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(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 , which we took as a mark of literary excellence. I attended every Sunday, dressed in coat and tie, armed with my Bible.
This year, about 20,000 people applied to study creative writing at MFA programs in the U. It’s a funny fact to consider, given that the idea creativity could be taught used to be widely mocked—the literary scholar John Aldridge once said the programs produced “clonal fabrications of writers.” For a time, MFA programs were oddities on college campuses: In 1975, only 52 existed. Today, there are more than 350 creative writing programs in the U. alone, and that number doubles if you include undergraduate degree programs.
The rise of the MFA has changed how both writers and people in general talk about creativity.
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.
The debate has shifted from whether creativity could be taught to how well it can be taught and whether it be taught.
The stakes are real: Creative writing has become a big business—it’s estimated that it currently contributes more than 0 million a year in revenue to universities in the U. Today’s debate falls along predictable fault-lines: One side eyes the teaching of writing suspiciously, and concludes that MFA programs may produce some good fiction, but they don’t produce enough “great literature.” The other side defends the institution by saying, if nothing else, that programs give aspiring writers the time to “dedicate oneself” to the craft of writing.But there’s an underlying assumption that the MFA 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?Nevertheless, there are some words that are different, but given that we’re talking about over 200,000 unique words, this is hardly surprising. They prefer names like Ruth, Pete, Bobby, Charlotte, and Pearl (while non-MFA novels seem to like Anna, Tom, John, and Bill).But on the whole, these distinctions look pretty meaningless; the words that appear more often in MFA novels don’t seem to be related to each other in a significant way.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.novel, what makes, say, Junot Diaz sound like Junot Diaz, is of course mostly immeasurable.Using a process known as machine learning, we first taught a computer to recognize the words that are unique to each of our groups and then asked it to guess whether a novel (that it hasn’t seen before) was written by someone with an MFA.When we did this, the computer was successful only about 67 percent of the time at guessing correctly.