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Creative Writing 2014

Essays examine 'The Two Cultures of American Fiction'

May. 1, 2014
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In 2010, Chad Harbach, a novelist and editor at the journal n + 1, published a musing on the ramifications of the rapid expansion of U.S. creative writing programs. In the essay, he posited that with teaching now a viable income stream for writers, two focal points for American fiction had emerged. He termed the hubs “MFA” which exists as a diaspora of university towns, and “NYC” which finds its center in New York City’s publishing industry.

Responses to the essay were intense, with readers rushing to both malign the self-perpetuating nature of the MFA program and defend its methods and aims on pedagogical terms. Clearly, the topic was primed for commentary, so Harbach assembled writers, New York editors and agents, and MFA teachers and graduates to hash out the pros and cons of both insular worlds. The result is an essay collection, MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction (Faber and Faber).

With essays by the likes of George Saunders, Fredric Jameson and Melissa Flashman, the book takes a hard look at what it means for writers to both spring from and find employment within a fairly new academic frontier. In addition, it examines the distinct genres of writing and types of critique each outpost privileges. The resulting book is much like the MFA program itself—an outgrowth of and an offering for the self-same group.

Overall, the amassed essays are meticulously observed and cleanly written, precisely what one would expect from a pool of educated writers and experienced readers. (Though it bears noting that despite the fact that many of the contributors sprung from MFA programs, their writing styles vary.) Standouts include Eric Bennett’s nuanced historical examination of the origins of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and Emily Gould’s impressively vulnerable look at her mishandling of both her expectations and her literary advance.

On the subject of creative writing programs, the book is at its strongest when setting aside the pedestrian and easily refutable assertion that MFA programs are mere factories for cookie-cutter story production, to examine lesser-known issues. For example, David Foster Wallace astutely zeros in on the inherent conflict between writing and teaching, saying “Writing teachers [teach to] support a[n] obsessive calling; every minute spent on class business is...a minute not spent working on their own art.” He goes on to explore the resentment percolating for some writer/teachers, as well as its effect on students.

Harbach’s springboard essay remains the most satisfyingly thorough exploration of “how distinct the cultures feel and how distinctly they at least pretend to function.” Not only does he discuss the way in which critique is dumbed down to fit within a classroom’s confines, but also the conflict between NYC’s emphasis on the novel, and the MFA program’s necessary focus on the short story model.

As the product of an MFA program with a novel represented by a New York agency, I’m possibly Harbach’s ideal reader, which may be part of the problem. Perhaps the book’s only true flaw is its meta-quality; in the end, the collection is self-perpetuating, aimed at creating work for and material to benefit an insular cohort.


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