I’ve hesitated to add my two cents to the MFA v. NYC…(er, debate? Is that what we’re calling it?) reignited by the publication of this anthology edited by Chad Harbach. I’ve hesitated because a) for a long time, I’ve been unsure that describing “two literary cultures” in America is useful at a time when new literature, it seems to me, has rarely been more diverse, genre-bending, and formally challenging, and b) I’m not sure whether I, as a poet, and therefore heir apparent to the tradition of being economically bound to the academy (HA HA) have a dog in a fight that claims to be about fiction writers, and finally c) I’ve been patently ignoring the discussion, because it makes me tired. But here we go.
Starting with 2009’s The Program Era, the large-scale discussion of the worth of an MFA, or its impact on the economics and aesthetics of the literary landscape, has focused on fiction. And not just Fiction writ large—which would have to include all kinds of storytelling, some of which, like comics, are just beginning to have a place in the academy—but namely novels and short stories. The justification for this, it seems, is that unlike poets, who have “traditionally” relied on the academy, not book sales, for their paychecks, fiction writers treating their publications like “credentials” rather than a way to buy groceries is sort of new.
“The NYC writer has to earn money by writing,” writes Harbach in the 2010 essay that kicked off this year’s anthology. Whereas the MFA writer earns money by teaching, making his writing, according to Harbach, strain or bloat with a lack of urgency or readability. Say what you want about that—anyone who reads feverishly knows that there are complex, timely, readable writers who teach in MFA programs just as there are duds who miss the mark. If the market “takes care” of crummy novelists in NYC (as it will, in time, take care of all of us, *evil laugh*), we can probably just let time take care of the fiction that comes out of creative writing departments, rather than being irritated that a more uneven array of it seems to be published each year.
But what about the writer who earns money a different way? Who waitresses, or teaches high school, or builds houses or iPhone apps. Who isn’t “immediately championed” by a university and perhaps never by New York critics, who doesn’t have teaching to lean on as a way to feel “professional” as a writer when her ideas dry up, and who also hasn’t made it in the “blockbuster-or-bust” world of New York publishing, threatened as it is by the looming specter of Amazon? Isn’t this a writer who, between the supply and demand problems of creative writing jobs and the frightened scurry of Random-Penguin-House, is destined to emerge as a “third culture” of American letters?
Does this writer—who could have, pre-program-era, been Muriel Rukeyser, or Amy Clampitt, or Richard Hugo—count in the MFA/ NYC tally? Does her slow, steady work in the hours when she comes home from the office or before she gets on the bus in the morning matter to the people who must divide America into literary Communism and capitalism? When I think of these writers, they are mostly poets: publishing in Poetry and The Missouri Review and Conjunctions, celebrating their new books after they sign out for the day or in between grading high school essays. If they are poets, they will always be more or less ignored by the market, and thus by the public. But it doesn’t make their innovations in language, in form, and in collaboration any less valuable. Think of Miranda Priestly’s speech in The Devil Wears Prada to a humbled Anne Hathaway–the art that everyone pretends not to care about, and that no one can afford to buy makes its way eventually into the clothes on your back. So, I hope, it is for America’s best poetry.
Some of these writers-with-day-jobs have MFAs, and some do not. Writers who manage to survive outside of both the New York-driven publishing world and the academic world are a special breed, and their work often—not always—reflects it. These are writers who may be more likely to work with artists from other disciplines, and to research and write on subjects that are new to them. They are documentary theater artists and documentary poets; they don’t shy away from performance; they write hybrid texts and libretti. They read everything they can get their hands on. They listen and watch. (Of course, I hasten to add, there are writers in both the NYC and MFA orbits who do these things too—that is the point, that a strong will and an imagination can always do something surprising to an institution.)
It’s possible that of this type of writer-with-day-job, many or most will remain unknown all their lives; some will eventually bemoan the loss of their chance to be the next Jonathan Safran Foer or to judge a contest or to have a stool named after them in Iowa City. But underneath their creative struggles and juggling of professional goals, these writers—those featured on this blog, and others—also comprise something surprising, something that in America we thought we had lost: a group of people who don’t just go to work every day, but who intentionally move in multiple spheres; who think, read, write, and live the liberal arts.