MFA vs. NYC
America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?
What will happen? Economically speaking, the MFA system has announced its outsize ambitions, making huge investments in infrastructure and personnel, and offering gaudy salaries and propitious working conditions to secure top talent. The NYC system, on the other hand, presents itself as cautious and embattled, devoted to hanging on. And a business model that relies on tuition and tax revenue (the top six MFA programs, according to Poets & Writers, are part of large public universities); the continued unemployability of twentysomethings; and the continued hunger of undergraduates for undemanding classes, does seem more forward-looking than one that relies on overflow income from superfluous books by celebrities, politicians, and their former lovers. It was announced recently that Zadie Smith—one of the few writers equipped by fame to do otherwise—has accepted a tenured position at NYU, presumably for the health insurance; perhaps this marks the beginning of the end, a sign that in the future there will be no NYC writers at all, just a handful of writers accomplished enough to teach in NYC. New York will have become—as it has long been becoming—a place where some writers go for a wanderjahr or two between the completion of their MFAs and the commencement of their teaching careers. No one with "literary" aspirations will expect to earn a living by publishing books; the glory days when publishers still waffled between patronage and commerce will be much lamented. The lit-lovers who used to become editors and agents will direct MFA programs instead; the book industry will become as rational—that is, as single-mindedly devoted to profit—as every other capitalist industry. The writers, even more so than now, will write for other writers. And so their common ambition and mission and salvation, their profession—indeed their only hope—will be to make writers of us all.
Chad Harbach is an editor of n+1. His novel The Art of Fielding will be published in 2011.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.