that instruction, with varying levels of formality. I’ll argue that a one-on-one session with a trusted professor who knows a student’s work and ambitions is more useful than a semester-long course on contract law. Here we discuss publishing in the workshop and over coffee; we bring in visiting writers who answer professional questions; we help students write query letters. We’re also adding the semi-formal approach: a series of workshops on publishing, academic and nonacademic careers, and commercial writing. In addition, we’re housed in an English department that trains students to make public presentations, conducts mock interviews, and much more. Students want this and I’m game, yet I worry that stressing the utilitarian too soon may be counterproductive. You have to write a great book to sell a great book, and it’s hard to write a great book when you’re already fretting over how it will be marketed.
Some suggest that Frey’s “victims” were made vulnerable by MFA programs that didn’t educate them about publishing, but it requires little training to identify Frey’s contracts as absurd. (Does anyone really think $250 is fair market value for a commercially viable novel or that letting someone else use your name as they please is smart?) The writers who signed those contracts weren’t acting out of ignorance but from some combination of desperation, hope, and a sense of exceptionalism that writers need to get out of bed. (“I know James Joyce died in poverty, Kafka worked a desk job, and Dan Brown can’t coax a sentence out of a bag, but I can be brilliant and rich.”) Some of them were just taking a flyer.
If any M.F.A. program is to blame—and there’s a more obvious villain—it’s not because it failed to educate in business law but because it landed starry-eyed students in debt. For many exiting Irvine, their degree was worth exactly nothing in monetary terms, which means they got what they paid for. (Irvine fully funds all M.F.A. students.) The M.F.A. is an art degree that makes no promises. The poets at Irvine understood this. Their expectations for six-figure publishing contracts were nonexistent; they sought time to write, pressure to read well, good company in which to do both, and a shot at respectable publication and a teaching job.
M.F.A. programs are about the creation and study of literature, and it’s worth reminding people that you don’t need any degree to be a writer. A young writer whose central goal is commercial success should skip graduate school. (You don’t apprentice at an opera company and expect to be introduced to Nashville music producers, which I say with no disrespect to either milieu.) Programs should prepare their students to publish wisely and the good ones do. Yet the best thing an M.F.A. program can do for its students is to help them write their first book without sinking into debt. Many of the best programs offer a free ride or close to it. Frey has targeted programs in which most students are paying their own way, garnering no teaching experience, and living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. (For example, this year’s M.F.A. tuition at Columbia is $48,519, and their Web site lists substantial additional fees for “students who opt for thesis advisement.”) That he has done so is no coincidence, though to be fair he might have found at least a few takers most anywhere.
Frey-like maneuvers date back beyond George Gissing’s satire of them in New Grub Street, which was published in 1891, long before the first M.F.A. program lifted its head. Generations of unsavory folks (often themselves writers or failed writers) have recognized there’s a buck to be made off the aspirations of others. Read the terms of Frey’s contract together with some of the ads in the back of writing magazines (or just search the phrase “book doctor”), and you may conclude that a young writer’s willingness to join Full Fathom Five isn’t about professional under-education but something else.
Elise Blackwell directs the M.F.A. program at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of four novels, including Grub, which is a retelling of New Grub Street and has been called a cautionary tale for young writers facing the sometimes bad practices of the writing industry.