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For decades, New York City stood at the center of America’s literary universe. But the explosive growth of Masters of Fine Arts programs in creative writing is shifting the focus of literature along with what it means to be a professional writer and creating new literary centers of gravity in the process. We consider these dueling – and overlapping – cultures and find out what the changes mean for readers.
- Chad Harbach Author, 'The Art of Fielding'; Editor, 'MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction'; Founding Editor, 'n+1'
MR. KOJO NNAMDINext time you pick up a novel, check out the author bio on the back flap. Below the carefully posed photo there's likely to be a referenced one of two cities named for their states, possibly both, New York and Iowa. The former has long been considered the center of America's literary universe. The latter is home to a prestigious writer's workshop, one that has helped spur the creation of dozens of masters of fine arts programs in creative writing that have popped up on college campuses around the country in the last half century.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe two worlds intersect and intertwine but some argue that as the publishing industry reckons with a huge sea change, they're creating two very different kinds of authors who write two very different types of books. Here to explain and tell us what it means for us, the readers, is Chad Harbach. He is editor of "MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction" and a founding editor of n+1 magazine. He's also author of the Best Selling novel "The Art of Fielding" which we also love. Thank you very much for joining us, Chad.
MR. CHAD HARBACHYeah, thanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Before we talk about the respective centers of gravity, let's first consider the American author. You point out writers are regular people with regular problems rather than leading cloistered rarified lives. What does it mean to be a working writer in the U.S. today?
HARBACHWell, it -- to be a working writer who earns a living by writing is to be a pretty lucky person I think. You know, there are, you know, a million people out there literally, you know, who want to be a writer. And only a small fraction of them are really earning a living at it. And, you know, some of those people are earning a living by selling their books and making royalties. And another big group of those people are actually earning their pay publishing books but actually earning their money by teaching in universities.
NNAMDINew York is home to most of the major publishing houses and countless aspiring authors. How has the culture there shifted in the last decade as that industry continues to experience some pretty dramatic changes?
HARBACHYeah, I mean, in some ways, I mean, a decade ago is about when I moved to New York and first began to gain my firsthand experience of the publishing industry. In some way, you know, there have been big changes. E-books have come up in that time and, you know, of course Amazon has really come up in that time and really angered the publishers and fought with the publishers. And, you know, there have been these battles.
HARBACHYou know, two of the big houses just merged, the Penguin and Random House. You know, so there've been these shakeups but in some ways it's been consistent over the past decade that the publishers were very anxious about the future in 2004. And they're still doing okay but really anxious about the future in 2014.
NNAMDIThen of course there's Iowa City. One of the essays in this collection by Eric Bennett goes into the history of that program, which has some close ties, strangely enough, to the CIA. How did that writer's workshop grow and what has it inspired elsewhere?
HARBACHI mean, Iowa was really the first. Iowa started in the '30s.
NNAMDIMid 1930s, yeah.
HARBACHThe 1930s, long, long before any other -- there was creative writing for undergraduates at Harvard. There was a little bit of an idea of creative writing as something that you could teach in a school. But a post graduate course of study entirely devoted to writing was invented at Iowa in a lot of ways. And it wasn't for another couple of decades that another program opened. So Iowa had a kind of clear field for a long time. And it trained, you know, famously Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver and John Irving. An awful lot of major American figures over the years flowed through, you know, this little college town in Iowa.
NNAMDIAnd inspired a lot of MFA programs all over the country since then. Our guest is Chad Harbach. He is editor of "MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction." He's also founding director of n+1 magazine and author of the Best Selling novel "The Art of Fielding." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Read a lot of fiction? Wonder about trends you've noticed? Give us a call. If you're a writer, tell us what the reality of the business of writing means for you, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou've got an MFA from the University of Virginia. You're based in Charlottesville now, but you were living in New York when your novel "The Art of Fielding" was picking up. How do you define your place in or between these two worlds?
HARBACHIt's a little bit between. Like a lot of people, you know, a lot of people move back and forth between these two worlds. But, you know, for me, the kind of guiding rubric of the book, "MFA vs. NYC," is how does the writer make money? Do they make it through the university program or do they make it through the New York publishing house? And I've never -- I did at MFA, but I've never taught in a program. I'm not affiliated with a program now.
HARBACHYou know, as soon as I graduated and got my MFA all of my thoughts just turned toward selling "The Art of Feeling," which I was -- or finishing "The Art of Feeling," first. And then selling it, which took me about six years after I graduated. But in my own categorization I would really be a New York writer, because that's where all of my kind hopes have always been pinned.
NNAMDIYou first published your essay on the issue we're discussing back in 2010. What kind of reaction did you get then? And how did that inform the essay collection offering a variety of views on this topic out earlier this year?
HARBACHThere -- well, one main thing that happened was, you know, the essay was published in n+1 and it was also published on Slate. And when it went up online, it just created just a kind of firestorm of discussion. I just realized that something I had suspected already, which is that there is a big community out there of people who just really are interested in this phenomenon of creative writing, either because they lived outside of that world of the MFA programs and despised it in some way.
HARBACHThought maybe it was, you know, suspected that it was ruining our literature. Or people who, you know, are on the inside of that and really believe in teaching young writers and giving young writers this opportunity within the university system. There are just a lot of people kind of poured out on every side of this debate. And, I mean, I got -- there were a ton of comments. I got a lot of letters, some of them not very nice letters. And people just wanted to vent about this topic.
NNAMDIWhich makes this next question an unfair one for you. But, so what do these two cultures, which may not be opposed exactly, and they certainly, obviously do overlap, mean both for the writers who navigate them and for readers?
HARBACHYeah, well, for writers, I think they -- for writers they're both, you know, kind of double-edged swords. You know, the great thing about a New York publishing house is that if you sell your book there and they get behind it, like, you have a chance to really reach a lot of readers. On the other side, that's unlikely to happen. And also, you know, I think there's writers who looked too much at, you know, how they're going to sell their book. Right? Wind up compromising themselves artistically and not producing something that people actually want to read.
HARBACHOn the other side, on the university side, a lot of nice things about teaching. You know, for a writer I think a routine, security, health insurance, you know, the kind of stability that comes from being within a university is really great. Because a writer really has to be very regular in his or her habits in order to get anything done. The down side of that, of course, is that you have a full-time job, but your job is not writing.
HARBACHYour job is teaching. And so if you are really good at and devoted to that job of teaching, are you even going to have time to make your next book? Some people can do it, but in some -- but it's hard to know how they do it.
NNAMDIIt's fascinating. I think it was Colson Whitehead who upon being asked who was his favorite writer at one point said, "Well, I don't really have a favorite writer because it's possible that my favorite writer hasn't even written yet." The promise of drafting the great American novel has long been a focus and a goal for writers. Is that still a goal that you hear your colleagues talk about or are authors' goals in some way changing?
HARBACHGood question. You know, I mean, for me, growing up and to this day, you know, my goal has always been, you know, to write the best novels that I possibly could. And I think there are many, many people out there who feel exactly the same. You know, we -- there are, you know, yeah. I think it's…
NNAMDIWell, I'm just wondering if there are people who -- as great a writer as you are -- and you won't say it, I will -- who are because they're even not in MFA programs anywhere are not having access to New York publishing houses -- I’m going back to Colson Whitehead's comment here -- if they are just not writing. If they're just deciding that this can't work for me because I can't take any one of these two paths. And therefore, I may as well just do something else, just try to find a way of taking care of myself and my family in a different way.
HARBACHYeah, I mean, I think…
NNAMDIIf they're being dissuaded, if you will, from writing.
HARBACHI mean, I think it's enormously frustrating. I think it's enormously frustrating because you have to, you know, at some point, you have to get past the gatekeepers. And, you know, out of the agents and editors in New York, or the admissions committee of the MFA program, you know, and there are, you know, there are of course so many people out there across the United States who, you know, are writing and writing and writing and working really hard and not able to get past the gatekeepers.
HARBACHI mean, I will say that, you know, I know a lot of -- I know a lot of agents and editors in New York and I am constantly surprised by how open they are to new work, how many manuscripts they read, you know, just, like, how fervently they're hoping to find someone in the slush pile. You know, the amount of, like, kind of energy and enthusiasm and hope that those people bring is really extraordinary.
HARBACHBut there's only so many of those people and they only have so much time. And so a lot of stuff just sits on the edges and doesn't get read. And so it's, you know, it's really tough to break through unless you have a foot in the door.
NNAMDIHere's Joe, in Bethesda, Md. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEHey, thanks for taking my call. And I'm really interested in this conversation. I actually -- I went to University of Maryland and was accepted into a program they have there called the Writers' House. And it was a terrific program where I was schooled in poetry. You have the option of going into poetry or prose. And I learned so much. And, you know, I really improved my craft, but the prospect of utilizing that knowledge, you know, once out of college, was so daunting that I ended up, you know, working other jobs and writing on the side.
JOEAnd now I -- it's kind of funny. I ended up in the field of I.T., which is in some ways, you know, similar, but the opposite at the same time, writing code during the day and then, you know, writing, working on my craft at night. But I wonder how many people who are invested in writing and avid readers, you know, like myself, how many of them actually utilize the knowledge that they gained while at university to follow a career path that enables them to, you know, use their passion to make money and to support themselves like you were just talking about.
NNAMDII don't know if anybody has ever conducted a survey, Joe, about how many, but I suspect there is a pretty large number.
HARBACHYeah, I mean, well, of course, the great challenge is that, you know, you go to -- you go and get an MFA degree and you come out raring to go and to be a published writer who, you know, makes money by writing. You know, but it's not law school. You don't walk out the door and go get a job the next day. I hear that people graduating from law school don't even do that anymore, yeah.
NNAMDINow face that dilemma also, yes.
HARBACHBut it's even worse for writers, you know, certainly. And so, you know, so the challenge is, you know, how are you going to earn a living while you write the thing that you hope is going to get your foot in the door. You know, I know for me, it took me six years after I finished my degree of, you know, continuing to squeak along on my book and finish the book. And meanwhile, figure out various ways to pay my rent. And, you know, in six years, I mean, there are people out there who do it for way longer than that.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Chad Harbach. He is editor of "MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction." You can still call us. Joe, thank you for your call. The number is 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Chad Harbach. He is editor of "MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction." He's also founding editor of n+1 Magazine. And author of the best-selling novel, "The Art of Feeling." You can call us at 800-433-8850 with your questions or comments. If you're a writer, tell us what the realty of the business of writing means for you. You can also shoot us an email to Kojo@wamu.org.
NNAMDIYou helped found the literary magazine, n+1, a decade ago. And many of your colleagues, including one who will be joining us in the next hour, have had publishing success. Where do communities that exist around publications or online fit into this bigger, literary landscape?
HARBACHYeah, it's a, yeah, that's a great question. I mean, I think, you know, there are a couple things that you need as a young writer. One is money/time, which I think are the kind of one thing for a young writer because if you -- because if you really want to make money you shouldn't be getting into writing. You should really be doing something entirely different with your career. So, I mean, really your problem is how to make your living in as little time as possible.
HARBACHAnd so if you can solve that question, I think the other thing that you need is community. And, you know, community is one reason why people gravitate so much towards MFA programs. Because you're, you know, you're living in your town, you're writing all the time, you're working really hard. And you don't really feel like you're connected to a larger body. And so the MFA program really gives that to a lot of people. The problem, of course, is that after two years they kick you out and you're not in that community anymore.
HARBACHAnd another way to get it, you know, is through a project like a magazine. And, you know, that was -- we founded n+1 in 2004. There were a lot of reasons why we wanted to do it, but I think one really kind of central reason was just that, you know, we were all writers of one stripe or another, who wanted to do a communal project.
NNAMDITen years, ten years ago. You're celebrating your 10th anniversary right about now.
HARBACHYeah, it's, yeah, it's hard to -- it makes me feel old, but -- and happy.
NNAMDIHere's Jazelle, in Bethesda, Md. Jazelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAZELLEHi, everybody. I just wanted to sort of raise the awareness. You probably know this already, but in "Girls," Hannah Horvath, which is the character played by Lena Dunham, she has been a writer in New York City and now in the next season she's been accepted and appears to be going to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. And, you know, at the last -- the season finale we see her calling her parents and announcing it. And they're academics. And they say, "Well, honey, we'll do whatever it takes to pay for it."
JAZELLESo I get a sort of foreshadowing how much money it's going to cost to actually do this. And so I sort of thought it was sort of funny in that your book is, you know, New York City or Iowa, and, you know, we have this character sort of playing this out. So can you comment on that?
HARBACHSure. You know, I've seen some of the show and enjoy it very much. Although, I have not actually gotten to that episode. I've heard about it. I mean, it's funny because that episode aired right after this book came out. And it really did seem like a kind of -- of course, they must have conceived it long before ever hearing of the book, but it is a kind of dramatization of one of the central questions. I wonder whether Hannah's going to actually go to Iowa, because that show is really an NYC show. And it's not an MFA show. I hope they stay in Brooklyn.
NNAMDIThe university-based model, with authors getting on the tenure track, has been seen before in another genre, poetry. Some argue that poetry has suffered as a result, becoming more insular, becoming more academic, becoming less accessible to a general audience. Is there any concern that literary fiction may also become more opaque to readers?
HARBACHYeah, I think there is. I don't -- there is that fear. There is that fear that, you know, if you accept this premise about poetry, that fiction is on the same curve and a little bit behind. And I believe that there may be an element of that at play, in the sense that as the MFA system grows, and if someday the New York publishing world shrinks, as many people believe that it's going to do -- although it hasn't really done so yet. But what we see in the university system is, you know, sometimes a writer wants to get a book published just as a sort of credential, so that they can get a teaching job.
HARBACHIt almost functions as a sort of dissertation, you know. And, you know, so there is, you know, we do see with this, you know, and there are so many hundreds, maybe thousands of little magazines associated with MFA programs. And you kind of believe that the only people who read those magazines are the people who submit to them. There is, you know, there are kind of elements of insularity in this world, which, I mean, I think get overblown a lot of the time.
HARBACHBut there is a little bit of that in there.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time, but I can't let you go without asking what's next for you. Might there be a new novel on the horizon?
HARBACHYeah, I mean, it's a little bit of a distant horizon. I mean, I'm working on a book that I've only really gotten deep into in the past six months or so. So it's going to take me a little while before it's finished.
NNAMDISixes occur a lot with you. Six years working on "The Art of Feeling," and now six months on this one. We'll see how long this all takes. Chad Harbach, he is editor of "MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction," he's a founding editor of n+1 Magazine, and author of the best-selling novel, "The Art of Feeling." Chad, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
HARBACHYeah, thank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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