When I read MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, a collection of essays edited by Chad Harbach, I was really excited to learn about how I could break into either an MFA program or the vicious world of New York publishing. Instead, this book make me rethink everything I thought I knew about graduate school, literature, and the publishing industry, and my rosy-tinted views of the book world were swiftly replaced by much bleaker ones. If you’re looking for a book full of difficult lessons and hard realities, this is the book for you.
Here are some lessons I took away from reading it:
1) Aim for strange and unforgettable. In “My Parade,” Alexander Chee talks about his writing sample for Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where a “clairvoyant Korean adoptee helps the police find lost children and is the only actually psychic member of an ad hoc coven.” Even the summary of that story is unforgettable. I think that most people have something that makes their stories a little weird, but a lot of times, people have the impulse to edit those weirdnesses out. If people embraced the weirdness instead, like Chee, the stories might become more memorable.
2) It’s a popularity contest. In another essay, a former student of the notoriously overly-zealous editor (or some would argue, the appropriately-zealous editor) Gordon Lish recalled Lish saying, “Remember, in reaching though your writing to a reader, you are engaged in nothing so much as an act of seduction. Seduce the whole fucking world.” This message echoes throughout the entire book, from writers in MFA programs struggling to write a story that will resonate with readers, to established authors trying to pen a bestseller. If this book had a central plot, it would be the constant tug-of-war between artistic integrity and profitability.
3) Think really hard before you go into debt for grad school. This is an oft-repeated narrative in this essay collection– it’s hard to make money writing literary fiction, whether you have an MFA degree or not. Emily Gould’s essay “Into the Woods” about how deeply in debt she got while she was being a full-time writer with horrible spending habits still haunts me. She writes:
You think you’ll tackle the habits first– “I’ll stop buying water and fancy cups of coffee”– but actually, the habits are the last to go. I only stopped buying bottled water when I literally did not have any cash in my wallet at any time. In the meantime, I canceled my recurring charitable donations (all two of them), my cable, my Netflix, all my subscriptions. I moved in with Keith. I stopped seeing my doesn’t-take-anyone’s-insurance therapist, but only after I owed her $1,760.
The way many of the writers in this collection talk about money makes me incredibly nervous, and I just want to go over to their houses and help them make budgets and get-out-of-debt plans. Can we all agree that writers should be required to take a few personal finance courses before they are released into the wild?
4) Teaching isn’t easy. A lot of aspiring writers talk about teaching at a university as the Holy Grail– and it is, in many ways. But only if you’re really invested in teaching. As many of these essays point out, teaching really isn’t for everyone. You need have superhuman amounts of patience be a creative writing professor, and even for people who are utterly devoted to it, it can be tedious and taxing. Take Diana Wagman’s essay, “Application”:
Fucking MFA programs. The students were arrogant that they had been accepted by this fancy program. They were also desperate to believe they had done the right thing– that being there would help them, change them, save them in some way.
She goes on to explain how the students didn’t listen to her feedback or challenge themselves to write different material, and still received MFAs. Professors held back from giving harsh criticism because they wanted good student evaluation scores. This problematic culture tortured Wagman– and I imagine, it would torture a lot of other writer-teachers as well. It takes a unique person to wade through all the challenges and bullshit and help students become better writers.
5) The number of writers is expanding while the number of readers is shrinking. In “Reality Publishing,” Darryl Lorenzo Wellington discusses the problematic nature of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, a supposedly meritocratic contest where readers vote for the best manuscript each year, and the winner gets a prize. I’ve heard of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest before, and even had friends who participated, but I never knew how cutthroat and ridiculous the process was for determining a winner, or how utterly exploitative the whole program was. Even with lower advances for prizes and a publishing deal with Amazon rather than with Penguin (since Penguin cut ties with Amazon), the competition is still growing, and every year, the winner is Amazon– not the writers who actually write the books. The way Amazon and hundreds of MFA programs are capitalizing on the dreams of aspiring writers reveals a more important problem: it’s more profitable to market to people who want to be writers than to market to readers– but the more people set out to become writers, the greater the demand for the shrinking market of readers becomes. This imbalance is unsustainable.
MFA vs. POC, Junot Diaz, The New Yorker: “I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.”
Actual Sentences Written By Students in my Fiction Workshop in a Well-Respected MFA Program Over a Period of a Couple Weeks Or So, Luke O’Neil, McSweeney’s. “We had often went there to the store.”
Ten Things I Learned About Applying to MFA Programs, Not That Kind of Girl. “The acceptance rate for fiction was 2.5%. Yes, that’s a decimal in there.”