MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach, N+1/Faber and Faber, 268 pages, $16 paperback original. This book has seriously rattled rafters in the world of contemporary literature since it came out a month ago. The essay anthology came from an original essay written by the book’s editor Chad Harbach in which he argues that the “wild speed” of expansion of graduate and undergraduate writing programs “in the past three decades” has “created two centers of gravity for American fiction: ‘MFA’ which is dispersed throughout our university towns and ‘NYC’ which hews close to Manhattan’s trade publishing industry.”
The two “are always chatting and bickering and buying each other drinks” but that still doesn’t bode particularly well for the kind of fiction that will actually be produced.
The essay that really got under people’s skin, though, wasn’t Harbach’s but Eric Bennett’s blast at the all-important, much-vaunted Creative Writing Workshop of the University of Iowa which, says Bennett, was, among other things, funded by a CIA front called the Fairfield Foundation. The workshop’s most famous director was its second one, Paul Engle “a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior.” The funding premise was that his program “fortified democratic values at home and abroad; it fought communism.”
And thus did America’s most influential writing program employ and teach such writers as John Cheever, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver and David Milch while the school tacitly proscribed, according to Bennett, “novels and stories of full-throttle experience, erudition and cognition ... I knew I wanted to write a novel of ideas, a novel of systems, but one also with characters and also heart – a novel comprising everything, not just how icicles broken from church eaves on winter often may taste of asphalt.” By the time we get to Bennett’s reportage of Frank Conroy’s influence at Iowa – a writer/director who hated Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barthelme, Salinger and “cute stuff” – the result was that “in today’s MFA culture, the worst thing an aspiring writer can do is bring to the table a certain ambitiousness of preconception.” It is far from the only essay here to make splendid trouble and offer eye-opening candor.
– Jeff Simon