Wednesday, June 11, 2014

book review: MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

The backstory: I've really been enjoying collections of essays lately, and MFA vs. NYC is perhaps this year's most buzzed about edited volume. It's theme also echoes many of the essays in Goodbye to All That, which I adored.

The basics: Divided into two large sections (MFA and NYC) and three smaller ones, MFA vs. NYC takes its name from an essay editor Chad Harbach originally wrote for n+1. The other essays are a mix of those written for this collection and those adapted from earlier pieces.

My thoughts: Part of what has drawn me to personal essays lately is the fascination with what it means to be a writer. In MFA vs. NYC, that theme is on full display, but it's bigger picture is the current state of American fiction. Obviously, writers are critical to that, and each essay offers different ideas and insights into what exactly it means to be a writer.

I've never seriously thought about enrolling in an MFA program, and what surprised me most about this collection was not only the rise of MFA programs themselves (in both quantity and perceived prestige) but what an MFA program actually entails. The emphasis in this collection is on Iowa, perhaps the most famous of MFA programs, and it would be easy to fill an entire collection with perspectives on this program alone.

If there's a fault with MFA vs. NYC it's that it tries to do too much. The essays are all excellent, but as a collection, it felt more unbalanced as I went along. The first two sections, on MFAs and NYC offered a variety of glimpses into contemporary writing and publishing, but as the themes shifted to pairs of essays, the collection lost a bit of its momentum. It's still an accomplished collection, but as a cohesive piece, it faltered somewhat near the end.

Favorite passages:  "It could be argued that any time you get ten to forty people together and have a core group of teachers, some homogenization is going to happen, but, in a sense, isn’t that what culture is? The establishment of a standard and then a resulting attempt to mimic that standard, followed by a passionate revolt against that stupid repressive reactionary standard, which is then replaced by a lovely innovative pure new standard, et cetera?" -- George Saunders, "A Mini-Manifesto"

"Charlotte didn’t think I was an idiot. She explained the ways in which her deployment of orcs and elves in her work differed from and even subverted the tropes of ordinary fantasy fiction. I didn’t mind discussing all this, even as I found it surreal. These were the times we were living in. I was on a college campus. I was a visiting professor. And I was sitting in my office, bearded and wise-looking and, in all seriousness, discussing orcs." -- Keith Gessen, "Money (2014)"

The verdict: Although the title implies an either/or dynamic, the essays in this collection focus more on sharing individual experience than arguing for one and against the other. As a collection of studies of modern American writing, it's fascinating. Anyone interested in the current state of American fiction will find many things worth ruminating over in this diverse collection.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: February 25, 2014
Source: library

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  1. I haven't picked this one up yet simply because I was put off by how binary it is--and, by extension, old fashioned. Writers have far more options than attending an MFA or moving to NYC. I've read a few sample chapters that didn't seem to contradict that. Does the rest of the collection?

  2. I haven't read this one yet, but I find it an interesting concept. I feel like it's an issue there will never be a consensus on, though. There are certainly advantages to having certain teachers or mentors or perhaps taking a writing course, but so much of it has to do with the writer themselves. It is always going to be nature vs. nurture, isn't it?


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