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MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

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Writers write—but what do they do for money? In a widely read essay entitled "MFA vs NYC," bestselling novelist Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) argued that the American literary scene has split into two cultures: New York publishing versus university MFA programs. This book brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists Writers write—but what do they do for money? In a widely read essay entitled "MFA vs NYC," bestselling novelist Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) argued that the American literary scene has split into two cultures: New York publishing versus university MFA programs. This book brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists, and agents to talk about these overlapping worlds, and the ways writers make (or fail to make) a living within them. Should you seek an advanced degree, or will workshops smother your style? Do you need to move to New York, or will the high cost of living undo you? What's worse—having a day job or not having health insurance? How do agents decide what to represent? Will Big Publishing survive? How has the rise of MFA programs affected American fiction? The expert contributors, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, and Fredric Jameson, consider all these questions and more, with humor and rigor. MFA vs NYC is a must-read for aspiring writers, and for anyone interested in the present and future of American letters.


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Writers write—but what do they do for money? In a widely read essay entitled "MFA vs NYC," bestselling novelist Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) argued that the American literary scene has split into two cultures: New York publishing versus university MFA programs. This book brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists Writers write—but what do they do for money? In a widely read essay entitled "MFA vs NYC," bestselling novelist Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) argued that the American literary scene has split into two cultures: New York publishing versus university MFA programs. This book brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists, and agents to talk about these overlapping worlds, and the ways writers make (or fail to make) a living within them. Should you seek an advanced degree, or will workshops smother your style? Do you need to move to New York, or will the high cost of living undo you? What's worse—having a day job or not having health insurance? How do agents decide what to represent? Will Big Publishing survive? How has the rise of MFA programs affected American fiction? The expert contributors, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, and Fredric Jameson, consider all these questions and more, with humor and rigor. MFA vs NYC is a must-read for aspiring writers, and for anyone interested in the present and future of American letters.

30 review for MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    s.penkevich

    ‘Writing’s not about connections, writings about writing. - Stephen Elliot. There are countless aspiring writers, many are probably right now staring at a screen wondering where to begin. I know I’ve that white screen of death and must confess I’ve drank far more beers in the process than words on the page¹ What will become of the novels if they are ever written, and more importantly, who will be the ones to decide their fate? I’ve learned that much more goes into a novel than the writing and the ‘Writing’s not about connections, writings about writing. - Stephen Elliot. There are countless aspiring writers, many are probably right now staring at a screen wondering where to begin. I know I’ve that white screen of death and must confess I’ve drank far more beers in the process than words on the page¹ What will become of the novels if they are ever written, and more importantly, who will be the ones to decide their fate? I’ve learned that much more goes into a novel than the writing and there are editors, publishers, publicity agents and so on that all have their fingers in the pot for what the market will be told is worth buying and worth reading. Working at Barnes and Noble I see the later effects; we have large displays and promotions for novels that ride the current commercial trends to push for a commercial success at the financial backing of a publisher². Look at the best-seller wall when it changes every Tuesday, if there is a new James Patterson novel it is guaranteed to be in the #1 slot on day one (actually, Patterson has the backing to come out on Mondays instead of Tuesdays to gain a full day without competing with the other New Releases of the week), which should raise an eyebrow because how is a new book already the Best Seller unless it has been paid to be placed there² The first step is towards publication is to get your foot into the literary world. There are more Creative Writing programs and MFAs than ever before, with a figure of 1,269 in America alone says Chad Harbach, editor of MFA vs NYC, churning out a large population of highly-educated publishing authors. MFA vs NYC examines the gatekeepers to the publishing world across essays from novelists (a familiar essay by David Foster Wallace is included), MFA professors, publishers and publicists that paints an alarming and nearly depressing portrait of the publishing world but fills the reader with optimism that it is not education but talent that will always reign supreme. ‘When ”great literature” is replaced but ”excellent fiction”, that’s the real betrayal of higher education.’ - Elif Batumen We have all seen the negative reviews that bash an author for being ‘too MFA-ey’. There seems to be an outcry against these novelists who ‘sound the same’ and ‘feel workshopped’. With a rapidly growing MFA program, more and more books are written by authors with an MFA degree. Similarly, many authors go on to become MFA professors, and this collection spends a great deal of time on the writer-professor. Look at the author bio of most contemporary novels and you’ll see that they teach somewhere, this is especially true of poets. It would seem that the MFA program is a self-sustaining cycle of student to teacher, and several of the contributors here question the whole ‘those who can’t do, teach notion. The reader is frequently reminded that writing is rarely a viable source of income to live upon. It was amusing to read the many accounts of writers earning a living by teaching while privately panicking that they were terrible teachers and actually didn’t have anything to say to their students who were bored by the aspects they had thought most interesting. I recall my days of student teaching when the class remarked on To Kill A Mockingbird, ‘this is stupid, what do I care?’ and the only thing I could think was ‘no, you’re stupid.’, which, of course, I didn’t say but sputtered out some trife that trailed into awkward silence. The first section of this essay collection takes a critical look at the MFA programs (lovingly dubbed ‘Mostly Fucked Around’ programs by those who went through them), the $80,000 educations that don’t guarantee a successful writing career. I was tickled by the notion of imagining writers like Faulkner or Melville attending a MFA workshop. George Saunders gives the best assessment of the MFA programs (of which he teaches), dismissing the MFA critics by admitting that More average writers are being let in and so what we are really seeing is a bunch of average writers doing what average writers are supposed to do, which is write average. He reminds us that there are maybe two genius writers from every generation, and no amount of training can make you the better than them, the best are simply, purely great. The best writers may come from an MFA program, or they may be a high school drop-out like Faulkner, but that should not dismiss the program. ‘You are doing it to get a baptism by fire, purge yourself of certain habits...and then you are going to run away from the whole approach like your pants are on fire, and not look back, but return to the sacred land where your writing is private…’ Despite the criticisms, the MFA program can be a great tool for those who chose it to be (I hope to one day give it a go) and while I admit some authors have that overtly-MFA feel to them, I actually quite enjoy many of them (Amelia Grey, for instance, or more recently Ben Marcus). I tend to prefer an author that keeps ideas forefront and has the daring to play with technique and theory. I’ll take theory and good writing over a good story any day. The publishing world is also treated with a critical eye, showing how a good book can go unappreciated because it can’t be easily marketed. There is a fascinating story of how Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep was easily manipulated onto the best-sellers by cutesy marketing that brought it reviews and radio spots nationwide. The publisher is going to sell what they can make money from, it’s the rule of capitalism, and if a book follows the current market trends (like vampires in the early 2000s or dystopian action novels with a badass heroine in the more recent past) it is likely to be published. One essay reminds us that publishers want something that is about heart and not ideas, because that is what reaches the most people. MFA vs NYC offers a probing look into the modern literary publishing world and education world, but doesn’t give many answers to the problem it asks us to consider. It presents a world where the authors are as educated as the critics, where people put themselves into debt to make connections that might not be of any use, where students pour their heart and souls into a novel that might not be picked up or receive any attention because a publicist can’t find a way to market it. In all this there is hope. The best advice (I apologize, I can’t seem to find the source right now. Beer five by the way) one essayist was ever given was to ‘read Swann's Way’. I must admit that I’ve learned more about literature from my own private reading and discussions on here than I ever did in college and this collection reminds us that writing is about writing and nothing else. An author can be instructed but writing is it’s own soul, it’s own magic. This is a fascinating and head-scratching look into the modern world of publishing, one that may make any would-be novelist shit their pants in worry. 3.5/5 Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window. -William Faulkner ¹ I drank two beers and smoked two cigarettes before I started this review, and the third is nearly empty by the time I made it this far. The first paragraph is always the worst. ² ‘Who has both the money to buy a hardcover book and the time to stick with something tricky? Who wants to reread Faulknerian sentences on a Kindle, or scroll back to pick up a missed plot point? Nobody, says the publisher.’ Here on Goodreads I have been blessed to be friends with many people who are willing to do the above, who read for something deeper. This is not the cash crop that publishers are looking for to stay alive though, it never has been, and this is why popular fiction always floods the market. Publishers have to eat too, and many greats go underappreciated. ³ the ‘official’ word is that the list is generated by pre-sales, but who honestly believes that in 2015 that many people pre-order a book from a brick-and-mortar store that has noticeably gross overstock.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lee Klein

    I don't have an essay in this pretty excellent essay collection but I've used the "things I have stuff in" tag to shelve it because in 2008, two years after I graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop with an MFA in fiction, I drank some icy white wine and talked on the phone with a guy I knew a little bit from when I'd lived in NYC before Iowa -- he was working on an interview-based article of some sort for Vice Mag about the MFA and workshops etc. We talked for an hour, I got loose and ranted, I don't have an essay in this pretty excellent essay collection but I've used the "things I have stuff in" tag to shelve it because in 2008, two years after I graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop with an MFA in fiction, I drank some icy white wine and talked on the phone with a guy I knew a little bit from when I'd lived in NYC before Iowa -- he was working on an interview-based article of some sort for Vice Mag about the MFA and workshops etc. We talked for an hour, I got loose and ranted, and he asked questions and sounded like he was listening or at least was still on the line whenever I paused. In exchange for semi-drunkenly rambling about Iowa for an hour, he sent me an ARC of 2666, a signed copy of my former teacher's latest novel (Home), and the new Leonard Michaels collection. "2666" blew my doors off and I was psyched for the interview to show up in Vice, but then it never seemed to come out. Huh. Too bad. I forgot about it. Five years later I received an e-mail from an editor at n + 1 saying they're putting this "MFA vs NYC" collection together and they'd like to use some quotations (~two tweets worth) from me from the interview, which Vice apparently published at some point, and then months later the friendly people at n + 1 sent an ARC of the book, which I just found to be an enjoyable, stimulating, at times pleasureably enervating trip down MFA/NYC lane. This essay collection acknowledges of course what many suspect -- some writers in the world might not have MFAs and not live in NYC, or might even have MFAs and not live in NYC and yet they still somehow manage to write and publish -- but as a former resident of Brooklyn (specifically, Greenpoint about a decade before "Girls," a few miles north of what Chad Harbach deems the NYC where NYC novelists live: "a small area of west-central Brooklyn bounded by DUMBO and Prospect Heights") who moved to NYC to meet some writers and, as in an O. Henry story (a refrain twice repeated herein), immediately wound up dating a doozy of a young writer (no MFA, occasionally visiting NYC from her distant homeland, although she lives there now) and meeting some of her writer friends who I'd heard about more than I'd read, and then a little later on dating another young writer from NYC who despised the city and lived in Iowa City after attending the Workshop, which I eventually wound up attending, participating in the final complete workshop taught by Frank Conroy (his portrait in this is a good one but doesn't mention how he evoked "magic" and repeated phrases like "respect the experiment" and "protect the edge" when evaluating unconventional work like mine), this book seemed more or less written for me. But there's enough in here to hold anyone's attention, probably, as long as you're interested in a tour of fiction writing sausage factories in this country. As a current resident of a city 88 miles southwest of NYC, I sort of maybe semi-resent the suggestion that one must either live in NYC or teach creative writing. Reading this collection made my own story stir in me so strongly in counterpoint and harmony that I considered delivering it at length and in detail in this space, since it covers both bases, to a degree, plus a third not mentioned so much: living elsewhere, working a full-time job, waking up early before work almost every day to write, finding like-minded writer friends with whom to drink immoderately, and participating in what sometimes feels like a community of all sorts of writers, many of whom have an MFA and/or have lived in NYC. There are other alternatives too -- more solitary and adventuresome, like saving up for a long solo travel through inexpensive territories, staying in cheap hotels, writing all day (travelogues and stories). I did this in Central America when I first was becoming a writer. Four months of experiences for about $1000 -- wrote a ton. I also later worked in bookstores and cafés and read and wrote -- the pay wasn't so hot ($7/hr) but I was around books and learned all the names so my reading list exploded. Or, like Joyce, one could teach English in another country and make use of the solitary time as a stranger in a strange land. In general, regardless of rationalities imposed upon ideas about living and writing (a not-entirely-rational art), it's about putting in the work and producing what feels right -- not to teachers, fellow students, or the lovely NYC publishing industry -- but to you as a writer and a reader. In another city, working a non-writing–related job that covers the bills and doesn't impinge on the mental space of nights and weekends, I'm free to explore the natural canonical and the contemporary pathways of my reading instead of attending to the obligations of reading student stories or ARCs or the manuscripts of friends hoping to sell their novels for a few hundred billion so they can buy a 1BR walk-up in the East Village -- and, importantly, I can afford a decent life without worrying too much about money. I don't feel at all constricted by, as Harbach says, "the silky web that binds writers to the demands of the market, demands that insinuate themselves into every detail and email of the writer's life." Outside of it and yet not really an outsider at all, I've become the sort of writer who says things like "the work is its own reward" -- and who also recognizes that phrase as a loser's mantra. But when sufficiently caffeinated and/or optimistic, the icons for unpublished manuscripts arranged in a grid on my desktop seem to me like a badge of right-minded effort -- I'm sure they'll all find a home one day. And if not -- welp -- I'll make more. Anyway, the essays in here that present NYC as a professional institution -- essays by agents and publicists particularly -- were illuminating. An excellent agent says he only reads about six novels a year, other than all those he's evaluating and selling for work -- what are the chances that one of these books is Joseph and His Brothers or Extinction, books that might obliterate a market-based perspective of what's good? He also probably doesn't read canonically, as DFW and Elif Bautman and others assume that writers in MFA programs don't do either, which isn't quite totally true, in my experience. A NYC blogger writer rarely mentions reading anything at all although she does go on about her internet addiction and her cat's health issues (and the resulting costs) at length. I particularly liked the transparency in a few essays about finances -- making a living writing ain't easy, apparently. In general, there's a sense that everyone in NYC is trying to survive the city's exaggerated $$$ pressures -- and it's possible that such pressure turns rocks into gems. I've always argued that there's no reason for the literary industry to remain in NYC since NYC undermines its interests. No one buys hard covers because they're too expensive but need to be so costly to cover the publisher's rent. The whole enterprise should really move to rural Pennsylvania or maybe even Iowa City if it wants to prevail and not simply survive. On the MFA side of things, I most agree with George Saunders: "You are not going to be doing this workshop crap forever. You are doing it to get a little baptism by fire, purge yourself of certain habits (of sloth, of under-revision, of the sin of thinking you'd made a thing clear when you haven't) and then you are going to run away from the whole approach like your pants are on fire, and not look back, but return to that sacred land where your writing is private and you don't have to defend it or explain it one bit." Post-NYC and post-MFA, that's where I feel like I am, where I stand in this "argument" -- at some point, wherever you are, you have to find a way to make enough money to write and read without worrying all the time about distractions. No longer all that young and certainly not all that wealthy, NYC seems to me too expensive and offers too many obvious distractions for a writer (unless young or wealthy). Teaching can distract from reading and writing, but you can bring your passion to play and infect young minds so they in turn buy books you and your friends publish. That's one of the best points in the book, at the end of Harbach's titular essay: the common ambition and only hope of all writers will be "to make writers of us all." All essays in here are worthwhile -- some may stand out for you more than others. I was partial to contributions by the editor, Saunders, Eli S. Evans, Keith Gessen, the literary agent Jim Rutman, the one by the publicist in part about Prep, and the one about Gordon Lish. (The DFW essay I'd read before and think it's so-so for him.) There's a good academic/personal mix, although I found the more academic essays a little wonky and maybe even sometimes wrong (Iowa at least doesn't teach about itself and adverbs). If you don't live in NYC and don't have an MFA yet wonder what such people think, this is an invaluable collection. If you're an MFA/NYC type already, you can't help but gaze into the cracked mirror of this collection and struggle a bit (as I have) to put the pieces of your history, your thoughts, and where you stand on everything back together again in a quick, sloppy "review" like this. Thinking about this stuff for a bit is valuable, sure, no matter where you are these days. But in the end it's best to retreat to that sacred little space where you make your true living when you read and write in peace.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Gonzalo

    What could have been an expansion of Chad Harbach’s insightful essay on the two poles governing contemporary American literature is instead a disjointed and superficial collection of disparate articles, testimonials, anecdotes and gossip. Among the goodies you’ll find are: • Woeful stories of “poverty” from people who clearly don’t know what poverty is. (Blowing your advance, not writing a word for a year, and all the while not even entertaining the idea of getting a job is not really poverty, ju What could have been an expansion of Chad Harbach’s insightful essay on the two poles governing contemporary American literature is instead a disjointed and superficial collection of disparate articles, testimonials, anecdotes and gossip. Among the goodies you’ll find are: • Woeful stories of “poverty” from people who clearly don’t know what poverty is. (Blowing your advance, not writing a word for a year, and all the while not even entertaining the idea of getting a job is not really poverty, just willful precariousness.) • The story of a writer who begrudges her boyfriend for donating sperm to his lesbian sister so that she and her partner could have a kid. • Diana Wagman’s article on her frustrated attempt at becoming a permanent writing instructor at a low-residence MFA program where students are glamorous and a far cry from the “overweight Latino undergrads in Target jeans” at the “blue collar” state university she works at. • An article about the purported link between the CIA and the Iowa Writer's Workshop that some have mischaracterized as "proof" that the CIA was instrumental in the expansion of creative writing programs in the U.S. The same argument could be said of almost anything. (The CIA has funded everything from the labor movement to military coups, etc., but you can’t just make leaps of logic because a given factoid you bumped into is supposedly scandalous.) The article mentions program director Paul Engle’s efforts to secure funds from a CIA front but other than this curious anecdote, the rest of the piece simply delves into Engle’s character, his relationship with students, and other unrelated information. This text is supposed to be an excerpt from a work that deals with the CIA and Iowa at more length, but if that's the case: a) I would have chosen a more representative passage; and b) You still have to wonder about its inclusion in a volume called MFA vs. NYC. Perhaps the two best articles in the collection come from the London Review of Books, both of them commentaries on Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. McGurl’s work seems to be the seminal book on the subject of MFAs, so maybe it’s better to just read that one instead of MFA vs. NYC (especially since a hard and critical look at the NYC part of the equation is sorely missing in the latter, as has been pointed elsewhere). Many of the NYC articles in the book have passing references to the writing life but are mostly inspired by a typically blind attachment to NYC that barely disguises a fear of what lies outside of the big city (“should I enroll in a creative writing program in the middle of nowhere?”) making most of the authors sound like the cornfield country bumpkins (ie. anyone who doesn’t live in NYC) that repel them so much. “NYC pride” is just a degraded form of nationalism and nowhere is this more evident than in the contributions by these young writers. The final section of the book, purportedly dealing with what lies “beyond” MFAs and NYC, is even more perplexing. It includes an article on the Amazon Breakout Novel Award which you can say is relevant in that it shows other venues for publication outside of the MFA-NYC axis, but which would make much more sense if it was indeed accompanied by other pieces on self-publishing, e-books, etc. Like many texts in this collection, it’s an idiosyncratic view on the subject that mixes anecdote, snark and personal experience and, while being entertaining, doesn’t cast much light on the Amazon awards or how they have or have not altered the MFA-NYC-dominated landscape of the literary publishing industry. The inclusion of this piece (and many others) is revealing of the slapdash nature of this book. It is only marginally related to the purported subject matter but it is nonetheless representative of what passes for literary discussion and controversy (ie. online traffic) in popular media these days. Just as the editor chose to reprint this article (an earlier, shorter version was published in N+1) he could have gone for several other recent pieces that have made a (small) splash in the world of literary gossip. Examples abound, such as the confessional piece by a former MFA student who hated wunderkind writer Joshua Ferris, the self-serving and belated apology by a book reviewer who trashed other writers he envied (including N+1’s Keith Gessen), or recycled debates such as "are bad reviews necessary?" and the recurring interview in which a famous author says "writing can’t be taught." All in all, this is a collection of mostly light pieces and entertaining material I would have read online, but for which I’d never actually pay (as writer Nick Mamatas pointed out, a “diligent Googler” can find on the web roughly half of the articles contained in MFA vs. NYC). I expected much more from a book carrying the imprimatur of N+1, one of the few American literary magazines that doesn’t operate in a political vacuum and regularly tackles “thorny” issues such as revitalizing a Marxist critique of capitalism or takes a harsher look at some of the more troubling trends in fiction (for example, this excellent editorial on “World Literature” from last year).

  4. 5 out of 5

    Corey

    "Well that's the strangest thing about this emotion Even knowing our chances are small We line up at the gate with our tickets Thinking somehow we're different I mean, after all..." - Brad Paisley So, something you probably shouldn't do if you're currently paying a ridiculous sum of money to study creative writing at an undergraduate program is read this book. In fact, if you're a young person with aspirations of writing for publication, yeah, you should probably not read this book. Not because the e "Well that's the strangest thing about this emotion Even knowing our chances are small We line up at the gate with our tickets Thinking somehow we're different I mean, after all..." - Brad Paisley So, something you probably shouldn't do if you're currently paying a ridiculous sum of money to study creative writing at an undergraduate program is read this book. In fact, if you're a young person with aspirations of writing for publication, yeah, you should probably not read this book. Not because the essays aren't good, some of them--especially the ones written by Emily Gould, Keith Gessen, and Eli S. Evans--are fantastic. But you shouldn't read these essays because each one seems to take a giant shit inside of your heart. Apparently, professional writers, with or without MFAs, seem to be pretty miserable as a whole. There's a lot of ostensible despairing that goes on in these essays. Writers have no money. This is one thing that most of the anthologized writers want you to know. Part of this, at least in several of the stories told in this collection, has to do with poor financial management. But mostly, it has to do with the fact that there's not a whole lot of money in writing these days (if there ever really was). If you go the MFA route and secure a job as a professor, great, but, at least according to the accounts disclosed here, you'll have no time to write (or if you do have time to write, it's because you suck as a professor). And then there are the two excruciatingly long critical theory essays responding to Mark McGurl's "The Program Era," both of which conclude that writing is an inherently shameful practice, so even if you write simply because you like doing it, even if you are compelled to do it by an Oatesian graphomania, with no professional aspirations, you're still a narcissist and an elitist. So the odds are against you making it as a writer, period. As George Saunders says, there's no reason to think getting an MFA will make you a better writer. And yet not getting an MFA, as many others say, might make you less attractive to agents and publishers. And if you don't get an MFA, you should certainly live in NYC, because that's how you make connections without a degree. Except have you seen the rents for a studio apartment in Manhattan? Even Brooklyn is no longer doable for most people. And it's all the less doable because, as we're reminded in nearly every essay, to be a writer is to be without money. But I want to be a writer. And I want to be published. I don't have to make much money off it, though money would be nice. Like all of the people who were essentially sneered at in the essay about Amazon's writing contest, writing is one of the only things I think I may be fit to do. I've read countless novels, I've read rigid critical theory, I've attended readings and written every day and done all of the stuff you're supposed to do. And so I want to be a writer. But so do the other 20 kids in my undergraduate workshop. The other day this girl wrote a story about a father who kidnaps his daughter after he's denied custody of her. It was pretty fucking good.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Michael Nye

    This essay collection, curated by Chad Harbach, takes a look at the effect of the writing program era on American fiction and compares it to the New York publishing scene. Harbach's essay touched off a range of positive and negative responses, and many of the essays in this collection will likely do the same. A large chunk of the essays in this collection are already online - why, then, get the book? I can't think of a great reason. It's a fascinating selection of "inside baseball" knowledge for This essay collection, curated by Chad Harbach, takes a look at the effect of the writing program era on American fiction and compares it to the New York publishing scene. Harbach's essay touched off a range of positive and negative responses, and many of the essays in this collection will likely do the same. A large chunk of the essays in this collection are already online - why, then, get the book? I can't think of a great reason. It's a fascinating selection of "inside baseball" knowledge for a very narrow group of people interested in the subject (like me). But the DFW essay is old - so much has changed since it was first published - and seems to be here just because of his name. Alexander Chee and George Saunders say good things about writing programs, which you sort of expect. Emily Gould and Keith Gessen, who contribute three of the most insufferable essays in the book, whine and complain and reinforce all negative perceptions of New York writers. The scope of the book is quite narrow, and the questions that Harbach's original essay implicitly suggest are compartmentalized and simplified by many of the writers here. This is a collection that really isn't worth your time. Pass on it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    I was curious about how getting a job as a writer works, or at least how writers get trained. In the end, it's a debate about whether or not grad school is necessary. It seems like being a writer of fiction might be the last profession where it's not strictly necessary, at least according to a few of these essays. The debate is interesting, even if it isn't totally settled in this collection of essays for and against. An intriguing read, even if it didn't totally apply to me. I was curious about how getting a job as a writer works, or at least how writers get trained. In the end, it's a debate about whether or not grad school is necessary. It seems like being a writer of fiction might be the last profession where it's not strictly necessary, at least according to a few of these essays. The debate is interesting, even if it isn't totally settled in this collection of essays for and against. An intriguing read, even if it didn't totally apply to me.

  7. 4 out of 5

    David Dinaburg

    “Being a writer required you to make the decision, over and over and over again, to write. No one would care if you stopped doing it, even if they noticed.” I bought MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction when it was new; before the NYPL and its 88 miles of books had a copy, I purposefully strode amongst The Strand’s still-laudable eighteen miles to procure one for myself. Owning rather than borrowing—it altered my interaction with the physical pages. My standard tact of public librar “Being a writer required you to make the decision, over and over and over again, to write. No one would care if you stopped doing it, even if they noticed.” I bought MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction when it was new; before the NYPL and its 88 miles of books had a copy, I purposefully strode amongst The Strand’s still-laudable eighteen miles to procure one for myself. Owning rather than borrowing—it altered my interaction with the physical pages. My standard tact of public library loans leads me to careful consumption; marking pages with torn scraps of junkmail rather than heavy underlining or notes in the margin. If—upon returning to the tagged pages—a cursory skim brings nothing to the surface, the notation likely wasn’t worth it in the first place and the need to force an excerpt from meaninglessness is abandoned. I had notes for days written in MFA vs NYC. Scores of underlines, smudged ink bleeding through thin pages in a homunculus of academic rigor. And after the end of the book but before I began this review, I was already resisting the memory of the experience. Resenting it. Countless excerpts—doomed for dissection—loomed before me; writing a review had become an obstacle to releasing this albatross. It was keeping me from the books I wanted to be reading, stalling me out as I felt the palpable weight of the reviews yet to come hang heavy around my neck. My words would not be positive. If my time at Columbia Business School showed me anything, it was that academia was one large, citation-starved ouroboros—cite me, cite you—and I hated it. When a second essay out of the first twelve in MFA mentioned Raffles the cat, I stopped cold: I looked at Emily, who was still working on her novel, the completion of which might or might not get us out of our financial rut.…I looked at our cat, Raffles, whose recent illnesses had drained the last of our resources.My notes in the margin, heavy with contempt, read: “This is the point! the interconnected, incestuous nature of academia; this is what is infesting MFA culture. writing. you cite me. I cite you. and on and on. publish, perish—nothing else.” Raffles had me ruffled. A mere sixty pages prior, another essayist clearly inhabited the same world of sick-cat Ruffles and writerly woes:I was a young woman so of course they had lumped me in with the cake-girl books. But my book was not cakey. I had no idea how to explain this to people. I clearly still don’t. Knowing how obnoxious it would sound, but feeling I had to say it anyway, if only to have said it, I told them that they had to “go all out.” “Say that I’m the voice of my generation,” I told them. They looked at me like I’d emitted a long, loud, smelly fart. And so—swear to god—I amended what I’d said: “Okay, say I’m a voice of my generation.” Her writing was fun, casual, though her name didn’t register. Nor, until I consulted the table of contents, did I recognize that her name was Emily. As in Emily-who-was-still-working-on-her-novel Emily. She had also spent some time talking about Raffles. If the name weren’t so adorable—if it were “Rex” or “Kit” or something equally banal—I doubt I would have noticed. But I did: That afternoon Raffles pooped outside his litter box, then dragged his butt across the bathroom and living room, smearing poop everywhere. The vet had warned me that the cancer was affecting his intestines, but this was the first evidence I’d seen. So I decided MFA vs. NYC was everything wrong with writing: the closed cultishness of a craftsman’s guild; the ostracism and elitism of an academic enclave; the faux-populism of idle, luxury entertainment. Maybe the issue I took with MFA could be more simple than that; one didn't need to manufacture a shadowy cabal of the elite, laughing as we—the reading public—eagerly lapped up the hubristic detritus of their patrician parables. There was already enough trite juxtaposition and cynical self-help-section cashgrab baked into the title to raise one's hackles—successful writers writing to non-successful writers because that is the audience that would swallow it:Fucking MFA programs. The students were arrogant because 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. Apply the same pathos to the hardship writers of NYC’s East Village—desperate to justify their thousand-dollar-a-month bedroom sublet—and you get the same outcome. MFA vs NYC; paean to a life well wasted. But all my grousing fell away as the sheer volume of excerpts and quotations piled up. As I reviewed them, thinking of how to review the book, I recognized that different voices surged and different perspectives clashed; nothing was stable, nothing pushed an agenda. What I had latched onto—from the Raffles incident—was preconceived; I brought it to the book, rather than pulling it from its pages: At the time I consider Sigmund Freud and Francois Rabelais my favorite novelists. At the time I understood that they were not novelists. Later I understand that I was being annoying.I was being annoying; applauding myself as outflanking the false dichotomy of writers being NYC or MFA, I went into the book already thinking I was above it. MFA vs NYC is the collective—and diverse—voice from dozens of people who write for a living. They are not preaching—they are not telling anything other than their stories—so they cannot, by definition, be wrong. They cannot be “outflanked.” They can only be. They can only tell. They can only write.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Hannah Notess

    This book is weird. On the one hand, there are some insightful essays about the culture of what people call literary fiction, and I appreciate the attention to the realistic economics of trying to make a living as a writer (basically, you can't, at least not like people used to). That being said, there are some weird myopias that make some of the generalizations of the book suspect. For instance, none of the writers seem to have, like, any people financially dependent on them or any family oblig This book is weird. On the one hand, there are some insightful essays about the culture of what people call literary fiction, and I appreciate the attention to the realistic economics of trying to make a living as a writer (basically, you can't, at least not like people used to). That being said, there are some weird myopias that make some of the generalizations of the book suspect. For instance, none of the writers seem to have, like, any people financially dependent on them or any family obligations other than a serious boyfriend here or there. I guess it seems to me that most of us live our financial lives in relation to other people, and that might show up in the economics of writers' careers. So that seemed like a big blind spot. I appreciated all the MFA essays - the ones that talked about the anti-communist ideological origins of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the ones that were more personal. I liked the NYC pieces that were from people who actually work in the publishing business. In a weird way, they made the NYC literary culture seem much, much more narrow than the MFA culture, when I would have thought it would be the other way around. The essays by Emily Gould and Keith Gessen were the most weirdly self-absorbed and sort of did not fit with the rest of the book. I was entertained by reading, and then kind of squicked out by the self-absorbedness at the end. It's as if some of these people are so in love with the idea of being a writer, that that is all they have to think about and write about all the time. There is no sense of why they want to write - or found a literary magazine, which Keith Gessen did, but you don't get a feel for why he might think that is a thing that would be a good idea to do. It just seems exhausting... and also maybe not enough of a reason to write anything at all. They are good writers and I want to like them, but I just didn't. Also I should admit I got two paragraphs into the Fredric Jameson piece and was like "why even bother? Booooooring." All that being said, I think this is a good book to read if you are wondering whether the writing life is sort of financially sustainable in the long term. It isn't. But writing is still worth doing, if you want to, and if you don't expect much in return, for reasons that this book does not address.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    This was a really odd book. I actually really enjoyed the first half (especially the MFA essays), and I think this is a pretty valuable book if you (like me) are a writer who's trying to decide if an MFA is right for them. Reading about other writers' experiences in grad school definitely helps give you a sense if that kind of atmosphere is right for you. But then you get to some of the New York essays. Emily Gould's essay was totally self-involved, as were a few other essays in this book. I also This was a really odd book. I actually really enjoyed the first half (especially the MFA essays), and I think this is a pretty valuable book if you (like me) are a writer who's trying to decide if an MFA is right for them. Reading about other writers' experiences in grad school definitely helps give you a sense if that kind of atmosphere is right for you. But then you get to some of the New York essays. Emily Gould's essay was totally self-involved, as were a few other essays in this book. I also think the essays in here don't properly represent how difficult it is to actually get an entry-level job in any sort of writing or publishing in New York -- believe me, I'm a new post grad who thankfully has a NY writing job, but this book does not represent how much harder it has gotten to break into the field. I also thought the NY essays would focus more on what it's like to balance working/living in New York with writing, but most of them just talked about what it was like to work for publishing agencies (or just being broke in New York just for the credibility, which is absurd and irresponsible and not something I'm interested in hearing people whine about, ie Emily Gould). Those perspectives are valuable too, but I wish there was more talk of the possibility (or impossibility) of balancing a 9-5 with writing. I also think the book would benefit from an essay from a tenured professor. That perspective was weirdly lacking, considering how many current, great writers are full-time professors and still putting out excellent writing. The two essays that comment on The Program Era were incredibly boring and didn't feel relevant to what this book was trying to do. I would really suggest skipping these. If you're a young writer who is feeling at all unsure about what sort of path to take in the writing and publishing world, I would say that this book has value. If you're not, there's really no reason to pick this one up.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Carrie

    Want to read a MFA vs SF, but all about poetry. Thought I could have saved so much debt money by just living here instead and going to all the readings and being in all the discourses...

  11. 5 out of 5

    soleil

    One of my favorite essays of all time, "My Parade" by Alexander Chee is in here, so that's a positive. Some essays I truly found useful. I found the debate on MFAs producing more writer-teachers than writers to be very eye-opening. I hadn't thought about it, but yes, since funding is given for teaching intro English classes, it makes sense that part of the selection, besides looking at the writing sample, would be on the applicant's ability to teach. If you, like me, have no interest in teaching One of my favorite essays of all time, "My Parade" by Alexander Chee is in here, so that's a positive. Some essays I truly found useful. I found the debate on MFAs producing more writer-teachers than writers to be very eye-opening. I hadn't thought about it, but yes, since funding is given for teaching intro English classes, it makes sense that part of the selection, besides looking at the writing sample, would be on the applicant's ability to teach. If you, like me, have no interest in teaching, then this could be very tricky and distracting. And then different writers discussed if we could really teach writing to others. I thought that was a really good debate, one probably similar for all art. The expensive and selective low-residency story was shocking, as in the workshop teachers will be nice to their students (less critical) just because they know they are paying money to go there!! It isn't so much about how good of a writer you are, or improving upon that, but re-assuring the students that they were good writers before they even got there!! But then we got to the final bit. The last couple essays, especially "The Invisible Vocation" were purposefully convoluted and full of themselves. The called the same thing many different terms, set up graphs, but in the end weren't saying that much. They seemed to have more of a goal to be impressive than understandable. They could have been much more direct. The final piece was depressing, so much so that I wonder why Chad Harbach picked the order like he did. It seemed to settle the debate: the author both went to an MFA (and then MA) as well as writing thousands of pages on his own time. He spent years and years in workshops and literature classes, as well as writing on his own time while teaching at a community college. And guess what? He still ended up poor and unpublished. It seems to say that no matter who you are or what path you choose (MFA vs NYC), you might just never achieve anything, anyway. Writing just might be unteachable, not even when you are trying to teach yourself.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Bourne

    Now that we have the principle flavors of commiseration in one book we can can more easily throw them into the trash.

  13. 4 out of 5

    nomadreader (Carrie D-L)

    (originally published at http://nomadreader.blogspot.com) The backstory: I've really been enjoying collections of essays lately, and MFA vs. NYC is perhaps this year's most buzzed about edited volume. It's theme also echoes many of the essays in Goodbye to All That, which I adored. The basics: Divided into two large sections (MFA and NYC) and three smaller ones, MFA vs. NYC takes its name from an essay editor Chad Harbach originally wrote for n+1. The other essays are a mix of those written f (originally published at http://nomadreader.blogspot.com) The backstory: I've really been enjoying collections of essays lately, and MFA vs. NYC is perhaps this year's most buzzed about edited volume. It's theme also echoes many of the essays in Goodbye to All That, which I adored. The basics: Divided into two large sections (MFA and NYC) and three smaller ones, MFA vs. NYC takes its name from an essay editor Chad Harbach originally wrote for n+1. The other essays are a mix of those written for this collection and those adapted from earlier pieces. My thoughts: Part of what has drawn me to personal essays lately is the fascination with what it means to be a writer. In MFA vs. NYC, that theme is on full display, but it's bigger picture is the current state of American fiction. Obviously, writers are critical to that, and each essay offers different ideas and insights into what exactly it means to be a writer. I've never seriously thought about enrolling in an MFA program, and what surprised me most about this collection was not only the rise of MFA programs themselves (in both quantity and perceived prestige) but what an MFA program actually entails. The emphasis in this collection is on Iowa, perhaps the most famous of MFA programs, and it would be easy to fill an entire collection with perspectives on this program alone. If there's a fault with MFA vs. NYC it's that it tries to do too much. The essays are all excellent, but as a collection, it felt more unbalanced as I went along. The first two sections, on MFAs and NYC offered a variety of glimpses into contemporary writing and publishing, but as the themes shifted to pairs of essays, the collection lost a bit of its momentum. It's still an accomplished collection, but as a cohesive piece, it faltered somewhat near the end. Favorite passages:  "It could be argued that any time you get ten to forty people together and have a core group of teachers, some homogenization is going to happen, but, in a sense, isn’t that what culture is? The establishment of a standard and then a resulting attempt to mimic that standard, followed by a passionate revolt against that stupid repressive reactionary standard, which is then replaced by a lovely innovative pure new standard, et cetera?" -- George Saunders, "A Mini-Manifesto" "Charlotte didn’t think I was an idiot. She explained the ways in which her deployment of orcs and elves in her work differed from and even subverted the tropes of ordinary fantasy fiction. I didn’t mind discussing all this, even as I found it surreal. These were the times we were living in. I was on a college campus. I was a visiting professor. And I was sitting in my office, bearded and wise-looking and, in all seriousness, discussing orcs." -- Keith Gessen, "Money (2014)" The verdict: Although the title implies an either/or dynamic, the essays in this collection focus more on sharing individual experience than arguing for one and against the other. As a collection of studies of modern American writing, it's fascinating. Anyone interested in the current state of American fiction will find many things worth ruminating over in this diverse collection.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Audrey

    "In the end, of course, a writer can be ruined by school - by a too-great desire to emulate her peers or please her teachers. She can be ruined by the publishing industry - by trying to anticipate what the masses, or Manhattan editors, want to buy. SHe can be ruined by her poverty, or her parents. Or she can find her way." pg 8, Chad Harbach, Introduction Such a great book, sums up many of my post-univirsity feelings "In the end, of course, a writer can be ruined by school - by a too-great desire to emulate her peers or please her teachers. She can be ruined by the publishing industry - by trying to anticipate what the masses, or Manhattan editors, want to buy. SHe can be ruined by her poverty, or her parents. Or she can find her way." pg 8, Chad Harbach, Introduction Such a great book, sums up many of my post-univirsity feelings

  15. 4 out of 5

    Oriana

    Oh my I want want want this right away. Here's an excerpt of an essay by Emily Gould (whom I love so so so much). I haven't finished reading it yet because work, but once I do I will post quotes that will make you all cry. Oh my I want want want this right away. Here's an excerpt of an essay by Emily Gould (whom I love so so so much). I haven't finished reading it yet because work, but once I do I will post quotes that will make you all cry.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Rhiannon Minster

    Pretty interesting series of essays. Scratched my MFA application itch.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Peter Derk

    I started this like 3 years ago and never reviewed it! The first 2/3 was pretty solid, but then the book kinda takes a shit. There are two essays in particular where things slow WAY down, critiques of The Program Era by Mark McGurl, which is a 9 years old, 480-page dense-as-fuck book about post-war fiction writing that I couldn't see anyone outside of this insular academic world reading (btw, if you haven't read The Program Era, skip these essays. They're pretty high-falootin' and impenetrable to I started this like 3 years ago and never reviewed it! The first 2/3 was pretty solid, but then the book kinda takes a shit. There are two essays in particular where things slow WAY down, critiques of The Program Era by Mark McGurl, which is a 9 years old, 480-page dense-as-fuck book about post-war fiction writing that I couldn't see anyone outside of this insular academic world reading (btw, if you haven't read The Program Era, skip these essays. They're pretty high-falootin' and impenetrable to start with, and you'll be completely lost up shit creek. You'll have a paddle, but that paddle is made of a very absorbent wood, and the shit of shit creek leeches its way up the handle pretty quick). These essays make some good points, but holy shit do they make you work for it, and it's just sort fo weird to read two essays about a long-ass book with no real preface or anything. Plus, I discovered one of these two was written as a book review in 2009 rather than originating as something for this collection in 2014. It was sort of too bad because it was one of the few things that addressed student and text diversity. But hey, for my money, go read the thing Junot Diaz wrote about his MFA time. Solid shit.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Punkelevenn

    An interesting look into different perspectives and experiences into the world of publishing and making a career out of writing. This book should be read by anyone remotely interested in book publishing and/or the realities of the lives of most contemporary non-famous authors. The majority of writers do not earn money solely from writing, and it now seems unusual to find authors without links to the university establishment, too. This book explores the meaning of (mostly American) literature, bo An interesting look into different perspectives and experiences into the world of publishing and making a career out of writing. This book should be read by anyone remotely interested in book publishing and/or the realities of the lives of most contemporary non-famous authors. The majority of writers do not earn money solely from writing, and it now seems unusual to find authors without links to the university establishment, too. This book explores the meaning of (mostly American) literature, both in the past and as it moves to a post-modern future and beyond.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Pollock

    This is a solid collection of essays about the state of 21st century American fiction, the pros and cons of academic studies in creative writing, the grim reality of the publishing business. I’d have still gotten my MFA even if I’d read this before I applied, but I still kinda wish I’d read it then. Also, the Gordon Lish essay is downright skeevy and gross, and I’d love to read a post-#MeToo take on it.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lucas Gelfond

    another book I have been in the middle of/almost done with for several months and finally finished! focus here is all on, essentially, supporting oneself as a writer in NYC vs. doing an MFA program (and the type of writing that emerges from either experience / notes from "the publishing world" etc etc). Got a lot out of this even just in terms of interesting metacommentary on writing process but also more generally that both have pretty extreme tradeoffs (and I should almost certainly finish und another book I have been in the middle of/almost done with for several months and finally finished! focus here is all on, essentially, supporting oneself as a writer in NYC vs. doing an MFA program (and the type of writing that emerges from either experience / notes from "the publishing world" etc etc). Got a lot out of this even just in terms of interesting metacommentary on writing process but also more generally that both have pretty extreme tradeoffs (and I should almost certainly finish undergrad). The essay in here about Gordon Lish's workshop (also here https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-...) and piece about the CIA's involvement in the Iowa Writers' Workshop were probably my favorites but there's a ton of phenomenal essays in here

  21. 5 out of 5

    Donna

    I loved this book. Reading about the business of writing programs—why they exist, how they work, what types of fiction they promote—was captivating. Over a dozen accomplished, entertaining authors tell their own stories of the pros and cons of both approaches. Personally, I chose the MFA route later in life but would have given almost anything to have come up through NYC.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kim Ammons (youthbookreview)

    Interesting but not really relevant to my interests. The focus is on literary fiction, which...blech. DNF'd at 21%. Interesting but not really relevant to my interests. The focus is on literary fiction, which...blech. DNF'd at 21%.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Martin

    insightful, enjoyable, lively. does the patented n+1 thing of wrestling with serious ideas in a sort of digressive, talky, earnest way; I almost called MFA vs. NYC 'light', but that doesn't really seem appropriate for a book with a Fredric Jameson essay, no? top tracks: 1) the original Harbach essay 2) Saunders [he is so good] 3) Gessen 2014 4) tie; Maria Adelman and Jim Rutman 5) Gessen 2006 some fragmentary notes I took down: There's a bunker mentality - a pervasive sense of crisis - that's apparent i insightful, enjoyable, lively. does the patented n+1 thing of wrestling with serious ideas in a sort of digressive, talky, earnest way; I almost called MFA vs. NYC 'light', but that doesn't really seem appropriate for a book with a Fredric Jameson essay, no? top tracks: 1) the original Harbach essay 2) Saunders [he is so good] 3) Gessen 2014 4) tie; Maria Adelman and Jim Rutman 5) Gessen 2006 some fragmentary notes I took down: There's a bunker mentality - a pervasive sense of crisis - that's apparent in pretty much every essay, usually in tone. The term never gets used, but it's fairly clear that we have a bubble in MFA programs ("There are now 214 MFA programs in creative writing in this country-twice as many as there were eight years ago." [emphasis original]). At their core, nearly every essay in the book is an attempt to come to grips with some feature of that baseline truth. MFA vs NYC is a tangle of anxiety - getting published, fitting in, debt, income, employment, homogenization - and all of that is on top of the Jonathan-Franzen-reading-crisis thing that's just offstage in any discussion of books that's happened since the 2000s, to say nothing of Amazon/ebooks/self-publishing etc. etc. MFA vs NYC is weirdly quiet on some of the Big Questions about the future of publishing - the word 'Kindle' only appears twice, and 'ebook' is absent entirely! I'm not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, Harbach & co. are focused narrowly on the culture of production; on the other, the pressures exerted by presumed tastes of the reading public are central to the 'NYC' side of the argument. There's a lot to chew on - but ultimately the argument feels incomplete. Last bit of marginalia that I'm transcribing: "Publishing is what you get if you take the aesthetic preferences of the art market and apply the economics of Costco." The explosion of the art market in the past few decades has sort of been taken as a given, like gravity and I realize that I'm not telling you anything that Benjamin didn't do a much better job of, but: paintings are a way, way better artform than books in a capitalist marketplace: they can impact the culture quickly and broadly, with little demanded from the consumer (you can consume a painting with a mere glance), yet their value as commodities can't be divorced from the 'original' object. Books, while almost certainly far more important for the intellectual/moral/spiritual life of society, compare horribly. They are demanding to consume, and they are pure commodities - mass produced and nearly identical in every way. That's the basic problem; MFA vs. NYC shades in a lot of details on how that plays out for real people. basically, lots of feels. also I learned that Gordon Lish is a huge hornball.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Leigh Thomas

    Expanded from an essay of the same title, MFA vs. NYC, edited by Chad Harbach, is non-fiction on fiction, observing the two major cultures in which it lands: the university creative writing program, and the New York publishing industry. Both offer their flaws and their perks, their layers and connections and revelations. Contributing authors take a look at the underpinnings of both. They talk everything from time and cost to hard work and the pursuit of art. It was interesting to read insights i Expanded from an essay of the same title, MFA vs. NYC, edited by Chad Harbach, is non-fiction on fiction, observing the two major cultures in which it lands: the university creative writing program, and the New York publishing industry. Both offer their flaws and their perks, their layers and connections and revelations. Contributing authors take a look at the underpinnings of both. They talk everything from time and cost to hard work and the pursuit of art. It was interesting to read insights into both sides of American fiction, how the university and publishing worlds intersect, how they affect each other, and where fiction is headed. The essays that stood out to me were mostly towards the beginning; in addition to Harbach’s original essay on the topic, George Saunders’ “Mini-Manifesto” is a short but succinct take on the MFA program as “a pretty freaky but short-term immersion” with a reminder that it’s not forever, but rather “a little baptism by fire” (35). Saunders concludes with the ideal that when it comes to creative writing programs, “if they suck when we do it wrong, let’s try to not do it wrong” (38). Next, Maria Adelmann discusses the fear instilled in budding writing students when the big wigs tell them why they won’t be successful, “because no one reads short stories, because Jonathan Franzen already wrote that novel, because no one cares about your road trip.” Adelmann recalls, “We looked back at her in shock, like children who had just been told that Santa is dead” (44). However, during her time in an MFA program, she accidentally discovered a talent for art on the side, with the reminder to leave room for such discoveries. Her time spent in the MFA world didn’t produce guaranteed success or money, but, she says, “it did teach me what my time is worth” (49). I will admit that some of the later essays reminded me I was reading non-fiction: I felt like I was reading non-fiction, with a slowly moving bookmark to prove it. However, I was amused by Carla Blumenkranz’ essay, “Seduce the Whole World” in which she likens writing to sex (you don’t say you’re going to lean over and kiss or caress someone, you just do it). This writing/seduction parallel is reinforced by a professor Lish, with rather infamous teaching methods in the university world. According to Lish, “Writing is not about telling; it is about showing, and not showing everything” (217). The essay closes with the concept that the art of seduction, while powerful, is still best when kept within its role: “A teacher, an editor, even a lover isn’t supposed to become the world, but rather to point the writer toward it” (221).

  25. 5 out of 5

    Iľja Rákoš

    A compilation of essays and what seem like blog articles on the current state and development of American fiction. The writers discuss the ups & downs, pros & cons of the workshop method popularized in American Master of the Fine Arts creative writing programs, as well as the ins & outs of the publishing industry, with a healthy dose of the personal struggles involved in 'becoming a writer'. Overall, interesting if you're already interested in this sort of thing, and very funny in spots, but MFA A compilation of essays and what seem like blog articles on the current state and development of American fiction. The writers discuss the ups & downs, pros & cons of the workshop method popularized in American Master of the Fine Arts creative writing programs, as well as the ins & outs of the publishing industry, with a healthy dose of the personal struggles involved in 'becoming a writer'. Overall, interesting if you're already interested in this sort of thing, and very funny in spots, but MFA vs NYC is fairly "insidery" in tone, and frankly, most of the writing pretty pedestrian. Probably would have come off better as podcasts or interviews. Yet, I found some useful perspective from - unsurprisingly - writers and educators whose work had previously impressed me : George Saunders, Alexander Chee, Elif Batuman, Carla Blumenkranz dishing on Gordon Lish, the incomparable David Foster Wallace (an abridged essay that was included in "Both Flesh & Not"), and an essay - the Pyramid Scheme - by Eric Bennett, which by itself made MFA vs NYC worth reading. I'm a complete outsider to both worlds, and the "vs." in the title seems a bit misleading, as if these were competing aspects of contemporary American belletristics and we were about to be let it on the great tension that marks these competing worlds. No such drama, though the thought that the MFA may have originated with a grant from the CIA to the University of Iowa is kind of intriguing. And as for tension - well, I suppose there's good reason that Cormac McCarthy (who isn't mentioned anywhere in the book) says "I don't really hang around writers much." Good information on how (in general) MFA programs work, who they might best serve (and who not), and the seemingly utter randomness with which new fiction gets published in America. For students, for industry people, for epistemologists, I suppose.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Aliza

    This was an interesting collection of essays that made me really evaluate what kind of fiction I read. I took issue with most of the contributors focusing specifically on American writers; I guess we are all on the hunt for the next Great American Novel, but so much of what is available to readers these days is global that being restricted to what is produced on the home turf feels unnecessarily limiting. I did enjoy hearing about the externalities: the different jobs people worked to finance th This was an interesting collection of essays that made me really evaluate what kind of fiction I read. I took issue with most of the contributors focusing specifically on American writers; I guess we are all on the hunt for the next Great American Novel, but so much of what is available to readers these days is global that being restricted to what is produced on the home turf feels unnecessarily limiting. I did enjoy hearing about the externalities: the different jobs people worked to finance their writing, the value of teaching, the frustrations of PR and publicity in the publishing world. The main issue I had, though, is that I am not sure whether I buy into either premise here: that American fiction is easily divisible into program and non-program, or that the growing prevalence of MFA programs has made fiction (or at least Literary Fiction) a more homogenized enterprise than ever before. Or to put it the way an Iowa grad would understand: Raymond Carver is not the sine qua non of American writing. I understand how grad school can be a valuable way for aspiring writers to carve out time and find willing mentors, but getting an MFA, even from a place like Iowa, is no more a guarantee of getting published than it ever was; in literature, as in most artistic endeavors, cream rises, and talent is usually rewarded. Sometimes it does not always work out, and an amazing book will go unrecognized or unpublished, or the reverse -- a runaway success will not be worthy of the hype. But at a time when so much experimental and interesting fiction is available, in so many formats and on so many platforms, I find it a bit premature to write the obituary of the American novel.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Linnie Greene

    I have some major *mixed feelings* about this book, but perhaps that's a good thing. Its intention (after all) appears to be the representation of numerous, often dissident voices with varying ranges of experience within or outside of the MFA/NYC binary. And that binary proves true -- buying the idea that, nowadays, the vast bulk of writers emerges from one of those two poles was effortless, given my own limited experience in the world of "professional writing" (LOL, amirite?). Perhaps the best I have some major *mixed feelings* about this book, but perhaps that's a good thing. Its intention (after all) appears to be the representation of numerous, often dissident voices with varying ranges of experience within or outside of the MFA/NYC binary. And that binary proves true -- buying the idea that, nowadays, the vast bulk of writers emerges from one of those two poles was effortless, given my own limited experience in the world of "professional writing" (LOL, amirite?). Perhaps the best testament to this volume's impact on my psyche was the nightmare I had last night, in which I attended an MFA program at Columbia University (do they even have one?) where I had to sleep on a plastic dorm mattress and struggle for money and identity in a terrifying cityscape. IF THAT'S NOT A METAPHOR, THEN, WELL, WOW. Anyway, I wasn't reading this for a morale boost. I was reading it for a realistic vision of what my future might look like should I opt for either route, and I got that in spades. The takeaway was that: 1. The writing world is rife with entitlement (cough "Into the Woods" cough) 2. MFA programs won't manufacture brilliance, but they might help refine it. 3. There are very few writers who will ever achieve anything close to George Saunders or David Foster Wallace's insight and prose. 4. NYC is expensive, competitive, and occasionally rewarding. It might eat my soul. Publishing panders to the demands of the public, who aren't *always* going to want thoughtful short stories. That's pretty much it. Until I sink into the quicksand of one of these worlds, you can find me having nightmares in the backwoods of North Carolina.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jon Frankel

    A very limited but well-presented group of essays on mainstream fiction and its environs in America. The book challenges nothing, save for the various cliches we hear about MFA programs and the big NY publishers. A reader will not know of the existence of radical or alternative presses, non-academic writers or writers who make their living in jobs. One agent admits that he can only sell what he likes and only likes what he can sell. Others deliver the news that an author's fate lies in the hands A very limited but well-presented group of essays on mainstream fiction and its environs in America. The book challenges nothing, save for the various cliches we hear about MFA programs and the big NY publishers. A reader will not know of the existence of radical or alternative presses, non-academic writers or writers who make their living in jobs. One agent admits that he can only sell what he likes and only likes what he can sell. Others deliver the news that an author's fate lies in the hands of 20 year olds for the most part. Writers who do not follow one or the other carreer path are represented as poor, deluded idiots who are taken advantage of by exploitative contests, Amazon self-publishing, etc. The book has an irritating reasonableness about it. It made me more depressed and angry. You would not know that fiction writing is verbal art, and that the imagination is involved. Writers from the 19th century and before are occasionally mentioned, but not as often as Jonathan Franzen, a man who is very publicly an idiot, but whom most of these writers consider to be among our greatest, despite his embarrassing episode with Oprah, and his embarrassing essay on William Gaddis, or Mr. Smartypants. They are a little too nervous to be self-satisfied. Conscience nags at apathy throughout these pages. I give it three stars because the essays are well written and considered, but for me it was a exhausting, a bit like spending a lot of time with people I have spent my entire life trying to avoid.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Molly

    For me, as a non-writer but someone who has worked in publishing, this book comes off as pretty myopic and I'm not sure that the dichotomy is even a genuine one. It also seems ludicrous that an essay by an editor isn't included. (Well, some of the authors are editors, but they aren't writing in the guise of editor.) That said, I quite enjoyed a few of the essays. In fact, I almost gave it 4 stars, on the strength of the last few pieces. But I certainly wouldn't recommend this to someone still dec For me, as a non-writer but someone who has worked in publishing, this book comes off as pretty myopic and I'm not sure that the dichotomy is even a genuine one. It also seems ludicrous that an essay by an editor isn't included. (Well, some of the authors are editors, but they aren't writing in the guise of editor.) That said, I quite enjoyed a few of the essays. In fact, I almost gave it 4 stars, on the strength of the last few pieces. But I certainly wouldn't recommend this to someone still deciding whether to enter a writing program. The information provided feels too selective, and I found the overall tone depressing and overly self-conscious. I guess this is the result of asking writers to talk about their experience in a writing program. They end up thinking too much about all of the "HE has an MFA in writing?!" thoughts that might course through the reader's mind. I'm not even sure why I decided to read this book, except that I was seeing a lot of mentions of it and I half-liked Chad Hardbach's first novel and was feeling curious about n+1.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Laurel Perez

    This is the most up to date book I think I have ever read on what is going on in the writing world in terms of publishing, academia, and well writing itself. If you are or ever have been in the throws of English majordom, or intend to enter into it in some way, even as a publishing major, I can just about promise you will find yourself among these pages in some way, whether that be in your past, present, or future. I'll be honest, don't go into this book blindly, know that there are some hard tr This is the most up to date book I think I have ever read on what is going on in the writing world in terms of publishing, academia, and well writing itself. If you are or ever have been in the throws of English majordom, or intend to enter into it in some way, even as a publishing major, I can just about promise you will find yourself among these pages in some way, whether that be in your past, present, or future. I'll be honest, don't go into this book blindly, know that there are some hard truths in here, and it's not always the most positive of truths. This is an accessible book that pretty clearly lays out the cultural, academic, and the ties that bind and break those of us in the throes of the writerly world as we know it now. I recommend this book, even if I did not always agree with it, and that may just be my innate survivalist positivism.

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