23 April 2014

MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

Summary from Goodreads:
Writers write—but what do they do for money? In a widely read essay entitled “MFA vs NYC,” bestselling novelist Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) argued that the American literary scene has split into two cultures: New York publishing versus university MFA programs. This book brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists, and agents to talk about these overlapping worlds, and the ways writers make (or fail to make) a living within them. Should you seek an advanced degree, or will workshops smother your style? Do you need to move to New York, or will the high cost of living undo you? What’s worse—having a day job or not having health insurance? How do agents decide what to represent? Will Big Publishing survive? How has the rise of MFA programs affected American fiction? The expert contributors, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, and Fredric Jameson, consider all these questions and more, with humor and rigor. MFA vs NYC is a must-read for aspiring writers, and for anyone interested in the present and future of American letters.

I didn't read the original essay "MFA vs NYC" when it pubbed on n+1 in 2010 (I was selling a house, OK, it was a huge pain).  When n+1/faber listed the essay collection Harbach edited to round out the MFA vs NYC debate, I was intrigued.  I mean, I can throw launch from a very large slingshot a stone across the Iowa River from my office and hit Dey House, home of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and one of my bosses is on the board of the Examined Life journal (a lit journal for people in the medical field).  It's MFA territory up in here a lot.  I was seduced into buying MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction because of the pretty, pretty cover that stood out among all the other essay collections.  And it matched my sweater.  Yes, I know I'm a weirdo.

This is a good collection.  You get a little bit of MFA history, some personal essays that refute the MFA-programs-have-a-flattening-effect-on-writing, and one that posits that does actually happen.  Some writers had good NYC experiences, some not so great, the agent who sold Alissa Nutting's Tampa talks about how he got where he is now, and there's an insider-baseball look at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  There's even a David Foster Wallace essay that reminds us, once again, that depression is the worst and takes away some of our best creative people.  And someone made me really confused with a line about JFranz detractors whose idea of good literature is German film.  Huh?  The essays don't resolve the MFA vs NYC debate one way or another.  Did they really need to?  (For an essay-by-essay rundown, complete with grades, Kit Steinkellner did a great job on the Book Riot site.)

What really got me, though, was Harbach's original essay because on the first read-through I was ready to swear he was having one over on us.  No one else was seeing this, possibly chalk one up to sleep deprivation, so I settled in with a different color pen to prove/fail to prove the theory that Harbach was funning us with his MFA vs NYC essay (I actually wrote that as my "thesis" at the start of the essay, my inner scientist never takes a break).

In the end, I have to conclude that Harbach isn't pulling our legs but he is very clever and droll.  I think his tone stems from an interesting omission.  In the course of the "MFA vs NYC" essay Harbach does not disclose that he does, in fact, have an MFA.  From the University of Virginia.  Perhaps it was assumed readers of n+1 in 2010 would already know that and that they might also know that he had just sold his first novel for six figures (The Art of Fielding would come out in September 2011 and take off like a shot), giving him a bit of experience with the NYC side of the divide as well.  His experience allows him to poke fun at both experiences:

  • In referring to MFA programs as a subject of self-satire, he mentions a DFW essay, "Francine Prose's Blue Angel, [and] that movie with the Belle & Sebastian soundtrack."
  • An MFA teacher-as-writer wants to be an outsider "lobbing his flaming bags of prose over the ivied gate" yet "in the morning puts on a tie and walks through the gate and goes to his office."
  • In describing the spread of MFA programs across the country Harbach calls out "a kind of wormhole at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at the New Yorker offices on 42nd street." [Looks around - nope, still in Iowa]
  • Summertime workshops are "picturesque make-out camps."
  • The short story focus in MFA programs "may seem like collective suicide, because everyone knows that no one reads short stories." [This statement seems a off now that multiple story collections have recently sold well.]
  • No one in NYC knows of canonical MFA writer Stuart Dybek vs no one in an MFA program will care about a new Gary Shteyngart novel 
  • The English department American literature canon consists only of Toni Morrison and the MFA canon "keeps alive the reputation of great..., near-great..., and merely excellent writers whom publishing has long since passed by." [ouch]
  • NYC writers live in a specific part of Brooklyn bounded by DUMBO and Prospect Heights.
The NYC tone was less playful, making me wonder if subbing his manuscript to the NYC publishing scene had not been initially going well.  I also thought it was interesting some of the examples of MFA/NYC crossover writer-teachers who were not mentioned - Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Marilynne Robinson, Lan Samantha Chang, Karen Russell - who have had success with both novels and short stories.  Obviously, Harbach couldn't have included every author ever, the essay would have just been a very long list, but more examples of authors who successfully work and live in the middle of the NYC/MFA divide would have been a good contrast to those who seem more either/or.  (And then there are the very successful authors - looking at Eloisa James and Co. - who have tenured academic positions not in writing programs and still sell a load of novels; do they fall into the NYC side?)

So, thesis = not proven.  

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