A couple of posts ago I wrote that I had decided not to carve off excerpts of my novels as short stories, submitting them to journals and mags in hopes of getting them published, hoping still further that by thus enhancing my résumé I might be more likely to snag a literary agent and ultimately a book deal. Relatedly, here’s an excerpt from “MFA vs. NYC,” a November 2010 article in Slate. The subtitle of the piece: “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?”
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The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one’s instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the 10-page college term paper, or the 25-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre form.
It’s not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it’s that the entire culture is steeped in the form. To learn how to write short stories, you also have to read them. MFA professors—many of them story writers themselves—recommend story collections to their students. MFA students recommend other collections to one another; they also, significantly, teach undergraduate creative writing courses, which are built almost exclusively around short works. In classes that need to divide their attention between the skill of reading and the craft of writing (and whose popularity rests partly on their lack of rigor), there’s no time for ploughing through novels. Also, scores of colleges now have associated literary journals, which tend overwhelmingly to focus on the short story; by publishing in as many of these as possible, a young writer begins building the reputation that will eventually secure her a job as a teacher-writer, and an older writer sustains her CV by the same means.
Thus the names that reverberate through the MFA system, from the freshman creative writing course up through the tenured faculty, tend to be those of story writers. At first glance, this may seem like a kind of collective suicide, because everyone knows that no one reads short stories. And it’s true that the story, once such a reliable source of income for writers, has fallen out of mass favor, perhaps for reasons opposite to that of the poem: If in the public imagination poetry reeks suspiciously of high academia—the dry, impacted arcana of specialists addressing specialists—then the short story may have become subtly and pejoratively associated with low academia—the workaday drudgery of classroom exercises and assignments. The poet sublimates into the thin air of the overeducated Ph.D.; the story writer melts down into the slush of the composition department. Neither hits the cultural mark. A writer’s early short stories (as any New York editor will tell you) lead to a novel, or they lead nowhere at all.
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MFA versus NYC — surely that’s journalistic hyperbole. Cross-genre fiction is always hot: a cross between Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, that sort of thing. Almost certainly it’s become desirable for authors to present themselves as MFA meets NYC: I got the degree, I got the short story pubs, but really I’m a commercial fiction writer. Agents too: send me the blurb and the first ten pages of your novel, but in your pitch letter be sure to tell me about your MFA and your short story pubs. Back to the article…
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To be an NYC writer means to submit to an unconscious yet powerful pressure toward readability. Such pressure has always existed, of course, but in recent years it has achieved a fearsome intensity. On one hand, a weakened market for literary fiction makes publishing houses less likely than ever to devote resources to work that doesn’t, like a pop song, “hook” the reader right away. On the other, the MFA-driven shift in the academic canon has altered the approach of writers outside the university as well as those within. Throughout the latter half of the last century, many of our most talented novelists—Nabokov, Gaddis, Bellow, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace—carved out for themselves a cultural position that depended precisely on a combination of public and academic acclaim. Such writers were readable enough to become famous yet large and knotty enough to require professional explanation—thus securing an afterlife, and an aftermarket, for their lives’ work. Syntactical intricacy, narrative ambiguity, formal innovation, and even length were aids to canonization, feeding the university’s need for books against which students and professors could test and prove their interpretive skills. Canonization, in turn, contributed to public renown. Thus the ambitious novelist, writing with one eye on the academy and the other on New York, could hope to secure a durable readership without succumbing (at least not fully) to the logic of the blockbuster. It was a strategy shaped by, and suited to, the era of the English department, which valued scholarly interpretation over writerly imitation, the long novel over the short story. (And when it came to white males imagining themselves into the canon, it helped that the canon was still composed mostly of white males.)
The death of David Foster Wallace could be said to mark the end of this quasi-popular tradition, at least temporarily. What one notices first about NYC-orbiting contemporary fiction is how much sense everyone makes. The best young NYC novelists go to great lengths to write comprehensible prose and tie their plots neat as a bow. How one longs, in a way, for endings like that of DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, where everyone just pees on everyone else for no reason! The trend toward neatness and accessibility is often posited to be the consequence of the workshop’s relentless paring. But for NYC writers—despite their degrees—it might be better understood as the result of fierce market pressure toward the middlebrow, combined with a deep authorial desire to communicate to the uninterested. The NYC writer knows that to speak obliquely is tantamount to not speaking at all; if anyone notices her words, it will only be to accuse her of irrelevance and elitism. She doesn’t worry about who might read her work in 20 years; she worries about who might read it now. She’s thrown her economic lot in with the publishers, and the publishers are very, very worried. Who has both the money to buy a hardcover book and the time to stick with something tricky? Who wants to reread Faulknerian sentences on a Kindle, or scroll back to pick up a missed plot point? Nobody, says the publisher. And the NYC novelist understands—she’d better understand, or else she’ll have to move to Cleveland.
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So where does that put me? How about “neither MFA nor NYC”?
The article was written by somebody named Chad Harbach. I googled him: it turns out he wrote The Art of Fielding, a novel that I read and liked and even excerpted here on the blog. It was published in 2011 — a year after his Salon article — by a big NYC publisher. He also got an NYC-sized advance of $650K. And now I see that he’s got a new book out, published just this month: MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction — a book-length edited compilation expanding on his Salon piece. How does Harbach do it? I gotta find out who his agent is…
ADDENDUM — I see that Harbach’s agent is Chris Parris-Lamb. It turns out that, on my first pass through the long list of literary agents, Parris-Lamb made the cut as someone whose tastes might coincide with mine, someone I might actually want to query.