In Defense of Junot Diaz's Critique of MFA Programs

By this point, most of us have already read part or all of Junot Diaz's critique of MFA programs in the New Yorker as being oversaturated with white faculty and white writers.  If somehow you've been hiding in a capsule hotel with a nasty case of Malaria so you haven't been able to catch up on the world, you can check it out here:

Are MFA programs too white? Junot Díaz reflects on his experience:
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) May 4, 2014

Anyway, Junot Diaz doesn't need me to defend him in any way, but I do have a few things to add to this discourse concerning the role (and also the constraints) of race in workshop.  Here are my thoughts:

1.  Most of the pissed-off comments on the New Yorker website are by white educated readers, which proves the very point Junot Diaz was making about our cultural inability to tolerate, moreover, accept race as both a construct and also a cultural and literary reality for writers of color.  In fact, the response of most of the posters mirrors the response of many writers I knew in my own MFA workshops concerning race, who either saw race as an ideological and thematic obsession for writers of color that made their writing polemical somehow (because writing about being white is never polemical), an impediment to some imaginary "pure" prose school that was supposed to focus on the universality of human beings and not their particularities, or a direct challenge to literary realism that has been dominated by white, upper-class, heteronormative, East Coast writers for so long now that the"white" narrative has become a synonym for "neutral," "standard" and "uncontroversial."  In fact, whiteness is still part of the literary default settings:  if an author doesn't specify the race of a character, most readers still assume s/he's white unless there's a stereotypical race marker.

2.  One thing most commenters failed to understand about MFA programs is that they don't share the same theoretical training or theory-obsessed culture as the English PhD programs that MFA programs are usually part of.  For example, critical PhD students rarely enroll in MFA workshops because of enrollment caps in workshops and many MFA students avoid literary theory classes whenever possible.  What this means is, it's very possible (and also very normal for MFA students) to avoid any and all conversations intersecting with minority discourse, postcolonialism, queer theory, marxist theory at all.  The point is, most MFA programs are dead spaces for the examination of racial discourse and the analysis of non-white cultural/racial narratives.  In fact, in most MFA programs not located in Oakland, California, race becomes a venereal disease that no one wants to talk about.  They don't even wanna touch it.

3.  As a hapa who reads white but is actually part Asian (Japanese) and part white (French and British), I'm actually on both sides of this dynamic.  And I have to say that I mostly agree with Junot.  I encountered a shitload of resistance when I wrote about non-white characters during my MFA years in part because of the assumptions that other writers made about my own race (which filtered what they believed I was allowed to write about and what I wasn't).  I remember in one piece I submitted to workshop, I had a desi character who I was very fond of.  For a draft, I found her to be smart, independent, complex, and intriguing.  But the workshop completely rejected her characterization, not because they found her to be an Indian stereotype (for this would assume familiarity with Indian culture), but because they didn't understand why I had an Indian character in my manuscript at all.  One white student even suggested that I put an Indian character to spice up my chapter.  That's a verbatim quote, by the way.  And when even one of my Pakistani writer friends (another desi!) in workshop vouched for both the cultural authenticity and also the uniqueness of her character, the workshop rejected his comments and then spoke over him.  Think about that for a second:  a group of mostly white writers telling a hapa writer and a Pakistani writer what was culturally authentic and culturally permissible in workshop about non-white people.  The reality is that having mostly white writers and mostly white faculty can create a hostile MFA atmosphere in which people either deny that race exists at all (either in the world or on the page), they treat race as if it were some cultural crusade to punish white people or they assume that race in fiction and in workshop is always an act of tokenism, shallowness, political correctness, white guilt or even more paradoxically, of racism.  Even worse, many white writers and faculty treat race, the issue of race and racism and racial constructions like a didactic exercise that writers bring into workshop in order to teach the workshop something, as opposed to simply being a reflection of non-white reality.  There must be a reason why there are non-white characters in this short story, they say inside their minds.

4.  Of course, writers in workshop should call out racist, hackneyed or shallow characterizations of characters of whatever race, but this shouldn't create a culture of fear or intolerance in which either people are too afraid to talk about race and racism or deal with race or racism in their own writing, or where writers are denying the cultural vocabulary of writers of color (or characters of color).  And yet, I saw this shit all the time in my MFA where white writers were the most intolerant to the topic and the examination of alternative racial realities in writing.  And the thing is, there were more than a few writers of color in my MFA (desi, Asian American, Latino), but none of them ever contributed to the discussion of race in class whatsoever.  In fact, most ran away from the topic at all, maybe because they didn't want to get dragged into the cesspool of race, derail the workshop flow or maybe they didn't share any "radical" views about race at all.  Or maybe they believed that art was about people, not race, and so they sympathized with the subtle white persecution of race in workshop.  Either way, and this is precisely where I partially disagree with Junot Diaz, even the inclusion of more writers of color in workshop doesn't necessarily dismantle the structure of white supremacy that operates silently sometimes inside workshop.  Especially if those writers of color have been trained (brainwashed) to believe that literary merit, not the translation of literary merit through the lens of class, race, gender, etc., etc., should be the sole criterion of workshop analysis.

-To read more about my thoughts about the construction of race in writing, workshop politics for writers of color, and the importance/impossibility of writing non-white cultural narratives, you can go here.

-Additionally, to read more about the ongoing problematic of teaching creative writing workshop as an instructor of color, and also the no-win situation of being a writer of color inside a creative writing workshop, check out Matt Salesses smart piece in NPR, "When Defending Your Writing Means Defending Yourself."

Why the New Yorker Sometimes Feels like the Old Yorker

I know it's not the smartest thing in the world to criticize one of the glossies, especially when said glossy is iconic in the literary fiction community + happens to be one in which you're hoping to publish a self-contained novel chapter in the distant future from your awesome second novel.  At the same time, being a Chicagoan with a shitload of New York friends, I know for a fact that some New Yorkers actually look down upon the rest of the world for not being New Yorkers.  I'll never forget the time the coworker of an ex-girlfriend of mine once told me he "forgave" me for not being from New York, a comment that was supposed to be smug + biting in just the right way, but which actually made me want to beat his ass with a monkey wrench until he was spitting out teeth (+ I'm a Buddhist + a pacifist, mind you).

Anyway, I bring up a few details from my experience with New York for several reasons.  One, New York is a city I love very much (proven by the fact that my first novel BLANK takes place in nyc).  Two, sometimes, New Yorkers think everyone else is less smart, less urbane, less hip + less international than they are (+ of course, they'd only be partially right).

Anyway, I'd like to believe that in some strange, mysterious way, this ethnocentric ethos of New York also pervades the New York literary establishment, and why shouldn't it?  New York is still the undisputed mecca of fiction writers.  The creative writing faculty at NYU could fill an entire bookstore.  Some of that cachet is absolutely merited.  And some of the best stories I've ever read have been in The New Yorker.  Some (but not all) were written by Bolaño too.  And then there's Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan + many other writers I really admire.  At the same time, I'm trying--desperately--to understand why it is that such a prestigious literary magazine like The New Yorker feels it doesn't have to respond to unsolicited manuscripts.  I realize some people are getting form rejections, which sucks, but at least it's something definitive.  That crappy form rejection leaves absolutely no doubt that you're not getting to second base.  But I'm not even one of those people.  I've sent six fiction manuscripts to The New Yorker since 2010 + I only received one response (albeit, a good one).  That's a response average of 16.6% (not an acceptance rate mind you, which is probably .0001000).  Or said another way, that means TNY hasn't deigned to respond to 83.3% of my submissions in the past 3.5 years, which frankly, is ridiculous.

I realize almost no unagented fiction writers almost ever pass that sacred threshold into the kingdom of glossy self-edification.  I realize that if I snag this one agent in particular who asked for a rewrite of my 2nd novel (s/he will remain nameless until I hear from her/him), the first thing I'm gonna want them to do is send one of my novel chapters to the TNY because I'll have a completely different set of rules + privileges available to me that virtually all unagented fiction writers don't have.  But that said, I'd like to know why right now The New Yorker is so bad simply responding to fiction manuscripts.  I won't even get into how prohibitively difficult it is actually getting one of your stories accepted by the this magazine.  I'll leave that for another day . . .

Irritating Rejection from TLR

I almost never take rejections personally, no matter how much an editor ignores/praises me. Either way, it's a subjective business. The one thing that does piss me off, is when a journal makes me wait a year for nothing. You can send me a form rejection after a week + I'll laugh out loud. You can send me a form rejection after three months + I'll nod. You can send me a form rejection after six months + I won't flinch. You can also send me a personalized rejection at any point between one week + one year + obviously, I won't get angry either. Disappointed + probably mopey, but never angry. But when you make me wait a year for absolutely nothing--The Literary Journal, I'm talking to you--that pisses me off for a bunch of reasons:

1. The New Yorker + Esquire now only make unknown writers wait for 3-6 months before they find out they still need an agent (+ those journals get at least 24,000 fiction submissions a year, probably more)

2. The Paris Review will send you something usually in the same time-frame with fewer submissions + fewer readers

3. If you're a small, non-glossy, non-glitzy, university or MFA-affiliated literary journal + it's taking you a year to send people form rejections, then you're not dealing with your slushpile effectively at all. Either you don't have enough readers or the managing editor isn't doing her/his job of splitting up the manuscripts or the journal has moved locations (in all three cases, just keep the submission manager offline until you're ready to actually read shit).

I've been a fiction reader for literary journals before + I know this. If your editor in chief misplaces manuscripts, oh, say, in an attic for a year, that's another story. But with online submission managers, stories don't become refugees the way they used to.

Okay, in summary:

The glossies are getting to manuscripts faster than a lot of these small literary journals + they have 20 times as many submissions each month + often not that many more readers. Of course they also have unpaid internships + $$. On the flipside, most MFA students have no desire to read from the slushpile after the buzz has worn off + they start to realize that they have stories to workshop in two weeks + a pile of short stories to (not) read. In any case, I don't give a shit: it's still obnoxious to send responses a year after a submission was sent unless that manuscript made the final round but then was rejected, in which case, it's still kinda obnoxious but the good rejection makes the obnoxiousness kinda go away even though it's also really heart-breaking + feels oh so fucking close.

For all the above reasons, even though I've admired a few of the stories in TLR (specifically, Heidi Durrow's piece), I'm gonna peace out of all future TLR submissions. I just don't have another year of my life to waste + I'm not convinced the wait is worth it. At least when the New Yorker makes you wait a long time--it happens--the rejection hurts less because with your next submission, you still get a smaller-than-life chance to do the impossible + publish one of your stories in the motherfucking New Yorker, which would change your writing career forever.

New Yorker Finally Rejects Story (after a Year and a Half)

Hi Jackson,

Did I never respond to your story? My god, if so, I apologize. There's some sharp writing within, a very nice handle on the voice, but ultimately we didn't think it was quite right for us. Do feel free to try us again and good luck finding a home for this. We appreciate your giving us the opportunity to consider it.


Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
The New Yorker
Fiction Department

New Yorker Editors Respond to Old Message. . . Again

Here's the letter:

Dear Jackson,

We’re sorry that you have not received the appropriate responses from our editorial staff. We have a rotating group of fiction readers managing what you correctly identify as an “avalanche” of slush. While we cannot respond more specifically to your request for a status update on your story, it is safe to assume that since six months has passed since your last submission you can consider your work free to submit elsewhere.

As for your statements about your need to believe that the New Yorker isn’t “stacked against the emerging writer,” a perusal of our back catalog will prove that we have discovered and nurtured the careers of many new and exciting voices in literature.


The Editors


And my response:

Dear Editors,

I didn't mean to touch a nerve, I just wanted to be honest. I'll keep plugging away until I'm one of those new and exciting voices in literature you speak of.


--Jackson Bliss

New Yorker Editor Reaches Out Again

Here is the last (of 10) emails I sent to the New Yorker editor who was kind enough before to let me send it to him personally, along with his response:

Hey B*,

I tried sending you at least 10 different messages from 3 different email addresses, but I smell conspiracy.

Anyway, just wanted you to know that I re-submitted my story since it disappeared in the New Yorker Database last summer, so if you decide you want to read it after all the hype and folly, it's there. Thanks for reaching out to an aspiring writer. It was a kind and thoughtful gesture. I hope you're well.

Peace, Blessings,

--Jackson Bliss

And his response:

If only we had the time + resources to actually cause conspiracy. It's sort of bizarre that I only get the most random of emails from you. Have you tried pasting the story into the text of the email? If so, go ahead + send it to my personal email address: + I'll read it there.


8th Message to New Yorker Editor without a Response

Hey B******

Yes, believe it or not, I've sent you at least 6 other emails with my story pasted. I have no idea what the f*** is wrong with electronic world but I'm pretty sure it's not on our side. It really shouldn't be this hard. My only guess is that the New Yorker Email system/Submission Manager filters messages with abbreviations and RE:'s to avoid spam. I wrote one email that started with BJJ, and several others as responses, all of them with the story pasted in the body of the email.

Anyway, let's try this again because we're stubborn. How funny would it be if you finally saw my story after it had been built up by days and months, and it was just:


Hi, she said.
Hi, he said.
You're cute, she said.
Not as cute as you, he said.

The end.

Okay, anyway, that's my pathetic attempt at making light of this because it's the only thing I can control right now Branden. On to business: so here it is yet again. I hope you finally receive it and most importantly, enjoy it. Please email to confirm:

Otra Chica

The New Yorker Writes Back

I'm not sure what's more frightening, getting ignored by The New Yorker for two years, or getting a sudden and personal response on the same day that I sent out my email. Anyway, here is the response I got in its entirety:

Hi Jackson,

In the late summer of 2007 we had some server issues in the fiction department, during which your story was probably lost, in addition to hundreds of others. If you'd like to resend your story "Otra Chica" directly to me, I'll be glad to give it a read and get a response to you within the
next few weeks.


The New Yorker
Fiction Department

Of course I'm flattered to get an email after two years of cold, impossible-to-ignore silence. But now it freaks me out--in a good way, of course--that an editor is actually going to read my story. As long as I can remember I've felt stilted by the fiction minions of TNY, knowing, fearing that only disgruntled, jaded and opinionated readers touch our unsolicited manuscripts. I dunno, maybe that's still the rule. But I have to say, this experience has taken the poison out of my bloodstream and the bite out of my bark. I'm not expecting any miracles, I don't expect them to pick up my story, but being accountable to someone at the Great Glossy is, in a word, exhilarating. I mean, this is one of the reasons I write--to have an audience, and to learn from people who know the industry.

My Civilized Letter of Frustration to the New Yorker

Here is an email I just sent the New Yorker:

Dear Hard-Working Fiction Editors at The New Yorker,

I know you get a gazillion manuscripts a year and I know the slush pile is a constant avalanche. But as an emerging fiction writer who is trying to make it in literary publishing in small steps, I have to admit, I'm getting kinda upset here. I haven't received a response from your magazine for the last two manuscripts I've sent you, a time-frame of over two years, and I'm not asking for much, except an editorial response. I know this email is gauche, I should probably delete it, sublimate it into my next cover letter, possibly abandon the delusion that I'd ever publish one of my short stories in your iconic glossy until I score a top-notch literary agent, or become Pinochle partners with the editors. But I want to believe--I need to believe--that your magazine isn't so stacked against the emerging writer, at least one without connections, that with the right intersection of editorial taste, aesthetic temperament, and a manuscript with fresh language and a strong voice, eventually things will work out.

So it's with this blowhard first paragraph that I ask you to please update me on the status of the short-story I submitted on 7 August 2007 entitled "Otra Chica," with a follow-up email sent in March 2008. Thank you in advance for your understanding and response.

Yours Truly,

--Jackson Bliss

Bitch Session about Literary Fiction (Journals)

You know, i'm an incredibly patient man. i am. i've been told this many times and i'd like to think it's one of my unusual talents--like making up lame-ass jingles on the keyboard--it's just something i can do without putting any thought into it. the truth is, i rarely complain about the fickle and elitist nature of literary journals, but recently it's been pissing me off so i'm gonna bitch about it. i'll understand if you don't wanna read this.

Here are the reasons why american lit journals are a failure right now:

1. College MFA students shouldn't be the front line for lit journals.. i understand they make the editor's life a lot easier, and occasionally, some MFA readers have sharp eyes for sharp writing, but most of the time, they don't have a fucking clue. i mean, what do these little fuckers know about getting published? What did I know about publishing fiction when I was a reader for the Notre Dame Review? Absolutely nothing! Most fiction readers have never published a damn thing to save their fucking life, so the fact that they're simultaneously deciding what is basically publishable from the perspective of writers who are essentially opinionated amateurs, is fucking absurd.

2. The same 40 writers keep getting published over and over again and it has made this market dull indeed. i don't care if you're junot diaz, i don't want to read a story from you every time i shell out 5 bucks for a new yorker. what i don't understand about writers is why they don't understand their own saturation points. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. And there's def too much of a bad thing

3. My personal opinion is, it's better to write 4 amazing books than 14 very good ones, but writers feel pressured to pump out a novel every 2 years, even more if they're commercial writers

4. Until magazine start embracing short stories again, which creates an implicit message that the short story is not an intrinsic part of our culture, short stories are still going to be part of the domain of high-brow realist garbage literature, read almost exclusively by other writers. aspiring writers read them (the honorable ones, anyway), established writers publish them, and then other wannabe writers buy their journals to steal their tricks.

5. New writers shouldn't have token cameos in lit journals just so they can say, look, we're not the enemy of the emerging writer. it's gotten so bad that journals like Ploughshares actually have a new writers issue, which only points out how rarely they publish new writers.

6. If it takes you a year to reject me, you need to send me your home address with the rejection letter so i drive to your stuffy apartment and smack you across the head for wasting my time and feeding my irrational dreamworld.

7. Safe sucks. The traditional writing programs like Iowa + Columbia are injecting this industry with writers that are very polished technically, and most of the time, don't have one ounce of soul, originality, rebellion, genius or ambition to save their lives. for every tc boyle there are a million writers gifted at creating beautifully empty fluff that sounds amazing + doesn't mean a thing + doesn't have any staying power whatsoever. it has become enough simply to write + to publish, not necessarily to matter, to provoke, to critique, to explore, to take readers to a high place of awareness, to depict social injustice, to explore complex social issues, to create a place of beauty, to render deeper insight into our own existence

8. If only lit fiction writers had some of the imagination and intelligence of experimental writers, and if experimental writers could match the strength of their ideas with the quality of their prose that many lit. fictionistas have, we would be a changed world indeed.

9. Lit fiction writers, stop stealing ideas from newspapers! use your fucking mind and come up with something original.

10. The dullness of the lit fiction market has made our art obscure. how many times have i told people different journals i've been published in, only to see their mouths hang wide open like dogs overheating in the backseat? it's not their fault. most writers are so sick of getting rejected that they've created their own journals and now we have more lit journals than at any point in history but we DON'T have more readers. Karmically, if you want to get published in a journal, then shell out 20 bucks that you'd use normally for a second pint + fucking subscribe to a journal instead. Just one.

11. As long as lit writers ignore their readers or write for their friends who are editors, this market and this profession is doomed. i'm not saying dumb the writing down, but i am saying the experimentalists and the literary fiction writers can, and need to, acknowledge the blatantly dialectical nature of writing/reading (roland barthes, eat your fucking heart out), which is why commercial fiction is so successful because the authors give readers exactly what they want, dreary and obsequious as that sounds. likewise, i think commercial fiction writers can elevate their craft, originality and level of ideas and basically expect more of their readers too.

12. I'm all for working my ass off but goddamit, i want to know who my agent is and which company is going to publish my first novel inshallah. and if not, please tell me so i can send my shit to someone else who will passionately stick up for the kind of art that i create.

13. Sadly, the more into my writing and my profession i become, the more time i spend in limbo not knowing what the hell is going on.

14. BDG, please please please help me. this isn't actually a point, but i wanted to say it anyway.

15. I've come to the conclusion that i've wasted way too much time submitting short stories to journals without almost nothing to show for it. i mean, the number of print journals i've published stories is prohibitively small, and sometimes i feel like only inertia, pride, ego and stubbornness keep me writing and submitting the way i do.

16. The sheer arbitrariness of lit journal acceptances has turned me off completely to submitting. i have friends who have worked in the editorial dep't of journals and readers/editors have picked stories (and rejected them) for the most ridiculous reasons you can imagine, from the fact that the reader likes butterflies and unicorns to the fact that he can't stand stories with hispanic voices or second person narratives.

17. I'm calibrating my submission technique. now i'm only gonna submit my stories to the best lit journals (defined in my own way), journals that accept online submissions, and journals that give me good rejections. enough of this flooding the market stuff. i tried giving the small, indie, obscure journal its fair share, and with some notable exceptions, it just feels like a small journal trying to be a big journal, not a small journal celebrating its smallness.

18. New Yorker: what the hell is wrong with you? does it really take you over 7 months to send me this as a rejection email:

Dear author,

We haven't read your story and never will because we don't know who you are and your name won't attract readers. So why don't you stop sending us stories until people know who you, then we'll make you (more) famous.

Okay, they don't say that, but they might as well. . .

19. I'm gonna get into journals through my the way most authors are doing it these days, so most of my attention is going towards getting BLANK and my (soon to be) 2 collections of short stories published.

20. Watch: the instant after i post this rant, i'm gonna get an acceptance from one of the journals i just excoriated (or not). but that's fine. my tastes change, my sentiments and my critiques change over time. i may even feel differently tomorrow morning, but right now, this is exactly how i feel. I make no apologies.

Another :: Entry

Fulbright & macdowell colony: fuck nancy regan, just say yes!

Other voices: i feel like we're breaking up cuz you don't call or write, and you aren't telling me what's on your mind.

Journals that don't even both to send rejection emails: as the brits say, piss off wankers! translated: you don't deserve my shit, bitch!

Simon & Schuster, BDG & Mcsweeney's: this is lame autosuggestion, but you really wanna give this kid a chance. he'll write his ass off for you.

Bee: how's the deep south?

Knowing what it is that you love in your life, and even better, learning how to do it justice: amazing.

Life: t'es si bien equilibrée à présent.

New yorker: i'm aging over here.

Jackson Bliss: so far this year has been awesome, but don't forget the vibration of your name

Blessings: work hard so that you always feel like you deserve them.