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

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

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

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Nov. 26 2010 7:21 AM


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

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New York can't be excelled at two things: superstardom and forgetfulness. And so the New York "canon," at any given moment, tends to consist of a few perennial superstars—Roth, DeLillo, Pynchon, Auster—whose reputations, paradoxically, are secure at least until they die, and beneath whom circulate an ever changing group of acclaimed young novelists—Joshua Ferris, Nicole Krauss, Rivka Galchen, Jonathan Safran Foer—and a host of midcareer writers whose names are magnified when they put out a book and shrink in between. Except at the very top, reputation in this world depends directly on the market and the publishing cycle, the reviews and the prizes, and so all except those at the very top have little reason to hope for a durable readership. The contemporary New York canon tends to be more contemporary than canon—it consists of popular new novels, and previous books by the authors of same.

The MFA canon works differently. The rapid expansion of MFA programs in recent decades has opened up large institutional spaces above and below: above, for writer-professors who teach MFA students; below, for undergraduate students who are taught by MFAs (and by former MFAs hired as adjuncts). All told, program fiction amounts to a new discipline, with a new curriculum. This new curriculum consists mainly of short stories, and the short fiction anthologies commonly used in introductory courses become the primary mechanism by which the MFA canon is assembled and disseminated.

A quick glance at some of the most popular anthologies shows the rough contours of the program canon. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories(1994), edited by Tobias Wolff, honors the dirty realists and their successors with a dedication to Raymond Carver, an introduction that begins, in classic dirty-realist fashion, "A few years ago I met a wheat farmer from North Dakota …" and stories by Carver, Ann Beattie (University of Virginia), Richard Bausch (Memphis), Richard Ford (Trinity College, Dublin), Tim O'Brien (Texas State-San Marcos), and Jayne Anne Phillips (Rutgers), as well as Dybek (Northwestern), Joy Williams (Wyoming), Robert Stone (Yale), Mary Gaitskill (until recently, Syracuse), Barry Hannah (Mississippi, before his death), Ron Hansen (Santa Clara), Jamaica Kincaid (Claremont McKenna), Edward P. Jones (George Washington), Joyce Carol Oates (Princeton), Mona Simpson (Bard), Denis Johnson (currently unaffiliated), and Wolff's Stanford colleague John L'Heureux. The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction(2007) retains a dozen of Wolff's picks, and adds a new generation of post-dirty, ethnically diverse writers: Amy Bloom (Wesleyan), Peter Ho Davies (Michigan), Junot Díaz (MIT), et al. Ben Marcus' Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (2004) rounds out the picture, overlapping with Scribner but not Vintage, adding still younger writers, and emphasizing recent contributions to the anti-dirty, explicitly stylized or stylish tradition—for instance, Aimee Bender (USC), Gary Lutz (Pitt-Greenberg), and Mary Caponegro (Bard).


Via these anthologies—and via word of mouth and personal appearance—a large and somewhat stable body of writers is read by a large number of MFAs and an even larger number of undergrads, semester in and semester out. Thus the oft-scorned short story may secure a more durable readership than the vaunted novel. While Denis Johnson won a National Book Award in 2007 for his novel Tree of Smoke and Junot Díaz, a Pulitzer in 2008 for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, these writers' reputations and readerships may rely more heavily on their single, slim volumes of stories, Jesus' Son and Drown, both of which are reliably anthologized and have entered the consciousness of a whole generation of college students.

One could even suggest that, in the absence of a contemporary American canon produced by the critics in the English department (that one consists only of Toni Morrison), the writers in the MFA program have gone ahead and built their own—as well as the institutional means to disseminate, perpetuate, and replenish it. This canon centers on short works, and distinguishes itself from the New York canon in other ways. While it still avails one to be a white guy in NYC, at least at the top of the market where Franzen, DeLillo, and Roth reside (and where the preferred ethnic other remains the Jewish male), the MFA canon has a less masculine tone, and a more overt interest in cultural pluralism. And while the New York list updates itself with each new copy of the Times Book Review, the MFA canon dates back, with pointed precision, to 1970—the year of the earliest story in both the Vintage and Scribner anthologies. NYC remembers the '70s not at all, and the '80s only for the coke, but the MFA culture keeps alive the reputations of great (Ann Beattie), near-great (Joy Williams), and merely excellent writers whom publishing has long since passed by.

1970, not coincidentally, also marks the beginning of the careers of many of the eminent writers who emerged from the MFA heyday, and who now hold the most distinguished chairs in the MFA culture. Thus the MFA canon is a living canon not just by definition—it is, after all, "contemporary" literature—but because the writers who comprise it are constant presences on the scene and active shapers of the canon's contents. They teach (however reluctantly); they advise; they anthologize; they travel from program to program to read. A writer's university becomes an automatic champion of her work, and as her students disperse to jobs at other schools, so does the championing. The writer doesn't assign her own work—she doesn't have to—but she assigns that of her friends, and invites them to speak. It will be interesting to see what happens when this group of older writers dies (they are unlikely to give up their jobs beforehand); whether the MFA canon will leap forward, or back, or switch tracks entirely, to accommodate the interests, private and aesthetic, of a younger group of writer-teachers. Perhaps (among other possibilities) the MFA culture will take a turn toward the novel.

As the MFA fiction writer moves toward the poetic/academic model, the NYC writer moves toward the Hollywood model. Not because fiction writers earn their keep as screenwriters (a few do, but that was by and large an earlier era; MFA/NYC could be said to have replaced NYC/L.A. as an organizing cultural rubric) but because New York publishing increasingly resembles the Hollywood world of blockbuster-or-bust, in which a handful of books earn all the hype and do humongous business; others succeed as low-budget indies; and the rest are released to a shudder of silence, if at all. Advances skew to the very high and the pitifully low, and the overall economics of the industry amplify and reinforce this income gap, as the blockbuster novelist not only sells her book to an actual film studio—thus stepping out of the shadow-world into the true bright one—but also parcels out lucrative translation rights to foreign markets. The advance multiplies; the money makes money. And—what's better than money—people will actually read the book.