MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?

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Nov. 26 2010 7:21 AM

MFA vs. NYC

America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?

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For the MFA writer, then, publishing a book becomes not a primary way to earn money or even a direct attempt to make money. The book instead serves as a credential. Just as the critic publishes her dissertation in order to secure a job in an ever tightening market, the fiction writer publishes her book of stories, or her novel, to cap off her MFA. There is an element of liberation in this, however complex; the MFA writer is no longer at the whim of the market—or, rather, has entered a less whimsical, more tolerant market. The New York publishing houses become ever more fearful and defensive, battened down against the encroachments of other "media" old and new and merely imagined—but the MFA writer doesn't have to deal with those big houses. And if she does get published by one, she doesn't need a six-figure advance. On the whole, independent and university presses (as for the poet and the critic) will do just fine. The MFA writer is also exempt from publicity, to a large extent—she still checks her Amazon ranking obsessively, as everyone does, but she can do so with a dollop of humor and not as an inquiry into professional survival. Instead she enters into the professor's publish-or-perish bargain, in which the writing of future books, no matter how they sell, results in professional advancement and increasing security. Is this not artistic freedom of a quiet and congenial sort? Could not books be written here in the university, all sorts of different books, that could never be written from within the narrow confines of the New York publishing world?

Yes, but. The MFA writer escapes certain pressures, only to submit to others. Early in her career, for instance, she is all in a rush to publish—first to place stories in the quarterlies, and then to get some version of her MFA thesis into print, by hook or by crook, in order to be eligible for jobs. While the NYC writer might be willing to toil obscurely for a decade or more, nourishing herself with the thought of a big psychic and financial payoff that might never come, the MFA writer is not. She has no actual physical New York to cling to, no parties to attend; if her degree is finished but her book is not, she's purely a cast-out from the world in which she wishes to move. This can encourage the publication of slight and sometimes premature books, books that might give readers, and the writer herself, the wrong idea of what she can do.

Then, later in the career, comes the more obvious pressure not to publish at all—she has, after all, become a professor, and a professor gets paid to profess. One escapes the shackles of the corporate publishing apparatus only by accepting those of the departmental administration, and of one's students, at which point the trade-off can come to seem like a bait-and-switch—although as the MFA system matures, its aspirants no doubt become more clear-eyed about what awaits them.

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The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one's instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the 10-page college term paper, or the 25-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre form.

It's not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it's that the entire culture is steeped in the form. To learn how to write short stories, you also have to read them. MFA professors—many of them story writers themselves—recommend story collections to their students. MFA students recommend other collections to one another; they also, significantly, teach undergraduate creative writing courses, which are built almost exclusively around short works. In classes that need to divide their attention between the skill of reading and the craft of writing (and whose popularity rests partly on their lack of rigor), there's no time for ploughing through novels. Also, scores of colleges now have associated literary journals, which tend overwhelmingly to focus on the short story; by publishing in as many of these as possible, a young writer begins building the reputation that will eventually secure her a job as a teacher-writer, and an older writer sustains her CV by the same means.

Thus the names that reverberate through the MFA system, from the freshman creative writing course up through the tenured faculty, tend to be those of story writers. At first glance, this may seem like a kind of collective suicide, because everyone knows that no one reads short stories. And it's true that the story, once such a reliable source of income for writers, has fallen out of mass favor, perhaps for reasons opposite to that of the poem: If in the public imagination poetry reeks suspiciously of high academia—the dry, impacted arcana of specialists addressing specialists—then the short story may have become subtly and pejoratively associated with low academia—the workaday drudgery of classroom exercises and assignments. The poet sublimates into the thin air of the overeducated Ph.D.; the story writer melts down into the slush of the composition department. Neither hits the cultural mark. A writer's early short stories (as any New York editor will tell you) lead to a novel, or they lead nowhere at all.

But there's a dialectical reversal to be found here, in which the story/novel debate reveals itself to be just one aspect of the MFA/NYC cultural divide, and in which the story might even be winning. One of the clearest signs of that divide is the way that different groups of writers are read, valued, and discussed in the two different "places"—one could, for instance, live a long, full life in New York without ever hearing of Stuart Dybek, a canonical MFA-culture story writer who oversaw the Western Michigan program for decades before moving on to Northwestern. A new Gary Shteyngart novel, meanwhile, will be met with indifference at most MFA programs. Entire such NYC and MFA rosters could be named. In effect, parallel and competing canons of contemporary literature have formed—and when it comes to canon formation, New York, and therefore the novel, may be at a disadvantage.

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