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Lady Chatterley’s Brother

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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This Doesn’t Make Any Sense

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?

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3 comments to This Doesn’t Make Any Sense

  • P.T. Smith

    How did you even make it that far into the article? I lost steam in the first paragraph when he called Nabokov a “writer-professor.” I don’t care if Nabokov was a professor for some time, that is about the last thing that comes to mind when thinking of him. I gave up after he admitted MFA programs don’t do much, but readied a defense of them.

    Whatever, it’s just a reminder that I need to read Dimock on my vacation. I don’t care what degrees he has or where he lives, his recent book sounds way more interesting, and way more “American” than anything in a MFA v NYC writer conception.

  • S

    The problem I’ve seen with both (I’m from NY and currently pursuing an MFA elsewhere) is that people don’t read interesting books so they don’t produce interesting work. I mentioned Robert Walser to one of my MFA professors and she said she had never heard of him. The same for Cesar Aira, or Harry Mathews, or Enrique Vila-Matas, or a million other writers. In my experience NYC-centered lit people are more interesting readers than MFA people, but the distinction is definitely nonsense, as you point out.

  • Phil

    The Art of Fielding was a ludicrously stupid book so this isn’t surprising

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