James Frey and the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts

James Frey, author of, is again facing scrutiny for a publishing venture -- a scandal that emphasizes the wide gulf between younger and older literary artists.
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Disgraced memoirist James Frey, author of the fictional autobiography A Million Little Pieces, is facing renewed scrutiny for a publishing venture which, critics say, enslaves young writers in legally- and morally-unconscionable book contracts. The venture, Full Fathom Five, was recently exposed in New York Magazine by (prospective) disgruntled Frey-lackey Suzanne Mozes, who detailed the seedy underbelly of Frey's nascent young-adult-novel operation. The short version, as also detailed in The Guardian and elsewhere, is that Frey signs young talent for a pittance -- at no legal or commercial risk to himself -- and then, it seems, uses these dodgy legal instruments and promises of future riches to entice his new hires to write the next Twilight for his "factory."

At first blush, the enterprise is only slightly seedier than what we've come to expect from Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the New York City publishing scene. But a little more attention to Mozes' New York Magazine article reveals much about the past, present, and future of the creative writing Master of Fine Arts degree.

In seeking out authors to sign legal contracts few attorneys in the United States would advise any client to sign, Frey didn't do what one might have expected a writer of his stature to do: He didn't, if reports are correct, put out a call through his publisher; he didn't make use of his network of friends and business associates; he didn't comb the rolls of under-appreciated American novelists to find a diamond in the rough. Instead he looked to a small, purportedly select group of graduate creative writing programs to groom the next generation of pop-lit darlings. According to New York Magazine, he lit upon two MFAs in particular: Columbia University and The New School.

Was Frey's selection an implicit validation of that most controversial pedagogical set-piece, the creative writing workshop? Was it confirmation of the value of the oft-disparaged Master of Fine Arts degree? Was it proof positive that New York City is still the Hub of the Universe for literary artists? The answer, on all three counts, is no.

Over the past five years, research into MFA programs has made possible discussions of the degree -- and individual programs -- which were unthinkable at the turn of the century. Most recently, the widely-read Poets & Writers rankings have revealed, for the first time in the history of the creative writing MFA, which programs are held in highest esteem by applicants, which programs best fund incoming students, which programs are the most selective, and many other measures of quality previously only guessed at by academics, MFA faculty, and MFA students alike. Whereas in the past the national debate over the utility of the MFA, particularly heated among poets, had no cause or mechanism to make fine distinctions between and among the nation's nearly two hundred full- and low-residency MFA programs, the discourse has now not only blossomed but bifurcated. The question now is whether unfunded MFA programs are exploitative and, in a separate but related discussion, whether fully-funded MFA programs are useful. Few argue that unfunded MFA programs, which put their graduates into crippling debt for a largely-unmarketable art-school degree, are useful in the short-term, just as few credibly argue that fully-funded MFA programs are exploitative in the long-term.

It's in the context of these two concurrent national debates, and in the presence of these two concurrent national MFA systems -- a well-funded one and a largely-unfunded one -- that what some are terming the second James Frey "scandal" rears its head. In seeking out young authors to exploit, Frey has done as much as anyone in the United States to reveal the seedy side of unfunded MFA programs. Indeed, research done into MFA programs since 2006 reveals that Columbia University and The New School, Frey's top targets for young, desperate literary artists, are distinctive in only two respects: (1) they host the two largest MFA cohorts in fiction in the United States; and (2) their fiction alumni are believed to have the highest graduate student loan burden of any MFA graduates anywhere.

Neither Columbia University nor The New School could have appealed to Frey on the basis of their reputation alone. In 2010, the former was ranked twenty-fifth nationally by Poets & Writers (out of fewer than 150 programs), and the latter thirtieth. Based on partial polling for next year's rankings, neither program will crack the national top forty. Neither program ranks in the top 30% of programs in the selectivity of its admissions process, or in the top 20% for postgraduate placement. Among all full-residency MFA programs these two rank last and second-to-last, respectively, in student funding. In short, given the expense of living in New York City and the high cost of private tuition, in few places in America could Frey have found MFA students more financially desperate or unsure of their professional futures as at Columbia and The New School. To hear Columbia graduate Mozes tell it in New York Magazine, "We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade."

While the problems described above are felt most acutely in New York City, they are not confined to The Big Apple. It has always been the case that aspiring poets and writers have more in common with one another than they do with poets and writers of the generations preceding theirs -- many of whom are financially secure enough to give little thought to issues like student funding. But the most recent James Frey scandal emphasizes just how wide the gulf between younger and older literary artists has become.

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