But what if there’s no change to speak of? Is it really possible to tell the difference between novels that have been through the meat-grinder of the MFA and those that haven’t? What if this is just something that’s been imagined into existence, by both detractors and supporters alike, to satisfy a collective need to believe that institutions can improve anything, even creativity? Or conversely, that institutions ruin everything, especially creativity? Whether you valorize the Romantic ideal of the lonely, humble artist or the neo-liberal belief that education can solve any problem, the MFA has become a kind of Rorschach test for how writers and critics feel about creativity, where it comes from, and how best to nurture it.
Until now, no one has used much evidence beyond the anecdotal to test whether or not the MFA has actually influenced the contemporary novel. What if this debate, furious as it is, is just a distraction from more important questions surrounding creative writing, like problems of diversity within publishing or financial exploitation on the part of universities?
We’re two professors of language and literature who regularly use computation to test common assumptions about culture. So we decided to examine to what extent writing from MFA graduates differs from writing by non-graduates. We collected a sample of 200 novels written by graduates of MFA programs from over 20 leading programs (including Columbia, University of Texas at Austin, Iowa, and others) that have been published in the last 15 years. (This sample includes authors like Rick Moody, Alix Ohlin, and Ben Lerner.) For the sake of comparison, we also collected a similarly sized group of novels published over the same time period by authors who haven’t earned an MFA degree (including writers like Donna Tartt, Miranda July, and Akhil Sharma). To make these two groups as comparable as possible, we only gathered novels by non-MFA writers that were reviewed in The New York Times, which we took as a mark of literary excellence. Using a variety of tools from the field of computational text analysis, we studied how similar authors were across a range of literary aspects, including diction, style, theme, setting, and even how writers use characters.
Needless to say, novels consist of much more than just these features. What makes a single novel a great novel, what makes, say, Junot Diaz sound like Junot Diaz, is of course mostly immeasurable. But these features remain the fundamental building blocks of any novel, so if MFA writing were in aggregate to have some essential difference from books written by authors without MFAs, it should be perceptible at the very least at this genetic level of prose. There has to be something that makes them different, and those differences, according to the vigor and tenacity of critics’ claims, ought to be recognizable. As Mark McGurl, the author of the sweeping history of the MFA, The Program Era, writes, creative writing programs “obviously” teach writers how to become a specific “creative type.” Or as Chad Harbach has argued more recently in his popular essay “MFA vs. NYC,” “the university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” If there are indeed “two literary cultures” in Harbach’s words, we should be able to detect it.