4. MFA vs NYC edited by Chad Harbach
This collection of essays by various authors attempts to capture the current (although many essays date back to early 2000 and one was originally published in 1988) state of creative writing programs, publishing industry and American fiction in general. The approach and structure stem from the original essay by Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding, that introduces “two centers of gravity for American fiction”: team MFA resides in universities and produces literary, craft-oriented and much less popular fiction, while team NYC revolves around big publishing houses, commercially successful books and some sort of fame, as much as it is accessible for writers.
The amount of information contained in this book is equal to what I would get if I were friends with contributors and went out for Happy Hour with them every day for a month. Most essays are little more than personal accounts of financial and creative (but mostly financial) struggles, going into the petty details of how much student loan debt the said writer accumulated and what their pet’s vet bills amounted to. What they manage to do is de-romanticize CW programs and their afterlife by reminding the reader (a struggling writer himself, for I have trouble imagining who else would read this book) just how hard it is to make writing one’s career.
A few essays manage to stand out. My personal favorite was My Parade by Alexander Chee, an impossibly honest story of the author’s time at Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Seduce the Whole World by Carla Blumekranz offers a detailed look at Gordon Lish’s time as CW instructor (so honest, in fact, that if you know how much Lish contributed to Raymond Carver’s writing, chances are you’ll stay away from Carver for a while). The Invisible Vocation by Elif Batuman is a rare American essay that goes well beyond the field of American literature and states a simple truth that is known to most CW teachers and students – that the desire to write often comes (sadly) not from one’s personal talents or experience but of one’s love for literature.