Sunday, February 8, 2009


All the second years and even some of the thirds out here are scurrying to get ready for the Comps Exam. Many and maybe even most MFA programs require students to pass an exam over a lengthy reading list – ours is forty books long, although I’ve heard of programs that have as many as two-hundred and some that have as few as twenty.

I took my Comps last year and I can remember the anxiety of the days leading up to the exam and I can certainly relate to how many of my fellow MFAers are feeling right now. I started reading from my list the summer before I started in the program. Forty books isn’t really that many, if you think about it, and I was actually originally planning on just trying to get it out of the way my first year. I read about a quarter of the list before I started the program and then during my first semester here, between teaching for the first time, getting used to how different grad school was than what I had expected it to be, not to mention adjusting to life in Alaska, which is pretty much just as strange as you might imagine, I sort of let the reading slide and decided I would take the exam my second year, like you’re supposed to.

Another full year to finish the list? That seemed like no problem! But my first summer out here I began excitedly working on the first draft of my thesis and once I had that together I started revising and revising and revising it . . . By the winter before my Comps date, I still had close to half the list left to read and the overwhelming feeling that I was not going to pass this test.

I figure out what I had left to do and planned out which books I needed to read by which dates. I knocked out three to four books a week during the winter break, but once the semester got back in (and I was teaching a sophomore level class that I had never taught before), my more immediate requirements got in the way and I found myself, a couple weeks before the exam, having to accept that I couldn’t possibly finish all of the books and instead I needed to figure out how best to familiarize myself with the few that I would not have time to actually read.

Sound familiar? If you’ve ever taken a Comps Exam it probably does. I’ve come to find out that most people don’t actually read every book on the list. They try their best, but you have a lot on your plate as a grad student and if you’re actually making sure to write a fair amount on the side, you may find yourself having to pick and choose which things you simply do not have time for.

But it turns out that Comps is all about doing the reading. Acquainting yourself with a wide range of texts in your genre. Once I took the test I was surprised at how easy it was. It was clear that the test itself was just a means to expose us to the books themselves. And I felt relieved, because it meant that I would pass even though I hadn’t read every single book, but I also felt sort of guilty, because the point of the whole thing was to read every book and I hadn’t done that.

The other day I was talking to a friend who is about to take comps next weekend and he mentioned that while he doesn’t think he’ll be completely done with the list in time for the test, he plans on finishing the few that he only read partway through as soon as he has time after the exam. I think that’s a smart move. After all, the Comps Exam is no different from anything else in a school environment. You get what you give. Passing the test doesn’t mean you gained what you were supposed to have from the experience.

I never did get back to my Comps list but I plan to, even the one that I didn’t finish reading because I hated it (sorry William Faulkner . . .) There are certain books it’s just good to have read, partly so you know what other people are talking about and partly because, as a writer, it’s good to step outside of your normal range of reading. Even the ones you don’t enjoy can teach you something (even if it’s simply techniques you’d like to avoid at all costs in your own writing). And in my experience, a large majority of the books are extremely enjoyable, anyway. So get reading! If you want to improve as a writer you’ve got to be willing to put all the necessary work in.

1 comment:

Justus said...

Another benefit of the comps exam is discovering writers who you can then enjoy their other work later. I just started reading another Graham Greene book the other day. I had read one of his a few years ago, but I really enjoyed The Heart of the Matter for the comps and made a note to seek out more of his stuff. I'm only now getting around to it, however (two years after my comps exam). I'd also like to read more Thomas Hardy, Ian McEwan, and others who I might never have read without the exam.