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Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City?

'MFA vs NYC' investigates the relationship between creativity and collectivity

NY: Flickr Vision; Corn field; MCT via Getty Images

In 2010, Chad Harbach published an essay called “MFA vs. NYC” that was widely circulated through both of the “cultures of American fiction” it described: a culture focused on (and funded by) the academy and its proliferation of creative writing programs; and a culture focused on (and funded by) the New York publishing industry. The essay garnered a flood of responses, many defensive, and was itself framed as a response to the 2009 publication of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, a book that became seminal in academic circles for its argument that “the rise of the creative writing program stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history.”

In that 2010 essay, Harbach mapped the respective features and topographies of his two cultures—quaint college towns vs. Brooklyn brownstones; short stories vs. novels; literary readings vs. publishing parties—and argued that the “MFA model” was changing the way fiction writers pursued and achieved financial security: becoming reliant on the academy, he claimed, would eventually make them “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.”

In 2014, it seems that not everyone is a writer, or at least not yet—but there are enough writers (or enough people willing to write about writing) to fill out MFA vs. NYC, an essay collection edited by Harbach that addresses the central question of his original piece: How do these two literary cultures interact? Or perhaps its central question is more like: What is it like to be a writer living in one or both of these cultures today? Or maybe: What kinds of literature do these respective cultures make?

In truth, one might be forgiven for being a bit confused about what exactly the central question of this collection is. The Los Angeles Times thinks the book “ponders whether getting a master of fine arts degree in creative writing is a good idea.” Though in the article that follows this headline, reviewer Carolyn Kellogg broadens the issue: “The larger question is whether institutionalizing a creative endeavor benefits our culture.” In the New York Times, Dwight Garner calls it a “volume that asks whether fiction writing can, or should, be taught.”

But I think the volume asks quite a bit more: Not so much whether writers can be taught but what it means that they are getting taught, and what it means that we keep asking this question about the legitimacy of the discipline; what our anxieties about the institutionalization of writing might teach us. The volume asks who pays the bills, and how; and also how these flows of money—the pressures they generate and the institutional affiliations they produce—affect the work itself.

All these questions jostling elbows don’t necessarily signify a flaw in the collection. So much gets lost in single-issue argumentative tunnel-vision anyway. And the diversity of perspectives is certainly compelling: These aren’t just essays from contemporary writers (with MFAs and without) but from their various handlers: agents, editors, critics, and teachers. We get disdain for Foucault in MFA-land, and bounced rent checks in NYC-land; we get the best publicity campaign in recent memory (think: pink and green belt) and the psychic stress of drop/add period on a creative writing professor still figuring out his game. We get Iowa-MFA-turned-Harvard-Ph.D. Eric Bennett’s exploration of the connections between Iowa and the CIA, specifically the ways in which the Workshop “attained national eminence by capitalizing on the fears and hopes of the cold war,” as well as the ways his own sensibility suffered from its claustrophobic aesthetic preferences: “The Workshop was like a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into.” In an essay published the year after he got his own MFA, David Foster Wallace critiques the workshop model for intrinsically privileging questions of craft while deemphasizing those qualities of fiction that “cannot quickly be identified or discussed between bells”: things like depth of vision and originality.

The collection is organized into sections—not just “MFA,” and “NYC,” but “The Teaching Game,” “Two Views on The Program Era,” and “The Great Beyond”— whose awkwardness testifies to their responsible complication of the original binary, as if to say (in structure if not statement): this is more than just one culture versus another. And by including a section called “The Teaching Game,” the collection smartly acknowledges that its broader inquiry isn’t about the value of MFA degrees so much as the entire industry that’s grown up around them: The more important financial relationship between writers and the academy is about teaching creative writing, not studying it. So when we read George Saunders’s defense of MFA programs—though it appears earlier in the volume—we know he’s also defending his own choice (to be a teacher) in his defense of the value of an MFA program for his students.

As Harbach confesses in his introduction, the real story running through these pieces is a story about money: CIA money headed to Iowa, or Iowa money headed to its students. As Wallace says, “Programs tend to be a sweet deal,” though of course this is only true for the top ones—for all the rest, most students go into serious amounts of debt. Writers throughout these essays face the shame of privilege and the specter of poverty: They join magazine mastheads to keep from going broke, or they teach to keep from going broke, or else they actually do go broke—they’re broke in Brooklyn and broke in Los Angeles. Eli Evans evokes his years living in a “warehouse on Pico and Fourth” in one perfect image, one of the most remarkable moments in the entire collection: “I once found a baby rattlesnake strangled with electrical wire and tied to a signpost.” This baby rattlesnake, apparently, is what dreams become when they don’t get poured into muffin tins.

Money is the crucial insight of Harbach’s original essay—a highly intelligent, sharply observed piece of writing that matters less for its claim that these two cultures exist and more for pointing out that they represent the two major means by which contemporary American writing is funded.

As with so many binaries, however, Harbach’s is ultimately more useful in its dismantling than its original formulation. Insofar as it maps a set of tangled distinctions between two highly privileged communities, its rigorous pursuit can start to feel like a narcissism of small differences. The essay itself acknowledges the bleed between its binary terms—“Of course the two cultures overlap in any number of obvious ways”—but ultimately returns to an emphatic insistence on their distinction: “The fact that it’s possible to travel without a passport, or to be granted dual citizenship, makes them no less distinct.”

My question, I suppose, is: Doesn’t it?

Does it really make these two cultures no less distinct if a large enough number of their citizens are constantly traveling between them and effectively belong to both? The core problem of the entire essay is contained but unacknowledged in this moment: The intersection between these cultures ultimately matters more than any distinction we might draw between them.

To my mind, the MFA vs. NYC distinction is both more and less than a binary. It’s less than a binary because its cultures are heavily cross-bred, and it’s more than a binary because each of these distinct “cultures” is in fact composed of multiple forms of attachment to a single economic engine (the university or the publishing industry). There are several distinct ways of being attached to “MFA” culture—as a student and as a teacher, as starving-grad larva or caterpillar-adjunct or tenure-track butterfly—and two distinct ways of being attached to “NYC” culture: by living there, or by being supported by its publishing industry (represented by a New York agent, published by New York magazines or houses, edited by New York editors). In the case of both cultures, these multiple modes of attachment might overlap, or they might not. But their distinctions matter. Darryl Wellington writes about “writers with New York agents, New York careers, or even just New York addresses,” and these writers all exist—in various permutations—but the rhythmic cadences of parataxis shouldn’t be allowed to conflate them.

So each singular culture on either side of the “vs.” is actually an intricate blend of attachments, and the “vs.”—at this point—is something of a toppled wall. When I talk about the cross-breeding between these cultures, I don’t just mean in superficial geographic ways—the writer who gets an MFA but lives in NYC; the writer who lives in Madison but gets published by an NYC house—or social and conversational ways: the fact that you’ll hear many of the same debut novelists enviously ridiculed over the same beer brands in Bed-Stuy and Iowa City—though when you’re talking about the distinction between cultures, these kinds of overlapping attachments and resonant preoccupations feel fairly significant.

What I mean is that these two cultures are intertwined in economically structural ways. What it means to succeed in either world is often quite contingent on the other one: Success in NYC publishing is an important part of getting a good academic job (the cred of getting published by a big house, getting good reviews in major media, getting major awards from literary institutions based in NYC); while many of the writers granted success and credibility by NYC publishing venues are still dependent on the MFA world for monetary support. Few writers can live entirely off the meager one-two punch of advances and royalties. Which is to say: Neither literary culture is an island. Both are inescapably subject to the influence of the capital (monetary and cultural) the other one offers.

A disclaimer: Though I live in Brooklyn, Harbach’s rubric would almost certainly peg me as an “MFA” (and not only because of my Iowa degree), so I should confess that I speak from that position, and whatever bias it entails. But my own tax returns from the last ten years show an even split between these two worlds: an advance in three installments from a Big Five publishing house (NYC); paychecks from four separate academic institutions, including my MFA stipend, my doctoral stipend, my paychecks from teaching undergrad creative writing and low-res MFA creative writing (all MFA); paychecks and expense reimbursements from glossy magazines (NYC); much tinier paychecks from un-glossy magazines (MFA); and an advance from a large indie press based in Minneapolis that either counts as neither MFA nor NYC, or else somehow counts as both. I’ve also accrued a slew of tax-stubs from so-called “actual jobs,” most of them part-time, none of which I kept for more than two years: innkeeper, tutor, baker, medical actor, personal assistant, Citigroup temp—all of which testify to the alternate income-streams of writers in both cultures; the other jobs worked outside publishing and the academy to support the heart’s labor of writing. I’ve lived in both team dugouts twice (IC and NYC), and I’ve also spent a fair chunk of time braving the cultural wilderness beyond their respective borders.

Larger point being: It’s much muddier than a binary, and I’m not the only writer who has lived in the mud. Too many of us have histories that fail to slot neatly onto one side of the vs. or the other to let it structure the terms of the conversation, or stand unchallenged in doing so.

What just happened in those last two paragraphs, when I stopped making an argument and started telling the story of my tax returns? Argument turned to anecdote—or rather, turned to anecdote to do its dirty work. What happened there is what happens over and over in MFA vs. NYC, a book that keeps posing (without ever acknowledging, much less attempting to answer) a certain question about form: what is the relationship between anecdote and argument?

In his introduction to the collection, Harbach tells us that his original essay “proceeded from a few simple observations” (that creative writing programs were expanding, and that they were drawing more writers into the folds of the academy) in order to make an argument that the fiction writer was not “an utterly free artistic being” but a “person whose work is shaped by education and economy and a host of other pressures.” But he concedes that “a sociological approach can go too far” and suggests that the “best way to approach this book … is a kind of jointly written novel—one whose composite heroine is the fiction writer circa 2014.”

So the frame shifts from observations to argument to something more like narrative: We are invited to think of the collection’s pieces as stories rather than claims—though every story is always making a set of claims, whether it confesses them or not. The essays range quite a bit in how openly they confess their claims: from rigorous intellectual argument from Marxist critic Fredric Jameson to slivers of memoir that seem like little more than personal accounts of What It’s Like To Be A Writer—or What It’s Like To Work In Publishing—while most forge some path between these poles. Bennett’s piece is especially ambitious—and self-aware—in its attempt to link individual experience to broader argument, and in its willingness to interrogate its jumps from one scale to another. His entire dissertation plumbed this unstable link between personal experience and larger argument, investigating whether an “aversion” to a literature of “thinking” was “an accidental feature of Iowa during [his] time, or if it reflected something more.” This is strong confessional argument: powered by personal investment but rigorously attuned to the perils of extrapolation. I take its lesson to be something along these lines: I can tell you about my tax returns, but I have to think hard about why they matter—and why I’m telling you about them at all.

All that said, I’ll make one more argumentative point by way of anecdote. After I’d finished reading the book—increasingly determined to make my own argument about its lack of argument, or its failure to convince me that its binary is strong enough to stand—I decided to attend its official release party, held on a Tuesday night in a famous bookstore in SoHo. I followed a gaggle of 22-year-olds sporting the same n+1 totebags that would be sold inside. I’d been hoping the event would be a conversation (the bookstore claimed contributors would “talk,” Timeout promised they’d “mull”) but as it happens they just read—from two of the collection’s most wholly anecdotal essays—though the readings were prefaced by a single moment of telling armchair sociology: “How many people in this room have MFAs?” one of the readers asked, and only a few folks raised their hands. “Why don’t you clap?” she suggested, and hardly anyone did, whether from shame or absence we might never know. Perhaps, as one bookseller-turned-marketing-rep shouted from the back, the MFA-ers weren’t there for the simple reason that they were already at AWP, their annual conference—which was starting the next day, on the other side of the country, in Seattle. “They’re probably convening a panel about this book launch as we speak,” my friend remarked, with neither an MFA nor a publishing paycheck to his name—and I have to say, the prospect amused me deeply: an AWP panel about the NYC launch of MFA vs. NYC. I trust it will happen someday.

In the meantime, the crowd erupted into loud applause when this same reader asked who didn’t have an MFA, and I felt my conviction crumbling: If the binary was so false, how had I found myself surrounded by such devoted and vocal worship of its second term? How was everyone cheering for NYC if there was no NYC? I left convinced that there is an NYC culture—and perhaps a projected counterpart amongst cornfields—but unconvinced about how much the pageantry of this culture, cheered-on by flocks of DUMBO interns fresh from the F-train, can really tell us about literary production; where and how it happens—and how these two cultures, cross-bred past the point of distinct species, are involved in its happening; whether the distinction between these cultures is more important as an imaginary border than an actual one—a cry for cat-calls in a downtown room. Which is to say: I left convinced that there are many people who believe in this binary; less convinced that it offers an accurate account of the essential structure of contemporary American literary production. That night, it did feel suspiciously like everything came back to capital: The binary itself had become a brand, a way to sell tote bags and team uniforms and—above all else—the book itself.

As it happens, I think the binary is more than an easy publishing gimmick. In fact, I think it would have been easy to gather a collection that felt like an insubstantial extension of the original piece (this essay went viral, let’s make a book!), but I find this collection remarkably provocative. Its most important stakes, however, aren’t beholden to its central binary so much as the broader question of how we consider the relationship between creativity and collectivity.

At the end of The Program Era, McGurl urges us to “[lay] aside our anachronistic prejudices for the One over the Many Ones,” which makes me think of that moment from the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus asks a man possessed by demons for his name. “My name is Legion,” the man says. “For we are many.”

We feel an abiding discomfort with the idea of art produced by context. This is the inevitable flipside of two strands of privilege: the American privileging of individuality and agency; and an aesthetic privileging of uniqueness and distinction. Being produced by an institution means you might be just like your fellow institutional products, and that you aren’t even responsible for your own productions. This carries a certain shame, and makes co-authors of us all: Everything we’ve ever made has actually been a collaboration with everyone we’ve ever been taught by, been in class with, or gotten drunk with. It’s the artistic equivalent of that old saw from sex-ed: When you sleep with someone, you’re sleeping with everyone (s)he has ever slept with. We’re forced to confess we’re not just making art with everyone we’ve ever been in bed with—we already knew that—but with everyone we’ve ever been in school with. We’ve been constructed by an elaborate web of influences: this is unsettling for producers and consumers alike. It’s why the MFA crowd gets defensive when “MFA fiction” gets invoked as a homogenous entity—an endless parade of bran muffins stretching from Charlottesville to Iowa to Arizona.

It’s not that the idea of institutional or cultural influence is necessarily shattering any paradigms—we’ve already increasingly come to see people as products of their social environments—but that its reception differs from one side of the binary to the other: NYC is happier to think of its products as produced by environment, by the coterie; while the MFA world feels an obligation to keep battling notions of cookie-cutter (muffin-mold) fiction. Many members of the NYC world are actually fairly attached to the idea of literary works produced by an entire network—agent Melissa Flashman seems happy to be part of what she calls the literary “ecosystem”; and agent Jim Rutman acknowledges: “My own taste is, in many ways, not my own: it’s an amalgam of that of every reader and publishing professional I’ve interacted with over fifteen years.” He doesn’t just confess this webbing of influence but also considers its implications for one of the sacred tenets of how we related to literature: namely, our love for it. “What is love,” he asks, “in this context?” An excellent and brave question—one that gets to the subterranean cultural channels beneath everything we experience as pure aesthetic impulse.

Near the end of The Program Era, McGurl takes us back to one of the core promises of creative writing as a discipline: 

To perform in the world is to say, ‘I am,’ and to say ‘I am’ is the most essential motive of every human performance, no matter how mundane. As an exercise of the human imagination, creative writing supplies a special effect of personal agency in that performance, a way of saying not only ‘I am’ but ‘I am whoever I want to be,’ which unfortunately I am not. 

His gloss on creative writing as an institutionalized articulation of individual potential—“I am whoever I want to be”—becomes, in actuality, some complicated version of: I am whatever these worlds wanted me to be.

When we stand up to say “I am,” we declare how much more than I we actually are: we stand up to perform our influences, the shadow of our peer workshops and our marketing meetings, the aggregate of our friendships and our Facebook friendships, the residue of our twitter feeds and our Park Slope cocktail party small-talk and the long comet trails of our W-40s. Whether we publish or not, whether we write or not, we contain these multitudes. We might not all be writers, yet, but we are all legion.

Leslie Jamison's second book, The Empathy Exams, will be published this April. Find her at or @lsjamison.