MFA vs NYC: A Debate

On October 23, 2014, the graduate program in Book Publishing and Ooligan Press presented latest installment of the Transmit Culture lecture series, “MFA vs NYC: A Debate.” The crux of the discussion: Chad Harbach, an MFA creative writing graduate, founder of n+1 Literary Magazine and bestselling novelist, claims in a 2010 article that the American literary scene is split into two cultures: one centered around New York publishing and the other around MFA programs. (See below for full video footage of the debate.)

The panelists included:

  • Dan DeWeese—Portland author, founder of Propeller Books, and creative writing instructor in the MFA program at PSU.
  • Eliot Treichel—Eugene author, MFA graduate, and instructor of writing at Lane Community College.
  • Lee Montgomery—Portland author, graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and former editorial director of Tin House Books.
  • Betsy Amster—literary agent, former editor at Pantheon and Vintage, and former editorial director of Globe Pequot Press.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Per Henningsgaard, the Director of Publishing at Portland State University.

Highlights included:

The panel was asked if MFAs are strictly producing literary fiction, as Harbach infers in his article and DeWeese responded, “I think that [. . .] may have to do with just the nature of being in school in general where there’s kind of a cool way to be: Carver-esque. You know, to affect an attitude as if you’d lived pretty hard and seen some stuff. And then the students who want to write about another planet start to feel like maybe they’re not as cool.”

Amster replied, “I think fishbowls in general are dangerous—the kind of fishbowl that you’re talking about. And I think that New York can be a fishbowl. That’s why I think [the MFA vs NYC concept] is a false dichotomy. To me there’s a lot of overlap between New York and MFA programs in the fishbowl department.”

When asked if it is true that literary fiction doesn’t sell, Montgomery answered, “As a publisher, it was very hard to sell literary fiction. It was very discouraging.”

The panel was asked if the goal of an MFA program is not to develop bestselling writers—literary fiction is a genre that often struggles to sell—then what really is the MFA’s aim?

Treichel responded, “If I were going to design an MFA program, it would incorporate aspects of book layout and design and marketing [. . .].”

Dr. Henningsgaard further prompted the panel: “So is it just art for art’s sake? Is that what MFA programs do?”

Montgomery replied, “[. . .] If you’re getting an MFA in creative writing, it’s a good time to write and not worry about the marketplace [. . .]. A writer needs time to write.”

The panel was asked if they think Harbach’s critique is reasonable—that the MFA writer is writing with the hope that their work will stand the test of time whereas the New York City writer is writing strictly for now.

DeWeese replied, “I don’t think it’s the most reasonable critique, no . . . with all due respect. I think it’s kind of odious because it’s at once slandering everyone from some kind of implied position of above-it-ness. Because he both has an MFA and a $650,000 [advance], he has conquered both worlds—and revealed the flaws of each. That is what I find most intolerable.”

Amster responded to the question, “I don’t think [New York publishers] are thinking twenty years down the line, but I don’t blame them for that actually because there’s an immediate need to stay alive as a publisher and a business. I think they end up publishing really fine work [. . .] that will stand the test of time.”

Finally, during the Q&A, the panelists were asked if they feel that MFAs were wasted on the young. Montgomery responded, “[. . .] it depends on how screwed up their childhoods are.”

Full video footage of the debate:

  1. Introduction of the panel
  2. Question One: Is there a stylistic mark of the MFA writer?
  3. Question Two: Is the MFA producing only literary fiction?
  4. Question Three: Is literary fiction selling?
  5. Question Four: What is the aim of the MFA program?
  6. Question Five: Is MFA writing aiming for quality while NYC aims for immediate sales?
  7. Question Six: Is the MFA too white?

To dig deeper into the MFA vs NYC conversation:
Junot Diaz, referred to in the panel discussion, responded to Harbach’s article in an essay published in The New Yorker.

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