Two and a half years ago, I left a job as an editorial assistant in New York for an M. Like many fiction writers in the making, I didn’t do it because I thought I needed to improve my writing. The archetypal anti-workshop argument was made by David Foster Wallace in “The Fictional Future,” a section of a 1988 essay that is reprinted in “MFA vs NYC.” In his telling, creative-writing programs are filled with teachers who would rather be writing than teaching, and who resent their students for the lost time.
creative-writing program at the University of Montana.
“And so by teaching such a class, weren’t you taking part in that deception, in the deception that all these students might become writers?
And weren’t you also forced, all the time, to lie to them, in effect, whether mildly or baldly, about their work?
It’s not that this collection doesn’t show that—in fact, one of the purposes of the collection to show that—but the dichotomy of the title essay and its implication hangs over everything that comes after. (I leave out lawyers on the run and dystopian teens because Harbach, and everyone else in this book, assumes, correctly, that no one reading “MFA vs NYC” wants to be the next John Grisham or Suzanne Collins.)Most people would agree that choosing to write fiction is a bad career move, even with the increased possibility of a middle-class teaching life thanks to the rise of M. And, worse, as one of my former professors never tires of telling me, even if you somehow sell a lot of books and win awards and get a profile in the , you’re still going to wake up and have to be yourself.
The book is frustrating because the things that make good fiction—things like families, relationships, and death—have very little to do with either M. There’s a smart, muted version of this attitude on the second-to-last page of the book, under the heading “Advice.” Caleb Crain writes, “I don’t think you should beat yourself up for not having published a book at the age of 28, but I think that a young person should keep a journal, and read seriously, and, you know, think about everything that happens.” And in Gessen’s refreshingly sane piece, called “Money (2014),” about the real work and benefit of a creative-writing class, he lays out the reasons for his reluctance to teach a fiction workshop.Auriane Desombre is a YA writer currently pursuing an MA in English Literature from NYU and an MFA in Creative Writing for Children & Young Adults from The New School.She holds a BA in English Literature from NYU, and has shared her passion for books through her experience working as an 8th-grade Writing teacher.) The New York writer, on the other hand, without the safety net of academia, feels an obligation to publish novels, and submits “to an unconscious yet powerful pressure toward readability.” (Anyone who’s tried to get through the big novels of a given publishing season might say, “Not powerful enough.”)In his introduction, Harbach writes that much of the mail he received after the publication of the original “MFA vs NYC” essay was from people who found the essay “extremely depressing.” He suggests that this is because he depicts the fiction writer “as a person constrained by circumstance—a person who needs money, and whose milieu influences the way she lives, reads, thinks, and writes.” On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a reason to hit the whiskey—yes, writers are people, and people need money.I think what makes the essay depressing is Harbach’s assumption that anyone interested in writing fiction is operating with such narrow motivations.It was for “the time to write,” and because I “needed to get out of the city,” and, anyway, it was funded. Students respond to this hostility by churning out “solid, quiet work … graduates are loosed upon the world to publish formulaic Mc Stories, and then get hired to preach the gospel of drabness at other programs. Those reasons are nonsense, at least in my experience. More likely, he was just a once-in-a-generation genius whose preference for forward-thinking literature rendered the work of his professors and cohort unforgivably dull.As Alexander Chee writes in his contribution to the new essay collection “MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction,” “New York provided a lot of opportunities to write, but also a lot of opportunities not to write, or to write the wrong things.” Like him, I didn’t think I’d be able to write the book I wanted “while chasing after other people’s copy.”But I also knew the rap on M. nice, cautious, boring Workshop Stories, stories as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down.” M. (“If only it were that easy,” mutter those of us who couldn’t write a story lacking “technical fault” if the ghost of Frank Conroy held a gun to our head.) Add to those fears the free-floating American anxiety about not appearing self-made—“a wine-chugging Hemingway firing a homemade rifle at a rabid shark from the back of a speeding ambulance,” as Chad Harbach puts it, in his introduction to the collection—and you’ve got some good reasons to avoid getting an M. Maybe things were different at the University of Arizona, where Wallace got his M. In any case, I learned more about writing fiction in one semester at Montana than I did in three years of writing and working in New York. as “taking twenty years of wondering whether or not your work could reach people and funneling it into two years of finding out.” But, once you achieve that—your work has reached the people in your workshop—things get tricky. He moves back to New York and works as a waiter for six years while writing his first novel, which he eventually sells.I had excellent teachers, who called me out on bad habits that had developed unchecked for years (“No echoing dialogue.” “No echoing dialogue? I made friends who were writing about subjects I knew nothing about, like living in Indiana. The important part of Chee’s essay comes when he describes what happens after the M. His message to would-be writers isn’t groundbreaking, but it bears repeating: “Ph D, MFA, self-taught—the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”It remains the hardest advice for a young writer to take. Every hour spent thinking about who is going to publish your work and how it’s going to be received is an hour that could be spent writing.I graduated with a couple of decent stories and a daunting but necessary sense of how much harder I would need to work. Who wants to hear about time and persistence when Téa Obreht was winning prizes and selling books at the age of twenty-six? Harbach describes this, less damningly but just as ominously, as the condition of the “NYC writer” in his original “MFA vs NYC” essay, which was published in in 2010: “Even if years away from finishing her first novel, she constantly and involuntarily collects information about what the publishing industry needs, or thinks it needs,” he writes. writer publishes stories, gets hired by a writing program, and is then free of commercial publishing obligations—free of the obligation, in fact, to publish at all.But, over the course of the semester, the students’ work gets better, and one of them shows serious promise she didn’t know she had. Gessen builds a syllabus he can use in perpetuity, cutting down on dreaded prep time.