America is home to two distinct literary cultures, defined by where a writer earns his keep: the university (which we’ll refer to as MFA) and the publishing house (hereafter, NYC). Each culture has its own heroes (Stuart Dybek in the former, Philip Roth in the latter), standard genre (short story versus novel), must-read publications (Poets & Writers versus The New York Observer), and social events (departmental open houses versus book parties).
In 1975 there were 79 programs in creative writing offering a master of fine arts (MFA) or other degree. Today there are 854, and each is a source of financial support for writers—lecture fees, adjunct professorships, and something pen porters could once only dream about: steady employment, even tenure. “It’s safe to say that the university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world,” observes the unnamed author of this article, an n+1 editor.
Some have celebrated this new economic cushion as liberation for the writer from the profit-driven marketplace of publishing. But any writer who leaves NYC for MFA will find that freeing herself of one market’s pressures just places her under another’s. In MFA-land, a prospective writer will first experience pressure to publish short stories in literary quarterlies, followed by a race to publish her thesis, and finally, the necessity of continuing to publish more stories, all while teaching a fresh crop of literary hopefuls.
For writers traveling in the world of MFA production, from classroom workshops to literary journals to anthologies, the form that gets studied and published is the short story. “At first glance,” says the author, “this may seem like a kind of collective suicide, because everyone knows that no one reads short stories.” But what “everyone” reads is not as important in MFA culture—the incentives to publish for a large audience aren’t there. What matters is to get read by other MFA students and to have one’s stories assigned as course work year after year. In the publishing world, by contrast, novels lose their spots at the bestseller table in a matter of weeks. (“The contemporary New York canon tends to be more contemporary than canon,” the author smirks.) Paradoxically, the obscure short stories of a professor teaching in an MFA program may find a more enduring readership than an NYC writer’s novel.
It remains to be seen, but MFA may have more staying power than NYC. “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 twenty-somethings; 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.”