Each year, over twenty thousand writers apply to one of the 350 MFA creative writing programs available in the United States. The MFA curriculum presents writers with opportunities to hone their craft, workshop with other writers, and receive mentoring from faculty. What’s more, many aspiring authors see an MFA as their golden ticket to being published. In fact, in a study of some Oregon MFA students, 84 percent said that getting published was either “important” or “very important” to their program goals.
But does an MFA actually increase writers’ chances of getting published?
In 2017, Lit Hub released an article called “MFA by the Numbers, on the Eve of AWP.” The data, which appropriately reads more like a poem than a data set, includes this witty but thought-provoking statistic:
- Estimated number of books sold by Danielle Steel, best-selling author alive: eight hundred million.
Number of MFAs held by Ms. Steel: zero.
Danielle Steel isn’t alone; other prolific authors without an MFA include George R. R. Martin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, Colleen Hoover, and Nicholas Sparks, to name a few.
Are these authors, prolific though they are, anomalies in the world of published authors?
Last November, the National Book Foundation (NBF) presented the 73rd National Book Awards. As per their mission statement, one of the NBF’s goals is to “celebrate the best literature published in the United States.” The authors recognized by this prestigious literary award are the best of the best, masters of their craft. Is this level of mastery achieved through the rigors and experiences of an MFA program? Probably not; of the ninety-two winners of the National Book Award since 2020, only twenty, or 27 percent, have an MFA.
Another metric comes from the ongoing research of D. A. Hosek (himself a published MFA graduate from the University of Tampa). Hosek’s data includes authors published or appearing in the notables sections of the last four issues of five prize anthologies. Of those 5,459 published authors, 2,804, or 51 percent, are confirmed MFA students or graduates. While this percentage is higher than National Book Award winners with an MFA, it is still incredibly low, especially considering that one of the main goals of most every MFA program is to help students become published authors.
These numbers, while not comprehensive, still make a compelling case: having an MFA doesn’t help a writer get published.
So what is an MFA good for?
Poet Arielle Greenberg makes this argument:
- I’d be thrilled if we lived in a nation . . . where people gathered in local cafes and plazas to recite great verse and breathe it in, but the truth is, in America, this happens primarily in the classrooms and reading series and conferences and living rooms of MFA students, alumni, and faculty—and for this we should be thankful.
Similarly, in a 2021 survey conducted on some current and alumni MFA students in Oregon, becoming a published author accounted for only 32 percent of student responses. The next highest goal was building a “community of writers,” a goal reflecting Greenberg’s idealistic vision of literary gatherings.
Still, if the goal is to become a better writer, having an MFA might not be the way to go. It certainly doesn’t directly increase writers’ chances of getting published or, once published, receiving an award as prestigious as the National Book Award.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King advises writers,
- You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this book. . . . You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.
The real learning, King goes on to say, happens “with the study door closed”—not in an MFA classroom.