MFA vs NYC by Chad Harbach

I picked this up because it’s something that’s interested me, despite not wanting to be a fiction writer. It’s a compilation of essays or snippets of essays that argue for/against/both MFAs or NYC as a means of…what? Becoming a fiction writer? Learning to write? Entering that industry? Depends. It doesn’t necessarily even argue education vs experience, but a much more specific look at which of these paths may be right for you depending on what you want out of it or what you may need at the time.

It seems to imply:

Need more time to write? Go MFA

Need more stuff to write about? Go NYC

Need technical skills? Go MFA

Need connections? Do both

But I think it’s more personal than that, as a lot of the essays show.

I’m always a little more skeptical of the opinions that make hard & fast predictions, with little room for complexity. Granted, exceptions will always be made, but even saying that the majority of one’s research concludes that writing workshops are: “good,” “bad,” formulaic, homogenizing,  conspiratorial, etc…worries me. Saunders argues that it depends on the workshop (I agree), but I think it depends just as equally, if not more, on the person (which I believe he agrees with as well).

A few reviews I’ve read say the more personal accounts, take Emily Gould’s & boyfriend, Keith Gessen’s for instance, are perhaps doing this collection a disservice. But I think it shows that this means the value of the program is completely dependent on the individual. It shows it’s harder to argue for an all-encompassing impact on a generational or cultural level (which some of the essays will try to do regardless, with very convincing arguments for both sides). As for the argument that writer’s workshops produce only formulaic fiction writers, I think that’s ridiculous. But I do believe there’s a big difference between producing a writer and producing writing.

Also, just because something is good does not mean it will sell, & vice-versa. & when it does sell, it doesn’t mean it’ll sell well, meaning ‘don’t expect to be rich off this stuff,’ a frequently mentioned point in this book that discusses the financial situation of working in this industry just as much as it argues the merits of it. Because one way of looking at this MFA vs NYC debate relies a lot on money & the lack of it. Some of the essays discuss the future of the industry as a whole, predicting its eventual world becoming smaller, less profitable, of a certain quality, with the onslaught of us, twenty-somethings staying unemployed longer & longer, till eventually we’ll all have doctorates, & a long list of intimidating & important-sounding credentials, working as professors/publishers with writing side-gigs. Yes, I include publishers in that because although there is an argument that all of us aspirational lit-lovers will enter the MFA world, I believe there will be an increase in programs like the one I’m in, where editorial & publishing degrees are suddenly something that feels like it needs to be taught. Publishing means being responsible for what people read, & that’s a skill if I ever heard one, one that can be learned given an open mind. My program in particular, I think helps steer the industry away from being too concerned with profit, by emphasizing diversity, quality, & values that I hope we as students don’t lose once we’re forced into the “real-world” industry.

So my personal story: I was born here, raised here, & have little doubt in my mind that I will be buried in one of the cemeteries that completely encases the part of Queens I live in. I also have no aspirations to get an MFA in Creative Writing (capital C, capital W). But I did get a B.A. in English, & am currently enrolled to get an M.S. in…Publishing. Who knew you could even get a degree in that field? It’s not like it’s cheap either, which I reason with myself by restating that I didn’t pay a cent for undergrad. But I knew little to nothing about the industry, had no connections, & my research was often dated or unexplained. I didn’t need to pay rent, since NYU is a train-ride away, & I always kind of wanted another two years to dip my feet. I didn’t write for a school paper in college & had little experience besides what I could read & teach myself.

I stand by my decision & believe this was the right choice for me. I have direct contact with industry professionals everyday, & besides making connections, the day to day tales of their experience are more beneficial than any company summary I can read online. Granted, I have no aspiration to be a writer, so maybe this is telling in of itself.

What I got from this was that it depends on what who you are & what you want out of it, which could be similar to where you fall on the sides for some of the more in-depth arguments made. Are you concerned with the state of Literature (capital L), are you more focused on what the MFA does to us on a national level (because this seems to be argued as a very American phenomenon), or are you trying to make the decision for yourself?

I will say that there were more NYC tales about those who work in the industry, but aren’t necessarily authors or writers than I expected, & that seems to be counter-intuitive to what someone may originally think. However, I do believe that NYC (or Paris or Frankfurt or any epicenter of writers), is definitely worth the move whether you want an MFA or not.

As  final add-on, I’ll recommend this collection because it did a great job of reminding me why I love some of my favorite writers, but also introduced me to some I’m less familiar with, & I’m always thankful for that.

“Then again, the publishing industry has always been singularly confused, unable to devote itself fully to either art or commerce, so perhaps the influence works both ways; perhaps the NYC writer, by keeping the industry close, hopes also to keep it honest, and a little bit interested in the art it champions.”

“As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one. That said, the fact that the programme isn’t a slaughterhouse doesn’t mean we should celebrate, or condone, its worst features. Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try? The programme stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch. Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. “




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