Review: MFA vs NYC – how do writers make a living?

Book advances have shrunk and journalism is no longer a lucrative sideline. Teaching creative writing courses is the modern lifeline, a new book suggests

Will Self:  made the vivid claim that it would now be possible to gather all of the British authors making their living from writing books into a single bedroom. Photograph: Getty Images

Will Self: made the vivid claim that it would now be possible to gather all of the British authors making their living from writing books into a single bedroom. Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Feb 2, 2015, 00:43

   
 

Book Title:
MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

ISBN-13:
978-0865478138

Author:
Chad Harbach

Publisher:
n+1 Books

Guideline Price:
€12.50

“Writing,” said 19th-century French writer Jules Renard, “is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” None of the contributors to MFA vs NYC, a recent collection of essays from Brooklyn publishing house n+1, quotes Renard, but his words would be a suitable epigraph to the book.

The purpose of the collection is, on the surface, to take a fresh look at contemporary US fiction by considering the financial realities behind it. In the title essay, novelist (and editor of the volume) Chad Harbach argues that the modern American fiction writer, in order to survive, needs to move within one of two worlds. The first is the large network of creative writing programmes across the US (in which students work to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree: hence, MFA), which has been expanding at a steady rate since the second World War. The “NYC” of the title is the Manhattan trade publishing industry which, despite the well-known travails of the book business in recent years, remains a powerful hub of the literary economy.

The wider question explored in the book, though, and the one which makes it relevant to readers (or, at least, writers) on this side of the pond, is: how do writers make their money these days? As Renard suggested, this is a perennial question. Literary history is littered with examples of writers, from Melville to Poe to Flann O’Brien, whose personal wealth didn’t match their literary gifts. The answers to the question have changed over time, though. Book advances have become smaller and journalism is no longer the lucrative sideline it was for the likes of Norman Mailer in the 1970s: the digital revolution has shrunk the literary pie dramatically.

A worrying question for any aspiring writer, in fact, is: do writers actually make any money these days? Recently, the Guardian reported on a survey of working writers in the UK that found that “the number of authors able to make a living from their writing has plummeted dramatically over the last eight years”, and that “the average professional author is now making well below the salary required to achieve the minimum acceptable living standard in the UK.” In response, Will Self (in one of the many pessimistic pronouncements he has made recently upon the future of literary culture) made the vivid claim that it would now be possible to gather all of the British authors making their living from writing books into a single bedroom.

As Harbach and others point out, MFA programmes have taken up the slack, offering steady employment and a supportive atmosphere to writers. A successful writer who doesn’t teach creative writing is in the minority these days; a successful American contemporary writer who doesn’t teach is a rare creature indeed. Harbach observes that the modern writer will, realistically, aspire to become a “writer-teacher” whose main income comes from the university. The growth of the MFA programme in the US has been relentless and its attractiveness to potential employees is clear in a country whose economic climate, with its crippling student loans and thin social safety net, can be harsher than our own: the phrase “health insurance” rings through the personal essays here like an anxious refrain.

This is a relatively new situation, and not always an ideal one. Good writers don’t necessarily make good teachers (and vice versa) but, as another contributor points out, it’s convenient for everyone if these roles are combined in the same person. A deeper accusation - and one which has been levelled at creative writing programmes for decades now - is that these programmes, by their nature, discourage the individuality needed for original writing. Creative writing graduates (or so the complaint goes) will tend to churn out well-crafted, imitative fiction that plays impeccably by pre-existing rules.

Several of the contributions here show that this debate is a long-running one. A David Foster Wallace essay from 1987 makes the case against the creative writing system powerfully (namely, that it is a pyramid scheme encouraging mediocrity), while a recent piece by George Saunders offers some common-sense arguments in its defence: essentially, that MFA programmes do more good than harm, that they provide many writers with much-needed community and feedback and that ultimately, no-one dies from them.

Again, there is relevance here for the Irish reader since the MFA model is now used worldwide (a collection called Imagination In The Classroom, in fact, published recently by Four Courts Press, examines the growth of creative writing as a distinct discipline in Ireland.) “Can creative writing be taught?” is an old (and for many people, tired) question, but it is one that will continue to be asked here as more Irish writing is developed inside the classroom.

These essays are varied in origin – writers, teachers, agents and critics all reflect on the relationship between art and commerce, often with very different conclusions – but the book somehow feels surprisingly coherent. The topic of money is a compelling one, as it demands a certain amount of honesty and focus: no amount of fancy metaphors or skilful narrative devices will distract from the realities of a bounced rent cheque or a crashed credit card.

The book really comes into its own during the many personal essays from writers who have followed different career paths, very few of which end in glory. Here are stories of book advances youthfully squandered, manuscripts repeatedly declined, second-hand cars poignantly abandoned. Two writers describe how they reluctantly accepted teaching jobs, and the resulting stories – entertainingly honest, bitchy and vulnerable – take us deep into the modern writer’s complicated relationship to the system.

The more cynical reader may be tempted to break out the tiny violin at these tales of woe from unemployed creative-writing graduates, but many others will find something of interest. The stories are well told – those MFAs were good for something – and the problems described here are the same ones faced by musicians, visual artists and anyone else wondering whether their art will pay the bills one day.