Friday, August 22, 2014
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Varied views on becoming a writer

"MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction," edited by Chad Harbach.
"MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction," edited by Chad Harbach. From the book jacket
"MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction," edited by Chad Harbach. Gallery: Varied views on becoming a writer


The Two Cultures of American Fiction

Edited by Chad Harbach

n+1/Faber and Faber.

312 pp. $16 paperback

Reviewed by Hillary Rea


There is typically a moment in elementary school when a child is presented with the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And that child then makes a speech, creates a posterboard collage, or writes a paragraph outlining future hopes and dreams. Inevitably, a large sampling of these children are going to announce with great pride and eagerness: "When I grow up, I want to be a writer!"

In a cookie-cutter world, these kids would move on to a high school honors program, an Ivy League college, and then a prestigious master of fine arts writer's workshop. After that, it would be on to New York City to publish a series of award-winning novels.

This is not the typical trajectory that MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction describes. The collection of essays and anecdotal rumblings, edited by Chad Harbach, compiles personal stories, statistical data, academic analysis, and some basic pros and cons about the true life of a contemporary professional writer. Harbach, author of the highly praised novel The Art of Fielding, is the editor of n+1 Magazine, a noble literary magazine appealing to the Brooklyn set. This book expands on an essay he published in 2010 that created an inner-circle buzz, enough so that he decided to bring his friends, colleagues, and mentors together for a seemingly good-natured writerly duel.

The book's premise seems to be targeted specifically at Lena Dunham's character Hannah on the HBO series Girls, who presented viewers with a cliffhanger in the Season 3 finale: Will she leave her emotionally abusive boyfriend and her millennial New York City life behind to go to the mecca of all meccas, the Iowa Writers' Workshop? Perhaps if her friend Marnie just presented her with a copy of MFA vs. NYC, Hannah could make a decision based on the outcome of the literary debate within.

But upon the book's conclusion, there isn't a definitive winner of the city girl vs. scholar fight. In fact, this isn't a straight boxing match at all. The book has three additional categories of essays that add more versus to the ring. If named true to its table of contents, the book should be called MFA vs. NYC vs. The Teaching Game vs. Two Views on the Program Era vs. The Great Beyond. But what does this all mean? These subject headers create even more insider exclusiveness in an already self-limiting subject matter.

While the title of the book implies that the views collected there would be divided into two major groups, opinions seem fragmented, each opposed to the others.

For those picking up this book out of pure curiosity and not to solve a creative writing major's quarter-life crisis, the essays serve less as a two-sided argument and more as a dialogue pertaining to quality of fiction vs. the economy of fiction, the fame of fiction vs. the education of fiction. The viewpoints come not just from early-career writers, but also from modern fiction greats like George Saunders and the late David Foster Wallace. There are also accounts from literary agents, publishers, and professors.

The true dialectical tension that splinters these 20 essays is the personal essay vs. academic analysis. Saunders' "Mini-Manifesto," Elif Batuman's "The Invisible Vocation," and Harbach's republished title piece are consistently stiff and often floundering attempts at making a point while name-dropping Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, and Gordon Lish - names that only an elite few care about.

In MFA vs. NYC, the personal essay takes the gold. Standout pieces come from writers like Diana Wagman and literary agent Jim Rutman, who penned essays that share their career paths from a first-person perspective. Even for readers without career aspirations pertaining to American fiction, it is possible to commend, connect, and commiserate with these storytellers.

If one were to pick and choose selections from the book, "Into the Woods" by former coeditor Emily Gould is a raw delight, and "My Parade" by Korean American fiction writer Alexander Chee is a must-read.

A graduate of the esteemed Iowa Writers' Workshop, Chee is decidedly pro-MFA, but "the doubting kind." Chee writes about his career with honesty and humor, taking us through his post-Wesleyan move to San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, his decision to get an MFA with the conviction that "no one is going to force me to write to a formula," and his stint in New York City, where he wrote on the subway before and after waiting tables. His essay is more than just book-jacket bio. Chee unveils the struggle in making life choices that he didn't always believe in, but ultimately decides that going to a graduate school writing program encouraged him "to be a writer like none before."

Chee, Gould, and the several other writers who wrote candidly about the twists and turns of their own journeys, even admitting to wrong choices, are this book's true winners.


Hillary Rea is a comedian and storyteller. She hosts the monthly "Tell Me a Story" event at Shot Tower Coffee at Sixth and Christian Streets in Queen Village.

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