I have been in touch with several MFA graduates since finishing my degree, and it seems very few of us have published a book. Some of us are publishing in literary magazines, and a few have had novels or poetry collections published by small presses, but it seems the bulk of MFA graduates do not have an agent or publishing deal. Many seem content this way, having little to no interest in working with commercial publishing houses. What I find concerning, however, is that many graduates seem to have given up writing and the publishing process altogether.
In a way, this makes perfect sense. As many MFAers know, an MFA does not prepare students for publication. There are many classes on the craft of writing and some basic contemporary literature courses, but there are no classes on marketing work, obtaining an agent or writing for a specific audience. It seems we have only been taught the art of writing.
While I agree our main priority should be creating a well-crafted piece, this should only be the beginning. The next step is figuring out how to get others to read our work. The problem is we often don’t care about this stage of writing process—or we are unwilling to look at our work from this harsh, often critical angle. I think many MFAers want to be published, but more importantly we want to write. If agents or publishers will only reject our work, we might as well just publish for ourselves.
I am not sure if this is truly the case for all MFA graduates, but many of those I have spoken to feel the publication process is just not worth the effort. In a way, I agree with this. While we should do more to publish our work, the publishing world is often an exclusive one. There are many good agents looking for debut writers, but perhaps they are not always looking in the right places. While many agents go to writing conferences and ask others for referrals, perhaps more should be reading their slush piles, meeting students at MFA programs, and finding talent at local bars, readings and bookshops. On the other hand, I sympathize with agents and understand they can only read so much material. Still, this process of weeding out mediocre from exceptional work needs to be refined.
It seems MFA graduates have their own circle of friends and colleagues, and likewise agents have an entirely different circle of acquaintances. In this way, it is possible that these social circles will never overlap. I agree that the publishing process is a difficult one, but I also believe we have to make a concerted effort to publish our work. I understand the need to retreat, to hide and write only for small audience of friends who understand our work. But, our writing is larger than that and needs to reach a broader range of people if we are to have a greater influence on the readers and world around us. That is the only way to make a career out of a passion that cannot be found anywhere else.
We need publishers to edit and promote our work. If this means knocking on every door, then so be it. When I think of the 15-20 graduates I finished my MFA with and wonder how many of them are trying to publish—it saddens me to think it might only be a few. The world is being robbed of these great talents, and I hope MFA graduates and those in the publishing industry will someday do more to ensure these great voices are heard.