In a review of Mark McGurl’s book “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing,” N+1’s Chad Harbach offers a clever, tangential attack on MFA culture.
His basic premise is this: there are two distinct literary cultures in America: MFA vs. NYC. And NYC is better.
There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 854… it’s safe to say that the university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world. This situation — of two complementary economic systems of roughly matched strength — is a new one for American fiction…Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement. Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.
Here’s Harbach’s tale of the tape (with a few interpretations from me):
- Academic model
- Goal: immortality
- Format: short stories/poems
- Style: oblique, knotty
- Themes: unspoken domestic melancholy
- Theme Park: Irvine, Austin, Ann Arbor, Iowa City
- Vacation Hotspot: Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference
- Party type: departmental cocktails, bookstore readings, staying home
- Soundtrack: Belle & Sebastian
- Favorite movie: Wonder Boys
- Bosses: lit mag editors, tenure committees
- Reading matter: “Poets & Writers”
- Practitioners: Amy Hempel, (by definition, the rest are virtually anonymous)
- Hollywood Model
- Goal: fame, riches
- Format: novels
- Style: satiric, naughty
- Themes: large-scale societal change
- Theme Park: Brooklyn
- Vacation hotspot: Frankfort Book Fair
- Party type: publishing parties, publishing parties, publishing parties
- Soundtrack: Starbucks house music
- Favorite movie: The Devil Wears Prada
- Bosses: publishers, agents
- Reading matter: “Gawker” & “New York Observer”
- Practitioners: Jonathan Franzen, Shteyngart, Ferris, Foer
For the aspiring writer, Harbach recommends a middle path, aimed not at the Creative Writing department, but the English Literature department. The path walked by Bellow, Delillo, and Pynchon. Writers readable enough to become famous, yet difficult enough “to require professional explanation — thus 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.”
It’s simple really. Just write long novels that are both easy to read, and good enough to join the canon.