You may have heard of the somewhat recent controversy surrounding James Frey and his fiction sweatshop (story here).
There was a bit of an outcry from certain members of the publishing industry that creative writing programs (MFAs, specifically) should have courses on how the publishing industry works, courses that would help vulnerable students avoid being taken advantage of by people like Frey.
At first, I thought, yes, absolutely. I would have taken that course in my BFA, I would have learned a ton from–
Well, no, wait. I’ve been researching this stuff to some degree for the last year. I probably wouldn’t have learned a lot… But it would be interesting to see what the profs said of the publishing industry.
The thing is, the industry is changing so rapidly. Lots of things are completely different now than they were three years ago when I started my BFA.
On the last day of one of my classes, we briefly discussed query letters, and I found that what I had learned from some basic research was a lot more detailed and useful than the basics the prof could cover. Also, that every single publishing opportunity has different guidelines to follow — different agents, different publishers, Canadian versus American, etc. And, fiction was only one of several kinds of writing my program covered — it’s a completely different ballgame when you’re talking about screenplay or stageplay.
A class on the industry of publishing would require constant revision. It would be better served by an evolving list of blogs to read regularely.
A BFA or MFA in creative writing is not intended to teach business. It’s intended to hone and master the fine art of creative writing.
Would a lot of creative writing students be well served from learning about the business side of the publishing industry? There’s no question. But it’s not the intent of the degree.
If writers want to get into publishing their work, they need to do their research — but I think that’s the same of any industry. If a writer can’t be bothered to take that proactive step, they shouldn’t be able to blame their degree when they find they can’t succeed.
Don’t get me wrong. If I eventually get a Master’s and decide to teach creative writing (because what else do you do with an MFA?) I would love to teach a class on the publishing industry, one in which I would constantly be adapting my content to current events, recommending blogs to my class, discussing the various thoughts on the exciting future of publishing, digital media, new skills writers should have, etc. But I would still insist that my class does their research before trying anything.
If well done, this class could be useful. If not, though, it would be a waste of time and potentially detrimental. And it’s not the purpose of a fine arts degree to teach business.