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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Thus the literary-corporate publishing industry comes to replicate the prevailing economic logic, in which the rich get richer and the rest live on hope and copy-editing. As with any ultracompetitive industry, like professional basketball or hedge funds, exceptional prestige accrues to the successes, and with some reason. The NYC writer has to earn money by writing (or else consider herself a failure in her own terms), which gives her a certain enlarged dignity and ambition. It also imposes certain strictures. First off, as already mentioned, it demands that the writer write novels.

Second, and perhaps most important, to be an NYC writer means to submit to an unconscious yet powerful pressure toward readability. Such pressure has always existed, of course, but in recent years it has achieved a fearsome intensity. On one hand, a weakened market for literary fiction makes publishing houses less likely than ever to devote resources to work that doesn't, like a pop song, "hook" the reader right away. On the other, the MFA-driven shift in the academic canon has altered the approach of writers outside the university as well as those within. Throughout the latter half of the last century, many of our most talented novelists—Nabokov, Gaddis, Bellow, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace—carved out for themselves a cultural position that depended precisely on a combination of public and academic acclaim. Such writers were readable enough to become famous yet large and knotty enough to require professional explanation—thus securing an afterlife, and an aftermarket, for their lives' work. Syntactical intricacy, narrative ambiguity, formal innovation, and even length were aids to canonization, feeding the university's need for books against which students and professors could test and prove their interpretive skills. Canonization, in turn, contributed to public renown. Thus the ambitious novelist, writing with one eye on the academy and the other on New York, could hope to secure a durable readership without succumbing (at least not fully) to the logic of the blockbuster. It was a strategy shaped by, and suited to, the era of the English department, which valued scholarly interpretation over writerly imitation, the long novel over the short story. (And when it came to white males imagining themselves into the canon, it helped that the canon was still composed mostly of white males.)

The death of David Foster Wallace could be said to mark the end of this quasi-popular tradition, at least temporarily. What one notices first about NYC-orbiting contemporary fiction is how much sense everyone makes. The best young NYC novelists go to great lengths to write comprehensible prose and tie their plots neat as a bow. How one longs, in a way, for endings like that of DeLillo's first novel, Americana, where everyone just pees on everyone else for no reason! The trend toward neatness and accessibility is often posited to be the consequence of the workshop's relentless paring. But for NYC writers—despite their degrees—it might be better understood as the result of fierce market pressure toward the middlebrow, combined with a deep authorial desire to communicate to the uninterested. The NYC writer knows that to speak obliquely is tantamount to not speaking at all; if anyone notices her words, it will only be to accuse her of irrelevance and elitism. She doesn't worry about who might read her work in 20 years; she worries about who might read it now. She's thrown her economic lot in with the publishers, and the publishers are very, very worried. Who has both the money to buy a hardcover book and the time to stick with something tricky? Who wants to reread Faulknerian sentences on a Kindle, or scroll back to pick up a missed plot point? Nobody, says the publisher. And the NYC novelist understands—she'd better understand, or else she'll have to move to Cleveland.

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It helps, too, to write long books; to address large-scale societal change and engage in sharp but affable satire of same; and to title the work with sweeping, often faintly nationalist simplicity: Mason & Dixon, say, or American Pastoral (American anything, really— Psycho, Wife, Rust, Purgatorio, Subversive, Woman). This is not to belittle these books, a few of which are excellent, but to point out that their authors are only partly at liberty (American Liberty!) to do otherwise. However naturally large the NYC novelist's imagination, it is shaped by the need to make a broad appeal, to communicate quickly, and to be socially relevant in ways that can be recreated in a review. The current archetype of this kind of novel also happens to be the best American novel of the young millennium—Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. (Franzen, famously, offered an unfortunately ahistorical account of the novelist's difficult relationship to difficulty in a 2002 essay about William Gaddis.) Having written, in The Corrections, a clear and lyrical long novel that brought large social and political forces to bear on domestic life, Franzen followed it with an even longer and clearer novel that brings even larger social and political forces to bear on domestic life. He could hardly have done anything else. Freedom is the most simply written of his books and also the most complex and best; it grapples with the most unspeakable of contemporary political problems—overpopulation—in a rivetingly plainspoken way. The novelist who converts heroic effort into effortless prose has been a standard figure since Flaubert, but in Franzen, this project comes to seem like something else, something more momentous and telling if not aesthetically superior—something, perhaps, like the willed effort of the entire culture to create for itself a novel that it still wants to read.

In short, the writer who hopes to make a living by publishing—whether wildly successful like Franzen, more moderately so, or just starting out—is subject to a host of subtle market pressures, pressures that might be neutral in their aesthetic effects, but which enforce a certain consistency, and a sort of Authorial Social Responsibility. Regardless of whether reading comprehension and attention spans have declined, the publishers think that they have, and the market shapes itself accordingly. The presumed necessity of "competing for attention" with other media becomes internalized, and the work comes out crystal-clear. The point is not that good books go unpublished—to the contrary, scores of crappy literary novels continue to get snapped up by hopeful editors. The point is that market forces cause some good books to go unnoticed, and even more—how many more?—to go unwritten.

And the NYC writer, because she lives in New York, has constant opportunity to intuit and internalize the demands of her industry. It could be objected that just because the NYC writer's editor, publisher, agent, and publicist all live in New York, that doesn't mean that she does, too. After all, it would be cheaper and calmer to live most anywhere else. This objection is sound in theory; in practice, it is false. NYC novelists live in New York—specifically, they live in a small area of west-central Brooklyn bounded by DUMBO and Prospect Heights. They partake of a social world defined by the selection (by agents), evaluation (by editors), purchase (by publishers), production, publication, publicization, and second evaluation (by reviewers) and purchase (by readers) of NYC novels. The NYC novelist gathers her news not from Poets & Writers but from the Observer and Gawker; not from the academic grapevine but from publishing parties, where she drinks with agents and editors and publicists. She writes reviews for Bookforum and the Sunday Times. She also tends to set her work in the city where she and her imagined reader reside: as in the most recent novels of Shteyngart, Ferris, Galchen, and Foer, to name just four prominent members of TheNew Yorker's 20-under-40 list.

None of this amounts to a shrewd conspiracy, as mystified outsiders sometimes charge, but it does mean that the NYC writer participates in the publishing and reviewing racket to an unnerving extent. She is an unabashed industry expert. Even if years away from finishing her first novel, she constantly and involuntarily collects information about what the publishing industry needs, or thinks it needs. Thus the congeniality of Brooklyn becomes a silky web that binds writers to the demands of the market, demands that insinuate themselves into every detail and e-mail of the writer's life. It seems like a sordid situation. Then again, the publishing industry has always been singularly confused, unable to devote itself fully to either art or commerce, so perhaps the influence works both ways; perhaps the NYC writer, by keeping the industry close, hopes also to keep it honest, and a little bit interested in the art it champions.

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