Live From New York: the 2014 MFA Power Rankings
13. Indiana University in Bloomington
I used to have a hobby not unlike birding, except it was spotting portrayals of the writing workshop in pop culture. Fellow enthusiasts have contributed to MFA vs NYC, citing DFW (“Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”) and teasing Todd Solondz (Storytelling). I always had a soft spot for Noah Baumbach’s first movie, Kicking and Screaming, itself disavowed like a submission passed out in class as its hungover author massages her temples. In the movie, dilettante Grover reads copy from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue to the class. Parodies of workshop comments follow: “The scene with the carrot peeler really resonated.” I used to tell my students that the language they invented for workshop would always be of use, as they joined creative communities and searched for an artful way to say they hoped to succeed where their dear friends had so obviously failed. Kicking and Screaming isn’t terribly accurate, but the scene about the scene with the resonating carrot peeler really resonated with me.
12. University of Minnesota in Minneapolis
Why live in New York City? Why persist in existential struggle with the many thousands of winners; obscenely wealthy, much better looking, and just now being seated by the front window. NYC’s enduring appeal is a topic unsurpassed in its eliciting of shrugs and scare quotes. No one says: I have a fanatic belief in myself. Living in the only place that seems truly vital isn’t much of a choice — New York City as the only necessary city. The same city catering to high finance, and in thrall to the white heat of youthful fashion. The man holding the sign “The Line Ends Here” is right inside the door. So why can’t we leave? Prevarication can only mean the truth is both very common and rather dubious.
11. New York University in New York City
Likewise, the short answer justifying an MFA is a little muffled: “Time to write.” The long answer — says Chad Harbach, in MFA vs NYC’s judicious founding document, and to which I have nothing to add — is that the MFA provides “an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past twenty-two and toward thirty, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.” While Harbach puts to rest the romantic notion that MFA programs are strangling American fiction, he examines the consequences of beating a full, poetic retreat into the academy. At the end of the day, publishing and MFAs present different ways to pay (or defer) the bills. Likely, the writer will turn to not writing for money, and partway through a shift will realize, as we all must, that life does not imitate art as much as worrying about money is life. On top of that, self-identifying writers in NYC face a daunting spiritual hurdle: getting through a conversation with an acquaintance who has been busy but is too polite not to honor your turn to speak.
10. Washington University in Saint Louis
In MFA, that turn came round. When I first got to class, I was miserable. To interrupt with my unformed opinion on a short story struck me as deeply absurd. A “second-year,” no matter her actual age, seemed profoundly confident in her own skin. In the room, you would have liked to be yourself, but your taste in yourself was very specific. A colleague of mine said it all: “I don’t like what I just said.” Later, I asked a friend how much of a sense of humor I appeared to have at first. “None,” he said. I asked another friend of his first impression: did he think I’d ever speak? He did not. For the first time in years, I had solid health coverage, which allowed me to obtain anti-anxiety medication. It was generic Celexa, but did not feel like it.
9. University of Texas in Austin (Michener Center)
Who would want to read a “jointly written novel” about “the fiction writer circa 2014”? There’s no accounting for tastes that run ultra-banal — as do mine. In Harbach’s sketch, the lone remaining distinction between MFA and NYC is form: the short story collection as academic credential, and the “NYC writer” with a novel, here defined as yet another go, for the millionth time, at threading the needle of writing well and selling well. In that case, perhaps a catchier title is in order? Girl with the Rona Jaffe Fellowship. The Girl in the Greenpoint One-Bedroom. Is that better?
8. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore
Confronted with the raw self-examination of memoir, Ava Gardner delivered her famous prose advice: “I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.” If MFA and NYC have merged into a single economy, it has two products: writers and senses of failure. Paradoxical advice greets the MFA graduate: as the publishing industry goes down in flames, it remains eager for first novels, new voices. But it’s not so confusing in translation: publishing is looking to make big, skin-saving commercial scores. (The remaining distinction, again: the gang of thieves’ “One last job” vs. “I want benefits in a college town on the prairie.”) Given this situation, MFA and NYC continue to produce enough failure so that the rare success can be sold as the rise of a genius phoenix from a lot of ash.
7. Vanderbilt University in Nashville
The most important thing a creative writing program can do is introduce a writer to flesh and blood readers. Readers who will care for your soul poured out into paper wine cups. The Twelve ethically bound to give unto you their thoughtfulness. This is no small thing, especially for novices such as myself, for whom readers were scarce or absolutely unacknowledged or both. It’s fairly safe to assume the opposite, painfully valuable lesson is learned as well. It’s hard not to notice the elaborate edifice built around people reading a single sentence authored by you — the program’s real estate grabs and sandwiches at the reading series, the pomp of cutthroat admissions, and they brought in Lorrie Moore from Wisconsin to be wonderful in person. The phrase “the real world” — I’ve seen it, I wanted to say, don’t go out there! — reestablishes its meaning. The moment you leave, it is abundantly clear that your writing must be simultaneously propulsive and reflective of your mystique as a human, or it might never again meet another pair of eyes.
In the meantime, I was embarrassed by how much I loved being in the room. To try to hold its attention was a kind of platonic harassment of people I was beginning to greatly admire. Obviously, one should try not to pay too much for this specific privilege. Repeat: thousands of dollars is probably too much to pay in order to have a small audience for which one makes his life’s theretofore most concerted effort to amuse.
I wrote a piece similar to Grover’s Victoria’s Secret exercise; it was a customer review of a dress (“Pockets!”) that segued into a recitation of the instructions booklet for birth control pills. It went over well, and I was pleased. Perhaps a pleasure not equal to the bitter disappointment of being rejected by the most prestigious programs, whose acceptance rates have dipped below 1%. Of such competitive atmospheres it’s been movie-said: “I’m not here to make friends.” But I went to make friends.
6. Syracuse University in New York
In a one-graf thought experiment, George Saunders asks how we might go about addressing MFA oversaturation anyway. Shutting down some creative writing programs? He never mentions the design of the arena where only one would survive, which is strange.
5. University of Virginia in Charlottesville
After we’ve ditched the idea of metastatic MFA minimalism, Harbach makes a sneaky case for the “NYC” writer “submit(ting) to an unconscious yet powerful pressure toward readability.” How well a novel sells seems to have something to do with how accessible it is, which very well may be a function of the skill with which it’s structured, which one should think has led more people to experience it. But while we’re reaching for the sun, we should be reminded that the “sun” here is a rapacious popular culture built on the advertising model, which exists to part you and your money so that others — who tend to have a lot of it already — might have it instead. There are instrumental sections of M.I.A. songs, Jonathan Franzen, and Proactiv endorsements involved, but that’s basically it.
The prevailing question put to writing for any kind of money (the gas bill much less the rent) is how entwined are readability, commerce, and relevance. But how much can a writer fashion accessibility? Does a writer debase her high-aesthetic instincts in order to target markets? How existent, exactly, is that old dichotomy in the age of good TV? Are we facing an undesirable conflation, or, indeed, facts: is what people actually like (“respond to,” goes the jargon of electrodes-on-loins) the same thing as what data reveals them to purchase? (See, and internalize: the Random House $5000 50 Shades bonus.)
As much as I can say that I read in a state of crafted suspense or I am not reading, I think the same thing after putting down books I’ve been told are un-put-down-able: aren’t formulas formulaic? In the novelist, we find the “deep authorial desire to communicate to the uninterested.” Ambition is one of those volcanic processes responsible for impulses both high and low: the moral imperative to connect, and the craven desire to put one up on the board. As we walk empty-handed out of NYC shops upon learning just how much the market will bear, our concern is with what makes a book succeed. All of a sudden, school is the only safe space to talk about whether you or I or anything is any good.
4. Brown University in Providence
“I think people who are likely to appreciate Lolita will read Lolita,” says Hannah, in Adelle Waldman’s deft novel-length OKCupid profile The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. “I don’t care about the rest. I mean, I don’t care what they do for fun.” In one sense, readability and commercial value are fairly synonymous. However, a distinction should be made between, on the one hand, writing engagingly in the service of storytelling, and on the other, overseeing the literary production of The Girl who worked for the NSA and trained herself in garden variety sadomasochism and discovered she could read minds which is how she knew she’d have to believe in herself when none of the vampires she went to high school with did. There’s naked commerce, and there’s writing with a concept of the reader. That will still be an important difference when we’re all MFAs and the water rises.
3. University of Wisconsin in Madison
But where’s the money? MFA vs NYC has ledgers, W-2’s, a pie chart. Emily Gould wonders whether she will ever have the “things I once considered necessary and automatic parts of a complete adult life.” Speaking for myself, I cannot tell you the metaphysical freight I now attach to salary, yards, progeny, cheese, freely available parking, ingenious storage, and shoes, now that I share utterly in the gut-conviction that “Act 1 is over — and it’s been over for a while.” Keith Gessen, after teaching a fiction workshop for the first time: “I felt like a person.” Welcome, for one. But I know very well what he means, too. The introductory creative writing workshop tends to honor that which teacher and student both do not know how to do. Despite that, teaching creative writing is still considered to be far from honest work. It’s an odd but truly civil profession, though it often requires a traditionally published book, and, likely, moving far away.
2. University of Michigan in Ann Arbor
Thoreau makes baskets but he doesn’t sell them. He tries to make them real good but he doesn’t try to sell them.*
1. University of Iowa in Iowa City
Two ideas — that of the MFA proliferation of competent dreck, and the “Death of the Novel” — are similarly subject to more reasonable refutations. Despite that, I would like to put in a good word on behalf of vehemence. Rarely does fiction belong in the world, and not even that which does is entitled to the light of the day. I like to think of fiction almost as a desperate measure, doing only what it does best: allow the reader the strange catharsis of universalizing her experience. A speed-of-light rapport with other selves of doubtful purpose.
Lorin Stein reads Infinite Jest and is relieved not to have to try to write it himself. Relieved. There should be a way to avoid reading all the world’s manifestations as steps in a manual for how to also succeed. There should be a way to stop being stung by everything: the chandelier through the brownstone window, a funny piece in a fancy magazine by a writer who got out there. There should be, but there’s not?
* See Maria Adelmann’s essay “Basket Weaving 101.”
M.C. Mah is a critic and novelist with work in The Nervous Breakdown, KGB Lit Mag, and The Rumpus. He lives in Brooklyn.