I was really intrigued by the MFA vs NYC collection of essays that came out a month or two ago, edited by Chad Harbach. It took me about 3 days to read 85% of the book, and then 3 weeks to read the rest. So it goes. I’ve got a lot of ideas about these essays. A lot of them have been published on the Internet, so it’ll be easy to follow along. Or buy the book.
Here are my thoughts on the title essay, “MFA vs. NYC” by Chad Harbach.
Harbach probably used a neon-yellow highlighter to mark up which part of literary culture exists in one community and what’s supposed to be in the other. He mentions the separation between the cult and canonized figures of each, going back and forth about the values of teaching and writing vs writing and knowing how your book is published. I’m sure there is a distinction there, and one to note and to analyze, and Harbach does it well and in good prose, he’s a great essayist.
While he was separating with a clear bright line, there was a murkier gray area hiding in the margins that may overtake everything: the Internet.
To miss it or completely ignore it, rather, is huge. There’s nothing about how it’s fundamentally changed the way people discover books and the way people write books and talk about books (should I bring up Amanda Hocking or do you want to?…sure, she’s not literary but she’s getting advances that are as large as Harbach’s). It’s also changing the way people actually physically read, how the information is consumed, and the influences that people are bringing into their writing.
However, a mention is made of a reality show-esque Amazon competition in the essay by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington. Wellington basically makes an off-handed comment about how people are so desperate for community, they are willing to wade into Amazon’s publishing division, which he believes will eat them alive. But there’s nothing about the Internet itself.
It’s as if Harbach couldn’t dare stray from his confident stable of n+1 writers to solicit another opinion, even someone like Richard Nash–who is often overused–but maybe he could’ve recommended someone. Or at least get a small, independent publisher to write about this or how the Internet has positively and negatively affected their business.
Yes, there’s a lot of nascent writers, but also some pretty good ones who are emerging away from either of these dichotomies. That a few of the key contributors to this volume first made their bones (and name) within the confines of the Internet can’t fully be credited to just living in NYC (though it probably helped).
I’m just shocked that the influence of the Internet wasn’t really seriously considered, as if it were only some tabloid-y morass of martini-drenched Twitter feeds about Scandal and Basketball Wives. There’s real literature happening on the Internet.
I get the binary, MFA vs. NYC. But the Internet affects both of those things.
To ignore it just proves the point of why no average person can stand to read literary fiction at all, and then we blame them (???) for not knowing the proper cheat codes to play the game.