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What, Like It’s Hard? The MFA in Mona Awad’s Bunny

By Marcello Tsai-Corbanese

In the penultimate pages of Bunny, Cupcake enters Workshop with the words EAT ME carved into her chest and announces with a pleased, calm smile—“I thought I’d involve the Body more viscerally” (247). Mona Awad’s novel is as saccharine and sinister as its characters, melding the MFA graduate program setting with one of cliquey high-school-dom. In “MFA vs. NYC,” Chad Harbach asserts that graduate programs simply extend adolescence, while in “The Program Era,” Mark McGurl insists that the MFA program is but one facet of a self-sustaining institutional ecosystem of symbolic capital. Bunny considers these two claims and instrumentalizes one to confirm the other, wielding Harbach’s claim about adolescence to vindicate McGurl’s claim about the MFA. Awad’s novel retains the central tropes of a chick flick—namely, an outsider protagonist both repulsed by and attracted to an ‘in-group’ of mean girls—but Awad uses the traditionally youthful and feminine elements of this group to undermine the inculcated reverence of universities as the end-all-be-all of higher education. The Bunnies function as an allegory for the performance of institutional excellence described by McGurl in his article on the so-called ‘Program Era.’ Their cliquey, teenage parlance parallels that of Warren’s MFA program, as do their Smut Salons parallel Warren’s Workshop. Awad ultimately agrees with Harbach and McGurl, but does so with “essential feminine sweetness,” running a pink highlighter over their claims about the MFA (Butler). 

McGurl states that “Excellence [is] the new God of the university” — that the task of the academic creative writer is the production of “unconscious allegories of institutional quality” (127, 8). In other words, students of the MFA are less students than they are physical testaments of the institution’s “systematic hospitality to the excellence of individual self-expression” (128). To McGurl, “every artist on campus is half a performance artist,” producing quality work in service to the cultural capital of whatever university they have chosen to attend (128). Awad usurps that idea, instrumentalizing Chad Harbach’s claim in “MFA vs. NYC” that MFA programs are now only useful to extend an “already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30” (2). An undergraduate English student forgoes their entry into the precarity of the labor market in favor of what Mona Awad bitingly calls “hiding from life in the most coddling, insular, and self-aggrandizing way” (40). If every artist on campus is in actuality a performance artist reinforcing their university’s “portfolio of cultural capital,” Bunny’s artists perform that protracted adolescence to its utmost: they are teenage adults, putting on a show of cuteness and immaturity that undercuts the gravitas of Warren’s institutional excellence (128). 

Samantha Heather Mackey’s initiation into the cultish ‘Bunny’ friend group begins when she dons heart-shaped, rose-colored sunglasses— similarly, Bunny filters the MFA through pinkness, girliness, and teenagehood. Awad, a product of the very environment she satirizes, drapes the highbrow MFA setting in lowbrow schoolgirl garb. She directly associates Warren’s MFA Workshop with the Smut Salons held weekly by the Bunnies. Less a Workshop than a literature-infused sleepover séance, Smut Salons represent a girly offshoot of the institution’s cultural capital. Rather than bringing drafts of their writing, the Bunnies perform occult rituals to summon ‘Drafts,’ rabbits transfigured into inhumanly handsome men named Beowulf or Lars who declare the girls’ beauty “nuanced and labyrinthine like a sentence by Proust” (84). The two parallel Workshops function on a shared doxa of esotericism and validation—Fosco validates the Bunnies’ “dreary word puzzles,” while the Drafts (imbued with the same cultural capital displayed in Workshop pieces) validate the Bunnies’ insecurities (58). Awad makes the implicit—and perhaps in her view, immature—queries of the MFA workshop (Do you like it? Am I good?) explicit and physical. The Drafts fulfill the same purpose as Workshop: they coddle, insulate, and aggrandize the Bunnies, validating their adolescence in the same way Warren validates their protraction within it. Awad’s university is not one in which one gets to “Think Great Thoughts” or “Dream Big Dreams” (48); rather, the “high experimentalism” and “parlance” Samantha tolerates to get her degree become the precedent for her degree (57). To partake in Warren’s MFA is to partake in its parlance, just as to partake in the Bunnies is to partake in theirs. The rapprochement of two elite, exclusive in-groups (MFA students and high school mean girls) clarifies Awad’s satire: to her, they espouse similar dynamics, degrading the outsider’s experience regardless of the quality of her work (or in Samantha’s case, personality). 

The Bunnies’ appeal is their overly and overtly advertised closeness, just as Warren’s appeal is its institutional excellence (“I mean, it’s Warren”) (57). The Bunnies have cultivated an in-group that is so ‘in’ it becomes one organism, with “eight eyes [that] do not blink” (7) and “glossy mouths [that make] squealing sounds of monstrous love” (3). Ostracized by the Bunnies, Samantha is both repulsed by and attracted to their female friendship; similarly, Samantha is alienated from her cohort and professors at Warren and berates them despite craving their validation. Samantha’s work is “invested in its own outsiderness,” differentiating her from her MFA cohort— as a self-described “freak” in “bland, black jeans,” she is also differentiated from the Bunnies’ “blob of peach-colored flesh wearing a pastel rainbow dress” (60, 23, 165). 

Awad uses the Drafts to make validation from the MFA physical; she also makes physical the meticulous editing cultivated in creative writing workshops. As a product of Brown’s MFA herself, Awad externalizes this editing process in her narrative in order to demonstrate Samantha’s unstable sense of self regarding Warren (aptly named after a rabbit’s burrows) as well as the Bunnies. When Samantha is ousted from the warmth and safety of the Bunny blob, reality skews and she becomes physically weakened—her schoolwork and her mastery of the English language weakens in tandem. She misspells words (“i have not bin in my right—”) and makes no progress on her thesis (193). Acceptance by the ‘in-group,’ Warren or Bunny, is the condition of Samantha’s (and the narrative’s) stability. When Samantha does get ‘in,’ the world is simple and pink: as her first-person narration gives way to first-person plural, she can “hug to take away all of [her] owies” and becomes one of many “bright, shining lights” (123). Awad cultivates a world in which being an outsider is the worst possible outcome— and being an insider is sweetly and pinkly welcoming. As the protagonist, Samantha’s desperate need to belong becomes the reader’s as well, placing us in the heart of her satire. Rather than face a world in which the only jobs available are “waitress” or “office wench,” Samantha instead falls victim to the allure of belonging— belonging to an elite of “rich playing poor” who contribute “aesthetically beautiful because luxuriously useless” prose to Warren’s portfolio of cultural capital (Awad 57-58, McGurl 128).  

Bunny’s paratext belies its interior: a neon pink cover and blurbs bookended with “via Twitter” advertise Awad’s novel as entrenched in contemporary culture, namely one that is teenage and female. Even as we descend into Awad’s occult, surreal narrative, she grounds it steadily in the same pink of Bunny’s cover. Her characters are teenage adults— performing sleepover séances to create Drafts who validate their insecurities, much in the same way that Workshop validates their cultural capital. As McGurl’s campus performance artists, Samantha and the Bunnies demonstrate the clique of higher education. Their recital of adolescence within the MFA setting spells out Awad’s criticisms of the university. For all its girlish pink, Bunny removes the rose-colored garb cloaking the MFA program, revealing instead an insular and predatory cycle which, in its constant desire for cultural capital, usurps true originality.

Works Cited

Awad, Mona. Bunny. Penguin Canada, 2020.

Butler, Halle. “Monstrous Cute: An Interview with Mona Awad.” The Paris Review, 12 June 2019, Accessed 27 March 2023.

Harbach, Chad. “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” Slate Magazine, 26 November 2010, Accessed 27 March 2023.McGurl, Mark. “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fiction.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 32, no. 1, 2005, pp. 102-129, Accessed 27 March 2023.