MFAs, Writers and Poverty

Laila Lalami writes:

Maybe publishers are so busy churning out biographies and children’s books “written” by celebrities that they have no time for books that address as unpopular a subject as the poor. Or maybe, just as America has undoubtedly changed over the last decade, so have its writers. The much-maligned MFA programs, which graduate many of this country’s writers, can cost as much as $70,000 for a two-year course of study. One wonders how many of the poor can afford to spend that kind of money in writing school. Or maybe the trouble is that America sees itself as a classless society. We enjoy being able to shoot off an email to the President, we like seeing rich people walk around in dirty cutoff jeans, we love seeing millionaires struggling to lose weight. To paraphrase a popular tabloid, we have come to believe that “the rich, they’re just like us!” And yet, with so many people living in poverty, this simply isn’t the case.

MoorishGirl has really answered her own question. Poor people by definition don’t have the time or resources to write novels, compose plays, write symphonies. Graduates of MFA programs live a life of both privilege and hardship. It’s a kind of double alienation, and usually they end up seeing more of the underbelly of life than classmates who work for high tech companies or law firms. Writers move rapidly through all kinds of life; it goes with the territory. I once worked at an investment company with nobody making under 6 figures; two months later, I was working at health insurance company where nobody made more than $10 an hour. I used to joke that I felt equally uncomfortable among both groups of people. Writers have to develop a sympathy with members of the underclass because… they’re not too far away from them, financially speaking.

I have nothing against rarefied entertainments or formal delights. But inevitably the path to artistic success is building an audience; to do that, you need to have an unobstructed view of what mainstream America is talking about/worry about/relaxing to. It’s fair to make the statement that works of art in USA are obsessed with financial succcess and wealth. But more often than not, this reflects not the preoccupation of the woman with the MFA but the preoccupation of the middle class citizen this author is trying to write for.