MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fictionby Chad Harbach
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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/i>/b>/b>
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.
Stemming from a similarly named essay previously published in n+1, this collection of essays and interviews edited by n+1 founder Harbach (The Art of Fielding) explores the “social and literary consequences” of a “two-headed system” in American fiction, with M.F.A. programs “dispersed through our university towns” and the Manhattan-situated trade publishing industry. Compiling the advice and experiences of multitudes of industry professionals, from agents, editors, and publicists, to practicing writers, professors and students, the collection serves as an informative discourse on the phenomenon and provides insight into oft-debated questions about the M.F.A. system and survival as a writer in New York. In “A Mini-Manifesto,” writer George Saunders warns that “saying ‘Creative writing programs are bad’ is like saying ‘college football teams are bad’ or ‘book clubs are bad’ or ‘emergency rooms are bad’. All it takes is one good example to disprove the generality.” In “The Disappointment Business,” agent Jim Rutman describes various setbacks that a writer encounters during the publication process, and how we “live in hope of being, or representing, the celebrated exception.” In “Money (2006),” Keith Gessen covers the urgent question of how much money does a writer need. Educational with a humor added to the sincere distress of writers nationwide, this collection is an invaluable read to aspiring writers or those interested in the future of American fiction. (Feb.)
The internecine skirmish between "the two cultures of American fiction," writers who learn their craft in university settings—the MFAs—and those who daily deal with "real-world" issues in an increasingly competitive publishing industry—the NYCs—has raged for decades (and, to be fair, the two are inextricable). Drawing on his eponymous 2010 essay for the journal n+1, editor Harbach (The Art of Fielding) examines "some of the social and literary consequences of this two-headed system—albeit one in which the two heads are always chatting and bickering and buying each other drinks." An acclaimed novelist, Harbach is no stranger to the pitfalls and rewards of both writing and publishing, and he collects some of the biggest names on both sides of the debate to weigh in: George Saunders, Diana Wagman, David Foster Wallace, and others, as well as agents, editors, publicists, and students. The book's contributors neatly articulate the opposing viewpoints in practical and quite creative ways, with each essay separated by a brief commentary on some aspect of the profession. VERDICT Any reader who aspires to make a living as an author would do well to devour this collection. Also, general readers wanting to discover more about the ins and outs of both writing and publishing will find much here to enjoy.—Patrick A. Smith, Bainbridge Coll., GA
A cast of literary professionals offers an entertaining bounty of experience, opinions and advice. Novelist Harbach's (The Art of Fielding, 2011) 2010 opinion piece in n+1, the magazine he founded, made a splash with its critical analysis of ever-expanding MFA programs, the enduring hub of New York City publishing and the potential each of them holds for aspiring writers. The editor's shrewd if pessimistic essay launched what he calls "a kind of jointly written novel—one whose composite hero is the fiction writer circa 2014"—in which perceptions from a wide spectrum of struggling authors, skilled teachers, students, agents, editors and publicists comingle with essays from best-selling literary luminaries. George Saunders offers a 15-point "mini-manifesto" on the challenge of creative writing programs, while Providence College English professor Eric Bennett discusses the nuances of his time spent at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Alexander Chee's lively autobiographical entry on his life and experiences at the Workshop segues marvelously into a discussion of how New York City absorbs and transforms published authors like Sloane Crosley, who identifies the business of publishing as being "so blessed and so cursed at the same time." Sterling Lord Literistic agent Jim Rutman contributes tales of the slush pile, while Trident Media Group agent Melissa Flashman offers her perspective on the delicate balancing act performed by agents and publishers on behalf of productive authors. From these dispatches, the outlook for beginning writers is less than sunny, but poet Darryl Lorenzo Wellington's eye-opening confessional on judging manuscripts for Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award does hint at a "publishing revolution." Collectively thought-provoking and provocative, this first publication in a new partnership between Faber & Faber and n+1 inches readers further toward understanding the often complex, political machine that transforms an idea into a published product. Other contributors include Elif Batuman, Caleb Crain, Keith Gessen and Lorin Stein. Essential insights, masterfully assembled, on the precarious state of American publishing.
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MFA vs NYC
The Two Cultures of American Fiction
By Chad Harbach
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2014 n+1 Foundation
All rights reserved.
Saying that "Creative writing programs are bad" is like saying "College football teams are bad" or "Book clubs are bad" or "Emergency rooms are bad." All it takes is one good example to disprove the generality.
Most critiques I read of creative writing programs or writing in the academy are kicking entities that don't actually (in my experience) exist. The trope about CW students not reading, or being encouraged to be sort of a historical and New Agey—I don't see that. I really don't. And I travel to a lot of MFA programs. Everywhere I go, people are reading, and reading deeply, and not just contemporary fiction either. And people seem to realize they are part of a tradition, and had better know that tradition if they hope to further it.
Likewise the trope about "producing writers who all write alike." That trope is so well known that it is a cliché, such a cliché that I don't know a single CW teacher who is not aware of it and on the watch for it. (It could be argued that anytime you get ten to forty people together and have a core group of teachers, some homogenization is going to happen, but, in a sense, isn't that what culture is? The establishment of a standard and then a resulting attempt to mimic that standard, followed by a passionate revolt against that stupid repressive reactionary standard, which is then replaced by a lovely innovative pure new standard, et cetera?) (It's also possible that the perception of homogeneity is a function of the fact that, as CW programs expand so that every town has fifteen of them, more average writers are being let in [see no. 11, below] and so what we are really seeing is a bunch of average writers doing what average writers are supposed to do, which is write average. It might also be possible that, in any generation, there are only about two writers who are really great anyway, and it takes time to sort that out, and meanwhile the books keep flying off the presses.)
As in all things, we have to look at particulars. If someone says, "Creative writing programs are bad," I think we want to ask: "Which one?" And: "When?"
I would feel weird if my students were going into mad debt to study with me. At Syracuse, we give 100 percent remitted tuition and about $15,000 a year, which a person can (sort of, approximately) live on in Syracuse. In any event, nobody's leaving here with, you know, $80,000 in student loans. So this changes the dynamic dramatically. I feel good about teaching here, I feel like it's honest. If we can help someone along their personal trajectory, great. If not, well, the person is only three years older than he or she was. It's not so high-stress, which creates a more pro-art atmosphere. And I think we're pretty honest about our limitations, and our role, and the need for students to take charge of their own artistic development and resist the potentially infantilizing effects of "being accepted" and being back in school and all of that—that is, the tendency to surrender agency to the program.
I try constantly to be lobbing out thoughts on the potential dangers of the thing we are doing—that is, the perils of the workshop model. There are many. But if you admit them and lay them on the table, I think they lose a lot of their power. So I try pretty often to say: How are we doing here? Is there something in the way we're looking at these stories that might be forbidding certain possibilities? Are we actually talking crap here? Being reductive? And to ask: What, of all this stuff I'm saying, might actually be helping you? What's just obnoxious? What do you want more of, what do you want less of? I think this is important, in the same way that you'd want your doctor to have a proper level of skepticism about the scientific method.
The numbers are important. We admit six students a year in fiction and have basically three fiction people teaching here, with one floating semester-long line a year for a guest writer. That's a pretty good ratio and it means we absolutely know our students. We know them personally and we care about them, and so this presents an incredible range of so-called "teaching moments." Say I've had X in three classes, and have had a number of good and intimate conferences with X, about the work but also maybe about the personal dynamics behind the work, and I know something about X's process, and about what X has and hasn't read/liked, and I also know what X hates about his/her work, where he/she blocks up ... that's valuable information. And if you're paying attention you can sometimes find out-of-the-classroom moments to do little tweaks, little pushes, little confusions that might help a dam break or whatever. But this can only happen—or happens more often—when you have a manageable number of students.
There are, alas, a lot of problems with aspects of the creative writing program idea, but my contention is that as long as a person (and the program itself) is mindful of these things, they can become part of the very things the workshop is talking about. For example, let's say we're talking about the twentieth-century American short story collection. We might, in talking about Flannery O'Connor, find ourselves wondering if the standard workshop mode of discussion is too rational to really explain the glories of her work. That is, does the "normal" workshop approach really come to terms with the level of extrarationality in her work and, if not, how might we change that, or at least stay alert to that possibility? This all seems to me to be fair game.
It's important, I think, to see the whole MFA thing as a pretty freaky but short-term immersion. 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've 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 or explain it one bit. If you need that immersion and think it would help, go for it. If not, not. And don't apply just because you think it's the thing to do or is a "good career move" or everyone else in your school is doing it. Apply when you really feel you need ... something: shelter or focus or good readers or just some time out of the capitalist shitstorm.
If someone wants to go to a CW program, then goes to a CW program and it sucks, she probably won't die from it. And she might at least feel: Well, I took my chance.
It's important to remember that a CW program is neither necessary nor sufficient. That is: you don't have to go through one to write a beautiful book, and going through one will not assure that you will write a beautiful book. And: no teacher in any CW program that I know of has ever claimed the contrary of the two statements above (that is, that going through a CW program is necessary or sufficient).
There are probably too many CW programs. I say this because, if we accept that talent in writing basically resembles the classic bell curve—with a very few really amazing writers at the far end and some real stinkers at the near end, and a bunch of pretty good/average writers in the big bump in the middle—then it would be a little weird if the twin vertical lines demarcating the range we label "Accepted to Grad School" get so widely spaced that the range includes the whole middle section—if, that is, any good/average writer can get in. This is the same as saying, I suppose, that there are tons more writers in grad school than there will ever be spaces on the bookshelf for, or teaching jobs for, or whatever.
There is something gross about a culture telling a bunch of people who are never going to be artists that they maybe are, even if only by implication. This might argue for, you know, shutting down a few programs. But who's going to do that? And why would we? Or, you know, why would "they"? Most of them are making money. And, from the young artist's point of view: "Hey, give me a chance! I'm not one of the average ones! I'm not! This is all I've ever wanted to do!" Which seems fair enough.
It's important to remember that the ability of a teacher to know "who's got it" is pretty wobbly. Especially when you are working with young writers, who can grow exponentially in just a few months. This means, therefore, that acceptance/rejection is not all that meaningful. Well, I mean, obviously it's meaningful to the person being accepted or rejected. But it's not 100 percent diagnostic. There are definitely going to be people who get rejected and go on to write wonderful books. Every year, at every school. So this puts a certain onus on the young (applying) writer: don't think acceptance/rejection is (necessarily) a dealbreaker or dealmaker. It's not. (And as a corollary, I'd say it's very important for the teacher of writing to have a little internal mantra that goes: "Well, I could be wrong. How should I know? I've been wrong before." One thing I don't like is when a writing teacher plays seer. You know: "I've seen a lot of young writers come down the pike, and you, Ferdinand, have got It. Mel doesn't. Mel thinks he does, but Mel—oh, poor Mel. Shoot, here he comes.")
We all love the idea of, you know, Tolstoy and Chekhov and Gorky exchanging manuscripts and passionate letters of critique and so on (or Ginsberg/Kerouac or Hemingway/Fitzgerald, whoever), and so maybe the goal would be for one's CW community to look something like that: a bunch of artists, living simply and honestly, cutting out the crap, trying to construct a happy little petri dish, forming intense friendships that center around, but are not limited to, art, and that continue on through the rest of their lives.
I was once doing some screenwriting with a kind of famous producer and expressed some hesitation about writing a scene the way he was suggesting. "I just think it might be a little cheesy if it was, you know, filmed wrong," I said.
"Ah," he said. "Here's an idea: how about we don't film it wrong?"
The same applies for CW programs. If they suck when we do it wrong, let's try to not do it wrong. +
I came to an MFA somewhat accidentally. I was very interested in writing, but the idea of sitting in a classroom for two years with other twenty-four-year-olds in Randomtown, USA, wasn't of particular interest to me. What happened instead, also somewhat by accident, was that I started working at The New Yorker. First as an editorial assistant, and then I was made an editor when I was twenty-five. At that point I wasn't going to leave to go to an MFA. But I was writing poems, and I had been writing fiction also. It was my conviction that I could write the poems on my own and turn them into a book. But as anyone who works in publishing knows, your job takes up a lot of time and energy. You have to be really fierce about it. You have to devote your night hours to your work. So I found myself at a place where I had a bunch of poems, but I wasn't growing as much as I could have as a writer.
I had this quasi-manuscript and wanted to finish it. I wanted to work with someone. A friend of mine—she was a medical student at NYU, and writing a lot of poems—mentioned this program she was doing at Warren Wilson where you go for ten days a year. You're assigned a mentor whom you work with throughout the semester. And I thought: This is what I've been looking for. I didn't care about the degree—I did it for that mentorship.
Meghan O'Rourke, Warren Wilson, 2005
When I was in college, I knew I wanted to get an MFA. I remember consulting with my mentor Rob Cohen at that point, and he said, "Give it some time; take some time off." Anyway, I went back and forth—I was going to apply right after college but ended up taking two years off. And that's a conversation that I have with my students now, and I'm glad that I took those two years off and that's what I tell them to do too.
Eleanor Henderson, University of Virginia, 2005CHAPTER 2
Basket Weaving 101
I remember the two postcollege years I spent in New York as one long day in a windowless room. I shared an office with four other people and a printer that emitted heat like a radiator. I decorated the space above my desk with little quotes and scraps from glossy magazines, reminders of the life I wasn't living. Each day when I arrived at work, I'd place the novel I was currently reading at the corner of my desk—it was my beacon of light, my reward. Books were how I measured my days and how I endured them.
After finishing college, I had gone straight to a full-time job in New York. I knew I wanted to write, but I didn't think I wanted an MFA—it seemed silly to get a degree in something so personal and, in theory, unteachable. Besides, I needed money, I needed to act like an adult, I needed to feel the pressure of the "real world." I figured I could earn money by day and write by night.
By day, I was a Visual Merchandising Creative Manager for a clothing company. I dressed mannequins and drew illustrations that detailed how stores should fold clothes and set up displays. I had thought the word "creative" meant I would be doing something fun. For a few months, it did seem fun. Then it got old.
And by night? By night I was asleep.
At the height of my short career, I was making $55,000 a year but spending sixty hours a week at or commuting to the office. I had two friends, peers from my windowless office. Tasks became repetitive. And to what purpose was I working? To sell crappy clothes? I started listening to books on tape at work, pretending it was music. I wrote down a quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray and pinned it to my bulletin board: "Experience ... is merely the name men give to their mistakes." Women, too.
I began planning my escape. If I switched to a part-time job that allowed more time to build a creative life, I would take a severe pay cut and lose my health insurance. I recalled a college writing professor once saying that a story I'd written might earn me a spot in a competitive MFA program, and that such programs often paid tuition and living expenses. I used the printer in my office to make an eleven-by-seventeen spreadsheet about MFA programs, their requirements, and the funding they offered. I applied to eighteen fiction programs, which cost me about $1,000. I chose fiction not because it was my preferred genre—I was more interested in just about every other genre, including poetry, nonfiction, and screenwriting—but because I had an appropriate writing sample and could conjure up the necessary recommendation letters. I was not going to spend another year in New York.
I was accepted to seven programs and wait-listed at a few more. I decided on the University of Virginia, which offered a $16,000 fellowship in the first year, followed by a teaching salary of about $10,000 during the second and third years. The $40,000 "pay cut" from Visual Merchandising didn't weigh on me at all—my new salary left me in a friendlier tax bracket, my student loans could be deferred without interest because I was in school again, and everything in Virginia cost less than in New York. (My car insurance payment, for example, decreased by $100 a month.) And I'd been living extremely frugally in New York—putting nearly $800 a month in my savings, and sending another $1,000 to pay off college loans.
I actually spent more money in Virginia going out than I had in New York—suddenly I had time and friends. I drank. A lot. I even blew $1,000 on a hazy, one-week bender in Tennessee. I ate out—more often than in New York, but very cheaply. In 2010, I ate dinner at IHOP on twenty-one Thursdays, for the 50 percent student discount. In 2011, I spent thirty Tuesdays at a local restaurant that had a $5 dinner special. Usually I ordered the burger, but sometimes I preferred the salmon sandwich.
Excerpted from MFA vs NYC by Chad Harbach. Copyright © 2014 n+1 Foundation. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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