Chad Harbach, the editor and introducer of MFA vs NYC, calls his book a “jointly written novel” whose “composite heroine is the fiction writer circa 2014.” What better way to empathize with the composite heroine of this jointly written novel than to read her adventures in the year in which she lives and breathes and, hopefully, still writes? So the first thing I felt upon cracking MFA vs NYC in Istanbul, 5,628 miles away from Iowa and 5,014 from NYC, circa 2014, was a sense of freshness and immediacy. I associate those feelings with social media rather than books, and TV shows like Girls rather than essay collections on creative writing. This sense of newness was surprising, given that Harbach’s essay, which gives the book its title and kickstarts its central discussion, was published in 2010.
Although some of its material is a few years old, this is no book for old men. Nor is it written by them, but for one notable exception. The pieces in the book are concerned with a fresh question that most young-to-middle-aged English-speaking writers of our era are presumably asking themselves a lot: How should a fiction-writing person be in the world of American fiction, which seems profoundly divided between a university-based creating writing workshops culture, and a New York-based publishing and freelancing-until-the-moment-of-success-arrives culture?
This is an interesting question even for writers living outside America. While I was looking at the homepage of the Los Angeles Review of Books the other day, I saw advertisements for distant MFA programs. One offered comfort to prospective MFA writers by informing them that they didn’t even need to leave their rooms to participate in the workshop. Outside America, every country has its own localized MFA and NYC cultures, often with less impressive financial resources. MFA is the institutional option, which carries with it a promise for future employment opportunities. NYC stands for a more entrepreneurial path, where the skill most needed to succeed is that of hustling.
MFA vs NYC heralds an enjoyable few hours to be spent in the company of writers, agents and editors who deal with this question of the two paths in their own ways. They answer in the form of essays, manifestoes, interviews and testimonials. The 19 pieces in MFA vs NYC are more personal and essayistic than analytic and scholarly. The most scholarly piece is Fredric Jameson’s, which comes with a diagram. The diagram, which shows the conversion points of the worlds of technomodernism, high-cultural pluralism and lower-middle-class modernism, seems to be conceived on a planet quite different from the one inhabited by the book’s other writers. The latter planet is best represented in a pie chart in Maria Adelmann’s essay where the writer compares her monthly spendings in New York City to those in Virginia. Her survival in NYC comes at a cost of $3,421, while her monthly expenditure while enrolled in a MFA program is $1,370. MFA seems to be the winner of that round.
The interview with Lorin Stein features colorful anecdotes from The Paris Review‘s editor’s younger years, and from his work experience with the legendary New York publisher Roger Straus, which has the predictable outcome of creating in its writerly readers an appetite to experience the world of publishing in NYC. The interview is entitled “People Wear Khakis.” which is a reference to Stein’s sartorial history at one point in his career. Stein talks about the importance of composing short form pieces for magazines, which he thinks is good education for a writer’s life. While the MFA person starts her career by describing, say, scenes from the life of a dysfunctional couple in a small village, the NYC person does so by describing, in 175 words, the new restaurant on the block for, say, a Condé Nast magazine. The winner of this second round, regarding one’s amusement in the workplace, is NYC.
If, like me (and Antony Hegarty), you are a fan of any title with the word manifesto in it, you will enjoy George Saunders’s “Mini-Manifesto” which comes in 15 very short sections where the distinction between the two cultures is shown to be, well, a bit unreal. Saunders shows how one can, and must, travel in between those planets in order to survive. His piece serves as a reminder that all generalizations about America’s literary world are false, and the reader must decide whether that also includes Saunders’s generalization.
Then there are essays with eye-catching titles, like “How to Be Popular” by Melissa Flashman and “Seduce the Whole World” by Carla Blumenkranz. The aspiring novelist should resist the temptation to skip ahead to those titles, however, because the best way to experience MFA vs NYC is to read the book from cover to cover. Remember: this is a novel and you don’t begin Madame Bovary with the agricultural fair scene.
As all writers who had ever pitched n+1 know, it is primarily interested in running hectoring essays about writers who have not yet departed this sad world of ours. MFA vs NYC is no exception: the only essay populated by dead people is “The Pyramid Scheme,” in which Eric Bennett offers a world-historical view of MFA programs and the dead necessarily play some of the major roles. “Did the CIA fund creative writing in America?” Bennett asks in the opening sentence, before detailing the answer that most of us already know. He focuses on Paul Engle, the legendary writer, poet and one-time Marxist who shaped up Iowa Workshop in 1940s and 50s, apparently with some financial and ideological support from his country’s intelligence community.
If “The Pyramid Scheme” represents the most analytic and political part of this jointly written novel, then Keith Gessen’s dual-perspective on the eternal issue of Money functions as its emotional, personal core. Gessen’s first piece is about lack of money, while his second piece describes its unexpected arrival, subsequent loss and eventual return in the form of a teaching post. As a writer who has written a few essays about the survival tactics of writers like Orwell and Wilde, I felt strangely happy to see Gessen as poor as the rest of us in the months preceding a call from his agent from the Wylie Agency. A minute before he gets the call, Gessen has $1,000 in the bank and he feels “grateful for the free coffee refills at the Pastry Shop.” Then, as if touched by the hand of some god, he goes back into the shop, this time as a rich man with a good book deal.
In his introduction Harbach consistently refers to the composite heroine of MFA vs NYC using the female pronoun: “Her voyage is a long one, and she has her frailties: her concentration is fragile, she wakes up too late and checks her email too often, she drinks too much coffee in the morning and too much wine at night.” Among all the writers in the book, that description reminded me most of Emily Gould, whose beautiful chronicle of her poverty is both amusing and sad. “By summer 2012 I was broke, and in debt, and it was no one’s fault but mine,” Gould informs us. We watch her as she works as a freelance essayist, at a time when her only income comes from teaching yoga ($40 a class), which results in a yearly income of $7,000 in 2011. Struggling against her desire to blog and tweet all the time, Gould eventually manages to concentrate on writing her new novel. During a meeting with her publisher, she utters the following sentence to help the publishers advertise her book: “Say that I’m the voice of my generation.” She then amends what she’d said: “Okay, say I’m a voice of my generation.” When Lena Dunham’s now-classic pilot episode of Girls airs years later, Gould understandably feels very, very bad:
She turned her life into art—award-winning, apartment-buying, wildly popular art—which is something I’m still trying to do. Watching her do it has been excruciating. That could have been me, I catch myself thinking, but of course it couldn’t have been, or at least it isn’t.
But, to my mind, Eli S. Evans’s essay at the end of MFA vs NYC, in which he writes beautifully about almost giving up his desire to be a professional author, is the saddest in this book. Determination, devotion and lots of energy are required to be an author; what that essays shows is the sad moment when one stops caring for different career alternatives and finds it too difficult to continue the pretense of playing the composite heroine of our jointly written novel.
Although it ends on that dark note, MFA vs NYC is, more than anything else, a call to writing. And a call to publishing and networking and looking for new writerly alternatives. Anecdotes from the publishing industry and MFA programs lead us back to choices we’ve made in our lives, make us question our choices and help us imagine what things would be like on paths we have not taken. Maybe the professorial life wasn’t for me—maybe I would be a great hustler of my work and a successful freelancer. Or, like Hannah Horvath in last week’s touching finale of Girls, maybe I needed the acceptance letter from Iowa and the atmosphere of the workshop. American fiction may have two cultures, but they both belong to the larger culture of world literature, where anything goes as long as the writing is good.
– Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books blog, Salon, Guernica Magazine, Sight & Sound, the Millions, the White Review, the New Inquiry, the Rumpus, and Index on Censorship, among others. L’Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in 2008. Kaya has a PhD in English literature. He is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books and is currently working on his third novel.