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Episode XXXII: "Whose canon is it anyway?"

Published 10/8/15
In this installment, I speak with Peter Gadol of the Otis College of Art and DesignTopics include Otis' evolving program, MFA vs. NYC (duh), return on investment, rankings, the "canon" and whether LA is a literary city (hint: it is).

Today I’m talking with Peter Gadol, the Chair and Professor of the Graduate Writing program at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Peter’s the author of six novels, and has been at Otis since 2005. I’m going to start top-level in the hopes of eventually gleaning more specific, unusual insights into MFA programs. So, forgive me: what might someone gain from earning an MFA in the first place? What differs Otis’ MFA programs from those of other universities?

Hi, Andrew. Well, I think an MFA program can be different things to different people at different points in their writing careers. Some students want to work on particular projects they've been kicking against the baseboards of their homes for years. Some want more generally to move out of a space where writing is a hobby to one where writing is a part of life--where one has a writing life. Some are seeking teaching credentials. Some hope to enter an allied literary profession, like publishing. Some folks want to be around other like-minded folks, which is to say, many are seeking a literary community.

But the question becomes, if you go through this vortex of a writing program, how do you make that new writing life one that is sustainable, and here is where I think Otis comes in and is different than many of the writing programs out there.

You've answered some of my future questions already, which is great. Well—how is that? How is Otis different?

It's complicated and at our program we're ever evolving, as is the field of writing. We've been around fifteen years, but we're just now introducing a new curriculum that attends to this conundrum. First, we have to recognize that the kind of writer that exists today is very different than the one from twenty-five or fifty years ago. Writers today tend to want to work in more than one genre. So we're setting up writing workshops, the centerpiece of any program (obviously), that are multi-genre; students can work on fiction or poetry or nonfiction or literary translation, and students are then expected to critique genres they may not themselves be working in. The key to make this kind of class a success is that these workshops are team-taught; so a student whose work is up for discussion will benefit from instructors themselves working in different areas. And then paired with these workshops, we have Tutorials wherein we match students with faculty working in the students' area of greatest interest. The Tutorials are not only about manuscript review, but also directed reading (customized, as it were, to what a student might be working on); and more significantly, these Tutorials will attend to each student's complicated life.

By which I mean, the Faculty member and student will go through the process of submitting to contests, querying agents, etc.--whatever is most relevant and desired--as well as figure out a scheme for future employment (teaching, at a nonprofit, etc.), and then also consider what factors the student is contending with (relationships, children, people to support, etc.).

The goal is to envision what a sustainable writing life looks like and then figure out how to get there. Does that make sense?

This sounds like a hyper-progressive way of looking at the education of a very traditional profession. Do you think Otis has benefited directly from being so recently conceived?

I'm glad it sounds that way (and there's more I can say about how our program is or will differ from others…). I think this is one benefit of being located in an art school, which is dynamic, small (and our classes are kept small), attuned to cultural currents. Otis, I would be remiss not to point out, has been around almost 100 years and is the oldest art school in LA.

Otis’ prides itself on its location—Los Angeles—and its focus on the literature of the city. This somehow makes it more tangible in the MFA vs. NYC debate—that bulky argument that has so many angles it’s really more of a topic. On an explicit level, how much does New York play into your curriculum (both its contemporary and canonized writers)?

What a great question. From where we sit, the whole MFA vs. NYC debate seems myopic.

And why is that?

Well, I did teach a part of a seminar on the New York novel. I heart New York and all of that. And of course we're in touch with New York editors and agents and writers and regularly bring them to campus. But our orientation here is toward global literatures. We have an emphasis in translation. We run our own small press and make sure at least one title a year is a work in translation. Los Angeles is a world city. The MFA vs. NYC conversation seems to be about publishing and academia, not what's going on in the wider world.

What do you think about the MFA vs. NYC debate?

Me? Well this conversation isn't about me! I will say that through interviewing a wide variety of writers, whether you're in New York is only important as far as networking to later find an agent and/or places to publish. Beyond that, it seems irrelevant.

I have two (quick) questions about what you've just said. The first: what does a class about the New York novel consist of? What's taught?

Oh, it was just part of a class in which I realized I'd assigned a number of New York novels, so I put a circle around them for a satellite conversation. I don't have the syllabus in front of me, but one novel was ANOTHER COUNTRY (one of my favorites), and another was Peter Cameron's SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU.

The second: how does translation work in with the curriculum? Does it only apply to bilingual students?

No, you do not need proficiency in another language to take our courses in the practice of translation, which we're teaching as a literary activity useful to any writer engaged in manipulating words. Students who have turned in literary translations as Theses, however, do tend to have a deeper knowledge of the language of the source text.

Can I go back to how our writing program at Otis is a little different than others?


I should mention that we're keen on small classes and one-on-one mentorship written into the curriculum. Also, I'd say that there's a spirit of collaboration and community that's vital and also is a part of the curriculum. A new course is being developed, a Writing Colloquium, wherein students and faculty will meet to discuss what topics they're interested in, which might range from manipulations of point-of-view to Gertrude Stein's legacy to the question of what is political fiction to problems in writing about race, and so on. The faculty goes off on its own and considers its own evolving concerns, and then it puts together a course for the next semester based on these conversations (again, team-taught). Also, we have our own small press, Otis Books, which the students work on with faculty guidance. The students are engaged in every part of a book's production, from manuscript selection, to editing/copy editing, to printing, to working with distributors, etc.

This is a great lead in to my next question, and will help you expound on your last comment. This series is called The Art of Commerce, and it may be somewhat taboo, but I have to ask about getting an MFA as an investment in one’s future, and the return they can expect. Obviously this is a case by case situation, but do you feel that most of the students in your program are increasing their value to the market more than they’re paying Otis?

I certainly hope so. Let's consider the way the ROI happens.

There are students who are able to earn a living from their writing, though they may not be many. There are students who move into teaching careers. One of our recent graduates just became the managing editor of a small press (he went through our publishing practices track). Many students have started their own presses. But then there's something harder to trace, which is the ability to engage in writing in a meaningful way in a way one couldn't before being in the program. And therein, through publication, engaging in a culture of readers. How do you measure that return? I don't mean to evade your question, but I do think that many students aren't interested in getting rich. They want to be a part of the world of letters. They seek fulfillment in that. Does that sound wishy washy to you?

It's not wishy washy, though it does put the question of money away, which is fine.

Last year, Poets & Writers dropped their rankings of MFA programs. Jason Terry, a senior director, said, “We’ve come to recognize that the rankings are not just misleading, they’re harmful.” Did this come as welcome news? Do you think there was ever a silver lining to the rankings, or was it all just a wash?

I think the rankings were based on too many arbitrary factors. I do think students benefit from knowing what the fellowship/scholarship picture looks like; but a lot of went into those lists was hooha. Not that I was looking at them too closely...

It seems like Otis diverts from other programs in many ways. Is there ever any looking over the shoulder, or comparing your program to others?

Of course. We pay attention to what's going on elsewhere in the city and region, although interestingly our applicants very rarely apply to other LA programs (the other schools they apply to are in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere). And we participate in AWP and have fifteen visiting writers on campus each year, many of whom teach in writing programs; so we compare notes.

By the way, I don't think a full-residency MFA is for everyone; that's another thing that we're thinking about when we look at other programs, whether they're full- or low-residency. Apples to apples, etc.

Describe the difference between a full and low-residency to someone who's never heard those terms.

A low-residency program is one in which you're only on campus for (typically) two two-week or ten-day sessions a year. The rest of the coursework is conducted through digital correspondence with mentors and on-line critiques with peers. The full-residency MFA involves being around a campus for an entire academic year. So we get to build community in a different way. And you get to be in Los Angeles in our case. 

Without any information to back this statement up, and at the risk of playing a false devil's advocate, I'll say I've heard the argument that Los Angeles is not a literary city. Of course you could point to an unlimited supply of novels that have been written and/or take place there, but for its size, do you ever think the community is lacking?

Oh dear. Have you been watching "Annie Hall" again, Andrew? LA is a terrifically literary city.

One anecdote: When I moved here from New York almost twenty-four years ago, I was a little worried about this first literary party I was invited to. I'd avoided them in New York because all anyone ever talked about was the size of their advances and who their agents were and the death of publishing by slow corporate cuts. Well, at this party, the conversation was actually about books, what people had stacked on their night tables. It was refreshing.

I'd have to check, but I think also that Southern California has the largest book-reading population in the country.

Solid comeback. We’re nearly running out of time, so I have a question I’ll ask because I find it interesting, though it’s nearly impossible to answer: how much does your program value the “canon”? That is, describe the portion of titles that your students will read that a high school or undergraduate student might recognize. I’ll guess, given what else you’ve said, that the percentage is lower than other programs, but I also don’t want to make assumptions.

You're correct. We do have faculty who will teach classics--ancient texts, nineteenth century doorstops--but we're fairly dedicated to the idea that in order to write work today you need to read what's contemporary. And we work pretty hard at promoting diversity in our reading lists, something one finds school-wide at Otis. So the canon is available, but not at all central. Also: Whose canon is it anyway?

Okay, fair. One final question: can you name some of the favorites currently circling around the curriculum?

Oh wow, our reading lists are ever-changing. I did notice two authors whom more than one instructor was teaching last semester: Pessoa and Sebald. But I'm not sure what that says, if anything.

Thanks for your time Peter, and your words.

You're very welcome, Andrew. This was fun. And I love 0s&1s.