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Wednesday, Nov 24, 2010

Slate excerpted an article by Chad Harbach from the new n+1 about the academic institutionalization of MFAs. The general idea is that there are now two literary cultures, one that orbits the academic MFA world and a disappearing one in the shrinking milieu of New York publishing—the world of book parties and Brooklyn apartments. In MFA land, you can with relative ease publish books no one reads, let alone buys, to get academic appointments, just like the other professors throughout English departments. In New York publishing, no one prints your book unless they think it will make money, which means different standards are applied and a different sort of effort is made by writers to make their work enticing. For institutional reasons MFAers tend to write short stories, whereas people trying to make it as professional writers tend to write novels and hope to sell film options.


Harbach suggests MFA programs are “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.” The put writers on the path of semitenured intellectualism, a “lifelong engagement with the university” as opposed with readers at large. This reminded me of Scott McLemee’s Bookforum essay about Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals. Describing academics in the mid 20th century who evaded bohemian anomie and the nagging threat of poverty, McLemee writes,


If the writers and critics working in the ’50s did not serve as models for those who came after, that was because the conditions that fostered them—affordable rent, an abundance of magazines open to certain kinds of reviewing and essay writing, and the tendency of society to produce “surplus intellectuals” unable to find employment in well-established institutions— were already disappearing. Or rather, new and altogether more comfortable circumstances were emerging.


Perhaps those circumstances—an expanded marketplace for a certain kind of credentialed intellectual labor—have reemerged for MFAs. Writes Harbach: “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.” I wonder if any of the MFAs would describe their prospects so optimistically. I always thought the MFA world was very dog-eat-dog, where getting ahead depended on the personal relationships one had with people in positions to help one’s career, since writing talent was pretty much equalized across the board systematically by the efficacy of writing programs themselves. (I was deeply troubled when I realized it wasn’t so different for literature PhDs.)


The excerpt concludes with Harbach theorizing that professional creative writers may disappear, as they will all be teachers. “The lit-lovers who used to become editors and agents will direct MFA programs instead.” At that point, they should want everyone to fulfill the wildest promises of Web 2.0 and aspire to become creative writers too. This at least will keep the MFAs in paying jobs as creativity trainers. I guess this doesn’t bother me much; I’m not sure what ever taught me and my generation to expect to be paid for expressing ourselves.


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