“Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement. Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.”
In Issue 10 (Fall 2010) of the literary magazine n+1, novelist Chad Harbach contrasted two contemporary cultures and means of making a living as a writer in America; the world of New York mainstream publishing, and the university MFA programs that sprang up in imitation of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Once a young writer realizes that there is such a career as “author,” they are usually conceiving of the NYC model, whereby writers are paid through an advance from a publisher. But increasingly, Harbach argues, authors actually make their living in the education system, teaching writing or literature at universities and colleges, and in MFA programs. In response to Harbach’s essay, MFA vs NYC brings together a variety of authors, professors, agents, and publishers from both worlds to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of an MFA, living in New York, and numerous other issues that preoccupy aspiring authors. Broadly divided into two sections about the MFA program and the New York writing scene, the essays in this collection range from intellectual to anecdotal.
In the opening salvo of the MFA section, George Saunders argues that “it only takes one good example to disprove the generality” that writing programs are bad, and indeed, some of the contributors experiences sound pleasant. “I cannot imagine another place where a person can take a week off from life because she has an idea,” writes Maria Adelmann, who attended the University of Virginia’s writing program. By contrast, Carla Blumenkranz’s piece about famous MFA instructor Gordon Lish’s philosophy of seduction (and habit of sleeping with his female students) made my skin crawl. The consensus for many writers who feel they benefited from their programs seems to be that the time (and funding) to write, and the community of fellow writers provided by an MFA program, are at least as valuable as the actual instruction you receive there. The arguments against the MFA are still best embodied by the excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s 1988 article “The Fictional Future,” reprinted in MFA vs NYC, where he observes that “writing teachers are by calling writers, not teachers. 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 consequences.” However, the collection also frequently addresses the old accusation that MFA programs produce indistinguishable writers.
By contrast, the conflict of the NYC section centres mainly on money and the publishing business. Since most writers cannot make a living from advances and royalties, and these NYC contributors are not partaking of academic funding, their stories often involve being broke, or discouraged by the time it took to get published, and the endless rejection that an aspiring writer is almost inevitably subjected to. The criticisms here relate more the experience of being in the NYC publishing world, and have less to do with the merits of the system than the MFA section, creating a slight imbalance between the two halves.
Though primarily divided into two sections on MFA and NYC, the collection also includes some smaller sections that delve into teaching, among other subjects, and an essay about the inaugural Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest that nods towards self-publishing, which is otherwise not discussed. That these essays cannot be easily categorized into MFA or NYC speaks to the fact that while Harbach’s original conceit is helpful, it does not comprise the full spectrum of writing culture in America. There are intersections and side streets that are not fully addressed here.
All of this is well worth considering for anyone who wants to be a writer, teaches writing, or is debating the merits of enrolling in an MFA program. To call the book rigorous would be a misrepresentation, but is reasonably diverse, giving a varied picture of the New York publishing scene, and the experiences of taking or teaching in an MFA program.