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MFA vs. NYC vs. Everybody calm down
Slate has excerpted Chad Harbach’s n+1 essay on MFA programs and NYC literary culture to no small amount of hoopla. Like a good fight promoter, Harbach knows what will get his audience riled up (as evidenced in the comments.) The title comes out swinging, pitting the MFA crowd against NYC but instead of a fight to the death, Harbach is more interested in an endurance challenge. “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?”
What might have been more appropriate though less likely to induce mouth-foaming and finger-pointing would be “America now has two distinct literary business models. Which one will last?” It’s less glamorous, sure, and it doesn’t compel the same kind of knee-jerk defensiveness that’s always the most entertaining element of cultural superiority smackdowns, but what becomes obvious fairly quickly is that this piece doesn’t really have that much to do with the culture of writers who operate at the pleasure of the academy or those who do the same dance within a particularly narrow geographic region, albeit in front of a few more people. Even Harbach admits as much; one can have “dual citizenship” in both these realms without compromising your heritage in either.
Of course the two cultures overlap in any number of obvious ways, some of them significant. The NYC writer most probably earned an MFA; the MFA writer, meanwhile, may well publish her books at a New York house. There are even MFA programs in New York, lots of them, though these generally partake of the NYC culture. And many writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC worlds, whether over the course of a career or within a single year.
The distinctions that might make one feel “alien” even while freely moving between these worlds are set up primarily by the examples of short stories vs. novels; book as product and book as notch on the CV; parties vs. parties; geographic region; and different methods of marketing, one primarily to other writers and students that’s primarily via invitation, word of mouth, and anthologies and the other that’s dependent on the large marketing budgets of New York publishing houses. These aren’t cultural distinctions, but economic.
The rise in the number of MFA programs hasn’t created a culture war intent on destroying NYC, just as NYC would be a fairly empty literary place without the MFAs. If anything, MFA programs have opened up new options as NYC publishers face outside pressures that have nothing whatsoever to do with literary culture.
The model for the MFA fiction writer is her program counterpart, the poet. Poets have long been professionally bound to academia; decades before the blanketing of the country with MFA programs requiring professors, the poets took to the grad schools, earning Ph.D.s in English and other literary disciplines to finance their real vocation. Thus came of age the concept of the poet-teacher. The poet earns money as a teacher; and, at a higher level of professional accomplishment, from grants and prizes; and, at an even higher level, from appearance fees at other colleges. She does not, as a rule, earn money by publishing books of poems—it has become almost inconceivable that anyone outside a university library will read them. The consequences of this economic arrangement for the quality of American poetry have been often bemoaned (poems are insular, arcane, gratuitously allusive, etc.), if poorly understood. Of more interest here is the economic arrangement proper, and the ways in which it has become that of a large number of fiction writers as well.
Harbach finishes up with some doom prophecies of what the future will hold if both of these “cultures” continue to their logical extreme, but it seems in some ways like we’re already there.
The lit-lovers who used to become editors and agents will direct MFA programs instead; the book industry will become as rational—that is, as single-mindedly devoted to profit—as every other capitalist industry. The writers, even more so than now, will write for other writers. And so their common ambition and mission and salvation, their profession—indeed their only hope—will be to make writers of us all.
But if the worst that economic imperatives for the survival of writing demand of us is to become writers, maybe there’s more hope for the future of literature than we think.