The bleak state of American fiction

The bleak state of American fiction

“Writers write. But what do they do for money?” That’s the tagline on the back cover of MFA Vs. NYC, a collection of essays on the current state of American fiction-writing edited by Chad Harbach (The Art Of Fielding) and published jointly by n+1 and Faber & Faber. The inspiration for the collection—and the first essay in the volume—is Harbach’s “MFA Vs. NYC,” which first ran in n+1 in 2010, where Harbach is also an editor.

The essay caused something of a splash in the niche world of “books about writing,” which means it was a big deal in the inside-baseball conversations among aspiring writers, established writers, MFA students, and publishing professionals. The idealism behind writing fiction tends to obscure the economic realities behind it, and Harbach’s essay neatly lays out the two most obvious tracks available for professional fiction writers to survive. One is in academia, through fellowships and teaching; the other is in the boom-or-bust world of New York-based publishing. Both have their strengths and pitfalls; but neither, in the final analysis, is particularly appealing. Partly, because both industries are so flawed. The subtext of the essay expounds that that’s because the state of fiction in America is especially bleak.

MFA Vs. NYC is an attempt to bring that subtext out into the open—but not too far into the open. What MFA Vs. NYC wants to say—and pulls back from actually saying—is that the state of literature (or “fiction,” as the creative-writing programs would prefer we called it) is a mess. On one side, it’s constrained by the limits of a dwindling publishing industry; on the other, it’s constrained by a university bureaucracy that is entrenched in such a limited and academic definition of fiction that most of the greatest American novels would never make it through workshop.

The resulting volume is a combination of memoir and critique, as a few writers describe how they nearly starved trying to get through a novel and a few teachers and literary agents argue against the idea that their particular fields are failing.

MFA Vs. NYC details how the “program era,” as is called the period of time since World War II when creative-writing programs have flourished in the U.S., is a culturally mediated institution, borne from Cold War politics and what Elif Batuman describes as the shame of the American writer. It is a sharp critique, and a well-earned one—MFA programs seem to produce fiction that is less and less relevant to the lives of everyday Americans, even as their ranks swell with more and more aspiring writers.

But that lens isn’t turned with the same rigor on the other half of the book’s title, the publishing culture of New York City. Harbach’s assessment, which is that New York’s publishing model is most similar to Hollywood’s, is apt. But where MFA programs earn 10 essays on various parts of the education bureaucracy—including “the teaching game” and two lengthy critical-theory essays from the London Review Of Books—New York’s publishing culture receives six, and at least one of those is from someone who went on to teach at a college to make money. Of those six, four are from literary agents, publicists, or editors and three of those are simply glowing endorsements of how well publishing works, spoken from the mouths of a few people who love their jobs and are canny enough not to trash their own industry in a book published by one of their peers.

The problem is, as a writer, editor, publisher, or teacher, it’s hard to critique the state of fiction without shooting yourself in the foot—in this increasingly catch-as-catch-can literary economy, fearless critique can put you out of a job. (It’s not surprising that one of the volume’s most ruthless critiques of the program era comes from the late David Foster Wallace.) Yet it’s hard to blame n+1 for not quite succeeding in this area. After all, the magazine is adding to this discourse by publishing a book, and it is naturally not keen to destroy its business relationship with Faber & Faber books, or to destroy its writers’ future ambitions with other publishing houses.

But that does mean that MFA Vs. NYC doesn’t truly succeed in answering its own question—how do writers make money?—because the answers would be a bit too depressing. The clearest answer seems to be: by contributing to a collection of essays being published by the magazine you occasionally write for. Certainly that is a paycheck most of these featured writers are depending on.

MFA Vs. NYC is too much a product of publishing—and MFAs—to be a solid critique of either. It does succeed when it lets its contributors tell their stories—the best essays in this volume are the stories from writers who found a way to make peace with being stuck between a rock and a hard place: Alexander Chee offers a moving portrait of what going to an MFA program meant for his Korean-American and queer identity; Emily Gould, Keith Gessen, Eli S. Evans, and Diana Wagman all offer essays that explore creative flowering and financial poverty in equal measure.

But these are tales of success despite long odds—and success, here, encompasses an MFA graduate who spent six years waiting tables and a woman who received a $200,000 advance for her first novel and then later describes bankrupting herself to keep her cat alive. These are a few stories from the lucky ones that have a novel published and another on the way, from those writers who have found a voice in n+1—almost every writer in this volume has been published in the magazine.

Diana Wagman’s “Application” perhaps comes the closest to writing off the whole industry entirely—she arrives at her new teaching gig at a writing workshop already a published novelist and paid screenwriter, only to discover screenwriting is considered beneath the lofty aims of her students. Her essay is an overly personal application to work at a new position—anywhere else than the world of fiction, perhaps.

For all of its observations on how writing is hard, a few crucial questions go unanswered. Why write fiction at all? Why is fiction “better” or “more important” or “more culturally significant” than any other writing? Why does The Paris Review get to decide what is significant, as compared to, say, the forums on Amazon? Where are the calls for state-subsidized housing for poets, as exists in France, or for the cultivation of a literary public, as in Iceland? MFA Vs. NYC seems far too constrained for what is ultimately the more pressing question: If it doesn’t make money and has trouble finding an audience, is fiction still valuable?

The answer to that question is: Of course it is. But it won’t be if the intelligentsia isn’t out there fighting for it, and MFA Vs. NYC suggests the existence of a cultural elite who is either too broke to make a go of it or too established to speak truth to power. (Elif Batuman stands out as the most courageous thinker in the volume, and it would be hard for anyone else to match her level of style and success.) It’s depressing, but only a few essays in this volume come close to arguing a timeless truth: Literature matters, even if our current literary institutions are making it harder than ever to write and read what matters. MFA Vs. NYC could be a better book, but in reality, it is not the work that is flawed, but the entire system that supports it.

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