There are more MFA Creative Writing programs in the US now than there have ever been before. This little tidbit is one of many things I learned from reading MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, a collection of essays inspired by the original “MFA vs NYC” essay by Chad Harbach (author of The Art of Fielding), in which he suggested that American literature falls into the dichotomy of university programs and New York publishing.
When my aunt suggested this book to me, at the suggestion of her book group facilitator, I thought all my questions would be answered. Here I would finally discover if MFA programs really are worth it, or if they’re a method of brainwashing designed to churn out the same types of writers, and I would learn “the truth” (as if such a thing exists) about the world of publishing in New York. I enjoyed the book and did learn a few things, but of course my questions were not really answered. This book reinforced something I’ve seen again and again in the writing world: it’s all so subjective.
The people involved in MFA programs support them, of course, and the people shunned by them, well, shun them. As for “the writer’s life” in New York, it’s no different from anywhere else: writing doesn’t usually pay much, if at all, and somehow you’ve got to figure out how to make a living.
I will say the book was wonderful for not feeling alone—ah yes, all writers face the same issues I’m facing now at some point or other—and it reinforced the idea that I should simply keep doing what I’m doing, since the writers who make it do so more on perseverance than anything else. Perhaps one day I’ll sell lots of books, and perhaps one day I’ll teach at an MFA program, and perhaps I will always have a “day job.” One of my favorite things about reading this book was the chance to feel like some of my favorite authors were chatting with me. I got to “be with” them through their opinions in a different way from what it feels like reading their fiction.
Chad Harbach sums the book up, and possibly the writing world in general, best in his intro: “…a writer can be ruined by school…She can be ruined by the publishing industry…She can be ruined by her poverty, or her parents. Or she can find her way.” Thank you, sir. I certainly hope I’m one of the latter.