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MFA vs. NYC vs. A Trendsetter Roundtable

When MFA vs. NYC (n+1/Faber and Faber, 2014) first was published, it ruffled some feathers, probably because of the subtitle: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. The collection of essays featured insights from authors who have completed MFAs, those who have not, and pieces from those who work inside the publishing industry. How do these stories stack up? And do MFA graduates and NYC writers really comprise “the two cultures of American fiction?” Your Publishing Trendsetter editors, Kimberly, and Samantha sat down and discussed the book with Livia Nelson, former Trendsetter intern and creator of Yeah Write, a popular resource for young writers.

mfa vs nycKimberly: So I’m curious to start off this discussion of MFA vs. NYC by getting your impressions of the MFA/writing scene before reading the book. Especially for you, Livia, considering you running Yeah Write and advise young writers kind of regularly.

Livia: Sure! So I tell this anecdote over and over again, but when I was a junior in college, I stayed after class to ask my creative writing professor, Randall Kenan, where he’d gotten his MFA. And he said, in his typically frank way, “Nowhere! MFAs are for people who aren’t self-disciplined enough to write. Go be a poor 20-something and travel so that you actually have something to write about.” Now, he started teaching long enough ago that he could get a job that would eventually earn him 6 figures a year (we could look this up because UNC-CH was a state university) without having an MFA. But I didn’t, at the time, plan to teach, so I took those words very much to heart.

Samantha: That’s interesting. I’m not a creative writer, so this isn’t really a dichotomy I’d ever thought much about, though I know plenty of talented writers do not have their MFAs and plenty do have their MFAs. The book put this so-called conflict front and center for me.

Livia: I also graduated with a lot of student loan debt, so MFAs (and grad school in general) seem/seemed like something for rich kids who were struggling to find jobs in this economy and wanted to put off real life, and who had mommies and daddies could foot the bill (can you hear my tone of resentment resounding through? Haha). Before I read the book, I knew that some programs provided funding, but I didn’t know that most of them pretty much cover your expenses.

Samantha: It does seem like a far away dream for young folks just out of undergrad, like many graduate programs.

Kimberly: Yeah, prior to reading this, I was mostly aware of Iowa’s Writer Workshop and maybe a few New York programs. But there’s a lot of different kinds of programs out there, some that I don’t even feel are adequately covered in the book, like low residency programs.

Samantha: There is a lot of experience that isn’t really covered in the book in my opinion, and as I mentioned, I’m not even a writer.

Livia: Yeah, I’m clueless in that sense–how they vary, what different programs offer. I can’t imagine that’s widespread information, or that anyone who isn’t a. applying to programs, or b. teaching in them is fully aware of.

Kimberly: So let’s talk about that for a minute. What exactly did you feel is covered by this book? Like if you could sum the thesis up in a sentence or two?

Livia: That’s a hard one!

Samantha: I’d say, it covers a variety of MFA experiences by writers, and a part of the writing/publishing life in NYC, but does not present the full spectrum, though I don’t think that was its intention.

Livia: Agreed. After all, “MFA” and “NYC” aren’t the only writer incubators in the US, or world.

Samantha: Yes, hence some of the initial vitriol against the book, I think.

Kimberly: Well the thing that especially brings up that question is that, at least the title implies this, it seems that there is a comparison between “life experience and NYC” and MFA programs. Is that even a fair comparison?

Livia: I don’t think so. I think they’re just 2 major systems producing writers right now, and the fact that they’re so different is what’s of interest (or maybe, even deeper, the fact that they’re so similar). But they’re definitely not oppositional.

Samantha: What’s that phrase from logic theory? Not mutually exclusive or equally exhaustive. It’s that.

Livia: Yes!

Kimberly: Hahaha! I totally agree.

Livia: Because you can be an MFA candidate at NYU or Columbia.

Samantha: Or you could be a totally awesome writer without an MFA who lives in the middle of Minnesota.

Livia: What’s more interesting to me really is the “red herring” of them being posed as oppositional, as implied by the “vs.” in the title, when really they’re both systems that cultivate somewhat more privileged people. Which I think Junot Diaz really nailed with his MFA vs. POC piece.  But maybe that’s another topic for another discussion!

Samantha: There certainly were a lot of interesting thinkpieces came out after this book published.

Kimberly: It’s the whole not being mutually exclusive thing that actually made the MFA portion of the book stronger for me. Because I felt like all those essayists did a really good job of talking about their MFA experiences and what they got out of it. Whereas a lot of the NYC people (and maybe it’s because some of the contributors weren’t just writers but agents and editors, etc.) seemed to talk about rejected MFA manuscripts, but not like there were necessarily more than NYC people either. Like, there was no direct comparison to MFA vs. not.

Samantha: There wasn’t an essay from an editor! Lest we never forget. That was my number one complaint about this book.

Kimberly: True. That would’ve added a lot. Probably just wishful thinking on my part!

Livia: Yeah, lots of talk about the buy-ability of books written by MFAs versus “NYCs”, but would’ve been nice to have that perspective.

Kimberly: So what did you get from this book? Any standout essays?

Samantha: I loved Alexander Chee‘s essay.

Livia: I loved Emily Gould‘s, in part because it was the most relatable, but also it was just so well written!

Kimberly: Hers was very interesting because it was more about the financial aspects of being a writer than the actual writing process

Samantha: Yes, I do wish she had addressed the privilege of having outside financial help from her boyfriend, Keith Gessen, a bit more, because I get that an advance can go away quickly, but it seemed like having Keith there to help her out was extremely necessary to her survival.

Livia: Totally. I liked that she even admitted that, but would’ve been interested to know what her repayment schedule looked like. Or something

Kimberly: Well it was also weird to hear about financial stuff on Keith’s part in his own essay

Samantha: Exactly. I’m glad that they’ve both been able to make it work, but leaving that out left something to be desired in my opinion.

Livia: I cannot imagine blowing through that much money.

Samantha: Life adds up quickly! Especially when you have a sick cat, too.

Kimberly: It’s true. Though I guess there’s also a difference between people who strive to be full-time novelists/writers and those who want to publish but will have a career first.

Samantha: Very good point.

Kimberly: I do think that privilege is something in general that I wish was addressed more in the book. Junot Diaz had a good point with highlighting the race imbalance, but I also think that talking about privilege in general is an elephant in any creative (writing) room.

Samantha: Absolutely. Race and class is obviously a big part the MFA experience or living in NYC as Livia mentioned earlier, and it’s not really delved into in any great detail in this book.

Kimberly: Okay, so things left to be desired aside, what did you get out of the book? What were some good takeaways?

Livia: Well, Chad Harbach has kinda been a broken record about this, but at the Housing Works event he mentioned that everyone found his original n+1 essay pretty depressing. He said he didn’t get why, but I do! It seems like these 2 systems are not very conducive to letting the best talent float to the top, or to supporting writers.

Kimberly: Yeah, and in that way, too, he sets up this idea that it’s not necessary NYC vs. MFA, but the issue with those two being the systems that run the literary world. If they start to feed into one another, there’s no real alternative for writers to be discovered. Except for self-publishing, I suppose. Which would be a whole other thing. MFA vs. NYC vs. Digital Self-Publishing.

Samantha: Oh man, that’s a whole other can of worms you’ve just opened, Kim.

Livia: Which is a symptom of great afflictions–the digital revolution, the struggling economy, etc.–but overall it’s still just sad that talented, hardworking writers can’t be discovered and make a living the way they once did. Unless maybe they self-publish, which I agree is the new frontier! Or, could be.

Samantha: Yes, I think that reading this book provided greater color and detail to the ongoing struggle of being a writer and trying to make a name for yourself, in or out of MFA or NYC.

Kimberly: I think they should all dance-fight. A la West Side Story–only one can reign supreme.

Samantha: Oh my god yes, not sharks or jets, it’s MFAs vs. NYCs vs. Self Pubbers ONE NIGHT ONLY!

Livia: There should be a rap battle too.

Kimberly: I think that’s what I loved about George Saunder‘s essay. It was so straightforward and matter-of-fact about why an MFA can be practical– but only if your life allows it. Not this more romantic view of it.

Livia: Yup, loved that. It was the slap in the face that MFA-pessimists like myself needed. Glad that section opened that way.

Samantha: They really did try to get a range of views and opinions.

Kimberly: That seemed to kind of be what it was, though, right? Like a lot of dissolving any romanticism behind either way of “becoming a writer.” On the MFA end, it became about deciding how you would utilize that program to its fullest potential, and with NYC, it was saying life does not work out just because you have a book deal

Livia: Yup, like I said, depressing! Haha. But definitely the type of real life stuff I try to share on Yeah Write. Before Chad Harbach wrote the original n+1 essay, was the idea of New York and MFA programs as being the 2 “pillars of literary output” something widely discussed?

Kimberly: That’s a good question. In some ways I think it was. At NYU, I had a teacher who was a pretty prolific author who told us that if we wanted to be published, we should get a job that pays the bill and just write. And that being in NY was a particularly good place to be to do that. And then I feel like a lot of people were aware of MFA programs as being the “next step,” if they could afford it. I think there’s always been a kind of elitist view of NY authors vs. everyone else. Maybe because, if anything, all the Big 5 are here.

Livia: Right. I’d always thought in terms of “MFA vs. Experience”, but had never thought about how most of that Experience with a capital E was happening in New York, where the publishers are. After I read it, it seemed so obvious. So I guess my point is that, while we agree that a lot of perspectives were lacking, we shouldn’t forget that just that point in and of itself is really interesting.

Samantha: Oh of course. I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the decision to structure the book in this way was to get people to react, to talk about it to make a lot of buzz. And hey, whether or not that’s what they were going for, they got it.

Livia: Yeah! Pit the writers against each other. More rap battles. But I’m glad the book even pointed it out, because if those are the only 2 places that our current literature is coming from, we’re going to have a problem down the road!

Samantha: Exactly, that is not a sustainable or healthy system. You need more than two rivers to feed an ocean.

Kimberly: But that is why, I think, digital publishing is booming. In so many ways it makes things more democratic, even if less regulated and more scrappy.

Samantha: Well at the very least it presents a new set of challenges and makes it a little easier to get authors’ works available for consumption.

Kimberly: So I know we need to wrap up. Livia, did you have any last words?

Livia: Hmmm. I think that overall I really liked the book, if only because it’s always cool for me to see into people’s working lives when their ambitions are similar to mine.I loved getting all of those personal anecdotes instead of just, you know, glossed stats. Maybe it’s trite, but that in and of itself provided the book with a lot of merit, for me! Although I still don’t know if I should just keep writing and living in NYC, or start applying to MFA programs.

Kimberly: Haha. Both! Best of both worlds. If there is one anecdote that stayed with you, what is it?

Livia: I mean, I really like cats, and mine from childhood died last year, so I always think about that Emily Gould story, haha. Or Maria Adelmann sitting in her tiny office, making tons of money but not having time to write. I have a nice office, but I identify with that too. But I don’t even make tons of money, I just don’t have time to write!

Samantha: It’s always some kind of struggle or another!

Livia: Totally! But that’s the way it should be. So you have something to write about!

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