The Intellectual Situation
MFA vs. NYC
In his 2009 book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl describes how American fiction has become inseparable from its institutional context — the university — as particularly embodied in the writing workshop. The book is remarkable in many respects, not least for McGurl’s suggestive readings of a host of major American writers, not just Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, the compact form and ashamed contents of whose work have made them program icons, but also verbally expansive writer-professors like Nabokov and Joyce Carol Oates. In terms of the intellectual history of the writing workshop, The Program Era marks a turning point, after which the MFA program comes to seem somehow different than it had previously seemed. It feels, reading McGurl, as if the MFA beast has at last been offered a look in the mirror, and may finally come to know itself as it is.
This may seem paradoxical, or backward: the writing program, after all, has long existed as an object of self-study for the people who actually attend such things, or teach in them, usually in the form of satire — David Foster Wallace’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, that movie with the Belle & Sebastian soundtrack, and on and on. But (to borrow one of McGurl’s many ideas) the program writer, even if he’s been both student and professor, always wants to assume, and is to some extent granted, outsider status by the university; he’s always lobbing his flaming bags of prose over the ivied gate late at night. Then in the morning he puts on a tie and walks through the gate and goes to his office. In the university, the fiction writer nevertheless managed not to think of himself as of the university.
McGurl interrupts this unself-consciousness by filing a full and official report from across the hallway: from the English Department proper, forcing the aspiring novelist to look across that hallway and notice a bunch of graduate students and professors sitting there, in identical offices, wielding identical red pens. You’re like me now! is one of the cheerful subtexts of The Program Era — a literary critic’s pointing-out that the creative writer is just as institutionally entangled as the critic has long been acknowledged to be. Or, more charitably put (for McGurl is perpetually charitable), that the fiction writer, at last, can cease fretting about how free and wild he is and get to work.
But what kind of work? One good outcome of McGurl’s analysis would be to lay to rest the perpetual handwringing about what MFA programs do to writers (e.g., turn them into cringing, cautious, post-Carverite automatons). Because of the universitization of American fiction that McGurl describes, it’s virtually impossible to read a particular book and deduce whether the writer attended a program. For one thing, she almost certainly did. For another, the workshop as a form has bled downward into the colleges, so that a writer could easily have taken a lifetime’s worth of workshops as an undergraduate, à la Jonathan Safran Foer. And even if the writer has somehow never heard of an MFA program, or set foot on a college campus, it doesn’t matter, because if she’s read any American fiction of the past sixty years, or met someone who did, she’s imbibed the general idea and aesthetic. We are all MFAs now.
On the flip side (as McGurl can’t quite know, because he attended “real” grad school), MFA programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work — especially shocking if you’re the student, and paying $80,000 for the privilege. Staffed by writer-professors preoccupied with their own work or their failure to produce any; freed from pedagogical urgency by the tenuousness of the link between fiction writing and employment; and populated by ever younger, often immediately postcollegiate students, MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation, or finishing schools for almost-ready writers (in the way of, say, Iowa in the ’70s), and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.
Two years spent in an MFA program, in other words, constitute a tiny and often ineffectual part of the American writer’s lifelong engagement with the university. And yet critics continue to bemoan the mechanizing effects of the programs, and to draw links between a writer’s degree-holding status and her degree of aesthetic freedom. Get out of the schools and live! they urge, forgetting on the one hand how much of contemporary life is lived in the shadow of the university, even if beyond its walls; and on the other hand how much free living an adult can do while attending two classes per week. It’s time to do away with this distinction between the MFAs and the non-MFAs, the unfree and the free, the caged and the wild. Once we do, perhaps we can venture a new, less normative distinction, based not on the writer’s educational background but on the system within which she earns (or aspires to earn) her living: MFA or NYC.
There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today there are 854! This explosion has created a huge source of financial support for working writers, not just in the form of lecture fees, adjunctships, and temporary appointments — though these abound — but honest-to-goodness jobs: decently paid, relatively secure compared to other industries, and often even tenured. It would be fascinating to know the numbers — what percentage of the total income of American fiction writers comes from the university, and what percentage from publishing contracts — but it’s safe to say that the university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world. This situation — of two complementary economic systems of roughly matched strength — is a new one for American fiction. As the mass readership of literary fiction has peaked and subsided (it’s always bracing to pick up an old Cheever or Updike paperback and see the book trumpeted as a #1 best-seller), and the march of technology sends the New York publishing world into spasms of perpetual anxiety, if not its much-advertised death throes, the MFA program has picked up the financial slack and then some, offering steady payment to more fiction writers than, perhaps, have ever been paid before.
Everyone knows this. But what’s remarked rarely if at all is the way that this balance has created, in effect, two literary cultures (or, more precisely, two literary fiction cultures) in the US: one condensed in New York, the other spread across the diffuse network of provincial college towns that spans from Irvine to Austin to Ann Arbor to Tallahassee (with a kind of wormhole at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at the New Yorker offices on 42nd Street). The superficial differences between these two cultures can be summed up charticle-style: short stories vs. novels; Amy Hempel vs. Jonathan Franzen; library copies vs. galley copies; Poets & Writers vs. the Observer; Wonder Boys vs. The Devil Wears Prada; the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference vs. the Frankfurt Book Fair; departmental parties vs. publishing parties; literary readings vs. publishing parties; staying home vs. publishing parties. But the differences also run deep. Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement. Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.
Of course the two cultures overlap in any number of obvious ways, some of them significant. The NYC writer most likely earned an MFA; the MFA writer, meanwhile, may well publish her books at a New York house. There are even MFA programs in New York, lots of them, though these generally partake of the NYC culture. And many writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC worlds, whether over the course of a career, or within a single year. A writer like Deborah Eisenberg, who spends half the year in New York and half at the University of Virginia; whose early stories were published to acclaim in the New Yorker but who subsequently became known (or unknown) as a “writer’s writer” — that is, a workshop leader’s writer; whose fiction, oddly, never appears anymore in New York–based magazines, but who writes frequently for NYRB, and publishes new books to raves from a variety of New York organs, shows in how many ways a writer can slip between these two cultures before winding up perfectly poised between them. And yet what’s so striking is how distinct the cultures do in fact feel, and how distinctly they at least pretend to function. On the level of individual experience, each can feel hermetic, and the traveler from one to the other finds herself in an alien land. The fact that it’s possible to travel without a passport, or to be granted dual citizenship, makes them no less distinct.
The model for the MFA fiction writer is her program counterpart, the poet. Poets have long been professionally bound to academia; decades before the blanketing of the country with MFA programs requiring professors, the poets took to the grad schools, earning PhDs in English and other literary disciplines to finance their real vocation. Thus came of age the concept of the poet-teacher. The poet earns money as a teacher; and, at a higher level of professional accomplishment, from grants and prizes; and, at an even higher level, from appearance fees at other colleges. She does not, as a rule, earn money by publishing books of poems — it has become almost inconceivable that anyone outside of a university library will read them. The consequences of this economic arrangement for the quality of American poetry have been often bemoaned (poems are insular, arcane, gratuitously allusive, et cetera), if poorly understood. Of more interest here is the economic arrangement proper, and the ways in which it has become that of a large number of fiction writers as well.
As the fiction writer-teacher becomes the norm, the fiction MFA also becomes an odd hybrid. On the one hand, MFA programs are still studio-based: luxuries of time during which both serious and dilettantish people can develop their artistic skills outside the demands of the market. In this way the programs aspire to a kind of immanent (and convenient) ideal; it doesn’t matter whether the student publishes now or in ten years or never, whether her degree ever earns her a penny, as long as she serves her muse. On the other hand, as available teaching jobs multiply, MFA programs become increasingly preprofessional. They provide, after all, a terminal degree in a burgeoning field. And (the ambitious student rightly asks) why not enter that field straightaway? After all, there are actual jobs available for MFA holders, while the other humanities stagnate, and overall unemployment hovers around 10 percent.
Thus the fiction writer’s MFA increasingly resembles the poet’s old PhD; not in the rigors of the degree itself — getting an MFA is so easy — but in the way it immerses the writer in a professional academic network. She lives in a college town, and when she turns her gaze forward and outward, toward the future and the literary world at large, she sees not, primarily, the New York cluster of editors and agents and publishers, but rather a matrix of hundreds of colleges with MFA programs, potential employers all, linked together by Poets & Writers, AWP, and summertime workshops at picturesque makeout camps like Sewanee and Bread Loaf. More links, more connections, are provided by the attractive, unread, university-funded literary quarterlies that are swapped between these places, and by the endowments and discretionary funds that deliver an established writer-teacher from her home program to a different one, for a well-paid night or week, with everybody’s drinks expensed: this system of circulating patronage may have some pedagogical value, but exists chiefly to supplement the income of the writer-teacher, and, perhaps more important, to impress upon the students the more glamorous side of becoming — of aspiring to become — a writer-teacher.
For the MFA writer, then, publishing a book becomes not a primary way to earn money, or even a direct attempt to make money. The book instead serves as a credential. Just as the critic publishes her dissertation in order to secure a job on an ever tightening market, the fiction writer publishes her book of stories, or her novel, to cap off her MFA. There is an element of liberation in this, however complex; the MFA writer is no longer at the whim of the market — or rather, has entered a less whimsical, more tolerant market. The New York publishing houses become ever more fearful and defensive, battened down against the encroachments of other “media” old and new and merely imagined — but the MFA writer doesn’t have to deal with those big houses. And if she does get published by one, she doesn’t need a six-figure advance. On the whole, independent and university presses (as for the poet and the critic) will do just fine. The MFA writer is also exempt from publicity, to a large extent — she still checks her Amazon ranking obsessively, as everyone does, but she can do so with a dollop of humor, and not as an inquiry into professional survival. Instead she enters into the professor’s publish-or-perish bargain (which should probably be called teach-or-perish), in which the writing of future books, no matter how they sell, results in professional advancement and increasing security. Is this not artistic freedom, of a quiet and congenial sort? Could not books be written here in the university, all sorts of different books, that could never be written from within the narrow confines of the New York publishing world?
Yes, but. The MFA writer escapes certain pressures, only to submit to others. Early in her career, for instance, she is all in a rush to publish — first to place stories in the quarterlies, and then to get some version of her MFA thesis into print, by hook or by crook, in order to be eligible for jobs. While the NYC writer might be willing to toil obscurely for a decade or more, nourishing herself with the thought of a big psychic and financial payoff that might never come, the MFA writer is not. She has no actual physical New York to cling to, no parties to attend; if her degree is finished but her book is not, she’s purely a castout from the world in which she wishes to move. This can encourage the publication of slight and sometimes premature books, books that might give readers, and the writer herself, the wrong idea of what she can do.
Then, later in the career, comes the more obvious pressure not to publish at all — she has, after all, become a professor, and a professor gets paid to profess. One escapes the shackles of the corporate publishing apparatus only by accepting those of the departmental administration, and of one’s students [see “Money,” n+1 Issue Four], at which point the tradeoff can come to seem like a bait and switch — although as the MFA system matures, its aspirants no doubt become more clear-eyed about what awaits them.
The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one’s instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the ten-page college term paper, or the twenty-five-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre-form.
It’s not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it’s that the entire culture is steeped in the form. To learn how to write short stories, you also have to read them. MFA professors — many of them story writers themselves — recommend story collections to their students. MFA students recommend other collections to one another; they also, significantly, teach undergraduate creative writing courses, which are built almost exclusively around short works. In classes that need to divide their attention between the skill of reading and the craft of writing (and whose popularity rests partly on their lack of rigor), there’s no time for ploughing through novels. Also, scores of colleges now have associated literary journals, which tend overwhelmingly to focus on the short story; by publishing in as many of these as possible, a young writer begins building the reputation that will eventually secure her a job as a teacher-writer, and an older writer sustains her CV by the same means.
Thus the names that reverberate through the MFA system, from the freshman creative writing course up through the tenured faculty, tend to be those of story writers. At first glance, this may seem like a kind of collective suicide, because everyone knows that no one reads short stories. And it’s true that the story, once such a reliable source of income for writers, has fallen out of mass favor, perhaps for reasons opposite to that of the poem: if in the public imagination poetry reeks suspiciously of high academia — the dry, impacted arcana of specialists addressing specialists — then the short story may have become subtly and pejoratively associated with low academia — the workaday drudgery of classroom exercises and assignments. The poet sublimates into the thin air of the overeducated PhD; the story writer melts down into the slush of the composition department. Neither hits the cultural mark. A writer’s early short stories (as any New York editor will tell you) lead to a novel, or they lead nowhere at all.
But there’s a dialectical reversal to be found here, in which the story/novel debate reveals itself to be just one aspect of the MFA/NYC cultural divide, and in which the story might even be winning. One of the clearest signs of that divide is the way that different groups of writers are read, valued, and discussed in the two different “places” — one could, for instance, live a long full life in New York without ever hearing of Stuart Dybek, a canonical MFA-culture story writer who oversaw the Western Michigan program for decades before moving on to Northwestern. A new Gary Shteyngart novel, meanwhile, will be met with indifference at most MFA programs. Entire such NYC and MFA rosters could be named. In effect, parallel and competing canons of contemporary literature have formed — and when it comes to canon formation, New York, and therefore the novel, may be at a disadvantage.
New York can’t be excelled at two things: superstardom and forgetfulness. And so the New York “canon,” at any given moment, tends to consist of a few perennial superstars — Roth, DeLillo, Pynchon, Auster — whose reputations, paradoxically, are secure at least until they die, and beneath whom circulate an ever changing group of acclaimed young novelists — Joshua Ferris, Nicole Krauss, Rivka Galchen, Jonathan Safran Foer — and a host of midcareer writers whose names are magnified when they put out a book and shrink in between. Except at the very top, reputation in this world depends directly on the market and the publishing cycle, the reviews and the prizes, and so all except those at the very top have little reason to hope for a durable readership. The contemporary New York canon tends to be more contemporary than canon — it consists of popular new novels, and previous books by the authors of same.
The MFA canon works differently. The rapid expansion of MFA programs in recent decades has opened up large institutional spaces above and below: above, for writer-professors who teach MFA students; below, for undergraduate students who are taught by MFAs (and by former MFAs hired as adjuncts). All told, program fiction amounts to a new discipline, with a new curriculum. This new curriculum consists mainly of short stories, and the short fiction anthologies commonly used in introductory courses become the primary mechanism by which the MFA canon is assembled and disseminated.
A quick glance at some of the most popular anthologies shows the rough contours of the program canon. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (1994), edited by Tobias Wolff, honors the dirty realists and their successors, with a dedication to Raymond Carver, an introduction that begins, in classic dirty-realist fashion, “A few years ago I met a wheat farmer from North Dakota . . . ,” and stories by Carver, Ann Beattie (University of Virginia), Richard Bausch (Memphis), Richard Ford (Trinity College, Dublin), Tim O’Brien (Texas State–San Marcos), and Jayne Anne Phillips (Rutgers), as well as Dybek (Northwestern), Joy Williams (Wyoming), Robert Stone (Yale), Mary Gaitskill (until recently, Syracuse), Barry Hannah (Mississippi, before his death), Ron Hansen (Santa Clara), Jamaica Kincaid (Claremont McKenna), Edward P. Jones (George Washington), Joyce Carol Oates (Princeton), Mona Simpson (Bard), Denis Johnson (currently unaffiliated), and Wolff’s Stanford colleague John L’Heureux. The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction (2007) retains a dozen of Wolff’s picks, and adds a new generation of post-dirty, ethnically diverse writers: Amy Bloom (Wesleyan), Peter Ho Davies (Michigan), Junot Díaz (MIT), et alia. Ben Marcus’s Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (2004) rounds out the picture, overlapping with Scribner but not Vintage, adding still younger writers, and emphasizing recent contributions to the anti-dirty, explicitly stylized or stylish tradition, for instance Aimee Bender (USC), Gary Lutz (Pitt-Greenberg), and Mary Caponegro (Bard).
Via these anthologies — and via word of mouth and personal appearance — a large and somewhat stable body of writers is read by a large number of MFAs and an even larger number of undergrads, semester in and semester out. Thus the oft-scorned short story may secure a more durable readership than the vaunted novel. While Denis Johnson won a National Book Award in 2007 for his novel Tree of Smoke, and Junot Díaz a Pulitzer in 2008 for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, these writers’ reputations and readerships may rely more heavily on their single, slim volumes of stories, Jesus’ Son and Drown, both of which are reliably anthologized and have entered the consciousness of a whole generation of college students.
One could even suggest that, in the absence of a contemporary American canon produced by the critics in the English department (that one consists only of Toni Morrison), the writers in the MFA program have gone ahead and built their own — as well as the institutional means to disseminate, perpetuate, and replenish it. This canon centers on short works, and distinguishes itself from the New York canon in other ways. While it still avails one to be a white guy in NYC, at least at the top of the market where Franzen, DeLillo, and Roth reside (and where the preferred ethnic other remains the Jewish male), the MFA canon has a less masculine tone, and a more overt interest in cultural pluralism. And while the New York list updates itself with each new copy of the Times Book Review, the MFA canon dates back, with pointed precision, to 1970 — the year of the earliest story in both the Vintage and Scribner anthologies. NYC remembers the ’70s not at all, and the ’80s only for the coke, but the MFA culture keeps alive the reputations of great (Ann Beattie), near-great (Joy Williams), and merely excellent writers whom publishing has long since passed by.
1970, not coincidentally, also marks the beginning of the careers of many of the eminent writers who emerged from the MFA heyday of the early ’70s, and who now hold the most distinguished chairs in the MFA culture. Thus the MFA canon is a living canon not just by definition — it is after all “contemporary” literature — but because the writers who comprise it are constant presences on the scene, and active shapers of the canon’s contents. They teach (however reluctantly), they advise, they anthologize, they travel from program to program to read. A writer’s university becomes an automatic champion of her work, and as her students disperse to jobs at other schools, so does the championing. The writer doesn’t assign her own work — she doesn’t have to — but she assigns that of her friends, and invites them to speak. It will be interesting to see what happens when this group of older writers dies (they are unlikely to give up their jobs beforehand); whether the MFA canon will leap forward, or back, or switch tracks entirely, to accommodate the interests, private and aesthetic, of a younger group of writer-teachers. Perhaps (among other possibilities) the MFA culture will take a turn toward the novel.
As the MFA fiction writer moves toward the poetic/academic model, the NYC writer moves toward the Hollywood model. Not because fiction writers earn their keep as screenwriters (a few do, but that was by and large an earlier era; MFA/NYC could be said to have replaced NYC/LA as an organizing cultural rubric), but because New York publishing increasingly resembles the Hollywood world of blockbuster-or-bust, in which a handful of books earn all the hype and do humongous business; others succeed as low-budget indies; and the rest are released to a shudder of silence, if at all. Advances skew to the very high and the pitifully low, and the overall economics of the industry amplify and reinforce this income gap, as the blockbuster novelist not only sells her book to an actual film studio — thus stepping out of the shadow-world into the true bright one — but also parcels out lucrative translation rights to foreign markets. The advance multiplies; the money makes money. And — what’s better than money — people will actually read the book.
Thus the literary-corporate publishing industry comes to replicate the prevailing economic logic, in which the rich get richer and the rest live on hope and copyediting. As with any ultracompetitive industry, like professional basketball or hedge funds, exceptional prestige accrues to the successes, and with some reason. The NYC writer has to earn money by writing (or else consider herself a failure in her own terms), which gives her a certain enlarged dignity and ambition. It also imposes certain strictures. First off, as already mentioned, it demands that the writer write novels.
Second, and perhaps most important, to be an NYC writer means to submit to an unconscious yet powerful pressure toward readability. Such pressure has always existed, of course, but in recent years it has achieved a fearsome intensity. On one hand, a weakened market for literary fiction makes publishing houses less likely than ever to devote resources to work that doesn’t, like a pop song, “hook” the reader right away. On the other, the MFA-driven shift in the academic canon has altered the approach of writers outside the university, as well as those within. Throughout the latter half of the last century, many of our most talented novelists — Nabokov, Gaddis, Bellow, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace — carved out for themselves a cultural position that depended precisely on a combination of public and academic acclaim. Such writers were readable enough to become famous, yet large and knotty enough to require professional explanation — thus securing an afterlife, and an aftermarket, for their lives’ work. Syntactical intricacy, narrative ambiguity, formal innovation, and even length were aids to canonization, feeding the university’s need for books against which students and professors could test and prove their interpretive skills. Canonization, in turn, contributed to public renown. Thus the ambitious novelist, writing with one eye on the academy and the other on New York, could hope to secure a durable readership without succumbing (at least not fully) to the logic of the blockbuster. It was a strategy shaped by, and suited to, the era of the English department, which valued scholarly interpretation over writerly imitation, the long novel over the short story. (And when it came to white males imagining themselves into the canon, it helped that the canon was still composed mostly of white males.)
The death of David Foster Wallace could be said to mark the end of this quasi-popular tradition, at least temporarily. What one notices first about NYC-orbiting contemporary fiction is how much sense everyone makes. The best young NYC novelists go to great lengths to write comprehensible prose and tie their plots neat as a bow. How one longs, in a way, for endings like that of DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, where everyone just pees on everyone else for no reason! The trend toward neatness and accessibility is often posited to be the consequence of the workshop’s relentless paring. But for NYC writers — despite their degrees — it might be better understood as the result of fierce market pressure toward the middlebrow, combined with a deep authorial desire to communicate to the uninterested. The NYC writer knows that to speak obliquely is tantamount to not speaking at all; if anyone notices her words, it will only be to accuse her of irrelevance and elitism. She doesn’t worry about who might read her work in twenty years; she worries about who might read it now. She’s thrown her economic lot in with the publishers, and the publishers are very, very worried. Who has both the money to buy a hardcover book and the time to stick with something tricky? Who wants to reread Faulknerian sentences on a Kindle, or scroll back to pick up a missed plot point? Nobody, says the publisher. And the NYC novelist understands — she’d better understand, or else she’ll have to move to Cleveland.
It helps, too, to write long books; to address large-scale societal change and engage in sharp but affable satire of same; and to title the work with sweeping, often faintly nationalist simplicity: Mason & Dixon, say, or American Pastoral (American anything, really — Psycho, Wife, Rust, Purgatorio, Subversive, Woman). This is not to belittle these books, a few of which are excellent, but to point out that their authors are only partly at liberty (American Liberty!) to do otherwise. However naturally large the NYC novelist’s imagination, it is shaped by the need to make a broad appeal, to communicate quickly, and to be socially relevant in ways that can be recreated in a review. The current archetype of this kind of novel also happens to be the best American novel of the young millennium — Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. (Franzen, famously, offered an unfortunately ahistorical account of the novelist’s difficult relationship to difficulty in a 2002 essay about William Gaddis.) Having written, in The Corrections, a clear and lyrical long novel that brought large social and political forces to bear on domestic life, Franzen followed it with an even longer and clearer novel that brings even larger social and political forces to bear on domestic life. He could hardly have done anything else. Freedom is the most simply written of his books and also the most complex and best; it grapples with the most unspeakable of contemporary political problems — overpopulation — in a rivetingly plainspoken way. The novelist who converts heroic effort into effortless prose has been a standard figure since Flaubert, but in Franzen this project comes to seem like something else, something more momentous and telling if not aesthetically superior — something, perhaps, like the willed effort of the entire culture to create for itself a novel that it still wants to read.
In short, the writer who hopes to make a living by publishing — whether wildly successful like Franzen, more moderately so, or just starting out — is subject to a host of subtle market pressures, pressures that might be neutral in their aesthetic effects, but which enforce a certain consistency, and a sort of Authorial Social Responsibility. Regardless of whether reading comprehension and attention spans have declined, the publishers think that they have, and the market shapes itself accordingly. The presumed necessity of “competing for attention” with other media becomes internalized, and the work comes out crystal-clear. The point is not that good books go unpublished — to the contrary, scores of crappy literary novels continue to get snapped up by hopeful editors. The point is that market forces cause some good books to go unnoticed, and even more — how many more? — to go unwritten.
And the NYC writer, because she lives in New York, has constant opportunity to intuit and internalize the demands of her industry. It could be objected that just because the NYC writer’s editor, publisher, agent, and publicist all live in New York, that doesn’t mean that she does too. After all, it would be cheaper and calmer to live most anywhere else. This objection is sound in theory; in practice, it is false. NYC novelists live in New York — specifically, they live in a small area of west-central Brooklyn bounded by DUMBO and Prospect Heights. They partake of a social world defined by the selection (by agents), evaluation (by editors), purchase (by publishers), production, publication, publicization, and second evaluation (by reviewers) and purchase (by readers) of NYC novels. The NYC novelist gathers her news not from Poets & Writers but from the Observer and Gawker; not from the academic grapevine but from publishing parties, where she drinks with agents and editors and publicists. She writes reviews for Bookforum and the Sunday Times. She also tends to set her work in the city where she and her imagined reader reside: as in the most recent novels of Shteyngart, Ferris, Galchen, and Foer, to name just four prominent members of the New Yorker’s 20-under-40 list.
None of this amounts to a shrewd conspiracy, as mystified outsiders sometimes charge, but it does mean that the NYC writer participates in the publishing and reviewing racket to an unnerving extent. She is an unabashed industry expert. 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. Thus the congeniality of Brooklyn becomes a silky web that binds writers to the demands of the market, demands that insinuate themselves into every detail and email of the writer’s life. It seems like a sordid situation. Then again, the publishing industry has always been singularly confused, unable to devote itself fully to either art or commerce, so perhaps the influence works both ways; perhaps the NYC writer, by keeping the industry close, hopes also to keep it honest, and a little bit interested in the art it champions.
What will happen? Economically speaking, the MFA system has announced its outsized ambitions, making huge investments in infrastructure and personnel, and offering gaudy salaries and propitious working conditions to secure top talent. The NYC system, on the other hand, presents itself as cautious and embattled, devoted to hanging on. And a business model that relies on tuition and tax revenue (the top six MFA programs, according to Poets & Writers, are part of large public universities); the continued unemployability of 20-somethings; and the continued hunger of undergraduates for undemanding classes, does seem more forward-looking than one that relies on overflow income from superfluous books by celebrities, politicians, and their former lovers. It was announced recently that Zadie Smith — one of the few writers equipped by fame to do otherwise — has accepted a tenured position at NYU, presumably for the health insurance; perhaps this marks the beginning of the end, a sign that in the future there will be no NYC writers at all, just a handful of writers accomplished enough to teach in NYC. New York will have become — as it has long been becoming — a place where some writers go for a wanderjahr or two between the completion of their MFAs and the commencement of their teaching careers. No one with “literary” aspirations will expect to earn a living by publishing books; the glory days when publishers still waffled between patronage and commerce will be much lamented. The lit-lovers who used to become editors and agents will direct MFA programs instead; the book industry will become as rational — that is, as single-mindedly devoted to profit — as every other capitalist industry. The writers, even more so than now, will write for other writers. And so their common ambition and mission and salvation, their profession — indeed their only hope — will be to make writers of us all.
“Well, look, whatever, I’ll get a degree in neurosurgery. And one in rocket science.” We move the gold star decal from the peel-off sheet to the reply card and check two boxes.
“A round of beers on us,” we say, glancing over the taps for something affordable but not insulting. “Heinekens for everybody.”
“I don’t want none of them Ivory Tower beers,” says Pimm.
“Sure, that’s what he would drink,” Raki mutters, just barely within our hearing.
“Hey, look,” we say. “Budweiser, then. A Bud for everybody.”
“Oh, sure, the man of the people here,” Pimm growls.
“Come on, it’s the same me! Just because I’ve got a PhD now, honorary, and, um, an MD . . . For God’s sake, Pimm. You live in the International Space Station condos in Williamsburg. Your wife got you a job in her bank. You monitor screens all day to match buy and sell numbers.”
“Yeah, I make my decisions on real world experience,” he says proudly. “More people should!”