An Entirely New Milieu: Rethinking the MFA Story

Jeni McFarland

Feb 23, 2016

UPDATE: This piece has been edited since its original posting date.

I’ve noticed a trend. It might be chalked up to coincidence, but I’m not convinced. The trend is that journals say they want more writing by women and people of color, but when the submissions roll in, time and again, they choose writing that resembles pieces written by white males. Sometimes they even were written by white males, using a pseudonym. There’s a definite difference, in my mind, between writing about women and people of color, and writing by women and people of color. A woman of color, for instance, can write a story that hits all of the plot points, that makes clever use of voice, and features people of color. The format of the story can be what I call the MFA story, stories where people sit around with drinks and talk about something other than what’s really going on. Or maybe they’re walking around town looking at things and thinking about something other than what’s really going on. Or maybe they’re jogging through the suburbs to escape what’s really going on. Or they’ve traveled or moved to an “exotic” location to escape. Whatever, something will happen to bring the thing that’s really going on to a head, and then the character makes a choice causing a tonal shift that mirrors a shift in action. The story will probably end on a strong image, one that suggests epiphany, or is at least ambiguous enough to read epiphany into it. That story might feature people of color, but the rhythms, structure, and overall concerns of the story are the same as any white man’s story, as any of the “canon.” To be clear, I’m not saying I don’t like stories by white men—my favorite author of all times is still George Saunders. I’m not arguing that white men should stop publishing. I’m simply arguing for more diversity. 

Alternately, a woman of color might write a new story, a different story. It might make use of an entirely new milieu, one that leaves the reader feeling slightly disoriented. Its structure might be new, or its character arc. It might, on the page, read like an extended poem, or an “experimental” piece. 

What I’m advocating for is diversity in writing, as well as diversity in writers.

I for one am thirsty for this. I’m thirsty for stories that make me second-guess what it is that makes a storygood. I’m thirsty for stories that grab me around my middle and pull me into them, regardless of my own plans as a reader. I want to be bombarded with imagery, with emotion, I want to feel a story. However you get me there, whatever you have to do, do it. Take me somewhere I’ve never been (either a physical space or an emotion or mental space), and leave me no choice but to make myself comfy or uncomfy there. Or, take me somewhere I have been, somewhere I’ve tried to forget, and force me to remember. Make me know that you’ve been there too. Take me by surprise, ambush me, pull the wool over my eyes, trick me into seeing things your way. Or better yet, seduce me. Make me acquiesce to your terms.