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False Dichotomy vs Who Cares

Chad Harbach’s new book is here! MFA vs NYC, an elegant, troll-to-fit title for the ages, identifying and reifying the Two Paths for the Writer in our time. But, Harbach’s wonderful brain in The Art of Fielding and the likely excellence of every essay in this book (Emily Gould on debt!) notwithstanding, everything about this discussion leaves me cold.

Minus a certain amount of personal neurosis, I should be the exact audience at which MFA vs. NYC is aimed. I am an aspiring novelist interested in the apparatus of any system that produces stability for writers, and I have spent the last year dividing my attention almost 50/50 along these particular lines. On one side I’m living in Ann Arbor, swimming the long channel between agent and book deal, studying and teaching in an MFA program that is “ranked” “#2” in the country and is indeed a very lovely, depressurized greenhouse in which to grow the sprouts of a book. On the other side I decamp to New York for sporadic stretches, weeks at a time because of that undeniable pull, the fuss and the scene and the friends I’ve never gotten to run into on the street and the “events” and the Awl Company Dungeon and this job, whose inbox every day is like Book Party Here and We’d Be Interested in Having You Do This Cool Thing, Oh Wait, Where Do You Live Again?

Everyone deserves a room of her own and I have one thanks to both MFA and NYC: the fact that, as Harbach writes, the university system is “offering steady payment to more fiction writers than, perhaps, have ever been paid before” as well as the fact that NYC is in no danger of losing its power and shine. But this is talk about writering and not writing, the ins and outs of the gaming system and not the much more relevant variable of whether or not any given bundle of flesh-bound insecurity and ambition can produce words that will get them to the end of the game. MFA vs. NYC vs. Do You Actually Have It, or really, MFA vs. NYC vs. The Financial Barriers to Entering the Creative Writing Field in Any Capacity. From Harbach’s original essay:

The superficial differences between these two cultures can be summed up charticle-style: short stories vs novels; Amy Hempel vs Jonathan Franzen; library copies vs galley copies; Poets & Writers vs The New York ObserverWonder Boys vs The Devil Wears Prada; the Association of  Writers and Writing Programs conference vs the Frankfurt Book Fair; departmental parties vs publishing parties; literary readings vs publishing parties; staying home vs publishing parties.

Betty vs Veronica: their hair is different. 

But the differences also run deep. 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.

But then, in the early morning the writering goes away and there’s just a blank page and a writer who can only do what that writer can do. The best and worst thing about any creative field is that each person’s ability is agonizingly specific: I could not produce an “MFA” book any more than I could produce an “NYC” book and I would not regularly read any publication about writing if I were paid to do it, which I sort of am, and on both the Observer and P&W ends. Making good money from writing is already essentially impossible, so for anyone who aspires to it, why decode the success of others when your efforts are greatly needed in service of your own self? It takes so much time to do this, it’s so distracting; all this conflation of identity with writering with writing, all the sorting of us megalomaniacs into type after rarefied type. And the people delineating these types, oh baby. From yesterday, Dwight Garner’s New York Times review:

The four most influential young literary magazines in America, each founded within a few years of the turn of this century, are n + 1, based in Brooklyn; McSweeney’s and its sibling The Believer, both based in San Francisco; and Tin House, based in Portland, Ore. Tell me which you prefer, and I will, more or less, tell you who you are.

N + 1 is self-consciously pugnacious and intellectual, in the style of the old Partisan Review. McSweeney’s and The Believer are offbeat — reading them is like browsing in a word-drunk Etsy — and uncommonly appealing to look at. Tin House somehow resembles your beautiful ex-girlfriend who lucked her way into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is doing surprisingly well there.

That last sentence—a man explaining things I don’t care about, a glacier of ego disguised by shop talk, a worldview that is petty to the end—about says it, and I’ll guess that its “you,” its universalized male speaker, is much more likely to have lucked his way into that ex-girlfriend, who I hope gets her book deal in whatever manner she please.

Jia is being the change


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