Literary Culture

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.

There are 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.

AR  This is key advice for my next novel.