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Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing

By posted at 6:00 am on August 20, 2014 75

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1. The Gift Economy of Creative Writing
McSweeney’s, one of my favorite magazines, is currently holding a fiction contest for undergraduate and graduate students. The winner receives $500. Submitters must pay a $55 entry fee. Critic Ron Charles says the hefty fee “passes the smell test because everyone who enters gets a year-long subscription to McSweeney’s, which normally costs $60.” He’s correct about the subscription cost, but assumes students who submit work to literary magazines also subscribe to those magazines. I hope that working writers financially support literary magazines, but don’t expect the same of students.

I feel guilty telling students to subscribe to literary magazines, particularly if that money is coming from their own pockets. Literary magazines typically request that submitters become familiar with their publications. They suggest writers purchase an issue, or better yet, subscribe. This mantra is repeated by writers, including myself. But such mantras, like supposed writing rules, need to be occasionally reconsidered. Of course a writer should be familiar with a magazine before submitting. But the economy of literary magazines is weak, and needs some interrogation. First of all, is it unreasonable to hope that a major American literary magazine could offer a larger monetary prize for such a high entry fee?

My questions extend beyond this single contest. Should a writer submit to a literary magazine that only “pays” in contributor copies? What does it mean that we, in the literary community, have accepted lack of monetary payment as commonplace? Does literary citizenship benefit a certain class of writers and academics, particularly those on the tenure track, for whom continual publication is a professional necessity?

These are exactly the type of conversations that I have in my writing classrooms–and I teach high school students. Granted, I wait until my advanced course, but from September through June, my students read widely and write often, and they also learn about the business of creative writing.

Creative writing should be taught as an art, and as a business. A creative writing program that only includes the former can unwittingly reinforce romantic stereotypes of writing. A young student might major in creative writing. She could become a wonderful poet, and a well-read critic. But she needs to know that poetry doesn’t pay the bills. This is the inside joke of creative writing programs in America. We know creative writing doesn’t make money, and yet we continue to graduate talented writers with no business acumen. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is fraudulent.

Let me be clear that I do not think there is a vast creative writing conspiracy, filled with professors who don’t care about their students. I have only encountered compassionate, knowledgeable professors in this discipline. But I do think some self-reflection is in order. Few other academic programs are marketed or discussed in such spiritual terms. Writing students are given “time” to write, to find themselves. While feeling almost new age in its promises, creative writing speak retains working-class metaphors. Writers must be agrarian when they “cut the chaff.” They are to be craftsmen and craftswomen, carpenters of words. If writers are spoken to as skilled artisans, it should follow that they not only produce beautiful and useful creations, but that they also know how to sell those creations. This does not happen. It is reasonable to expect that graduates of a discipline understand the economic realities of that discipline.

An apprentice artisan observes the economic realities of his or her discipline. My father and grandfather were carpenters. They built homes and remodeled bathrooms. They worked when other people slept or relaxed. They had to create things that were beautiful and useful in order to make money to help feed their families. Their profession required the synthesis of artistry and practicality.

coverCould writers learn from carpenters? I think so, but in ways less metaphorical than literal. Charles Blackstone, the managing editor of Bookslut and author of the novel Vintage Attraction, thinks writers need to know more about the business of their art. He says during the days of postal submissions, writers often had to read “an issue or two of the publications to which they submitted, mainly due to the fact that that was largely how anyone knew about what journals were out there.” Now writers unfamiliar with the submission process can sometimes produce “absurd results.”

Becoming a realist takes time. When Blackstone “was teaching, not that far from being a student myself, I believed that it was all about the art, and that beautiful sentences made work publishable, marketplace be damned, and so on. My years of publishing my own books and editing Bookslut has only reinforced the folly of this kind of romantic thinking. I now know that platform is king.” Often writers–and teachers of writing–forget “everyone still has profit and loss to consider. There’s no getting around that. Without grants and donors, the literary altruists would be out of business too. There has to be a reasonable expectation that something’s going to make some kind of return on investment in order to justify the risk.” When Blackstone received unsolicited submissions of book galleys from publishers, he “could fill a fairly long and wide dining table in about two weeks.” And I didn’t even give my address out to a lot of publicists.” Most of those books weren’t right for Bookslut to cover.

Blackstone thinks “the Internet has made publicists careless and inefficient, just as it has aspiring writers.” So what can be done? Blackstone thinks writers need to learn independently. As a writer, he “paid attention to rejections and tried to free myself from the delusion that my work was brilliant and misunderstood as quickly as possible. I worked to find my own answers.”

I agree with Blackstone, and that’s a problem for me as a teacher. I know that my students have to fail to succeed. Although I was lucky to attend creative writing programs that familiarized students with the business of writing, I was never coddled. I come from a blue-collar Catholic aesthetic. There is a difference between “good works” and, well, work. You get paid money for work. That is why I cringe when I see writing “jobs” shared online, followed by the inevitable admission that “we are unable to pay.” I know young writers have to work their way up the ladder, but more often the business of writing looks like writers climbing those rungs to nowhere. It has been said that poetry, in particular, is a gift economy. Unfortunately, that gift benefits readers and writers less than it perpetuates the creative writing system, a system that makes promises it is unable to keep.

2. A Checklist for Teaching the Business of Creative Writing
How can we prepare students for the reality of this profession? I spoke with other teachers who engage the business element of the art in their courses. Mary Biddinger teaches a graduate course as part of the NEOMFA (Northeast Ohio MFA) program titled “MFA Craft and Theory of Poetry: Revising, Editing, Publishing.” Biddinger finds that “revealing the working stages of a manuscript from draft to shelf” helps demystify publishing, and “shows students that revision skills, and active reading, are tools valued beyond the classroom.” She shares galley proofs of new books from the Akron Series in Poetry, as well as typeset pages from her own forthcoming books or journal publications. Writing students need to see their teachers as working writers, and to see publication as a meticulous, collaborative, and often slow process.

At James Madison University, Jay Varner includes the professional world of writing in his introductory creative non-fiction course. Students read “pieces about the actual business of writing,” including “No” and “Yes” by Brian Doyle, “Diary of a Mad Fact Checker” by James Pogue, and “Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or How to Make Vitamin Soup” by Richard Morgan. Biddinger, Varner, and all the other teachers I spoke with stressed that a “fundamental understanding of both the form [across genres] and the process of creating [literature] comes first,” but discussion of the business elements of writing is necessary to debunk myths. Varner’s students are “routinely shocked that months of work on an essay would net them $50” and contributor copies. They are also surprised to learn that “slick magazines might pay them several thousand–but once the process and time spent on a project is explained, they are surprised for other reasons.”

Catherine Pierce, co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University, avoids business talk in introductory courses, instead saving her “professionalization unit for the last few weeks of the semester” within an advanced poetry workshop. Students present research about a literary magazine they enjoy. Afterward, they submit a packet of poems to one of the markets researched by their peers. Pierce thinks “having this as a requirement of the class helps to alleviate the anxiety many students feel about sending out their work for the first time,” and it gives her the “opportunity to talk candidly about rejection.”

This sense of toughness might be lost on a generation of students raised on rubrics. Perhaps more than any other discipline, students must learn that there is a profound difference between being a successful student writer and a successful professional writer. Students receive grades, which are meant to be reflections of growth and mastery of material. The relationship between writer and teacher and writer and editor is not comparable. Magazine editors might begin as purists, but even purists need to eat. Editors want to sell magazines, gain advertising revenue, and attract the best writers. As students, all of us have moments where we did just enough to earn a grade. Students need to know that as writers, they must be excellent to even have a shot.

Kris Bigalk stresses this transition from student to independent writer in a course within Hamline University’s MFA program. Her students “develop short and long-term artist development plans, in which students identify their artistic strengths and weaknesses, ways they wish to grow as writers once they leave the program, and publication and career goals related to writing.” Many students “have a hard time leaving the role of ‘student’ and moving into the role of ‘artist,’ where they must manage their own development.” Students read biographies of writers to see how a writer’s career develops, and “how that development is often independent of the employment that sustains them.”

In a lecture given to students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, Patrick Madden and Sue William Silverman discuss this “slow and steady path” to magazine and book publication. Madden focuses on the magazine end, and advises that since so much is beyond the control of writers, they should focus on taking tangible steps. Students should read magazines for enjoyment, inspiration, but also as a form of reconnaissance. They can become part of the magazine publishing world by writing book reviews, conducting interviews, and joining the staff of a literary magazine (VCFA students work on Hunger Mountain).

It helps when teachers of the business of creative writing have worked as editors. Cara Blue Adams, former editor of The Southern Review and fiction editor of The Sonora Review, teaches at Coastal Carolina University. In one graduate course, “Forms of Fiction,” students consider “how to build a writing practice and write and publish a cohesive book–as opposed to crafting individual stories.” Students examine the “publication, marketing, and critical reception of the book side-by-side with the craft of writing.”

Adams notes “these questions are not directly addressed in graduate school. The assumption sometimes seems to be that simply reading books is enough to teach an apprentice writer how to write a book, and that each person must forge a writing practice and learn about the publication process for him- or herself. People sometimes say apprentice writers are not yet ready to think about publication. I disagree. Guided attention to these questions does much to help students to develop a plan to get to where they would like to be.”

Her useful approach mediates between the creative and the realistic by helping “students to question how other writers have carved out time to write by reading interviews with practicing writers and studying their lives. This is often tied in interesting ways to those writers’ aesthetic choices: their chosen forms, their material, their themes. We also learn about the various economies at play in the writing world through reading and discussion. Writing doesn’t happen in an economic vacuum. Nor does publication. Studying the context in which writing is produced and [how it] finds readers allows students to productively think through the dialogue between their own lives and their writing practice.”

covercoverShe recommends two books as case studies: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Victoria Chang’s The Boss, noting “both writers have jobs aside from writing–teaching at a number of institutions, working in business–and both have children. Both reinvented their forms in light of strictures on their time. Offill wrote her novel while teaching and parenting, dismantling a more traditional novel in favor of a novel written in fragments to more accurately examine the ‘collision of art and life.’ Chang wrote her poetry collection while waiting for her daughter to finish her Saturday Chinese lessons.” These doses of reality are meant to strengthen, not dissuade, students. How can we not be honest with them?

We can start by being honest with ourselves, as teachers of this discipline. Here is a checklist of 10 skills related to the business of creative writing that students should have when they graduate.

Graduates of creative writing programs should be able to do the following:

1. Identify the aesthetics of contemporary literary magazines, both print and online.

2. Contribute to the production of a literary magazine or blog, either as a submission reader, editor, designer, or by marketing on social media.

3. Prepare a manuscript for magazine submission, including industry standard formatting and a cover letter, as well as gain proficiency with an electronic submission system, such as Submittable.

4. Prepare a manuscript for book submission (arranging stories/essays/poems in a collection, or writing a query letter/synopsis for novel/memoir manuscript).

5. Pitch article/essay ideas as a freelance writer.

6. Apply close reading and editing skills learned during workshops toward copyediting.

7. Identify the language of contemporary publishing (from how genres are catalogued to the differences between independent and self-publishing).

8. Prepare a résumé/CV that highlights their writing skills and experiences.

9. Write a book review.

10. Prepare proposals for panels at conferences and other events, as well as draft grants for fellowships or funding opportunities.

3. Our Responsibilities to Students
There is no one path to success in creative writing, as there is no prototypical student of the discipline. Enormous demographic and pedagogical differences exist among undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs. A single classroom will contain novices and veterans. Alexander Chee, currently a visiting writer at UT Austin, recalls that when he was a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, many students published in magazines, but only one or two of his peers had sold or published novels. When he returned as an instructor, two of his students had the same agent as him. Iowa’s pedigree aside, Chee’s point is well-taken. Rising writers have access to more information, faster, but they still need guidance. Chee reflects on taking a course with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan in 1989. Dillard used the “Best American anthologies as a roadmap to contemporary publishing.” She told students to see where essays or stories in the anthologies were originally published, and if the work’s style neared their own, remember the magazine as a possible market.

Such legwork might seem antiquated in the days of resources like Poets & Writers and Duotrope, but I fear that ease of information has enabled laziness. In an essay on her site, “Last Lecture: Am I a writer?”, Cathy Day offers some tough love for students. Day believes a “writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long . . . [starting when students take] writing seriously–meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.” I can appreciate Day’s sentiment. Often students want to simply publish a book, and do so for the wrong reasons. There is a time and place to introduce the business of writing to students, and it should not happen before they are competent storytellers.

But if we don’t talk about the business of creative writing, we perpetuate the myth that money always stains art. Does it often? Of course. Yet pretensions toward artistic purity hurt students. Writing can become a perpetual unpaid internship. Doing something “for the love of it” has made countless people–not the least of whom are teachers–see their generosity and good nature be rewarded with mediocre pay and respect. I owe it to my students to get them ready for the professional world of writing. If they ignore my advice, that is their problem. We should talk about money with creative writing students because, even though we wish it were different, money equals value in our culture. If you doubt that, try buying your next dinner with a well-recited poem.

I need my students to know that they will likely struggle every step of this way in this business. They must be shrewd and determined and aware. But when they close the door and go to their writing desk, they must be generous, sensitive, and open to the mystery of this art. It is the responsibility of writing teachers to help students become better on the page, but also to teach them what to do with those pages. Many students will fold those pages and put them in drawers. They will be better readers and more careful thinkers, but will never publish their work. But we do owe those students who want to publish–the ones who are willing to fight–a little training for their real battles.

Image: frankjuarez/flickr

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75 Responses to “Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing”

  1. Karl Wenclas
    at 11:03 am on August 29, 2014

    I agree with you, H.O., that a lot of DIY ebook fiction is execrable– but as you admit in your comment, so is very much of the mass market stuff cranked out by the Big Six publishers. (Read a Konrath, novel, on the other hand, and you’ll see how much he does well as a writer. He has what few writers have– enough imagination to bring the reader into an exciting and thought-provoking world.)

    The question addressed here, however, is business. Can the old-fashioned, heavily bureaucratized publishing model survive in a changing economic environment? I don’t believe the writing teacher should pull down the blinds in his classroom and tell students not to look at what’s happening outside in the world.

    I could examine mainstream publishing point by point to show its inefficiencies. I shouldn’t need to, because they’re clearly visible– starting with voluminous office space itself, and the location, as I mentioned, in New York. Arguments about the writer’s cut, or what’s fair, or whether the writer truly needs an agent, editor, proofreader, from a business standpoint are beside the point. We already see that big publishers are demanding artificially inflated ebook prices. This is because they can’t compete economically against the DIY crowd, and so are as much economic dinosaurs as outdated industries kept on life support in the old Soviet Union. It’s not a business model which can sustain itself in the long run.

    You say that MFA programs themselves are on life support. Fine. It keeps alive a delicate and marginalized art; an art not standing at the center of the culture, relevant to all, but a niche whose role grows smaller. It’s the model of classical music. Good for some, but not all. As with music, populists come along willing to blow up an art and start over, with more populist, accessible, competitive products.

    I believe literature can do both– be popular and relevant, fast-paced and exciting, but also well-written and thoughtful. I believe this because that’s what literature once was, through novelists and story writers like Dickens and Dumas, O. Henry and Jack London. There’s no reason why writers today can’t do better than those long-ago icons, using what worked for them but taking the model farther.

    Writers artistically ambitious enough to attempt this are the writers I’m looking for. Whether they’ll be found in writing programs is an open question.

  2. Hot Ossuary
    at 11:04 am on August 29, 2014



    Re: a), it’s just a ridiculous false dichotomy that allows the wielder of it to casually dismiss anything that isn’t written at a fourth grade level. Is Cormac McCarthy’s (who I don’t love, but still) fiction devoid of action and plot? What about Chabon’s Kavalier and Klay or Yiddish Policeman’s Union? How about Coetzee’s Disgrace, which won the Booker of Bookers, so-called? No dramatics there, right? Hell, there’s tons of plot and pacing, in a circular, strange way, in Alice Munro’s short stories. Really, there is in most good fiction, even if it doesn’t manifest itself in the form of a large-boobed, lycraed assassin.

    It’s a strange position for someone to take, who has good enough taste to name-check Edith Wharton and “Roman Fever” on his (nice-looking) litmagblog.

  3. Hot Ossuary
    at 1:14 pm on August 29, 2014


    This isn’t a zero sum game. It’s like the triumphalist internet argument against dinosaurs of old journalism, like the NY Times. Sure, Twitter is great for feet on the ground accounts of events, but newspapers, as it turns out, were really good at stuff like building durable relationships of trust with sources and financing real investigative journalism. Losing these institutions is, well, a loss. It would likewise be a loss if publishing went under, with its ability to identify and groom and commercialize talent that can’t easily market itself. I applaud the ability of the writers you cite for making a living doing something they love, and the market will clearly continue to move, to some extent, toward e-publishing and the like, but economics don’t demand that one of these models “win” over the other.

    Frankly, as much as it obviously rankles people in the age of internet democratization, literature benefits from a certain amount of hierarchy and tastemaking. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, Lolita simply coming out on e-book. If anyone read it at all, it would be dismissed as the ravings of a pedophiliac lunatic. That novel’s successful publication required the efforts of first a small press and then widespread distribution by Putnam and Sons, with the imprimatur of legitimacy it conferred.

  4. toad
    at 4:25 pm on August 29, 2014


    “Their writing sells and is read because it’s NOT “literary” writing, which is focused on the well-written sentence to the neglect of things which actually turn on readers. You know: unliterary things like dramatics, action, pace, plot.”

    What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  5. toad
    at 4:43 pm on August 29, 2014

    (Read a Konrath, novel, on the other hand, and you’ll see how much he does well as a writer. He has what few writers have– enough imagination to bring the reader into an exciting and thought-provoking world.)

    Seriously dude, if you think the cliche-riddled genre shit Konrath spits out remotely resembles “imaginative” or “exciting”, you need to broaden your reading horizons. The only commendable thing he does is end his books.

    Also, “though-provoking world” is the type of nonsensical phrase that one would expect to find littered throughout a crappy self-published thriller.

  6. NEW POP LIT Newsroom! | newpoplitinteractive
    at 2:01 pm on August 31, 2014
  7. Ed Bast
    at 12:28 am on September 1, 2014


    Here’s the problem with self-publishing: you can’t expect to be taken seriously when the revolutionaries you prop are are total hacks. Those 4 writers you mention are sub-Dan Brown level. There are terrific self-published books out there – Sergio de la Pava’s “A Naked Singularity” is a great example (though curiously it eventually got picked up by a traditional publisher. How to explain?). But for all your bluster about “the future” and “business” and “competition” you curiously never mention quality.

    Television has gone through a similar revolution in the past few decades. First came cable, now it’s netflix and streaming. Why were those changes so dramatic? Changing customer base, technology, sure. But none of that would have mattered if HBO, for example, didn’t reinvent what a tv show could do. Now Netflix creates high-quality original shows as well. Nobody would subscribe to Netflix if all they offered was choppily-edited no-budget amateur home movies.

    Quality matters. Say what you want about “legacy” publishing, but it does have in a built-in system for quality control. Self-pub, more often than not, is just throwing shit against the wall. Some of us care about art. You’re not talking about art, you’re talking about money. Which is fine – just don’t confuse the two. Most “literary” writers aren’t in it to break the bank.

  8. Moe Murphy
    at 2:47 pm on September 1, 2014

    Hi Ed Bast,

    Thanks for the reference to Sergio de la Pava – always exciting to discover a new author.

    Also, fascinating and wonderfully-written article from The Independent in the UK on a “new” old writer, Robert Aickman. Virtually out-of-print for many years, his peerless “strange stories” of The Uncanny are receiving renewed attention this year (the Centennial of his birth). I’ve been a fan of his for years, my Ex was a huge horror buff and had several rare copies of his books. My very favorite of his stories is called “Never Visit Venice.” Much of his work is being reissued this year by Faber.


    Just one of many great turns of phrase from the article above: “Aickman wandered through the 1960’s fantasy publishing scene like an elegant, if quarrelsome, revenant.”

    Wonderful when a truly great artist is resurrected from publishing obscurity.

  9. Karl Wenclas
    at 11:18 am on September 2, 2014

    Let’s get back on topic, Ed. The question was whether writing students should be taught about the business of the writing game. My point is that, if so, they should be given all options available to them– including self-publishing. It does a disservice to new writers not to inform them of the drastic changes taking place right now in the publishing world– which are going to happen regardless of what you or I think is “quality” writing.

    Speaking of which: you say legacy publishing has a built-in system for quality control? Really? How then do you explain the fact Joe Konrath, like many of his peers, was published first by one of the big publishers, then later branched out on his own, because he believed DIY is a better deal for the writer? Or that after Amanda Hocking sold a million self-published ebooks, she was hurriedly signed by one of the bigs?

    I said about Konrath that he does some things well as a writer. He does. That’s a true statement. To dismiss him outright as a hack shows a refusal to learn what he does right. It demonstrates an unwillingness to learn why so many readers are drawn to his work. The first reasons are pace and clarity of thought. Second, he has quite a fertile imagination which keeps many people reading him despite themselves. He knows how to lay down plot hooks and keep the tale moving. In his way, he’s like an old-fashioned storyteller. Is there something wrong with that?

    I first heard about Konrath on a shitty job I was working, from someone I never thought would be a reader of books. Konrath and others like him are drawing people to reading, to literature, who otherwise wouldn’t be reading at all. In this media-soaked age, this is all to the good.

    Is a Joe Konrath the ultimate value in literature? Of course not. But then, in my estimation, neither is an Alice Munro. I’ve been advocating writing which can be readable and quality both. I don’t think the concepts are mutually exclusive. The project I’m involved in is designed to find a middle path between the poles of the literary and the popular. I’m looking for writers capable of using strengths from both worlds.

    As for being “taken seriously”: By whom? I’m not out to be “taken seriously” by the mandarins of an established literary world whose outlook refuses to broaden. My objective is to get my ideas across, hoping they connect with an independent thinker or two. I want to present yet another option for new writers. It’s why I’ll occasionally appear in forums like this one. I thank The Millions for the opportunity these past few days to do so.

  10. Moe Murp
    at 11:45 am on September 2, 2014

    “But then, neither in my estimation is Alice Munro…” [Re: “value” in literature]

    Oh. No. He. Didn’t.

    OK, that’s it for me…. I’m with Toad from now on. To steal a concept from an unknown original source, I think Jane Austen may rise from her slumber to pummel Mr. Wenclas about with her thigh bone for that one……

    (200 years ago, someone was probably doing the same comparison between Miss. Austen and the redoubtable Amanda McKittrick Ros!)

    Moe Murph
    Not A Fan Lord Raspberry and Lily Lentil

  11. Moe Murph
    at 3:30 pm on September 2, 2014

    So what’s the deal with all the Gigantic Thundering Nabobs of Boobery throwing shade on Alice Munro?

  12. Asymptotic Jorts
    at 5:56 pm on September 2, 2014


    “I’ve been advocating writing which can be readable and quality both. I don’t think the concepts are mutually exclusive. The project I’m involved in is designed to find a middle path between the poles of the literary and the popular. I’m looking for writers capable of using strengths from both worlds.”

    You have not discovered some magical Third Way. Yes, there is literary fiction that is horribly boring. And there is genre fiction that is horribly written (there’s also literary fiction that’s horribly written and boring genre fiction, but I digress). In between exists a galaxy of writing that most reasonable people can agree is worth reading, although possibly or probably not by them. You’re setting up this false dichotomy where good fiction is boring b/c it lacks “plot hooks” or whatever, but that’s just not true. Is the only literary fiction you’ve ever read The Sea, or something? Or maybe literary fiction just isn’t your thing (not being snarky here). Maybe you should focus your efforts on finding and putting out genre fiction that isn’t written at a middle school level.

    “I first heard about Konrath on a shitty job I was working, from someone I never thought would be a reader of books. Konrath and others like him are drawing people to reading, to literature, who otherwise wouldn’t be reading at all. In this media-soaked age, this is all to the good.”

    I don’t believe Konrath or Hocking or Stephenie Meyer or whoever are drawing people to literature any more than I believe The Avengers is drawing people to Citizen Kane. I like plenty of lowbrow stuff, but it’s usually not a gateway drug to high art. I believe the Dan Brown to Borges readership trajectory to be essentially a null set. Maybe I’m too pessimistic.

  13. Ellis Totts Barlow III
    at 6:01 pm on September 2, 2014


    Vollmann’s writing is horrible and mostly useful as litmus test for horribleness in others. I think he’s an interesting guy, sort of an autistic gonzo journalist, but goodness his prose is unreadable. BEE attacking Alice Munro is kind of funny, I guess, in a chihuahua attacking an airplane type way.

  14. Ed Bast
    at 7:23 pm on September 2, 2014

    Um, ETBIII, I hope you’re kidding. Vollmann is a goddamn genius. And besides, if you’d read the link, Vollmann doesn’t say shit about Munro (some professor does). That’s not Vollmann’s style, which you would know if you’d read any of his work — he’s the most empathetic, humanistic writer going, perhaps ever. Certainly he’s not the kind of guy who would waste his time trashing nice old ladies, even ones who spend decades writing the same formulaic, dull, and formally bland short stories.

  15. Moe Murph
    at 8:03 pm on September 2, 2014

    Ed Bast:

    I take it you’re not a Munro fan, to each his own. Great way to sneak in a patronizing little slam, haul out the lame and tired old trope of “nice old ladies,” and sneeringly dismiss a great artist.

    I do not find Alice Munro formulaic, dull or bland at all. She can reveal the world and its possibilities through the lens of her own small village, and has no need to crawl on her belly across a piss-covered Tenderloin sidewalk to do it.

    (Oh Piffle! You are probably a part of that odious tribe of Austen-haters as well!)

  16. Ed Bast
    at 10:49 pm on September 2, 2014


    Personally I gravitate toward fiction that takes some risks, fiction with ambition, fiction that stylistically could only have been written by its author. Plus I tend to prefer novels to short stories anyhow. Munro’s very skilled at what she does, don’t get me wrong, she’s just too quiet for my tastes.

  17. Internet Literary News, August 2014 | Writeliving's Blog
    at 1:04 am on September 3, 2014

    […] someone asks me whether they should attend a creative writing program, I’ll send them this article from Nick Ripatrazone at The Millions, where he breaks down the responsibilities of teachers – and students – when attending […]

  18. Ellis Totts Barlow III
    at 10:07 am on September 3, 2014

    Hi Ed,

    1. I know it wasn’t Vollmann saying that.
    2. I think he’s a pretty bad writer
    3. I think you’re mistaking the boldness of some of his projects or his personal life with the boldness or quality of the writing. Munro is an infinitely better stylist than he is, and I would venture that her circular, quietly metafictional stories are more ambitious formally than Vollmann’s writing as well (I haven’t read all one hundred billion pages of Vollmann’s oeuvre, but my sense is that he’s an adherent to the DFW, more is more is more philosophy of writing). I’ll grant you that she doesn’t write novels about not getting erections for two years with Thai prostitutes, or w/e, and I can certainly see why her stories aren’t for everyone, but not ambitious she ain’t.

  19. Ed Bast
    at 10:45 am on September 3, 2014


    While I vehemently disagree with you re: Vollman vs. Munro, we’ll just have to chalk it up to personal preference. But I don’t know how anyone can suggest Munro is any sort of “stylist”. She subscribes to the “invisible author” school of thought, which, some people prefer, I get it. But it’s anti-style. It’s a commitment to not having a style. How heavily one weighs “style” is totally subjective — just because Vollmann’s a better stylist doesn’t automatically make him a better writer.

    I’d be curious to know what’s ambitious about spending your entire career writing introspective short stories about small town Ontario life.

    Again, I get that people love Munro. But ever since she got the Nobel people have tried to beatify her. It’s getting to the point of hysteria. Appreciate her for what she is – a master of the quiet New Yorker-type short story – instead of trying to turn her into something she isn’t, like an ambitious stylist.

  20. Ellis Totts Barlow III
    at 1:35 pm on September 3, 2014


    I just wrote out a big thing using iffy examples of Vollmann’s writing, but what’s the point? To each his own. I will say that, re: Munro, I think being hung up on her writing about small town Ontario misses the point considerably. Munro’s stories are universal in the humanity, wisdom and compassion they express; to my mind it is an astonishingly ambitious project made more astonishing by the limited canvas on which it’s painted.

  21. Janelle
    at 3:04 pm on September 3, 2014

    Very interesting article. I start my MFA program in November and I hope that alongside writing & craft that we also learn about publishing and querying and how to deal with the ever multiplying rejections. I work full-time in a financial field to pay the bills while I desperately write and rewrite in the hopes of plying my love of words into something that can whisk me away from my day job.

  22. "I Think I'll Be a Writer:" Writers and Writing Today
    at 5:04 pm on September 5, 2014

    […] Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing […]

  23. The Ploughshares Round-Down: Stop Fearing the Business of Writing | Ploughshares
    at 12:27 pm on October 6, 2014

    […] have begun addressing writerly Biz-Aversion by teaching business in MFA programs and even high school creative writing courses. And there are increasing resources online to teach you how the publishing process works, how to […]

  24. Sarah James
    at 1:07 am on January 4, 2015

    As a creative writing graduate I believe the most essential discussion, often not addressed in most MFA programs, regards “fine art”. Art, as we all know, manifests in varied expressions, however, honing it and how it classifies itself as significantly different from cliché makes it “fine”.

    Hence, Literary fiction versus genre had been unaddressed in a few creative writing classes I attended. Many up and coming programs, which have jumped on the bandwagon, such as the place where I attended for my undergrad, merely found another way to make money for their university. So many writers out there simply want to become another Harry Potter, Twilight or fantasy writer, and regrettably may be encouraged to submit such work to literary magazines.

    I work at a small publishing house, which publishes literary work, and I couldn’t tell you the high percentage of people who submit Chicken Soup for the Soul publication. Oh’ and occasionally may submit a Xerox photo copy of themselves.

    Before professors guide students through the submission process, and encourage students to become familiar with what a review publishes, they ought to have a conversation discussing what the students should be familiar with.

  25. Engine Books News » Blog Archive » Who Teaches the Business of Creative Writing?
    at 9:42 pm on February 16, 2015

    […] “Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing,” Nick Ripatrazone begins by lambasting an embarrassing and greedy entry fee for a student […]

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