The Proof Is In the Oscars

Southern New Hampshire University's Benjamin Nugent provides a compelling argument that MFA writing programs are doing what they say they do. Leslie Jamison helps too.


MANCHESTER, N.H., Oct. 24, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The Oscars for short fiction have just hit the bookstores, and you can find them within the covers of Houghton Mifflin's anthology, "Best American Short Stories of 2014."

Some of the Oscar winners have been to the podium before, and are household names at the American literary box office: Joyce Carol Oates, for example, with her story "Mastiff"; or Ann Beattie with "The Indian Uprising." These are writers who learned their craft the old-fashioned way, by trial and error, and in solitude.

Others are of a younger generation, and the preponderance are alumni of American university MFA writing programs. These are writers who have instead apprenticed themselves to experienced mentors and run their early work through the mills of read-and-respond workshops with other student writers.

This includes novelist/essayist Benjamin Nugent, whose short story "God" was plucked from the Paris Review and featured in the anthology. Nugent honed his chops at the University of Iowa's famed Iowa Writers' Workshop—founded in 1936, and arguably the godfather of all other MFA writing programs. And now he is the director of Southern New Hampshire University's up-and-coming low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program.

At Iowa Nugent learned the difference between the study of literature for its own sake versus study for the purpose of crafting more of it. "When I started my MFA, I had never read Lydia Davis, never read Thomas Mann, never read 'Moby Dick,'" said Nugent. "I had read my share of Chekhov, but I had never sat down and read through an anthology of his stories cover to cover. The program isolated me from the real world and said, 'All you have to do is learn how to get better at writing fiction.'"

Isolated from the real world, sure, but in class with writers who were writing very good fiction (and nonfiction) in that real world—Pulitzer Prize-winner Marilynne Robinson, for example. "Going to her seminar was like attending a brilliant weekly sermon," Nugent said. "Sometimes the point of departure was scripture, and sometimes it was Melville or Dickinson or Wallace Stevens."

Today the success of writers like Nugent argues that this sort of system works. At first it was true that magazine editors and anthologists shared a common negative stereotype of "the MFA story"—i.e., a story character-driven to the point of aridity, where the conflict was thin and nothing much happened by way of plot. But the phrase has lost currency lately as American fiction has regained its muscle.

Nugent's "God" is a perfect example, with its gallery of sharply drawn fraternity brothers and the girl they pine for, whose history and attributes have elevated her, in their pantheon, to divine status. The story is as rich in sexual intrigue as character, and boasts a sweet plot twist that has an honorable ancestry in folklore.

This year's editor of "Best American Short Stories," novelist Jennifer Egan, had no interest in aridity. "If there was a single factor that decided whether a story ended up in my ongoing pile of contenders," she said, "it was its basic power to make me lose my bearings, to envelop me in a fictional world."

No one remarks anymore that it is often MFA-trained writers who demonstrate command of that power—in this anthology, not just Nugent, but a roll call of other young honorees that includes Karen Russell, Joshua Ferris, and Laura Van Den Berg.

"The opportunity to learn how to construct a story directly from Ben Nugent? Why wouldn't that work?" says Richard Adams Carey, who is the assistant director of the Southern New Hampshire MFA program. "A great number of MFA-trained writers are entering the literary marketplace now, and if you consider the quality of the work that's being published by them—well, this just might prove to be a golden age for American literature."

Besides Nugent, the Southern New Hampshire faculty boasts such noted young writers as essayist Leslie Jamison ("The Empathy Exams") and novelist Wiley Cash ("A Land More Kind Than Home"). Jamison's essay "The Devil's Bait," originally published in Harper's, is included in "The Best American Essays 2014."

"We admit around eighteen new students each semester," added Carey. "Will any of them have work appear in these great anthologies, as Ben and Leslie have? Their chances are much improved, obviously, by the opportunity to learn directly from them and comparable artists."

Photos accompanying this release are available at:

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