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Chad Harbach’s essay “MFA vs. NYC” has received quite a bit of attention. If you’re interested in contemporary American literature, it’s well worth your time to read it. In essence, Harbach describes a growing bifurcation in American fiction:
…one condensed in New York, the other spread across the diffuse network of provincial college towns that spans from Irvine, Calif., to Austin, Texas, to Ann Arbor, Mich., to Tallahassee, Fla… The superficial differences between these two cultures can be summed up charticle-style: short stories vs. novels; Amy Hempel vs. Jonathan Franzen; library copies vs. galley copies; Poets & Writers vs. the New York Observer; Wonder Boys vs. The Devil Wears Prada; the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference vs. the Frankfurt Book Fair; departmental parties vs. publishing parties; literary readings vs. publishing parties; staying home vs. publishing parties. But the differences also run deep. Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement.
…one could, for instance, live a long, full life in New York without ever hearing of Stuart Dybek, a canonical MFA-culture story writer who oversaw the Western Michigan program for decades before moving on to Northwestern. A new Gary Shteyngart novel, meanwhile, will be met with indifference at most MFA programs. Entire such NYC and MFA rosters could be named.
Of course you could name a variety of objections to this kind of generalization (e.g., there are any number of writers outside of New York and the university programs who are doing just fine), but if you glance around at the overall shape of the current literary landscape, it’s hard to completely dismiss Harbach’s thesis.
But I found myself wondering, where does the Lighthouse fit into this? Although some of the classes that the Lighthouse offers are similar to what might be found in an MFA program, there are important differences. For one, because the Lighthouse is not tied to an academic calender of weekly meetings and a two year degree, it can encourage longer works, like novels. For another, the Lighthouse’s audience is broader than any single university campus, and so it has a vested interest in facilitating and encouraging a broader community of writers and readers.
It’s understandable that Harbach would ignore literary nonprofits like the Lighthouse (other examples include the Loft and Grub Street), since they are relatively new, and the role they will play in literature in the future is not yet clear. But they are growing, and I believe they will play a role.
Harbach’s vision of the future seems rather grim, with literary fiction dependent on academia for income and careers.
What will happen? Economically speaking, the MFA system has announced its outsize ambitions, making huge investments in infrastructure and personnel, and offering gaudy salaries and propitious working conditions to secure top talent. The NYC system, on the other hand, presents itself as cautious and embattled, devoted to hanging on. And a business model that relies on tuition and tax revenue (the top six MFA programs, according to Poets & Writers, are part of large public universities); the continued unemployability of twentysomethings; and the continued hunger of undergraduates for undemanding classes, does seem more forward-looking than one that relies on overflow income from superfluous books by celebrities, politicians, and their former lovers. It was announced recently that Zadie Smith—one of the few writers equipped by fame to do otherwise—has accepted a tenured position at NYU, presumably for the health insurance; perhaps this marks the beginning of the end, a sign that in the future there will be no NYC writers at all, just a handful of writers accomplished enough to teach in NYC. New York will have become—as it has long been becoming—a place where some writers go for a wanderjahr or two between the completion of their MFAs and the commencement of their teaching careers. No one with “literary” aspirations will expect to earn a living by publishing books; the glory days when publishers still waffled between patronage and commerce will be much lamented.
But his conclusion made me think of Lighthouse:
The writers, even more so than now, will write for other writers. And so their common ambition and mission and salvation, their profession—indeed their only hope—will be to make writers of us all.
Not everyone will publish of course, but I do believe, actually, that we all should be writers; that’s called literacy. And everyone should be welcomed into the community of writers and readers. And that is where the Lighthouse, and organizations like the Lighthouse, can play an outsized role.