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FRL to Magee: Get Off My Lawn

(Happen to notice a title change and some editing? I love it when I get something completely wrong, which I did initially in this post, where I confused Peter Suber’s words with those of C. Max Magee, Thorny Technology: Open Access Causes Problems at the Iowa Writers Workshop, The Millions, March 13, 2008. All I can plead is a failure to follow the indents in Suber’s post. Thanks to alert reader Rick Mason for quickly commenting. Let me start over, and-a one, and-a two…)

I was wandering in the wilderness in mid-March, so I missed the scuffle over electronic theses at the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Students and faculty had been arguing that the University of Iowa’s open-access policy greatly diminishes their theses’ marketability.

Over at the Open Access News blog, Peter Suber groused quoted Magee grousing that MFA writing programs “do their students a disservice by deciding to call their students’ culminating works, ‘graduate theses.'” Suber Magee then kicked sand in my eyes:

In the academic world, terms like this [i.e., thesis] have concrete meanings, and there are – sometimes unwritten – rules that govern their usage. Perhaps it would be too much too suggest that calling the final projects of MFAs “theses” is overcompensation by programs that have an inferiority complex when compared to the more grounded academic disciplines, but Iowa and other programs should be aware of these rules in the first place …

I know a little about the standards of the “academic world.” I don’t wear my c.v. on my sleeve, but it’s worth pointing out that my MFA from a small Jesuit university was in many ways more rigorous than my previous two degrees from the University of Illinois and Barnard College — put together. My MFA thesis was hard-fought-for and hard-won, and I’m proud of it.

Is my MFA thesis ready to publish? Of course not. The definition of thesis is “a proposition to be maintained or proved.” The writing-program thesis is a mid-effort work product that “proves” the student has mastered the ability to leap from a hopeful first draft into the grim, sweaty slog toward a product that has some of the shapeliness of what we recognize as literature.

Of the thirteen essays in my master’s thesis, four are either published or in press; one is slightly MIA; two are making the rounds; others are in revision; some may stay silent, bound in buckram. None of my published or in-press essays went to press exactly as they were presented in my thesis. I revised the essays — some a lot, some a little — and then the light hands of editors (no, I’m not being facetious) groomed them a little more. (If your essay needs more than a “light hand,” ‘it’s not going to get accepted anyway.)

This is not a broken model, nor does it mean that there was anything wrong or substandard with my thesis. It’s how writing works. For every MFA student who makes a splash with a publisher-ready thesis, there are thousands more who produce works that fully realize what a writing program is intended to do, even though their manuscript stops short of anything people outside the jurisdiction of creative writing (to Andrew-Abbotize this discussion) would realize as a final product. This fine-grained attention to literary excellence — Slow Writing, we could call it — is what makes the MFA in Writing the de facto “English” degree of this century.

When will the essays in my thesis be ready to publish? My first answer: the gold standard for an MFA thesis is not whether it is a publishable work — a benchmark too fluid and market-driven to be an academic standard — but whether it represents my understanding and execution of the steps in the journey from idea to manuscript. My second answer: my essays will be ready when I say they are ready, not according to some arbitrary hourglass. Yes, I am saying I am not appeased by short-term “embargoes.”

I believe in many of the tenets of open access. But I’m left cold by Suber Magee’s sour-grapesical dismissal of another discipline’s rigor and shapeliness. If that’s the winning strategy for open access, I’ll stay in the traditional-publishing camp.

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