The True State of Things

Ceci n'est pas une MFA piece.


September 7, 2015

Unemployment fell to 5.1% last month, low enough that the Federal Reserve seems likely to raise interest rates a bit at its September 16-17 meeting. They’ve gone nearly a decade, since the start of the Great Recession, without raising them, but even this new figure, considered nearly “full employment,” is inconclusive, says the Times: “The slowdown in job growth and the absence of any significant wage pressure could strengthen the arguments of those who see little risk in keeping borrowing costs exceptionally low and waiting not just for more encouraging data but also for unruly markets to settle down.” And: “Skeptics of rate hikes argue that the low unemployment rate masks millions of workers who are available to be pulled back into the job market.”

I’ve been reading as widely as I have time to do in hopes of informing my developing novel. Recently I finished Bob Herbert’s Losing Our Way, which paints a grim picture of the true state of things in America, bringing up a number of well-known issues, such as infrastructure aging and collapse (bridges, highways, water and sewer systems, dams, levees, electrical grids, air traffic control), public education, war and its aftermath, disaster response, and more.

As the Times review of his book points out, “Herbert doesn’t delve deeply into the lives he encounters....” He’ll follow people to the brink of financial-domestic disaster and leave them. He briefly, eg, over two pages, profiles Lamar Hayes, a 52-year old “college-educated family man with a conservative political outlook.” Hayes made $75,000 a year as a supervisor of construction sites around Atlanta, and when he was laid off without warning took a job as a Walmart greeter, all he could find, which didn’t prevent foreclosure on his home. Herbert abandons him there, an implied casualty of the collapse of American middle-class life and upward mobility, with Hayes saying, “We’ve got pictures of everybody sitting on the front porch one last time.” 

I begin to long for a John Hersey or James Agee to understand what follows, both intellectually and emotionally, in that personal disaster. Where and in what way does Hayes live? How are his relationships? What’s he interested in now? What’s his probable depression feel like in the body?

Herbert’s book occupies a middle ground, mostly descriptive in its outline. He doesn’t sink much into case studies, and he isn’t prescriptive with policy solutions for the sweeping social problems he identifies. But his diagnosis is clear: “After so much neglect and so many bad policy decisions, we ended up with a government and an economy incapable of meeting the human needs of a complex and diverse nation of more than 300 million people.” “[T]he nation’s proudest achievement since World War II, the creation of a vast and thriving middle class, was at risk.” (There’s an odd use of the past tense throughout the book, even when he’s speaking contemporaneously, as if projecting forward to future decades’ readers.)

Nothing he says contradicts the America I’ve known, and so the jeremiad feels mildly comforting. My family’s history over the last century is anecdotal part-to-the-whole: coal-miner and sharecropper grandfathers, witnesses to labor convulsions and the Great Depression; parents with master’s degrees and participation in WWII, the start and the end of Vietnam, the start of Afghanistan, and a fall of fortune for one after divorce, single motherhood, and unemployment; my own childhood in the ‘60s and '70s, flight from home, ambition, financial struggle, job changes, and failure, in key ways, to outpace the generation before; my young children’s opportunities and different challenges in the new millennium.

Herbert talks about the current slide of those with college degrees to jobs that don’t require them, and the subsequent pushing-out of those who would traditionally have worked those jobs. He writes:

The US had been stuck in the worst unemployment environment since the 1930s, with millions of ordinary Americans being left far behind, their hopes and dreams dwindling. The stark, cold reality was that men and women of all ages, in all regions of the country, millions upon millions of them, have for years been scrambling to meet their most basic daily needs in the face of mass layoffs, reduced hours, wage stagnation, and the collapse of any hope of economic security. [...] The upward mobility that once defined the American dream had made a U-turn. With the great American jobs machine sputtering, it became more and more difficult for people to work their way into the middle class and a whole lot easier to fall out of it.

Adjusted for inflation, I make less now, as an assistant professor in an MFA program, journal editor, book series editor, and professional blogger—combined—than I did in the mid-‘90s as a beginning copywriter with scant experience at an office-supplies company. I continue to hear warning bells from other quarters in academe. A friend who’s head of a department at a giant public uni says, “Last Wednesday we had a grad orientation meeting. I found myself telling hard truths...that they shouldn't expect to be working, if their PhD gets them a job, in a department like ours, and that PhDs are starting in the $50-60k range. ‘Don't run up your credit card bills expecting a payoff when the dissertation is done.’” This, after some 24.2 years of education.

One of our esteemed visiting writers, a name you’d know, when asked what he, as MFA faculty and director of a program, tells his own grad students about employment, shouted, “It’s a shell game! We’re all on the fucking Titanic, going down!”

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) says:

Those who plan to become professors in the arts and humanities have little recourse than to start working as adjuncts. While adjuncts vie for job security in academia, institutions continue to employ more adjuncts than ever to fulfill teaching appointments, while the number of open tenure-track positions remains small for a growing student population. Per AWP’s estimation, each year graduate writing programs produce approximately 3,000 to 4,000 new graduates who compete for a little more than 100 academic tenure-track creative writing jobs.

Let’s say those numbers have held true since the turn of the millennium. (I’m pretty sure they haven't, though they might be close to proportionate.) Let’s say that only half of all MFA/PhD graduates in creative writing in that period have wanted tenure-stream jobs. (My hunch is that more students used to want tenure-stream employment than do now, simply because it’s not often possible.) Let’s pretend that those who had to move on to adjunct or non-academic employment might still wish for the tenure-stream if offered it. 

In this thought experiment, 30,000 graduates have wanted tenure-stream employment in their field since 2000, but only 1500 got those jobs. That would mean that—just to get all Barthelme about it for a second—28,500 (residual) plus 4,000 (new) applicants will be sitting in a Hilton lobby this year, waiting to be invited up to the interview suites, for 100 tenure-stream jobs. Ridiculous? What if the odds were even just 100 to 1?

AWP’s career advice page says: “The U.S. unemployment rate has dropped as low as 5.8% in October 2014, compared to starting out at 7.9% in January 2013. While this may suggest overall improvement of the country’s job market, it has not brought the kind of upside teachers on the job market desire.”

In related news, the TimesEducation Life series says: “Few will write the great American novel or, let’s face it, even publish work. In fact, the surge in M.F.A.s has intensified the competition....

The monthly magazine Poetry receives 100,000 submissions a year and publishes 300 poems. 'The number of writers has increased, but the number of readers has not,' says Joseph Harrison, senior American editor for Waywiser Press. Mr. Harrison is coordinator of Waywiser’s Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. This year, the competition drew 33 percent more submissions.

'We can only publish so much,' Mr. Harrison says. 'I have to sound a cautionary note: M.F.A. programs make money off of people’s dreams. Everyone in the system is implicated. Writers, too. It’s a bit of a house of cards. One hopes people at least understand the odds and how difficult it can be.'

My friend Erika Dreifus wrote a good piece for Poets &Writers, in which she allows her MFA-self to imagine her own bio for future publication:

Erika Dreifus is the author of the novel The Haguenauer Line [published by Little Brown, Random House, or any other 'big' publisher]. The same year The Haguenauer Line was published, Erika was honored as one of the National Book Foundation’s '5 Under 35' and one of the New Yorker’s 'Best Young Novelists.' She is a tenured professor of creative writing in the Boston area [although New York or Washington would also be acceptable locations] who spends her summers alternating between residencies at the MacDowell and Yaddo colonies. She is currently completing revisions on her second novel, which will be released in the fall, and for which she will embark on a multi-city tour while she is on paid sabbatical.

Now the reality:

Erika Dreifus is the author of an unpublished novel manuscript, The Haguenauer Line, which, though agented, never sold. She is also the author of a short story collection, Quiet Americans, that she’d basically given up on ever seeing in print by the time an emerging micro-press contacted her. That collection was published in 2011, eight years after Erika’s MFA graduation and nearly two years after her fortieth birthday. Erika has not completed a new short story in nearly three years.

See the rest of Erika’s essay for her veritable, estimable successes. She details her reality and says: “As in the rest of life, things will happen in your writing life that you don’t expect and can’t predict. Notice how much more textured and developed my 'real' biography is compared with the 'aspirational' one. It’s entirely possible to become a different sort of writer than the sort you anticipated you would be, or thought you wanted to be, at the outset.”

(To negate everything I've said so far, read this interview, and make of it what you will.)

After 13 years as an adjunct, I feel hugely, impossibly fortunate to be tenure-stream. If I had to go back in time and choose to do the MFA over again, I would in a heartbeat, even if I never taught. (No faculty in the program where I went ever said the word "job," as far I can remember. They focused entirely on the writing and the discussion of the art.)

Still, the AWP quotes a “Massachusetts-area adjunct professor”: “Teaching four to five courses per semester is a huge time commitment that presents a barrier to the type of scholarly inquiry and creative production search committees look for in tenure-track candidates.” As I said last time, I’m teaching four classes (with four preps) and an independent study, editing a journal, will soon be reading all prose program apps (about 7500 pages last year), and directing all prose theses. I have other professional duties and two young sons to raise. All this is in the context of a struggling state system with fewer resources all the time. While I love the individual parts, and together they make me what I am, I’m highly aware that since the start of the semester the drafting of my next book, which even my employer has said is one of the main reasons for being, has slid to a faceplant halt. It does make me question where we are in all this.


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