Notes on n+1’s “MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction”

"I'm going to New York City to become a famous writer!" "New York can be really tough on a cat."

“I’m going to New York City to become a famous writer!”
“New York can be really tough on a cat.”

The blogger is the busker of the writing world, sidewalk setup with pre-production to distribution in a snap, with or without an MFA or ever having set foot in Brooklyn, where it’s easy to mistake an NYC for a hipster, the new hepcat, but the character with a sign on a street corner, selling short stories, has got to be an MFA. Of course I bought one. It’s titled, “Sixteen short stories, and what do you get? Another day older and money in debt.” That’s it, the whole story, a study in minimalism.

n+1’sMFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction” sounds more highfalutin that it is. The eclectic collection of analytic and reflective pieces is very engaging: personal, down-to-earth, and sincere; witty, informative, and cantankerous. The stories of the aspiring writers though are often wrapped in disappointment, and don’t amount to good news for the latest whiz kids on their way to the big time.

The big time here is the coveted publishing contract and the freedom to write it suggests. But if the big time is part of the great American novel, the form is protean: movie stardom, big league baseball star, corporate head-honcho, founder of the next mega-church, on the cover of Rolling Stone. How does a relentless pursuit of excellence turn rancorous and begin to have a negative effect on the game, or the business, or the art? Subcultures are constantly being subsumed by the dominant, overarching culture, the umbrella over the barrel. The writers and scholars that appear in “MFA VS NYC” have big time stories to tell, and readers interested in the making of literature will find intriguing stuff on the ways the writing of fiction is taught or learned and the resulting fiction influenced and modified by the many players in the process: teachers, programs, agents, publishers, editors, publicists, booksellers, critics, readers.

People write for all kinds of reasons and purposes, usually to someone, and if the writing is sent off – the memo, the email, the love letter, the white paper, the blog post, the letter to the editor, the book proposal, the sign in a window, the graffiti on a train car, the busker’s song sang on the sidewalk – the writing is published. Just as often, no doubt, and just as well, probably, the writing is trashed or deleted, but whether the writing is read or heard or not, by whom or how, or how long it lives, is all another matter. Some writers write to themselves, diarists. Their work is published when it’s found. Writers often hold up a mirror to the culture, and if the mirror is cracked, the culture turns away. Writers, like the rest of us, all seem to have a particular picture of themselves, hardly ever the same picture others have of them. It’s the picture of ourselves we don’t recognize that might make for the best writing and reading. The pictures of writers and writing, of literature, that unfold in “MFA VS NYC” merge the ones the writers have with the ones their readers might have, bringing the whole affair into better focus.

The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress

When did literature become an elitist game? When we started writing? Literature both reflects and influences culture, society, and the individual, but there are many things that reflect our values (what we want; not to be confused with what’s good for us) and influence our thought and action (the automobile; lawns; college), but not everything that reflects and influences our lives is literature. There appears to be an argument afoot, to wit: “I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.” This from Elif Batuman’s review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era, “Get a Real Degree.”

All cultures experience literature, but only an elitist can afford to read purely for fun. What Elif is talking about when she says “literary tradition” is the tradition of literary criticism, which is a kind of self-consciousness about one’s literature. Part of Elif’s complaint is that the programs (code for the MFA writing programs) lack literary tradition and subscribe to an artificial fabrication called creative writing. But as Eliot said in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “It [tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” One gets the feeling that Elif does not consider “creative writing” to be literature, and it may not be, in the same sense that painting by numbers is not art. D. G. Myers seems to agree. Myers values writers not on but in location. Using this rubric, Bukowski, who filled the Los Angeles Basin with alcohol, makes the grade, as would Flannery O’Connor, who filled the South with grace, and Joyce, who filled Dublin with Dubliners, giving them a chance to talk to one another unencumbered by the Church’s program. Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy is another example rooted in place. But people move, and move on.

If, as Buckminster Fuller explained, specialization leads to extinction, where does literary elitism lead? Literature from the “programmes” sounds a little like the physicists’ string theories, which Robert B. Laughlin unraveled for us some time ago: criticizing string theory in his book A Different Universe, Laughlin says “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (p. 215). One problem, as described by Batuman, has to do with the program reverence for what it calls craft. Plumbing is a craft; writing is something else.

Again we find funding the antagonist: “…people on the West Coast work,” Kenneth Rexroth said. “Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, ‘Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?’ Ginsberg said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Ship out…’ You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!’ In the East people don’t think like that” (Meltzer, 1971, p. 12*).

Elif’s London Review of Books review would still be going out with the tide were it not for McGurl’s tardy response in the May 11th Los Angeles Review of Books, “The MFA Octopus: Four Questions About Creative Writing.” But what is elite? The truly elite do not go in for literature; they go where the money is, finance, or health care, or both, which is insurance, and surely if we can agree on anything it’s that there’s no money in literature. The elite that do go in for literature we might call the mal-elite, the black sheep of the elite, for as Jerzy Kosinski said, “Reading novels—serious novels, anyhow—is an experience limited to a very small percentage of the so-called enlightened public. Increasingly, it’s going to be a pursuit for those who seek unusual experiences, moral fetishists perhaps, people of heightened imagination, the troubled pursuers of the ambiguous self” (Kosinski, Paris Review Interview, 1972).

Kosinski was no elitist, nor is Elif’s example of a writer she values, Dave Eggers. His prose is characterized by practical matters; his publication efforts (The Believer, which does not publish fiction, but which has been publishing poetry of late; 826 Valencia) take the word to the street, Samizdat-style. William T. Vollman might be an even better example of the non-elitist, non-programmed writer, engaged in some cross-fertilization of fiction and non-fiction, a new prose for a new time. For the University cannot grant access to literature; it can only grant access to degrees. And the egress of disappearing readers from literature suggests that we must start to look for our literature in unexpected places.

Follow-up:

Apr 29, 2013: Seth Abramson at HuffPost: “Contemporary Poetry Reviews.” Intro. continues “Program” discussion.

May 18: Laura Miller simplifies and suggests much ado about nothing. August 22: Daniel Green reviews The Program Era, including an interesting aside: “…another book considering those writers who resisted the migration of literature and the literary vocation into the academy would be an interesting project.” Yes.

15 Nov 2012: Fredric Jameson reviews The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl (Harvard, 466 pp, £14.95, November [2012], ISBN 978 0 674 06209 2) in LRB (subscribe).