By Chad Harbach
Slate, November 26, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
The Master of Fine Arts program has long existed as an object of satire. But
as the mass readership of literary fiction has peaked and subsided, and the
march of technology sends the New York publishing world into spasms of
anxiety, the MFA program has picked up the financial slack.
now two literary cultures in the United States: one condensed in New York
City, the other spread across a diffuse network of provincial college towns.
Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures. Each has its
own logic of social and professional advancement. Each affords its own
freedoms and exerts its own pressures.
The model for the MFA fiction
writer is the poet. Poets have long been professionally bound to academia.
The poet earns money as a teacher, not by publishing poems. MFA programs
shelter their students from the market. The student can publish now or ever,
so long as she serves her muse. As teaching jobs multiply, MFA programs
become more professional.
For the MFA writer, a published book is a
credential. The fiction writer publishes her book of stories, or her novel,
to cap off her MFA. The New York publishing houses become ever harder as
they battle other media, but the MFA writer can ignore them. Independent and
university presses will do just fine.
The MFA writer escapes some
pressures and submits to others. Early in her career, she is all in a rush
to publish, in order to get a job. This can encourage the publication of
weak books. Later, the pressure is not to publish at all. A professor gets
paid to administer a department.
The MFA system nudges the writer
toward writing short stories. The programs are organized around the story
form. The short story is the primary pedagogical form. To learn how to write
short stories, you also have to read them. MFA professors recommend story
collections to their students. The system encourages story writers. No one
reads short stories for fun.
The MFA and NYC cultures have formed
parallel and competing canons of contemporary literature. The NYC canon
includes a few superstars and a changing group of acclaimed young novelists.
Except at the very top, reputation in this world depends directly on the
market and the reviews and prizes. The MFA canon consists mainly of short
stories. The short fiction anthologies commonly used in introductory courses
make up the canon. Compared with the NYC canon, it has a less masculine tone
and a more overt interest in cultural pluralism.
New York publishing
increasingly resembles the Hollywood world of blockbuster-or-bust. A handful
of books earn all the hype and do huge business. A few others survive on a
low budget. The rest die. Advances are either astronomic or pitiful. The
blockbuster novelist sells movie rights and translation rights. The money
makes money. The rich get richer and the rest live on hope and copy editing.
The NYC writer earns money by writing novels. NYC writers go for
readability. A weakened market for literary fiction makes publishing houses
less likely than ever to waste time on work that fails to hook the reader
right away. Publishers think reading comprehension and attention spans have
declined. They compete for attention with other media.
NYC writers work
hard to write readable prose and tie up their plots neatly. The current
archetype of this kind of novel is Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Freedom
grapples with overpopulation in a riveting way. The novelist who converts
heroic effort into effortless prose has come to seem like the willed effort
of the entire culture to create a novel worth reading.
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