I couldn’t attend ICFA this year, but I’ve been following along as best I can on social networks. Earlier today Nick Mamatas livetweeted a panel discussion on graduate school and job possibilities for writers with MFAs/PhDs. Apparently someone (or several someones) at this panel expressed an opinion that Nick summarized as “Genre writers seeking MFAs shouldn’t do only genre in samples or classes. Or try milder non-real not hardcore space opera.” I think that, in the absence of a discussion about why one is seeking an MFA in the first place, this advice is misguided.
If your only goal is to receive an MFA, and you either do not care about or consider it of secondary importance where you go and what kind of experience you have, then sure, you can probably maximize the statistical likelihood of MFA program X accepting you by leaning toward realism in your writing sample. But if what you want is to spend a few years working on your writing in the company of supportive teachers and receptive peers, then you do yourself a disservice by misrepresenting the kind of writing you plan to focus on. If hardcore space opera is what you want to write, finagling an acceptance to an MFA program where you will be told that exploding spaceships are a waste of the workshop’s time is a pyrrhic victory.
I applied to MFA programs with a portfolio that consisted entirely of genre fiction, and made it clear in my personal statement that I intended to continue perpetrating genre at any program that accepted me. My theory was that, as a person primarily interested in being a science fiction writer, I wanted to be rejected by any program with a culture unsupportive of that goal. I was rejected by 4/5 of the programs I applied to, but accepted by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Iowa, I came to learn, is actively expanding the varieties of fiction they champion. I’m the only pure SF writer in my class, but this semester they have Kevin Brockmeier teaching Iowa’s first-ever graduate workshop specifically devoted to science fiction and fantasy. We are discussing stories by authors like Theodora Goss, Arthur C. Clarke, and J. G. Ballard, and everyone is trying their hands at some variety of fabulism. (And if Kevin hadn’t chosen to do a class on SF, the other visiting professor, Andrew Sean Greer, says he would have.) More personally, I was just awarded a fellowship for my second year, on the basis of the stories I wrote my first semester: one hard SF story, one fantasy story. I’m having a wonderful experience, and I feel valued both as a student and as part of a project to diversify my program’s literary culture. That’s a project I couldn’t have been selected for if I hadn’t signaled my writing intentions in my application.
So, to summarize, my advice for genre writers looking to get MFAs is this: if what you are looking for is a good experience, rather than just a degree, don’t try to juke the system. Write the kind of stories you want to write. Write them as well as you can. Then let the MFA faculties do their jobs and decide whether or not you are a good fit for their program. That way you can be confident that any program which accepts you is interested in supporting the kind of fiction you are passionate about.