Released: February 2014
Guest review by Melanie Page
In issue 10 of n+1 magazine, Chad Harbach proposed that there are two cultures of American fiction: what is born of MFA programs and the writing that comes out of New York City (and those who specifically live in the city). A number of folks responded to Harbach and his idea’ thus, the book was born. Slate calls the debate between two groups “phony” while The New York Times calls the collection “serious, helpful and wily book” despite some flaws. MFA vs NYC is a collection of essays, personal experiences, and answers to questions. The authors range from successful, well-known authors like George Saunders and David Foster Wallace to those less known who have yet to publish. Overall, the collection is unbalanced, shallow, and draws upon a limited group of people.
Harbach’s collection is broken into sections: MFA, NYC, The Teaching Game, Two Views on the Program Era, and The Great Beyond. A number of essays have little introductory pieces before them, pages that are completely black with white text. Here, writers provide answers to the same questions (probably a survey emailed out to participants). These moments are like writers stepping into a confessional booth on a reality TV show: they are private, written as if spoken, and often express frustration. The same writers appear in different sections, such as student-soldier Matthew Hefti, who describes why he signed up for the Army after 9/11. A benefit (not the reason he enlisted) was that Hefti’s MFA program would be paid for. Thirty pages later, he describes what it’s like to go from Iraq to the classroom with students different from him. Then, 227 pages later Hefti appears again to describe how his writing is changed by the violence and death he sees. The most memorable person in the collection, Matthew Hefti’s words must be sought out across hundreds of pages. While reading, I would flip through the book, seeking out the all-black pages, just to find cohesion in the authors who answered the questions.
Instead, the big space is reserved for essays, and I couldn’t help but notice that at least four of the authors were associated with n+1, including Harbach, Emily Gould (who spends a lot of time describing her cat Raffles), Keith Gessen (Gould’s boyfriend, who also talks about Raffles), and Carla Blumenkranz. The phrase that kept coming to mind was “literary incest.” Of course Saunders and DFW drawn in readers, but the other authors should be selected from a diverse pool of writers across the nation. The collection suggests that there is n+1, and then there are the other guys--some from New York, and many from Iowa. And that’s the problem: with the number of MFA programs ever increasing, why is the emphasis still on Iowa? The MFA workshop produces a variety of writers depending on the faculty, location, individuals accepted, and if it’s high- or low-residency.
While some of the essays have a laid-back tone, others are highly academic in a way that made me struggle, thus another reason the collection seems unbalanced. After reading about Raffles the cat twice, readers get Elif Batuman, who expresses ideas like, “This is the kind of literary practice James Wood so persuasively condemned under the rubric of ‘hysterical realism’....Diachronicity is cheaply telegraphed by synchronic cues, and history is replaced by big-name historical events, often glimpsed from some ‘eccentric’ perspective....” Huh? I felt like I needed a class just to read Batuman, and, to some extent, Fredric Jameson, both of whom are responding to Mark McGurl’s text The Program Era--though readers of Harbach’s collection don’t have the context.
Imagine if Chad Harbach had put out a call for submissions seeking essays that describe the MFA experience, the writer-in-NYC experience; what new perspectives would he have encountered? Would his thesis differ from that of the 2010 essay that started it all? If you look to n+1, you won’t find out, at least not in this collection.
Melanie Page is a MFA graduate, adjunct instructor, and recent founder of Grab the Lapels, a site that only reviews books written by women (www.grabthelapels.weebly.com).