The only way you could even begin to make this comparison would be if you believed there was some monolithic entity called “MFA,” which somehow regulated the activities and cultures of nearly 900 programs occurring across thousands of miles of American terrain. Likewise, making a list of a bunch of facile binaries (or would-be binaries—what the fuck does “the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference vs. the Frankfurt Book Fair” even mean?) doesn’t really cut it.
Everyone knows this. But what’s remarked rarely if at all is the way that this balance has created, in effect, two literary cultures (or, more precisely, two literary fiction cultures) in the United States: 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. (with a kind of wormhole at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at the New Yorker offices on 42nd Street). 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. Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.
Yes, I get that certain attributes are typically tied to the MFA culture, just as certain qualities are typically tied to the NYC scene. But it just doesn’t work to make such broad generalizaton about MFA programs, and it probably doesn’t even work to generalize in this way about the NYC literary world. The proof is in these bizarre binaries int he above quote . . . And anyway, Chad Harbach is the consummate product of both the MFA and the NYC. So are they really that vastly different?