Wednesday, February 26, 2014


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

41 Comments / Post A Comment

Lyz Lenz

Yes! This. This is such a silly self-involved conversation that the writers seem to behaving with themselves. And I'm this market. I'm a Millenial writer, who wants a book. (Join the club, folks!) But really, it's a false dichotomy, truly. I feel like it's all hand wringing and lamenting. Spare me. Give me a good story. Also, I think it carefully weeds out all the good writing that happens in the middle. But I do love the Emily Gould essay.




Giiiiiiirl. THANK YOU. As an older person pursuing their BA in Creative Writing in NYC and constantly fretting over what my future holds - why does it have to be one or the other? Why must we categorize and rank and pick over everything until it means nothing anymore? The worst part about this stuff is that it's insidious. It gets in my head and makes me doubt my choices and chances. But leave it to Jia's "built-in, shock-proof bullshit detector" to set me straight. (Sorry that was Hemingway - ewwww.)

rebecca the brave

@FlufferNutter Jia, pls distribute these Built-in Shock Proof Bullshit Detectors for all. I would love to buy it in an ETSY SHOPPE.


@rebecca the brave @FlufferNutter this is the kindest compliment anyone could ever give me thank you guys


this is perfect you are perfect that last sentence is perfect thank youuu


You are a good writer with a fantastic bullshit detector.

Everyone should be too busy working for this!


Thanks for your sanity and clarity.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

JIA. You are spot on. Merci beaucoup.


Word, Jia. I have an MFA, which I received in NYC, where I then worked in publishing for a few years, so I should be ready to pounce on this thing... While I admire many of the writers in this anthology, the whole conversation feels unproductive and not actually relevant to why or how people write fiction, or pursue publication. "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." Yes, this.

And that Dwight Garner line, oh my god, my brain just shut down to avoid feminist rage overload when I saw that yesterday.


Enjoyed the essay. I'm one of those like, dudes who played a couple years of college hoops in DII but then realized he wasn't gonna cut it so had to focus on my actual degree, and now is a middle-manager but still obsesses over Big East recruiting, but for writers, not basketball....

...and I really get so bummed out at some of this shit. I guess cuz NYC is my 'home conference' I end up getting to see the worst of it as much as (what I, i'm sure erroneously cuz I'm a giant homer) assume is the best, and, well. I really have nothing to add at all to the conversation other than saying I really love hearing a voice that's trying to stay above the "this" vs "that", and thanks.


The New York Times somehow resembles a person from the 19th century who bought a Palm Pilot V at a tag sale and is doing surprisingly well with it because why are all of those people shouting? Get back, I have a stylus.


Have you read "MFA vs. NYC"? I'm curious if your criticism is of the actual content of the book, or of what you perceive it to be about and how you don't want to read it because you don't care for the premise. It sounds like you're saying the latter. I have only read Emily Gould's terrific essay from the book, but the description of the book on Amazon mentions that the book brings together people to talk about the "overlapping worlds" of MFAs and NYC, and I wonder if the book actually makes the same point you make that MFA and NYC are not mutually exclusive.

I understand what you're saying about "writering," but if you want to understand the business behind making a living as a writer, why not read about perspectives from the two most prominent paths to getting published/paid as a writer in the U.S.?


@AllisonWonderland Of course she hasn't read it. She can, however, freely talk down on it from her superior perch as a real almost-novelist who WRITES at the end of the day and is a FEMINIST, since a gendered critique of behavior and morality is the ultimate and only standard to which society should be held.


@TheGenYgirl Yikes...I am sorry my comment was the impetus for yours.


@TheGenYgirl dat comment history tho


@AllisonWonderland I'm sure the book's full of great writing and obviously don't think this post was any sort of a book review, just an expression of fatigue at the general discussion of any deeply insidery scene and the competitive egotism that inevitably underlies most of it -- I've got an aversion to inside-baseball talk of any sort, as well as writing/reading about writing, which is just... a personal perspective that I don't see represented very often. Writers seem to love writing about writing? Or reading about writing? I don't, that's all.

Lily Rowan




@Lily Rowan LFO though!

Lily Rowan

@OhMarie Is LFO "I want a girl who wears Abercombie and Fitch"? Or whatever? I don't know who 3LW is.


@Lily Rowan It sure is! Aka the only thing that anybody played at band camp my sophomore year of high school.

I don't know who 3LW is but I think it's a girl group.


@Lily Rowan I was a tween about the same time 3LW was cranking out such hits as "Playas Gon Play" and "Baby Ima Do It Right". They were a Disney thing, or former Disney kids, or something. One of them dated that horrible Kardashian brother (not one of the Jenners, the one with the fancy sock line).


I truly do not understand the Tin House hatred. Tin House is a phenomenal literary magazine, and it's respected by all the mansplain-y types, its stories regularly picked for the man-heavy Best American Short Stories . . . why the hating?

Oh, is it because it recently was touted as having a solid 50/50 split of male to female authors? Well, can't have that. Quick, make sure you call it a girl. That'll teach it.


@Linette I figured that it's because it's not gimmicky and doesn't believe in it's own hipness like McSweeneys and N+1.


@Linette - right onnnnnn.


I think I'd prefer to be the rarest kind of writer of all. The kind that actually writes shit, then edits, then sends it out.


This post is so perfect. I will buy the hell out of your book when it comes out.



brb getting this picked out in studs on the back of a leather jacket i will wear forever


False Dichotomy vs. Who Cares is so relevant to the daily bullshit of my life. I'm etching it into the insides of my eyelids just as a general reminder. Thanks for hitting the nail directly on the head yet again.


"Tin House somehow resembles your beautiful ex-girlfriend who lucked her way into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is doing surprisingly well there."

I'm sensing a pattern. Lack of discernment vs. limited imagination?


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