Review: MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

In which literary types spill their guts–and their bank statements.

MFA vs. NYC GR

It was fall of 2010 when up-and-coming writer Chad Harbach first published MFA vs. NYC, an essay designed to take a long, hard, look at contemporary literary culture in America. Speaking partly in response to Marc McGurl’s The Program Era (Harvard University Press, 2009), Harbach observes that the world of books seems now to have split into two distinct camps: in the first are MFA programs, ossifying by the minute into ever-more permanent checkpoints on the paths of young writers. In the second is the hardscrabble pavement of New York, kicking, churning and publishing as always, and yet as never before.

While not mutually exclusive, Harbach explains that these worlds have come to function largely independent of one another, each one now possessing a distinct set of norms, predilections, and pay scales. The ways in which these differences impact writers and their work is what Harbach is most interested in; which (if either), he asks, produces quality writing?

The public response to Harbach’s essay was overwhelming; in just a few short months the piece seemed to sprout legs of its own, catapulting beyond the pages of n+1 (Harbach’s highly-regarded literary magazine) to spawn discussion in book groups and faculty rooms alike. Last year, the essay reached adulthood, maturing into a full-length book jointly published by n+1 and Farar & Farar. The book takes the form of a series of essays, each of which lends subtlety, nuance, and  (perhaps most importantly) a personal face to Harbach’s original claim.Acting as editor to pieces penned by both newcomers and intellectual heavyweights like George Saunders, Elif Batuman, and the late David Foster Wallace, Harbach charts the topography of today’s literary landscape, highlighting the hotspots, oft-traveled paths, and (my personal favorite) the “wormhole [s] at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at the New Yorker offices on 42nd Street.”

Yet for all the ways in which his collection addresses distinctly modern tendencies, the story Harbach tells is, at its core, an eternal one: writers, like all of us, need food, clothes, shelter; in a word, they need money, preferably in the form of a steady income stream. There are, of course, various ways to acquire this, which (predictably) involve varying degrees of relation to the actual craft of writing. In the course of the collection, we hear, for example, from Alexander Chee, whose first book was published only after two years in Iowa’s MFA program followed by six long years waiting tables. We hear also from Maria Adelmann, a recent MFA grad whose most lucrative source of income is not short stories or novellas, but a burgeoning Etsy card business. And we hear at length from writers—George Saunders and Diana Wagman among them—who earn their incomes teaching, some much more readily than others.

For every way a writer can make money, there are a million ways she can lose it. Harbach’s scribes have much, too, to say on this subject, most profoundly on what happens after that golden moment when the paycheck from the advance on one’s first publication arrives. In a chapter aptly titled “Money (2014),” Keith Gessen pens an honest and open account of exactly where that paycheck goes. “How had I managed,” he muses, “to squander all that money? Sometimes it seems unbelievable to me, something out of Dostoevsky; other times I can see pretty clearly how it happened.” In moments like these, Gessen’s candor (if not his accounting) is worthy of high praise. And while it’s not quite clear what this signifies, it’s worth mentioning that both Gessen and his girlfriend (Emily Gould, who tells a cautionary tale similar to Gessen’s in her guileless, scrappy account of the dissipation of her own $170,000 advance) make it a point to mention the $1,500+ spent on Gould’s cat.

As Andrew Martin wisely notes in his New Yorker review, this continued drumbeat of young creatives hard-up for cash does tend to cast a dark pall over Harbach’s contributors, at times causing their motivations to feel (falsely) narrow. He writes:

You might get the impression from the essay, and from the book as a whole that people write fiction either to get a good teaching gig or to be toasted forevermore at New York parties, while commanding big advances.

This is, Martin continues, “frustrating because the things that make good fiction—things like families, relationships, and death—have very little to do with either M.F.A.s or New York City.”

But putting aside these small quibbles, I’d like to consider Harbach’s central arguments more deeply. Let’s say (strictly theoretically, of course) that I’m a young person looking to make my mark in the world of fiction. If I’m to use Harbach’s map as my guide, I see before me two main paths. Both are dark and undoubtedly thorny, but if I stick it out for long enough, I know there’s a chance that either could get me to the holy land of publication. The question for Harbach, and therefore for me, is not which is best, because both seem fairly poor options to begin with. The question instead is which is less bad, which will do the least damage to my soul, my art, and my checkbook as it takes me through my writerly paces.

I’ll first consider, as Harbach does, the MFA. The climate here is certainly pernicious. We hear in Harbach’s collection tales of long, empty days filled with little quality writing and lots of baking, drinking, crafting, and self-doubt. There is also bad writing, which seems primarily to be defined as work that is safe, or un-original, culled from the inevitable collective unconscious we’re assured will crop up when young writers gather in an academic setting for prolonged periods of time. (This is not, it should be noted, unlike the experience Lena Dunham’s Marnie is having during her stint pursuing an MFA in Iowa on HBO’S Girls.)

The strongest case for these points is laid out in a darkly sobering piece by the late David Foster Wallace. Though originally written in 1988, Wallace’s words remain definitive ones in the anti-workshop canon.  His fear is that MFA programs by their very design inhibit the sorts of emotions, discussions, and practices conducive to good writing. With regard to workshop instructors, for example, he explains:

The fact that most of them are teaching not for its own sake but to support a separate and obsessive calling has got to be accepted, as does its consequence: every minute spent on class and department business is, for Program Staff, a minute not spent working on their own art, and must to a degree be resented.

And what of their ability to actually teach said calling? Cautions Wallace:

Teaching fiction is darn hard to do well. The conscientious teacher must not only be both highly critical and emotionally sensitive, acute in his reading and articulate about his acuity: he must be all those things with regard to precisely those issues that can be communicated to and discussed in a workshop group. And that inevitably yields a distorted emphasis on the sorts of simple, surface concerns that a dozen or so people can talk about coherently.

Too, in order to remain both helpful and sane, the professional writer/teacher has got to develop, consciously or not, an aesthetic doctrine, a static set of principles about how a “good” story works. Otherwise he’d have to start from intuitive scratch with each student piece he reads, and that way the liquor cabinet lies. But consider what this means: the Program staffer must teach the practice of art, which by its nature always exists in at least some state of tension with the rules of its practice, as essentially an applied system of rules.

In her detailed portrait of literary workshops taught by the late Gordon Lish, Carla Blumenkranz offers what might be considered the extension of Foster Wallace’s essay. Her arguments in “Seduce the Whole World,” are well-researched, and insightful, coming together to form what I think may be my favorite chapter of the book. Blumenkranz chronicles Lish’s power over his students, the ways in which he “told his students to seduce the world, but in practice they wrote to seduce him, and he became adept at playing them off one another in order to maximize their interest.”

Were Lish’s tactics effective? His track record points to yes, though as Blumenkranz astutely observes, his methods often resulted in students (Amy Hempel and Yannick Murphy among them) who were literary one-hit wonders. She explains:

One difficulty with [Lish’s] method was that it only really worked once. Most of us have only so many secrets, and after a certain point we lose interest in telling them. The Lish workshops produced many good first stories, and many good first books, but they have been less successful at launching careers. Those who have persisted have made clear in the transformation of their work that they are drawing on different resources.

While there are voices in defense of the MFA (a chipper George Saunders, for one, who argues on the very first page that “saying that ‘Creative writing programs are bad’ is like saying ‘College football teams are bad’”), they feel to me drowned out by the naysayers.

So what of the second path, the time-honored testing ground that is the New York literary scene? I’ll be honest and say that I found the New York section of the book to be less cogent. Several of the essays therein seemed to miss the mark, and it’s my belief the collection could greatly benefit from a few more souls who didn’t first procure MFAs before packing it in and making their way towards the big ol’ city. But, as Harbach notes, the path from graduate workshop to NYC  is a road often traveled, so perhaps I’m asking for voices that don’t readily exist.

What’s more, I suspect that MFA writing workshops, steeped as they are in tenure and tradition, may simply make for easier targets to study. Their histories are not only short, but neatly contained, often times explicitly so in the form of memoirs and memories of students and faculty. Considered in comparison to Iowa, or the Michener Center, New York seems an endlessly vague and fast-moving target, not unlike a screaming toddler difficult to pin down.

But once you do manage to wrangle him to the ground, the toddler’s five boroughs (especially Brooklyn) all appear to bellow the same thing: popular! If you are writing in New York, Harbach cautions, you risk compromising your artistic integrity in an effort to appeal to the mass hordes of readers you’ll certainly need if you ever hope to make a living from your craft. This argument is best encapsulated in Melissa Flashman’s, “How to Be Popular.” Literary success, she reminds us, is as much attributable to good writing as it is to luck, timing, and the random cosmic factors that shape what’s cool versus not at any given moment. And while publishing “may be an industry, it is also a cultural ecosystem, [which] both reflects and shapes the interests of readers.” We’re reminded in Jynne Martin’s essay of just how powerful publicists can be; as she notes, the success of a book can be heavily influenced by one woman’s willingness to smuggle moonshine from North Carolina in an effort to push her product.

Having finished discussing the MFA, New York, and teaching, Harbach spends a final chapter on “The Program Era.” I’m willing to argue that much of this, while interesting, is needless padding in an already-strong collection. A clear exception is Elif Batuman’s piece, which took me several reads to understand and several more to process. As her remarkable essay warrants its own review entirely, I’ll spare further discussion here.

All things considered, I’d say it’s well worth it to everyone (especially young, aspiring writers) to read Harbach’s book. I think there’s much to be gained from the the open, honest confessionals by the likes of Gessen and Gould, and real value in the oft-discussed merits of MFA workshops. Whether anyone ought to use Harbach’s book to make major career decisions, however, I’m less sure. At the end of the day, I continue to believe that your physical location has little to do with your ability to be published if the drive and talent are truly there. What remains most important for writers (especially young ones) is to write, regardless of what Harbach or anyone else has to say. On that note, I’ll default yet again to the words of Andrew Martin:

As for the question of ‘MFA vs NYC’: both, probably? Move away for a while, maybe somewhere warmer than Montana. Put down the book about careers in writing. Write something good.

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