Chad Harbach’s new anthology MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction is creating quite a stir among literary circles. The anthology is an extension of an essay that Harbach originally published in n + 1, the acclaimed literary magazine that he also edits. He provides us with an expansive look into the controversies and anxieties of literary institutions in the United States today. Harbach argues that American literary culture has divided into two groups: university MFA programs and the New York publishing world.
Reading Harbach’s essay, I was relieved to find a writer who shares my anxieties about American literature. However, as a writer and reader, I find the dichotomy his title sets up to be inherently flawed.
When I came to Emerson, I knew almost nothing about literary culture; I don’t even think I knew what an MFA program was when I arrived on campus. I grew up in a culturally anemic small town in Pennsylvania, and attended a high school that greatly valued athletic over artistic achievement.
Reading books was, for the most part, a profoundly private and sacred experience, a closed conversation between the text and myself. And I didn’t give a damn whether what I was reading back then had been reviewed in The New Yorker.
Now, at age 20, I long for the intellectual innocence of my high school years. American literature has largely lost sight of the fact that it is this textual intimacy that ultimately produces good literature, not the University of Iowa or workshop buzzwords like “psychic distance,” “character development,” or “the human condition” that start to sound hollow after repeated use.
Yet most younger writers today producing work that is considered to be of high literary quality have attended MFA programs, and having a degree in creative writing, as I have learned from experience in publishing internships, does actually increase one’s chances of getting published in today’s market. What this means is that “literary” writing, which always seeks to distance itself from the generic and commercial, has also become a commodity.
This isn’t entirely a bad thing. It’s notoriously difficult to make a living on writing, and MFA programs provide burgeoning writers with career stability and time for sustained creativity, as other commentators with much more experience and finesse than me have pointed out. It would also be tiresome to note the homogenizing effect workshopping can have on the development of a writer’s individual voice. What most concerns me about MFA programs is that they create the illusion that you need a degree to create decent art.
Where would a poet like Wallace Stevens fit into today’s literary culture? Stevens led a famously conventional life for being the greatest American poet of the 20th century: he spent much of his life as an insurance executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, composing some of the most inventive poems in American literature on his morning commute. Although he corresponded with important literary figures like William Carlos Williams and George Santayana, Stevens kept academia at arms’ length — to the benefit of his verse, in my opinion.
To give a more contemporary but very different example, Stephen King is a truly important contemporary novelist, although he has been shunned by the nation’s literary elite. His longer works, like The Stand and It, shine with originality, authenticity, and sheer imaginative power. King presents us with a realistic and sympathetic view of middle class life that is untarnished by the pretensions that dominate much of literary fiction today.
My intention in this essay is not to bash MFA programs or writing workshops. There are many writers I admire — Michael Cunningham and Flannery O’Connor, off the top of my head — that enrolled in writing programs, and the workshop classes I took at Emerson have helped, if only because they gave me the opportunity to have my writing read and critiqued by professionals. It’s the insular quality of writing programs that unnerves me, and their implicit belief that creativity can be credentialed. I won’t argue that contemporary literature is worse off for the proliferation of writing programs, but I can’t shake the feeling that the next Emily Dickinson is out there somewhere, toiling away in quiet passion.