The War of the Words

By on Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 at 9:30 am


In one of his classic comedy bits, George Carlin opines that the U.S. is a nation inherently obsessed with war to the degree that we have prescribed it as the cure for everything. We have declared, in the past 60 years, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on cancer, and a war on terror, among others. All problems are seen as conflicts, a collective pitted against some threatening other. Often the other is conveniently difficult to identify or locate. Nevertheless there is a threat and the only response is to do battle with that threat. This ultimate fighting champion mindset seems, like cat hair, to cling to every metaphorical article of clothing in our walk-in closet.

And so it seems apt that Chad Harbach would title his essay (and the subsequent book) “MFA vs. NYC” as if setting up a wrestling match between two of the cultures that seem to hold the most dominance over the American literary landscape. The title might lead one to see these cultures as two boxers pounding their fists from opposite corners as they wait for the bell so they can unleash all of their anger and brutal skill upon one another in the struggle for control of the country’s readership.

But this title is misleading. It serves as a solid advertising slogan, but it does not sufficiently encapsulate Harbach’s essay. “MFA vs. NYC” does much more than throw these two cultures into the ring together to see who will be the victor. The essay is more akin to Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift,” for it is not about which of these literary conglomerates is superior, but rather it seems to engage with the question Hyde grapples with; how does a writer (artist) survive in a world where commodity and profit is king?

Hyde propounded nearly thirty five years ago that art is above all things a gift. Gifts are by definition objects that cannot be given a market value. In fact, at its core a gift ceases to be a gift once it has been stamped with a price and turned into a commodity. The artist is a gift giver. As Hyde puts it, “where there is no gift there is no art.”

But the artist lives in the world of the market economy. Things must be bought and sold in order for a person to earn access to the resources needed to stay alive. The artist is placed in a situation where if they continue to share their gift they will starve. If they set a market price for their creation, they stop serving their designated function for their community (and still they might starve if they can’t sell their creation after having set for it a market value).

As Harbach sees it, the writer has two havens where they might find refuge (if only temporary) in a world that misunderstands their purpose and can see no other use for their work than to box it up and ship it off for a price. The first is the dominion of the NYC publishing industry. To seek asylum there is to find a space that only reward a few select members while keep the others hungry and envious of those who have been offered the largest share of the wealth. It is structured entirely around turning the work of the writer into commodity, thereby making it acceptable to the dominating consumerist culture. But attempting to seek shelter there is a gamble, as it is exclusive territory, like a trendy nightclub, guarded by bouncers, with a finicky host posted at the door sizing up everyone’s outfit and deciding who gets to enter.

The second haven is the oasis of the MFA, an annex of academia, also exclusive, though the gatekeepers have a much different set of criteria for who can join the club. The risk is not as great (or so it is perceived) but neither is the reward (allegedly). Here the writer barters, rather than having to turn their work into a box of cereal for mass consumption and take on the role of public relations associate and reality show personality she has to teach, a trade-off where you are given a degree of access and resources, but much of the writer’s sacred time has to be parceled off to what is seen as non-writing responsibilities such as lesson plans, grading, and departmental meetings.

Harbach’s essay serves to weigh how each of these two cultures affects the writers that inhabit them, but it also offers a clear history as to how each has developed, and rightfully makes clear that they are indeed two arms attached to the same body. Harbach’s analysis of how these two domains have directly and literally shaped the form and content of contemporary writers makes an argument both for why these two institutions are necessary and why the writer should engage with them cautiously.

Of the essays in the collection Harbach’s essay is the most comprehensive and informative, as well as the most moderate and even keeled. George Saunders’ “A Mini-Manifesto” is a generous offering to those interested in making the most of their time in an MFA program (either as student or professor). Eric Bennett’s “The Pyramid Scheme,” a historical work tracing the MFA program’s decades long but mostly hidden relationship with the CIA, will have you up all night attempting to formulate your own “more than one shooter” theories about the dark undercurrents that may or may not live in the corners of workshop conference rooms around the country. It is a revelatory and haunting piece that leaves you wondering about the implications of a system in which counterintelligence agencies are directly influencing how writers write, what they write about, and who gets the publication credits and the attention. Though controversial, this is not an entirely new claim about the infiltration of arts institutions by government entities. Serge Guilbaut, in his book “How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art” makes a similar argument that ties between the CIA and defining institutions in the (visual) art world have guided the culture of the art world since World War II.

The rest of the anthology’s essays are comprised of a mix of critical analysis of the political and economic aspects of these two institutions, advice columns to those wishing to enter one of these two distinct but overlapping realms, and personal testimonies from those who have ventured inside the machine and lived to tell about it. I’ll spare you the tedium of a critical analysis for each and every one of the writings included in the book. Instead allow me to comment on some of the common threads I’ve noticed that recur and unify the vision and scope of the book, and to mention some glaring omissions.

From the “NYC” section of essays what I most appreciated was the manner in which many of the authors were able to dispel myths of the rock star writer. They make clear that the majority of those who write and publish books do not end up making the millions of a J.K. Rowling or get to live the (perceived) jet set lifestyle of a Bret Easton Ellis. And yet the tone of some of the essays from these authors who have had the privilege of publication seems to imply a disgruntled attitude about not having been able to buy a vacation home from the revenue of their novel or to have at least gained the fame and cultural capital of writers like Jonathan Franzen and Toni Morrison.

There appears to exist in them still some sense of awe to the writing industry. They buy into the illusion of glamour that they think comes with gaining access to the inner circles of the publishing elite, as if the goal of writing were to acquire status and money. I suppose this is the motivation for some, but this notion belies the fact that a great many writers do not write to be knighted in this fashion.

I think this speaks to the background and demographic of these writers. Though one essayist mentions as a caveat of sorts at the beginning of his essay that he understands poverty is relative, there is generally a misapplied sense of what it means to be poor. The truly poor, with the exception of an incredibly rare few individuals, have nearly no chance of paying their way into the institutions one needs to pass through in order to acquire positions in the worlds of academia and publishing, let alone be able to work a steady job for ten years to finish that masterpiece or to have been born into a family with connections to the publishing elite. They don’t have friends privileged enough to lend them cottages for the summer to write, or to feed and clothe them while they shop their manuscript and wait for that coveted advance. So though I appreciate the conflicts these writers have faced to get their book written and onto a book shelf, there is a lot of talk of money and the “not having of it” without recognition of the privileged positions they happen to find themselves in.

The narrative of those who did not “make it” in NY seems to be precluded by a second narrative that recurs throughout the collection: the one where several writers, after not having struck gold with their books, have opted to “settle” by taking jobs in academia. This is the point of view I find most troubling. Teaching, and teaching in a very ideal situation at that, is seen by many of these essayists as not only undesirable, but as a kind of “losing,” and that teaching itself might be beneath, and not in any way connected to, the work of the writer.

I admit that there is a personal bias here. I teach. And I am a poet and playwright, which means I have never lived with even a fanciful pipe dream that I might make enough money to support myself by publishing alone (or even by doing readings and lectures for that matter). But I love teaching. I love every facet of my job (except for the grading, which like taxes, absolutely no one enjoys doing). And I do not teach in an MFA program on a lovely college campus. I teach in the New York public schools, in often highly stressful working conditions. And I love it still. I have said before and will continue to say that if by any strange miracle my writing could pay the bills I would still teach because there would be a void in my life without it.

One of the essayists goes so far as to throw out the absurdly inaccurate cliché that “those who can’t, teach.” This is not only condescending, but not factually true. Rodin was a teacher. Theater legends Stanislavsky and Boal were both teachers. Jazz innovator Anthony Braxton is a teacher. In fact it is rare to find an artist we revere that has not taught or mentored in some official or unofficial capacity. It is not beneath the writer and the artist to teach. It is the imperative of the writer and the artist to teach. The teachers are the ones who build communities for artists and who bridge the knowledge of the past with the innovations of the future. The myth of the rock star novelist has led flocks of young authors astray from understanding that an integral part of their work is not only to serve their books but, also to serve the communities that read them as well as the communities that write books of their own.

What is not said in this collection, unfortunately, is a profound secret about the artist as teacher: that teaching your craft makes you exponentially better at said craft. Having to explain to rooms full of young people why I have chosen a particular line break, or how I scaffold information, or how I choose one word over another, or who I read and why, having to explain these things has, over time, made me much more disciplined as a writer and considerably more aware of my own artistic process.

Moreover, this work of teaching does not take me away from my writing, at least not in the long view. It’s true that there are occasions that I am stuck plowing through a pile of papers I must grade when I’d rather be at a café with my notebook, scrawling away on my next poem or scene for a play. But this will always be the case for a writer, even if they aren’t teaching. We feel that same urge sitting in traffic when we would rather be writing, or sorting the laundry when we would rather be writing, or watching the cake cutting at a wedding when we’d rather be writing. All writers feel selfish about their time. But when I am lucid and honest with myself I know that nothing in my life (other than my marriage) inspires me to write like teaching does. So it is sad to me to see some of the essayists begrudge their students’ talents and moaning about having to teach.

Several of the essayists mention that they “know” many of their students don’t have talent and feel those students are wasting their time in an MFA. The essayists seem to forget that they in fact were once wide eyed kids hoping to write the next great book. They were probably thought of as not having promise by someone who had to sit with them and talk about their work. I think this manner of commentary hints at a subtle paranoia projected by many writers, writers who play the part of town crier warning that there are too many writing programs and too many aspiring writers.

I frankly don’t see why more writers and more writing programs would be a problem. Musicians don’t worry that there are too many musicians. Most of the musicians I know are happy that they have such a large and diverse pool of fellow musicians who are available to collaborate. The savvy ones know that even from an economic standpoint too many musicians are a good thing for their industry. It doesn’t dilute the market nor does it cause less people to buy their records. It does the opposite. The popular music boom of the 50’s and 60’s created a situation where bands were sprouting in what felt like every garage and basement in America. And it didn’t result in less records being bought. This resulted in so many records being bought that the artists and executives at the top of pyramid became the kind of rich that was once reserved for oilmen and bankers.

Those working in the music industry understood (at least for a time) that their economic success was dependent on the music listener, and that music listeners also play music. They didn’t try to discourage people from playing music, anymore than the NFL discourages young men from playing football. Among the many reasons why they are encouraged to play is because, though many do not realize it, a considerable chunk of the money made in the music industry is not made on record sales, but rather it is made in instrument sales and music lessons. It would behoove the literary industry to see how this works for them. More writers in MFA programs lead to more readers who buy books. If we committed to creating more readers we might not spend so much of our time lamenting that we have no readership (and thus aren’t making money) because no one cares about books (which, judging by the MFA boom, is also not true. Lots of people care about books).

The book also presents an accusation heard too often by writers and book industry professional that the proliferation of MFA programs homogenizes writing and dilutes the talent. I find a faulty logic in this claim. I’m not saying mediocre, or even bad books, aren’t being written in MFA programs. I am saying mediocre and bad books have ALWAYS been written, as have brilliant books. But mostly some fairly decent and some quite good books have been written. Alonso Duralde, in his essay “Why are so many films for Latinos bad?” argues that if you make more films for Latinos then more good films will inevitably come of it. He sees it as a matter of quantity, that if 90 percent of all films for Latinos are bad films, to make 10 Latino films will produce 1 good film, but to make 100 films would produce 10 good ones.

I would argue the same for books. More books being written may mean more mediocre books written, but it will also mean more great books being written, and more general support for writers to writer more books. I also find the argument of talent dilution to be illogical because I can’t see why one wouldn’t want your mediocre writers to be trained as well. We want our mediocre doctors and electricians to be trained, don’t we? A trained laborer is always preferable to an untrained one, no?

It is counterproductive to criticize the expansion of the MFA by claiming it dilutes talent or stunts creativity. I’ve never met an artist that allowed any external force stunt their creativity. And if one wants to claim that MFA faculty heavily influence how their students writer and what they read, I would ask “don’t the NYC publishing company editors and executives do the same to their writers? You can’t find a more homogenous collection of writers than in publications like the New Yorker and The Paris Review. There is no harm done in using academic institutions to support and house writers. We don’t criticize scientists for taking positions in academia to do their research rather than try to invent something in their basement in isolation and pray someone will want what they create. Why do we ask our artists to eschew such institutional support?

I’m guessing some of the writers who make these criticisms may feel threatened by fellow faculty members and students, leading them to worry about the number of MFA programs. They may see the students and their colleagues as competition, but they shouldn’t. It is antithetical to the function of a teacher to fixate over whether or not your students have “natural” talent. Their only competition is mediums and institutions that promote the not reading of books. The industrial age mentality that the only respectable way to earn money as a writer is to stock a shelf with a product and move that product is an archaic notion fit for an economic system that simply no longer exists. So to be clear, I’m saying that writers should not be paid for their work, rather I am saying that we need to be tactful and see that if we are to survive in a capitalistic, consumer based economy, one much different than the commodity culture Lewis Hyde feared, then we need to expand our vision about how we are paid and what we are paid for.

This is where I think the MFA system is in a stronger position to do if it can also see itself beyond the “creating of literature” and “workshop” mode. This is a narrow vision to try to maintain, a masochistic one where the writers and the programs become salmon swimming upstream. The essayists make a salient point that not all students in these programs will go on to publish. But not every political science major will become a senator. Not every major in physics will go on to work for NASA. Perhaps MFA programs need to stop seeing all candidates solely as potential book writers and editors.

Richard Ohmann, author of “English in America,” understood that the English Departments of the twentieth century were not merely training armies of literary scholars. They were training the new middle management class to communicate and think critically and organize; skills that were in demand in the industrial economy. Similarly, the MFA programs of the twenty-first century should see themselves as training students for the creative economy that is forming from the rubble of the industrial economy.

When I teach poetry and playwriting in the public schools I have no illusion I am making future poets and playwrights, but I can see -have to see- how writing and studying literature builds cognition, meta-cognition, social and problem solving skills, and organizational skills, and trains my students to know how to extrapolate and manipulate data and symbols, and how to improvise and sharpen their eye and ear to make savvy aesthetic, as well as ideological, choices. These are all skills useful in the new economy, in the job markets of design, programming, global telecommunications, geopolitics, marketing and research, translating, systems analysis, and theoretical engineering. This is just a few of the possible fields where the skill set taught in an MFA writing program could prove to be an asset.

(This is precisely where I take up my own issue with the MFA program. It seems stubbornly attached to the workshop format, when other types of instruction and spaces for exploration would better serve their students. They could learn from their counterparts in theater, music, and visual art. Many of the students credits are reserved for open studios, classes dedicated to experiment together and generating work, doing “field” work in professional theater/galleries, and collaborating on original work with peers. These programs have adequate “critique” time, but the bulk of the class time and credit hours are dedicated to creating, experimenting, and “playing.”)

So let us not harbor on who is and who isn’t destined to be an author. It’s not the job of the MFA program to do so. It never was and never will be the job of a teacher. Our job is to equip our students to meet their personal ambitions and the larger society’s impending needs. Perhaps “NYC” can lay claim to being the ones who decide who has talent and who does not, but given that industry’s history of poorly written publications and the number of talented writers that went “undiscovered” until generations after they died, I would argue that they are not necessarily quality barometers either. Instead let us focus on creating optimal environments for exceptional books to be written, on building readership by engendering a passion for books, and on making clear to non-believers who crucial it is to non-literary people how reading and writing will make serve to produce a civic-minded and intellectual class of laborers for the new economy.

I suppose to do this would be to take away for some the exclusivity of the club, the glamour of making it in the publishing world as a writer. For some, I think, democratizing publishing is not ideal. The current landscape and attitudes may lead one to the conclusion that there are those who wish to treat the book industry as New York City treats apartments: they would rather build million dollar apartments that no one can afford and let them remain empty than to lower the prices or create homes that are more reasonable to the average budget. Maybe this is unavoidable. To co-opt the symbolism of a darling of the literary world, Dr. Seuss, everyone wants a star on their belly until everyone has a star on their belly.

There is that mischievous part of me that wants to leave you with the image of the star bellied Sneetches, but I have one more response to “MFA vs. NYC” that I feel compelled to share. It has to do with the glaring omissions I alluded to in the beginning. Doing a quick Google search of the contributing authors revealed what I had suspected after my reading of the book, there is a startling lack of diversity in the authors, and I don’t think it is merely a lack of racial diversity (though there are only two authors of color), it also seems to be one of economics and education. The book might have felt more comprehensive to me if I saw a broader range of essayists. Certainly if there had been more writers of color, a wider range of narratives about the MFA and the NYC publishing scene would have been presented, narratives, for example, of the gross inequality in the backgrounds of authors that are lauded and supported. For every Junot Diaz the industry has one hundred Jonathan Franzens (88 percent of the books reviewed by the New York Times were written by white males). Or the narrative of how the bulk of the creative writing departments have one or less writers of color on their faculty, and how those writers are often subtly deflated in their departments or ignored. Or the narrative of how difficult it is for a young student of color to get into most MFA programs. Or how when they do get accepted their work is often treated with passive aggressive hostility or a willful ignorance from their peers about the references, literary modes, and influences in their work because they are drawing from a different literary legacy than the dominant American literary canon. Or even the narrative of how important an MFA has been for the careers of so many writers of color because it offered them access to organizations and people that were previously of limits to them. Or the narrative of how the MFA program helped communities of writers of color to organize and support each other in ways that were previously not possible.

It would have even been refreshing to see acknowledged the hundreds of other literary cultures and scenes that exist outside the two headed beast of MFA and NYC, because in truth there are countless writers who are writing and sharing their work who have little or no interest in participating in the machine. They publish online, or in homemade chapbooks and zines for their neighbors and peers. They gather in each other’s homes and in bars and cafes to share their work. And they self publish to growing levels of success. It strikes me as odd that there is no mention of the success of writers such as Sergio De La Pava who circumvented the system. His book “A Naked Singularity” was originally self-published. Only later did the book find a commercial publisher and go on to win a PEN Literary award.

“MFA vs. NYC” is not only a necessary book for writers to read, it is also a surprisingly fun read, which speaks to the talent of the writers included. But if even a few of the narratives and perspectives I mention as being omitted were included, I might have felt even more fulfilled upon reading it. It would have certainly forced the anthology to be a physically bigger book, but it might have better served readers and writers by pushing against the American knack for creating war that Carlin spoke of by placing ALL writers living and working today in context, not just those who have opted to pitch their tents under the banners of these two powerful (though artificially contrived) camps. For it is not “MFA vs. NYC,” or even “The writer vs. Capitalism.” It is more like “The writer’s tempestuous and steamy relationship with the world.”

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