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Business of Writing, Craft of Writing, Publishing, The Writer's Life

MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction—A Book Review and Some Musings

I was excited about this book as soon as it came out. What self-respecting MFA who’s spent years trying to catch a break with NYC agents wouldn’t be? Perhaps it would contain some answers to those persistent questions:

What the hell am I doing wrong?

Why are there so many writers and so few readers?[1]

Why do any of us delude ourselves into keeping at such a depressingly unfruitful career, the dream killing reality that, in its way, has become the equivalent of the acting profession for the not terribly good-looking?

mfa_vs_nycThe entries in MFA vs NYC are a mash up of opinions about these parallel universes. Some are essays, others are interviews. Some are critical studies, others are insider takes on MFA or NYC life, still others rather self-serving memoir. It’s a loosely based association at best. Most of the entries have been previously published in journals and magazines, but having them in one place does help a reader develop a deeper understanding of the industry.

Two of the best pieces in the book are the introduction and opening essay by Editor Chad Harbach, who’s also a founder and editor at n+1 magazine, which published MvN. If you’re looking for some history, some explanation of how these alternate realities coexist in virtually the same space, these are the ones to read.

Come then the academics: As for high cultural pluralism (sometimes called multiculturalism), it too has acquired the status of universality or of Literature (techno-modernism already had that, by definition) by way of a category henceforth excluded by the technology of writing, or of High Communication… (Fredric Jameson)

The agents and publicists: Publishing may be an industry, but it is also a cultural ecosystem; it both reflects and shapes the interests of readers… (Melissa Flashman)

And, thank God, the just plain really smart people (aka writers): …in order to remain both helpful and sane, the professional writer/teacher has got to develop, consciously or not, an aesthetic doctrine, a static set of principles about how a “good” story works. Otherwise he’d have to start from intuitive scratch with each student piece he reads, and that way the liquor cabinet lies. (David Foster Wallace)

In the more critical pieces, the authors make it clear that for good or bad, the number of MFA programs has grown phenomenally in the past four decades, from 79 in 1975 to about 1300 now, thanks to the discovery by the nation’s university system that a) a lot of people want to write, and b) there’s a boatload of money to be made teaching them how (for the universities, that is, not the teachers). But the result of this program proliferation is a dilution of talent, and a narrowing of literary perspective. Students are harvested largely from the ranks of the affluent—who else can afford two years and thirty to one hundred thousand bucks for a program? Since those people are paying to keep the programs afloat, it’s become inevitable that the programs eventually shift focus to what works for the students, not the writing.

Critics of the MFA system point to the fact that the short story has become the default format for these student writers because it is easier to teach, even though the vast majority of students have the novel as their goal (likely because that’s what NYC agents and houses want to see). They say that to keep students engaged (and paying), programs have adopted the rah rah jingoism of Saturday morning youth soccer, with mantras like Show, don’t tell. Encourage the narrative desire. Write what you know! But what do these writers know if not compelled to look outside their own experience?

The result, in the consensus of these essayists, is a homogenized writing technique that recognizes only a handful of acceptable styles. It’s story after thinly-veiled story based on the writer’s personal experience. It’s teachers who typically no longer write[2] passing down what they learned in their MFA programs to students who have so little experience with craft that they rarely question it. It’s all these writers writing better than they would otherwise, but a very few who write really well.

But as helpful as all this was, I wanted more. I wanted those answers I sought made plain. I wanted someone to say what I thought.

And finally, towards the end of the NYC section, I found that.

More next week.


[1] Assume each of the 1300 or so CW MFA programs produces just 10 graduates per year, then over the last 20 years the country has produced a quarter million writers. And yet it’s hard to find a literary journal that boasts a readership of more than 1,000, probably 900 of whom are the people who produce the journal, and their friends.

[2] As self-serving as this may sound, my own MFA program is an exception to this statement. NILA doesn’t use teachers, but practicing writers to lead their courses.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


8 thoughts on “MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction—A Book Review and Some Musings

  1. Wow, we both attacked this today! Looking forward to your next post. :-] Yeah, I do tend to find these programs kinda self-serving (and is there anything WRONG with that?!)…though I have no doubt those teaching and taking them are well-meaning. But, interesting point–so many writers, but not the correspondingly associated readers!

    Eh, all writing helps all writing, in my book, pardon the pun. I am, however, curious about why so many writers exist now…is it the thought of a “quick buck,” “something-to-do-with-time-on-their-hands-and-is-perceived-as-easy,” or that these people actually are writers-in-their-blood, kinda thing? And is it our place to judge?


    Posted by fpdorchak | March 29, 2014, 3:25 PM
    • Well, we’re going to judge whether it’s our place to do so or not. Could be an issue with readership of journals has to do with writers being more interested in the novel instead of short stories. MFA programs teach short stories because they’re easier for student to dissect. But I suspect most of those students have a goal of writing novels, and therefore would rather read them.

      Posted by jpon | March 29, 2014, 6:47 PM
  2. What. I have to wait a whole week to find out? What a tease.

    Lately, I’ve been thinking that writing for tv/movies must be where it’s at. All the rest of us are beating a dead horse.

    Posted by girl in the hat | March 29, 2014, 3:43 PM
    • Yeah, sorry about the break Anna. I try to keep these blogs to 500 words, and this one was already at 800, so I figured I should stop before people fell asleep.

      Sometimes I think about trying a a screenplay too. I love writing dialog. But if you think breaking into novels is hard, I’ll bet there are twice as many people aiming at TV and movies.

      Posted by jpon | March 29, 2014, 6:51 PM
  3. As usual, Joe, a thought-provoking and worthwhile piece. I’m so glad you never let down your guard around such important questions, even though it could potentially make some of us lazy out here, expecting you to load and shoot the gun all the time–ha! ha! Seriously, though, you regularly do us writers a favor of major proportions by writing on the goals, potential setbacks, challenges, and very nature of the writing world. And now I come to find out that there’s more than one writing world in this country to be concerned about, or at least that the one we have is bifurcated. It does make sense.

    Posted by shadowoperator | March 29, 2014, 4:13 PM
    • Very nice of you to say, Victoria. Remember, I used to be a journalist, so I guess it’s in my DNA to spread the news.

      Posted by jpon | March 29, 2014, 6:53 PM
  4. Lately I’m dying to balk on every cliche I learned in my MFA program. Self talk: Use an adverb, for god’s sake! Do some telling! Write about something you don’t know a fucking iota about and see if you learn something!

    Not that I feel strongly about this or anything…

    Posted by Teri | March 29, 2014, 5:55 PM
    • Writing about stuff I don’t know is one of the things I love most about fiction. I’ve always relished the challenge of research. Even a simple relationship-type story, to me, brings out the bookworm (or web worm, these days). I remember a prompt my writing group offered a few years ago. Unexplored landscapes. I put two people in a cave. Some searching led me to eastern Kentucky as a good location. Then I spent a good part of the next couple of weeks studying cave architecture, eastern Kentucky flora and fauna, geography, speech characteristics of the people who live there… it was a lot more fun than writing the story.

      Posted by jpon | March 29, 2014, 7:03 PM

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