MFA vs NYC: Who Gets to Be a Writer?


Chad Harbach’s 2010 n+1 essay “MFA vs NYC” posited with its titular binary that there are but two paths to literary success for all the wannabe writers out there. There is the MFA route— “spread across the diffuse network of provincial college towns that spans from Irvine, Calif., to Austin, Tex., to Ann Arbor, Mich., to Tallahassee, Fla.”—which starts off with workshops full of aspiring writers run by larger-than-life instructors who have fine-tuned the discussion of craft to a science, and ends with those same once -aspiring writers eventually drilling the glories of craft into the next generation of MFA candidates. And then there is the alternate path, upon which writers find themselves “condensed in New York” and involved with the publishing industry, wherein they not only learn about writing, but also about the business of writing. Harbach acknowledged that there is some overlap between the two cultures (see: Zadie Smith, Gary Shteyngart, et al, who reside in NYC and make a substantial living off their writing, yet still work within the MFA system), but maintained that understanding the current economic  and cultural literary landscape is best—or even only—understood through this lens.

Perhaps because the assumed dichotomy of “MFA vs NYC” is so powerful (the title even packs a visual punch, not dissimilar from those old Adam West Batman effects: POW vs ZAP) or perhaps because we’re all constantly self-categorizing in order to feel less existentially alone (that is the driving impulse behind all the BuzzFeed quizzes*, right?) or perhaps because Harbach’s case for the MFA vs NYC dynamic is compelling (if not convincing to, well, me), but this essay was so widely read and oft-quoted that—three-and-a-half years later—n+1 has released a book edited by Harbach, bearing the same name. The book includes essays and quotes by writers ranging from George Saunders to Tom Spanbauer, with notable standouts from Carla Blumenkranz (on Gordon Lish’s appeal, “to really write for someone you have to want to do more for him than turn in ten pages by the end of the day Friday”), Alexander Chee (in defense of the MFA, “I think of an MFA as taking twenty years of wondering whether or not your work could reach people and funneling it into two years of finding out… but, it’s also, still, the real world”), Emily Gould (on making money in NYC, “in retrospect it seems clear that I should never have bought health insurance, nor lived by myself”), and Elif Batuman (brilliant and at times hilarious in opposition to the MFA, “when ‘great literature’ is replaced by ‘excellent fiction,’ that’s the real betrayal of higher education’), all of which take different sides on this literary grudge match. Or, you know, don’t.

Despite the strength of the book’s title (because, you know, POW, but also, even if we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, it’s hard not to judge one on its title), Harbach’s original essay (which kicks off the anthology) is one of the weakest in the book if only because it’s based on the flawed, out-of-date (or maybe never even up-to-date) premise that there is limited fluidity between the MFA and NYC camps. Harbach also only briefly mentions that this binary “like any useful rubric, leaves stuff out. San Francisco and Los Angeles, for instance. Minneapolis. Any small local movement that arises. Internet writing—that’s a big one.” Which, yes! That is a big one, even despite the fact that much of Internet writing seems to “emanate from New York or be oriented toward it,” not all of it does, not by a long shot (see: Roxane Gay). And if the whole book (if, indeed all of American fiction) was divided so neatly into these two categories, it would be hard to defend it at all, because it would have been too exasperating, too on-the-nose. But that isn’t what Harbach has done. Instead, MFA vs NYC is divvied up into sections with headers like “The Teaching Game,” “Two Views on the Program Era,” and “The Great Beyond,” within which are some of my favorite essays in the book (those by Batuman, Blumenkranz, and the excellent “Money (2014)” by Keith Gessen), and all of which demonstrate that the writers involved didn’t bother adhering too closely to the proscribed dichotomy (because they live outside that dichotomy, as almost all working writers do), and instead just used it as a starting off point before writing about their observations and experiences of being and living as a writer. All of which means that throughout the book are some of the most interesting and intelligent essays about the ins-and-outs of the contemporary literary world that I’ve ever read, many speaking lucidly and specifically to what it takes to build a career as a writer.

But so, who gets to be a writer? This was the question that plagued me as I read this book, underlining whole passages of text, recognizing the experience of embarking on a career that makes no remunerative promises but knowing that it’s the thing you do well and you’d be lost without it, and realizing that almost nobody (and certainly not any of the writers in the book) become writers because they earn an MFA or because they make the right publishing connections. No, the MFA program and the NYC publishing world might be one way of understanding how writers can build a career, but the dividing line is far too blurry for most working writers to really be anything more than a way to disparage whichever system has benefitted them the least (it’s absurd, really, how venomous many people without MFAs are toward “program fiction,” and just as absurd how defensive those with MFAs can be). The real way someone gets to be a writer (as is apparent with one quick scan of the contributors list to this book, which reads more like a web of literary and personal connections than a simple list) is by writing—and writing well—for other writers.

Harbach touches on this in his own essay, saying that one of the best things about the MFA program is that because it encourages  “writers… [to] write for other writers… their common ambition and mission and salvation, their profession—indeed their only hope—will be to make writers of us all.” Except, that isn’t just limited to MFA writers. The act of writing for other writers, and being a part of a larger (and, yes, I do mean larger than NYC) writing community is essential to the success of the individual writer. And, sure, by success I mean making a living, but I also mean that other valuable part of being a writer, namely, getting read. The people who get to be writers get there whether they travel the MFA or the NYC path (or both!), but they get there by writing the kind of things that other writers admire and respect and want to read. And so then they get to write more. And they build a career. And that career might involve teaching a semester or two of creative writing 101 or it might involve working a day job in a publishing house, all in order to supplement the $25,000 advance on a book whose writing took two years of work, but it’s still a career. They’re still writers. They’re writers because they write. And they have careers based on their individual talents, yes, but also because there’s a larger collective structure to work within, a community that transcends whatever paradigm gets thrown at it, as it should. As long as writers keep writing for each other, the distinctions of pedigree will continue to fade and the real talent will prevail. That still doesn’t mean there’ll be much money in it, but, hey. Nothing’s perfect.

*I can just imagine the BuzzFeed quiz now: “What Kind of Writer Are You: MFA or NYC?” You’d have to answer questions like “Which Is Your Favorite Katie Holmes?”  or “Who Is Your Favorite Jonathan?” And depending on your answers (Wonder Boys– and The Ice Storm-Katie put you firmly in MFA territory, whereas “walking Suri to Avenues”-Katie means you’re made for NYC, obviously; and, trick question—Safran Foer, Franzen, and Ames are all NYC, only answering “no Jonathan” marks you for an MFA), you’d find out which path would be best for you to achieve literary success, and, you know, make money doing what you love.  

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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