Getting With the Program: On MFA vs. NYC

March 4, 2014 | 5 books mentioned 16 9 min read


covercoverReading Chad Harbach’s 2010 essay “MFA vs. NYC” today one feels keenly the four years that have elapsed since it first appeared in the magazine he co-founded, n+1. At the start of 2010, the iPad did not exist and Borders did. By that year, degree-granting creative writing programs had proliferated from just 79 in 1976 to 1,269, while New York publishing, struck by the double-blow of e-books and the 2008 financial crisis, was bleeding jobs at a frightening pace. In 2010, both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award went to books published by tiny independent presses, and neither Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer after being published by the nonprofit Bellevue Literary Press, nor Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, which took the NBA after being published by the one-man operation McPherson & Company, had been reviewed by the New York Times before they won their awards.

So even back then it was a bit of an understatement to suggest, as Harbach did in his n+1 essay, that “the university now rivals, if it hasn’t already surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” Today, though, when Harbach’s piece has resurfaced as the title essay of a new collection, MFA vs. NYC, it would be hard to find many writers who still believe, as Harbach maintains, that New York publishing and university creative writing programs remain “two complementary systems of roughly matched strength.” Put it this way: if you have kids and want to keep writing, would you aim for a teaching job in an MFA program or try your luck as a freelance writer in NYC? Thought so.

Perhaps this fundamental disconnect between the balance implied by its title and the economic realities of literary life circa 2014 explains the underthrob of panic that courses through a number of the essays in the new collection by writers outside the orbit of Planet MFA. Harbach, who edited this new volume, has tapped his stable of n+1 writers, a fair number of whom, like him, went to Harvard and earned six-figure advances for their first books. Whatever is ailing these folks, it isn’t lack of chutzpah or unwillingness to do what it takes to succeed, and yet what was clearly intended as a series of artsy-smartsy essays examining the state of play in literary America too often comes off as an extended moan of self-pity from a once-cosseted corner of Brownstone Brooklyn.

coverHarbach himself, whose 2011 novel Art of Fielding has done very well, is not among the moaners. Aside from the reprinted title essay and a perfunctory editor’s introduction, he mostly keeps his head down here. Not so his n+1 co-editor Keith Gessen, and Gessen’s longtime girlfriend Emily Gould, whose essays together form the emotional heart of the collection.

Gessen contributes a pair of linked essays, “Money (2006)” and “Money (2014),” which as their titles suggest, offer a before-and-after portrait of Gessen’s struggle to make a living as a NYC writer. The first, originally published in n+1 two years before the release of Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, reads as a snarling, embittered defense of intellectual defensiveness. “Bad magazines,” he writes, “vulgarize your ideas and literally spray your pages with perfume.” Prestigious magazines are even worse, working writers so hard with “style editing, copyediting, query editing, [and] bulletproofing” that a freelancer soon realized he has “landed a $6-an-hour job, featuring heavy lifting.”

coverBut this journalistic wage slavery is bliss compared to university teaching, which, Gessen reports, “buys the writer off with patronage, even as it destroys the fundamental preconditions for his being.” And don’t get him started on the tortures associated with publishing a book. Authors, he relates, must “spend every day prostituting themselves: with photographs, interviews, readings with accordions, live blogs on” And get this: publishing companies are in business and want writers’ books to sell! To the public! For money!

Gessen redeems himself somewhat in his second essay, an account of his decision to risk destruction of “the fundamental preconditions of his being” and spend a semester teaching creative writing after the money from his book and his journalism runs out. He is blunt in his disdain for the teaching of creative writing, but as he describes his reasoning, it becomes clear that what he fears most is getting stuck in a room full of younger, grasping versions of himself:

In fact what I most wanted was to be told, by a writer, that I was myself a writer, that I had it. And so by teaching such a class, weren’t you also taking part in that deception, in the deception that all these students might become writers? And weren’t you also forced, all the time, to lie to them, in effect, whether mildly or baldly, about their work?

After driving away a quarter of his students after the first class, Gessen finds that it’s more complicated than that. Yes, his students’ egos can be fragile, and not all of them are great writers, but if he listens, if he responds to what they’ve actually written, they improve. “I even began to feel, in a way I’d never felt as a student, that the old saw about how you can’t teaching writing was possibly untrue,” he writes.

The narrative arc from “Money (2006)” to “Money (2014)” is essentially a happy one, but in the bigger picture of the economics of literary culture, the lesson is hardly uplifting. Gessen did everything a young NYC author could possibly do to succeed. He went to Harvard. He helped start a small but influential literary magazine. He served a year as staff book reviewer for New York magazine. He published a first novel that earned him a six-figure advance. Yet despite continuing to write for New York’s glossiest magazines, only a few years after his novel came out, Gessen couldn’t afford repairs on his car and had a rent check bounce. And what did he do? He did what all American writers do these days when they need money: he got with the program.

coverIf the moral of this story is not sufficiently plain, Gessen need only glance across the breakfast table at Emily Gould, whose essay “Into the Woods” offers a poignant cautionary tale for those who fail to see the writing on the wall. Gould first came to public attention as a blogger at where she famously posted a picture of herself in a bathing suit on a Brooklyn rooftop giving the camera the finger. New York publishing appears to have mistaken interest in the bathing suit for interest in her prose style, and in 2008 she sold a memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever, to Simon and Schuster for $200,000.

Gould says it began to dawn on her that all wasn’t well when a young marketing assistant suggested that Gould, who had sold the book in part because of her compulsive online oversharing, start a blog. Sensing her handlers had no idea how to frame her public persona, she suggested they position her as the next voice of her generation. “They looked at me like I’d emitted a long, loud, smelly fart,” she reports. “And so – swear to god – I amended what I’d said: ‘Okay, say I’m a voice of my generation.’”

When the book tanked, Gould found herself emotionally and creatively paralyzed. “[B]y summer 2012 I was broke, and in debt, and it was no one’s fault but mine,” she writes. “Besides a couple of freelance writing assignments, my only source of income for more than a year had come from teaching yoga, for which I got paid $40 a class. In 2011 I made $7,000.”

coverIt is, I grant you, a touch grating to be asked to feel sorry for a college-educated woman from the leafy Maryland suburbs whose pain at not being anointed the voice of her generation was so debilitating that she was forced to teach yoga classes for forty bucks an hour. Indeed, though the tale ends on an upbeat note with the sale of Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, due out in July, there is more than enough Schadenfreude piled up in Gould’s essay to satisfy even the most bitter of Brooklyn wannabe authors. But in the great scheme of things, Gould’s story should give pause to Brooklyn wannabes and anyone else who cares about American literature in the post-print age.

For one brief shining moment, roughly from the end of World War II to the late 1960s, print truly was king. King Print, whose Art Deco palaces once dotted Midtown Manhattan, owed its reign to a fleeting, historically anomalous period between the creation of print technologies that made newspapers, magazines, and paperback books cheap and easy to distribute and the innovations in television production that rendered those print advances obsolete. King Print limped along, a wounded but still powerful despot until the late 1990s when the Great Dragon Internet slew it once and for all.

The reign of King Print gave us not only great magazines like the New Yorker and newspapers like the New York Times, both of which soared in the postwar years, but also the work of writers as varied as Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom made a good living nearly exclusively from writing. But as we look back at this period we need to keep two very important things in mind. First, outside that one period, no one but hacks and geniuses really made money writing books, and most of the time even the hacks and the geniuses ended up poor. Second, were it not for the advent of the MFA system as a jobs program for midlist authors, we could be back in the 1850s, when serious writers either lived off their families like Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson or retreated into government sinecures like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

It is odd, especially for a group of writers like the n+1 set, who pride themselves on their intellectualism and historical insight, that their book on the subject mostly elides this essential historical explanation for the personal predicaments besetting members of their own tribe. MFA vs. NYC is prodigious in its effort to drill down into the sedimentary layers of Planet MFA. In one essay, Eric Bennett tells a fascinating, if somewhat conspiracy-minded tale of how Paul Engle, an early director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, took money and intellectual succor from the CIA to help build the program into the academic juggernaut it is today. In another, an excerpt from a 1988 essay, the late David Foster Wallace, in his early High Peevish period, catalogs the reasons why writing programs are creatively deadening. Even Gordon Lish, now best known for having hacked Raymond Carver’s early stories to bits nearly forty years ago, is trotted out in an essay by n+1 editor Carla Blumenkranz, despite the fact that Lish never lasted in the academy and taught instead in private, cult-like evening sessions held in people’s homes.

Meanwhile, aside from one or two backward glances, the book’s discussion of Planet NYC is relentlessly first-person present tense. In addition to pieces from writers like Gessen and Gould, Harbach includes essays by literary agents, publicists, and editors all chirpily describing their work and career paths. The industry pieces are smart and informative – agent Jim Rutman’s “The Disappointment Business” is especially good – but they feel shoehorned in from a very different book designed to give fledgling writers a behind-the-scenes tour of New York publishing.

All this adds up to a curious meta-narrative that weaves unspoken through this otherwise disjointed collection of essays: that half a century ago the university-industrial complex, perhaps aided by the CIA, tunneled underneath New York publishing and blew the thing sky high, sapping its ability to pay its writers and sending the likes of Gessen and Gould out into the wastelands of Brooklyn in search of freelance gigs and rent money. But this ignores the obvious, actual reason why MFA programs are winning the hearts and minds of today’s authors. Universities remain profit centers because, for now at least, they are analog. Students will pay thousands of dollars a year for a seat in a MFA program because it is a real seat in a real room taught by a real professor, who can be paid decently for his or her work. Harness that to a generation increasingly delaying committing to marriage and a career and you have a fairly powerful economic engine.

Books, on the other hand, like everything else that can be reproduced digitally are rapidly declining in per-unit value. It has been fascinating to me over the past few weeks to see the essays I was reading in MFA vs. NYC appear one by one on my Facebook feed, published around the Web. Gould’s piece, retitled “How much my novel cost me,” is available for free on Medium. Bennett’s piece, now titled “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” recently went viral on the website for the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find Blumenkranz’s piece on Gordon Lish on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog and even Harbach’s title essay has been unearthed from the n+1 archives and put on their website. I imagine that a moderately industrious person could assemble a Tumblr site in a matter of hours that would reproduce for free much of what n+1 Books would like to sell you for $16 in a bookstore.

Want to know what’s ailing New York publishing? That’s it, in a nutshell. Why would anyone pay full price for this book when its authors, many of them complaining about how hard it is to make money from writing, are giving away their work for free online? The answer is obvious. By and large, people won’t. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said.

But can serious writing survive in such an atmosphere? I would argue that the authors of MFA vs. NYC, perhaps inadvertently, are showing the way. After all, my caveats notwithstanding, these are serious essays and people will read them, probably more so now that they are online than if they had appeared exclusively in print. The problem is, obviously, that if you give something away, it’s devilishly hard to get paid good money for it, which means that authors will have to look for alternative sources of revenue. Which, as Keith Gessen seems to have already discovered, means getting with the program.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. The days of a writer getting paid well enough freelancing for magazines to sustain a comfortable, let alone cushy life in even the outer boroughs are over. The internet is full of entertaining and informative articles and stories, and the number of “content creators” is growing exponentially. Unless you can churn out more than four articles a day, which would no doubt be a drain on even the most industrious writer.

    At least for now, readers are tolerant of lazy editing in exchange for free content. As a past, current, and hopefully future editor, I hope this changes. I would love the opportunity to pay talent in exchange for well-researched and carefully crafted work.

  2. I agree with much of the essay. People act like the term “Starving Arist” wasn’t created until after mass media came along.

    Yes, books were move valuable before WW2, but there were also fewer readers, less disposable income and leisure time, and terrible distribution. Today, all of those things are much improved, but, aside for a select few authors, the money just isn’t there.

    Get a job. It’ll keep you fed and give you perspective, which will help you as a person and an artist. (You won’t go around claiming to be the voice of your generation.) There aren’t really that many authors whose work actually improved once they became financially secure enough to abandon work work and focus entirely on writing.

  3. Setting aside the reductive stupidity of this whole premise – I hate to break it to Mr. Harbach, but there are plenty of talented writers untainted by Brooklyn or the workshop – two things immediately jump to mind.

    1. Most writers in history have held day jobs. Apparently this current crop of entitled Writers thinks they are so special and talented they shouldn’t have to suffer the indignities of work. But, if you don’t get paid enough for writing and you hate teaching writing, Keith Gessen, get a different job. In fact, one could argue that a job that has nothing at all to do with writing would actually serve a writer well. Could Gaddis have written JR without a couple decades of experience working in corporate America? How would Gravity’s Rainbow read if Pynchon hadn’t spent years working for Boeing?

    2. Nowhere in the above post, nor, I presume, in the book, is quality mentioned. It’s as if the work these folks produce is incidental. Well, perhaps instead of writing whiny (unpaid) articles bemoaning the fact that writing hasn’t made you as rich and famous as exactly nobody told you you would be, work on your craft. Write better books, for god’s sake. Gessen’s All the Sad Blah Blah Blah is one of the most insufferable and inessential novels ever written: thinly-veiled autobiography about white privileged male NYC writers writing about writing in NYC. Gould’s book is the female equivalent. Look, if your imagination and inspiration doesn’t extend beyond the confines of your own skull, perhaps you aren’t cut out for this line of work anyhow. Again, look at Pynchon and Gaddis. They didn’t spend their time writing whiny essays, they didn’t “prostitute” themselves, they didn’t do much of anything publicly except write and work. And eventually they wrote well enough that their work began garnering awards and the fellowships, genius grants, etc. – and a little financial security, I’m sure – followed.

  4. Nice article. But I see you misquote the statistic for MFAs. There are/were not 1,269 MFA programs, but that many “degree-granting programs.” So that includes undergraduate programs (which make up the bulk), MAs, PhDs, etc.

  5. Ryan Ries: awesome comment.

    I think “getting a job” is most of these writers worst nightmare. Because they’re special, see?

  6. hugh. i happen to hold a swiss passport. i always thought being a writer exclusively is some anglosaxon madness. getting my m.a. in….education! which leads to a paid job over here. then i can begin being the part-time voice of my generation, finish “A Well-dressed Cosmos”

    p.s.: i imagine bk wannabe novelists downed with conniption fits when they happen upon auster in the streets

  7. Great comment, Ryan Ries. My main problems with the MFA program are its insularity, solipsism, and I guess nepotism (might be the word for it). You go over to a website like Narrative magazine’s and you’ll see in pretty much every single bio (unless its for a previously established author like James fuckin Joyce) that all the authors achieved their MFAs at some point. Like an MFA is a necessary credential to becoming a writer like you need an associate’s degree to run a hotel or something. Or in the immortal words of James Franco, that he’d “done the work” necessary to being a writer, entirely because he’d completed several MFA programs. And you look at the writing that these programs are producing (just hop on over to Narrative magazine for a bunch of examples) and it’s the same crap you’re liable to read in the New Yorker (when it isn’t an over-the-hill established author knocking off Henry James or whoever for absolutely no one’s enjoyment). Just falsely lyrical stories about budding female sexuality or Raymond Carver knock-offs or, on the whole, stories that are so goddamned scared of saying ANYTHING that they end up saying nothing, and my feeling is that the workshop is essentially a place where you can be hammered into making moderately nice sentences and you will be ruined if you ever have a moral notion behind your work — that all writing should exist in a vacuum for its own sake, just pretty pictures of butterflies and horses. Who really wants to read that crap? Why would anyone who works a lousy job want to pay money to read about someone’s childhood sadness? I work as a cook and if I’m going to buy a book it’s going to be Dostoevsky over Chad Harbach EVERY SINGLE TIME. I think the MFA programs are contributing to a decline in literature’s salability at least in part because it all seems VERY SIMILAR and it all seems nearly nihilistic in its aversion to hinting at any underlying meaning that’s more complicated than just “this was sad” or “this was nice”. Like others have said, Melville, Conrad, Pynchon, Virginia Woolf, Bukowski, Burroughs, Celine — these are writers that would have been savaged out of a workshop by some narcissist Carverite who failed to get the story about his sad drinking problem published 20 years prior. It wouldn’t bother me so much I guess if, like I said earlier, it didn’t seem like it was becoming a prerequisite to being a writer. Like you HAVE to have an MFA to succeed, and if you can’t afford an MFA, well, fuck you, you’re out of luck. No books for you. It’s just sad to me. It doesn’t surprise me that no one wants to buy the vast majority of MFA-produced fiction and I think it’s pretty goddamn unreasonable for people with MFAs to not understand why. I just wish there was a way that all the MFAers could just get other jobs outside of academia and quit building their vision of fiction to the detriment of all elements of weirdness, lyricism, vehemence, and spirituality that I actually think makes literature pretty great. Like, actually important to who we are as human beings.

  8. I don’t understand why so many writers insist on living in New York (Brooklyn included). Yeah, it has great culture, bookstores, music, art, whatever. But it’s so expensive. I cringe a little listening to writers complain about not being able to make enough money to live in a city where you can’t rent an apartment for less than $1000 a month. I could barely afford that when I made $40k. The New York that artists could afford in the 80s no longer exists. But tons of awesome, cheaper cities do exist and offer the same things New York does, just in smaller quantities (which, actually, makes all the stuff feel more special; when I lived in New York, I’d skip my favorite band’s show because I knew I could see them again in six months, but I don’t do that anymore because if I don’t go NOW I won’t get the chance). Perhaps writers should move to Asheville or Portland or Gainesville or Austin and etc.–places where they could make decent-ish money off just writing or writing and a little teaching or writing and a part-time day job. New York does not have to serve as the center of the literary universe. At least, not anymore. Because: the Internet. And also, planes, trains, and automobiles.

  9. The only writers I can think of who came from modest backgrounds and made a living from their writing were insanely prolific – Dickens and Chekhov for example – *and* happened to be born at the historical moment when print culture, especially the serialized magazine story, was at its apex. Otherwise it’s always been very very hard and I’ll bet if those two were alive today they would be cashing checks from HBO not the ailing beast that is NYC publishing. It’s only the last couple of generations that seem to expect they will make bank writing obscure literary fiction.

    As for the MFA part of the equation – assuming there are actually two sides to this equation, highly debatable – the same herd instinct that leads people to MFA programs deposits them in Brooklyn shortly thereafter, which may explain how MFA-minted or not, so much contemporary fiction sounds so similar. My advice to the whiny writer types: get an unglamorous job, move to say, Chicago (or even Staten Island), meet people you have nothing in common with and come back when you have something more interesting to complain about.

  10. Dunbar, wells said.

    Nothing cold be more dull than a writer who only writes and teaches writing.

    You’re much more likely to have something interesting to say as a writer if you study psychology, philosophy, art, almost anything, than if you study writing.

    Or if you DO an activity – job wise or hobby wise – other than writing, in addition to writing.

    There will only be 3 or 4 great LITERARY writers per century – writers whose style will be revisited by… academics (!) when they’re dead – so your best chance is to KNOW about something; the style thing can’t really be taught, except by self studying the masters of the craft, plus talent.

  11. Comment 1: the real value of a MFA is the network and the downline, like Amway. If you stay in the program you will stand a chance (of publishing in tiny mags, of teaching, of growing your own crop of junior writers). Step away and you won’t be published, jobs go away, and you find yourself blinking in the light of day. At this point you may write something of value.
    2: Bennett’s CIA story is a hoax. We all briefly fell for it out of confirmatory bias. Re-read the meta part about a desperate PhD candidate trying to repurpose his dissertation. He’s telling us and we can’t see it. See Sokol, Alan.
    3: lots of good comments here. Get a job being the most subversive, if it’s not serving coffee. I remember when Deborah Eisenberg was a waitress at a dive and would pull up a chair and listen to the writers talk. She could and did write circles around us and never let on.

  12. “There will only be 3 or 4 great LITERARY writers per century”

    That’s kind of a lowball. In the 20th century alone you have Joseph Conrad, Henry James, DH Lawrence, Proust, James Joyce, Kafka, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Nabokov. That’s just in the first thirty years! There’s also only one woman on that list. Assuming literary parity between the sexes, dramatically increased acceptance of minority and ethnic writers (in the West), a larger population and widespread access to education and literature, we should expect far more great literary writers in the 21st century.

    The only problem is that most people don’t care about books any more.

    The funny thing is that lots of people do make pretty good money and even careers out of writing fiction. It’s just that they’re writing romance novels or teen horror or mystery. And all the complaining about not making it as a literary writer strikes me as akin to a mediocre chef complaining that he can’t get a job. Yeah, at a three star restaurant! Go work for the Outback Steakhouse.

    I got my PHD in landscaping (pine handle degree–you know, like a shovel has) and now I’m an excavator operator. My job is great! I dig holes and crush things, I listen to CBC radio and think about writing–and I get paid. Then I go home and write. I think there’s nothing more liberating to a writer than not having to make a living from writing because then the writing can be anything.

  13. “I got my PHD in landscaping (pine handle degree–you know, like a shovel has) and now I’m an excavator operator. My job is great! I dig holes and crush things, I listen to CBC radio and think about writing–and I get paid. Then I go home and write. I think there’s nothing more liberating to a writer than not having to make a living from writing because then the writing can be anything.”

    True, that. I work in a hair salon and besides being completely hypnotic the work allows me to eavesdrop on conversations all day that make their way into my stories later.

  14. This was enjoyable to read.

    One quibble: Brooklyn has no “wastelands.” And even those parts of Brooklyn that are often mistakenly thought to be such by the general public — Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie, East Flatbush — are places where (thank God) you will have a hard time finding people who know what an MFA is.

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