“The MFA isn’t about developing a unique style at all, but about learning how to sound like already published writers. It’s about gaining entrance to the club. Look closely at the promotional materials of creative-writing programs and you’ll almost invariably see a host of proper names—these are the people with whom you can expect to rub shoulders, if not directly, then by association through the former graduates that have passed through the program or the mentors of your mentors whose influence will surely rub off on you. It’s about having the opportunity to insert yourself, however virtually, into that literary social network.
While something may happen in MFA programs, perhaps that thing is more behavioral than artistic. When we look at the data, the MFA seems to be helping people sound like everyone else. To put a positive spin on it, we could say the degrees help writers fit into the literary landscape. Like the universities to which these programs belong, the MFA may offer a way of gaining entrance to an elite club. You learn the rules of the road, at least as defined by the publishing industry and literary reviews. At its worst, it doesn’t do anything at all.