Lee's Reviews > MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

MFA vs. NYC by Chad Harbach
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Oct 30, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: potential-conflict-of-interest, things-i-have-stuff-in


I don't have an essay in this pretty excellent essay collection but I've used the "things I have stuff in" tag to shelve it because in 2008, two years after I graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop with an MFA in fiction, I drank some icy white wine and talked on the phone with a guy I knew a little bit from when I'd lived in NYC before Iowa -- he was working on an interview-based article of some sort for Vice Mag about the MFA and workshops etc. We talked for an hour, I got loose and ranted, and he asked questions and sounded like he was listening or at least was still on the line whenever I paused. In exchange for semi-drunkenly rambling about Iowa for an hour, he sent me an ARC of 2666, a signed copy of my former teacher's latest novel (Home), and the new Leonard Michaels collection. "2666" blew my doors off and I was psyched for the interview to show up in Vice, but then it never seemed to come out. Huh. Too bad. I forgot about it. Five years later I received an e-mail from an editor at n + 1 saying they're putting this "MFA vs NYC" collection together and they'd like to use some quotations (~two tweets worth) from me from the interview, which Vice apparently published at some point, and then months later the friendly people at n + 1 sent an ARC of the book, which I just found to be an enjoyable, stimulating, at times pleasureably enervating trip down MFA/NYC lane.

This essay collection acknowledges of course what many suspect -- some writers in the world might not have MFAs and not live in NYC, or might even have MFAs and not live in NYC and yet they still somehow manage to write and publish -- but as a former resident of Brooklyn (specifically, Greenpoint about a decade before "Girls," a few miles north of what Chad Harbach deems the NYC where NYC novelists live: "a small area of west-central Brooklyn bounded by DUMBO and Prospect Heights") who moved to NYC to meet some writers and, as in an O. Henry story (a refrain twice repeated herein), immediately wound up dating a doozy of a young writer (no MFA, occasionally visiting NYC from her distant homeland, although she lives there now) and meeting some of her writer friends who I'd heard about more than I'd read, and then a little later on dating another young writer from NYC who despised the city and lived in Iowa City after attending the Workshop, which I eventually wound up attending, participating in the final complete workshop taught by Frank Conroy (his portrait in this is a good one but doesn't mention how he evoked "magic" and repeated phrases like "respect the experiment" and "protect the edge" when evaluating unconventional work like mine), this book seemed more or less written for me. But there's enough in here to hold anyone's attention, probably, as long as you're interested in a tour of fiction writing sausage factories in this country.

As a current resident of a city 88 miles southwest of NYC, I sort of maybe semi-resent the suggestion that one must either live in NYC or teach creative writing. Reading this collection made my own story stir in me so strongly in counterpoint and harmony that I considered delivering it at length and in detail in this space, since it covers both bases, to a degree, plus a third not mentioned so much: living elsewhere, working a full-time job, waking up early before work almost every day to write, finding like-minded writer friends with whom to drink immoderately, and participating in what sometimes feels like a community of all sorts of writers, many of whom have an MFA and/or have lived in NYC. There are other alternatives too -- more solitary and adventuresome, like saving up for a long solo travel through inexpensive territories, staying in cheap hotels, writing all day (travelogues and stories). I did this in Central America when I first was becoming a writer. Four months of experiences for about $1000 -- wrote a ton. I also later worked in bookstores and cafés and read and wrote -- the pay wasn't so hot ($7/hr) but I was around books and learned all the names so my reading list exploded. Or, like Joyce, one could teach English in another country and make use of the solitary time as a stranger in a strange land.

In general, regardless of rationalities imposed upon ideas about living and writing (a not-entirely-rational art), it's about putting in the work and producing what feels right -- not to teachers, fellow students, or the lovely NYC publishing industry -- but to you as a writer and a reader. In another city, working a non-writing–related job that covers the bills and doesn't impinge on the mental space of nights and weekends, I'm free to explore the natural canonical and the contemporary pathways of my reading instead of attending to the obligations of reading student stories or ARCs or the manuscripts of friends hoping to sell their novels for a few hundred billion so they can buy a 1BR walk-up in the East Village -- and, importantly, I can afford a decent life without worrying too much about money. I don't feel at all constricted by, as Harbach says, "the silky web that binds writers to the demands of the market, demands that insinuate themselves into every detail and email of the writer's life." Outside of it and yet not really an outsider at all, I've become the sort of writer who says things like "the work is its own reward" -- and who also recognizes that phrase as a loser's mantra. But when sufficiently caffeinated and/or optimistic, the icons for unpublished manuscripts arranged in a grid on my desktop seem to me like a badge of right-minded effort -- I'm sure they'll all find a home one day. And if not -- welp -- I'll make more.

Anyway, the essays in here that present NYC as a professional institution -- essays by agents and publicists particularly -- were illuminating. An excellent agent says he only reads about six novels a year, other than all those he's evaluating and selling for work -- what are the chances that one of these books is Joseph and His Brothers or Extinction, books that might obliterate a market-based perspective of what's good? He also probably doesn't read canonically, as DFW and Elif Bautman and others assume that writers in MFA programs don't do either, which isn't quite totally true, in my experience. A NYC blogger writer rarely mentions reading anything at all although she does go on about her internet addiction and her cat's health issues (and the resulting costs) at length. I particularly liked the transparency in a few essays about finances -- making a living writing ain't easy, apparently. In general, there's a sense that everyone in NYC is trying to survive the city's exaggerated $$$ pressures -- and it's possible that such pressure turns rocks into gems. I've always argued that there's no reason for the literary industry to remain in NYC since NYC undermines its interests. No one buys hard covers because they're too expensive but need to be so costly to cover the publisher's rent. The whole enterprise should really move to rural Pennsylvania or maybe even Iowa City if it wants to prevail and not simply survive. On the MFA side of things, I most agree with George Saunders: "You are not going to be doing this workshop crap forever. You are doing it to get a little baptism by fire, purge yourself of certain habits (of sloth, of under-revision, of the sin of thinking you'd made a thing clear when you haven't) and then you are going to run away from the whole approach like your pants are on fire, and not look back, but return to that sacred land where your writing is private and you don't have to defend it or explain it one bit."

Post-NYC and post-MFA, that's where I feel like I am, where I stand in this "argument" -- at some point, wherever you are, you have to find a way to make enough money to write and read without worrying all the time about distractions. No longer all that young and certainly not all that wealthy, NYC seems to me too expensive and offers too many obvious distractions for a writer (unless young or wealthy). Teaching can distract from reading and writing, but you can bring your passion to play and infect young minds so they in turn buy books you and your friends publish. That's one of the best points in the book, at the end of Harbach's titular essay: the common ambition and only hope of all writers will be "to make writers of us all."

All essays in here are worthwhile -- some may stand out for you more than others. I was partial to contributions by the editor, Saunders, Eli S. Evans, Keith Gessen, the literary agent Jim Rutman, the one by the publicist in part about Prep, and the one about Gordon Lish. (The DFW essay I'd read before and think it's so-so for him.) There's a good academic/personal mix, although I found the more academic essays a little wonky and maybe even sometimes wrong (Iowa at least doesn't teach about itself and adverbs). If you don't live in NYC and don't have an MFA yet wonder what such people think, this is an invaluable collection. If you're an MFA/NYC type already, you can't help but gaze into the cracked mirror of this collection and struggle a bit (as I have) to put the pieces of your history, your thoughts, and where you stand on everything back together again in a quick, sloppy "review" like this. Thinking about this stuff for a bit is valuable, sure, no matter where you are these days. But in the end it's best to retreat to that sacred little space where you make your true living when you read and write in peace.
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Reading Progress

October 30, 2013 – Shelved
October 30, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
February 7, 2014 – Started Reading
February 9, 2014 – Shelved as: potential-conflict-of-interest
February 9, 2014 – Shelved as: things-i-have-stuff-in
February 9, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Eric (new)

Eric 'at some point, wherever you are, you have to find a pain-free/enduring way to make enough money to write and read without worrying all the time about distractions.'

That sounds good to me, and reason enough to circumvent MFA and NYC. NYC for obvious reasons. As for MFA, it's an odd notion that we can be taught to make art. 'Taught' in the academic sense, since we're always being taught by books and people and the anecdotes they share; but to formalize the learning seems at odds with the spirit of art. Unless of course the goal isn't to make art.

I'm probably just being a dork of a Romantic about it; but I suppose that even if Creative Writing programs aren't complete shit, or even if they're sort of or yet very profitable for their attendees, what finally matters is that all of my favorite books, actually probably most of the books I've read period, were written by nonattendees (don't think that's a word).


message 2: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee Eric wrote: "what finally matters is that all of my favorite books, actually probably most of the books I've read period, were written by nonattendees (don't think that's a word)."

Totally agree with that -- Bolano? Bernhard? Proust? Musil? Mann? Faulkner? None are MFA/NYC types.

Otherwise, creative writing programs, at least the one I attended, don't teach you how to write. They give you time to write and a time and place once a week to talk about what people have written. The rest is up to you. Very few technical classes at Iowa, for example. Marilynne Robinson for the most part teaches about respecting the complexity of human consciousness. James Allen McPherson mainly was all about myth and community. No one ever said "take out all adverbs!" etc.


message 3: by Eric (new)

Eric Lee wrote: "Eric wrote: "what finally matters is that all of my favorite books, actually probably most of the books I've read period, were written by nonattendees (don't think that's a word)."

Totally agree w..."


I do like the idea of getting the time to just read and write; at the same time, I think I'd rather keep busy, at least in part, with something OTHER than that.


message 4: by Jason (new)

Jason Coleman Might have to look into that cracked mirror myself.


message 5: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Eric Bennett's piece is posted at CHE :: "How Iowa Flattened Literature: With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers."

http://chronicle.com/article/How-Iowa...

If there's further interest in the history-of-mfa department ; John Barth has a few pieces about writing workshops in his Friday books. It didn't look like a rosy prospect then and the numbers have only increased since. [disclosure ; some of my favorite writers made a living employed in mfa/workshop scenarios]


message 6: by Lee (last edited Mar 03, 2014 12:18PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee John Barth in that Fridays book says somewhere something like "not even at Iowa can you major in Towering Literary Artistry." Nevertheless, for the record, at Iowa I took a seminar with Edward Carey, author of Observatory Mansions and Alva & Irva: The Twins Who Saved a City -- it was about the use of art in lit. We read Sebald, Bruno Schulz, Chris Ware, Pullmann, Gulliver's Travels. He jumped up and down about making our stuff WEIRDER. A great class, so up my alley, and so unlike what people think Iowa is. Kevin Brockmeier taught there. Jim Crace visited for two weeks. Ben Marcus nearly won the director job. There's is a long-standing Cheever/Yates-lovin' conservative streak that runs through it, but then there's Marilynne Robinson's not particularly conventional "consciousness" approach and everyone who takes Ethan Canin winds up writing a "deep POV" story. Bennett Sims, a recent grad, just published a novel involving zombies with Two Dollar Radio (A Questionable Shape), there was that talking monkey novel a few years ago (The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore), and I have an odd novel replete with illustrations coming out in the summer (The Shimmering Go-Between) that's about as un-Iowa as can be -- that Marilynne Robinson more or less refused to discuss in workshop, calling it "sensationalist." In general, I get a little ornery when people reduce the varied work of 25 writers there each year to "Iowa fiction" or say the program has flattened fiction etc. It's just not really true, or wasn't true of my time there at least.


Robert Seems like I'm in 95 percent agreement with you, Lee, except that I've never lived in NY. I'm a West Coaster, but still manage to write and publish. With the baby and realities of life lately I've lost a lot of my crazy ambition, and maybe let the indifference from "the industry" get me down a little less. If I can squeeze in writing time, and feel good about it, that seems to hold me over. And the occasional review that an editor here and there is eager to publish helps. I could write more here but I'll mull it over and put it in my blog probably. www.robertmdetman.blogspot.com
Great review; I'll probably read the book.


message 8: by Miriam (new)

Miriam No one buys hard covers because they're too expensive but need to be so costly to cover the publisher's rent. The whole enterprise should really move to rural Pennsylvania or maybe even Iowa City if it wants to prevail and not simply survive.

I'm currently reading a book from a press in Nova Scotia -- beautiful printing and great paper quality.


message 9: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee Miriam wrote: "I'm currently reading a book from a press in Nova Scotia"

If you start a petition calling for the every aspect of the NYC publishing industry to move to Halifax, I will sign it several times!


message 10: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee Linnie wrote: "Really appreciated this ..."

Somehow I just saw your kind comment. Thanks, Linnie!


message 11: by W.D. (new)

W.D. Clarke Excellent, Lee. I especially liked how you framed your own experience both reading this and working non-book related jobs (oh, and loved the Saunders quip, of course).

In Canada one could say it's "Humber vs Concordia vs UBC" (Toronto vs Montreal vs Vancouver respectively), as far as MFA (or equivalent) programs.


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