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'MFA vs. NYC' debates the usefulness of a creative writing degree

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You're invited to a party. It's going to be fun, because it's being thrown by writer Chad Harbach, an editor of the literary magazine n+1, where he has been lightheartedly provocative. You're excited, because "MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction" — in the form of 18 essays divided into five sections — is debating one of the more contentious issues in literary America: whether getting an a master of fine arts degree in creative writing is a good idea, for the individual writer and book culture at large.

You should bring wine — and because you have $25,610.49 left to pay back on the student loans for your MFA, you pick up Charles Shaw.

Harbach's at the door, setting up the arguments: MFA programs turn writers into timid Raymond Carver imitators (or maybe they don't); they're expensive, but they give people time to write and a creative/networkable cohort; they're a needed source of employment for published authors, but a pyramid scheme for students because there aren't enough teaching slots for everyone; the MFA ecosystem is now mostly separate from the larger literary culture, with its own stars and economies; living in New York City is as good a way to enter the world of publishing as getting an MFA, and it provides life experience to boot.

The larger question is whether institutionalizing a creative endeavor benefits our culture. The essays in this collection show that though writers may complain about MFA programs, on the whole they take them seriously and see them as a valuable institution. Some even like them.

Novelist Alexander Chee and novice Maria Adelmann share fond recollections of attending graduate school, though David Foster Wallace — fresh off his 1988 MFA — has nothing but complaints (and footnotes). Wallace's piece went unpublished until 2012, four years after his death, and it's too bad it can't include his later thinking on teaching creative writing — he'd become a devoted professor of it at Pomona.

Discussing what it takes to make it financially as a writer in NYC is another n+1 editor, Keith Gessen, in a piece written in 2006. (He has since published a novel and articles in the New Yorker.) He writes of living cheaply in New York; he and his then wife lived in a $714-per-month apartment. And when he went away to graduate school, he was so disciplined that although he made just $20,000 that year, he put $2,000 toward launching n+1.

This essay appears not long after Emily Gould's, in which the former Gawker editor explains how she went from landing a $200,000 deal for her first book, "And the Heart Says Whatever," to being so broke four years later that she had to move in with her boyfriend — who is, of course, Gessen. He is the only writer who has two essays in this collection — his second details how he makes a living now, which includes teaching creative writing. Together, Gessen and Gould — whose forthcoming novel sold for $30,000 — spend a lot of their disposable income on their ailing cat.

At this point, the party is starting to feel a little claustrophobic. It would be nice to get other voices in to talk about making a living as a writer — Harbach's debut novel, "The Art of Fielding," was a bestseller, but he doesn't reappear in the collection to discuss his own experience. Los Angeles-based writer Diana Wagman pens a funny take on not quite making it, explaining the underpaid and desperate world of the visiting lecturer, bringing us away from publishing economics back to the world of MFAs again.

You get in line for the bathroom and someone you don't recognize is talking about the connection between the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the CIA. It's Eric Bennett, with the expanded version of his interesting, widely circulated piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Bennett alleges that the Iowa workshop's founder got money for the program from a couple of CIA fronts — and argues that this wound up creating a powerful, conservative move in American fiction, away from abstraction to the realism that dominates our literary culture.

It's time to go, but your path is blocked by, of all people, Fredric Jameson — yes, the septuagenarian Marxist theorist. He's talking about Mark McGurl's book "The Program Era" — an analysis of the rise of MFA programs since World War II, published in 2009 by Harvard University Press — which was what got this whole party started. Jameson's essay, and one from cultural critic Elif Batuman, originally appeared as book reviews in the London Review of Books.

Overall, the individual pieces are interesting — particularly for those who are on the fence about whether MFAs are a good thing or not — but in the juxtaposition of "MFA vs. NYC," New York gets short shrift. And they lack a throughline, a conclusion, a final word from our host.

You long for what Jameson would call "synthesis," but it's time to go home. The party was fun for a bit, but it never really got going. That's because MFAs and NYC don't really want to fight: They want to get together.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com


MFA vs. NYC
The Two Cultures of American Fiction

Edited by Chad Harbach
Faber and Faber/n+1: 320 pp., $16 paper


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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