The perennial ‘Can writing be taught?’ question rarely seems far from the book pages, but a couple of creative-writing-related stories have received particular media attention this year. One was Hanif Kureishi’s slightly mischievous comment that creative writing courses are a “waste of time” (he teaches the subject at Kingston University). The other was the publication of MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, an essay collection featuring contributions from established authors and recent Master of Fine Arts graduates, as well as figures from the worlds of academia and publishing.
MFA vs NYC grew out of a 2010 article of the same name by novelist and n+1 magazine co-founder Chad Harbach, who also edits the resulting book. In his original piece Harbach argued that a more or less creative tension existed between the New York-based “literary corporate publishing industry” on the one hand, and the more geographically diffuse Planet MFA on the other. The respective cultures of NYC and MFA are now so differentiated, Harbach proposed, that they are developing entirely separate canons, with different formal, aesthetic and even ideological imperatives.
The Kureishi brouhaha and the MFA book, with their respective tones of student-bar slanging match and postgraduate seminar, may say something about the two cultures of Anglo-American literary debate. Of perhaps more interest is whether the MFA-NYC opposition or ‘dialectic’, to use a more campus-friendly term, has any relevance in the context of UK fiction. Is it meaningful to speak of two distinct MA (Master of Arts) and London canons?
My particular perspective in considering this question is that I was one of the first Curtis Brown Creative students, itself the first creative writing course on either side of the Atlantic run by a literary agency. It could be seen as an attempt – innovative or horrifying, depending on your point of view – to bring the culture of the workshop (‘MA’) inside what can seem to aspiring writers like the closed fortress of the metropolitan publishing world (‘London’).
Before considering its application, if any, to the UK, it is worth sketching out Chad Harbach’s MFA vs NYC thesis in a little more detail. The superficial differences between the university creative writing and New York publishing cultures are summarised in a semi-comic series of oppositions:
“short stories versus novels; Amy Hempel vs Jonathan Franzen; library copies vs galley copies…Wonders Boys vs The Devil Wears Prada; the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference vs the Frankfurt Book Fair; departmental parties vs publishing parties…”
Two points are worth noting. Harbach acknowledges that the border between these two worlds is inevitably porous: it is not difficult to think of New York writers who are also graduates of MFA programmes, or MFA teachers who are published by one of the major NYC houses. Nevertheless a loose cultural distinction, underpinned by economic factors, survives individual authors moving back and forth between MFA and NYC, or having a foot in both. As well as being oriented towards short stories, which are better suited than novels to workshop analysis, Harbach contends that “the MFA canon has a less masculine tone (than the NYC canon), and a more overt interest in cultural pluralism”. Meanwhile a favoured form for NYC novels, which rely for their existence on publishing sales rather than the insulating income generated by MFA student fees, is the door-stopper addressing “large-scale societal change”. Such a book should be immediately engaging and readable to consumers who could otherwise spend their time on social media or watching Netflix.
At their best NYC novels represent literature’s best hope of continued cultural significance; at their worst, the bland, (mostly) male and pale reflection of philistine capitalism.”
Harbach’s characterisation of the NYC canon is ambivalent. On the one hand, he appears to lament the “trend towards neatness and accessibility”, the result of “fierce market pressure toward the middlebrow”. Yet if Harbach is (surely justifiably) concerned that commercial demands cause some good books to go unnoticed and still more go unwritten, and if he laments the “often faintly nationalist simplicity” of NYC culture, he also asserts that in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom it has produced the preeminent American literary work of the 21st century. At their best, in short, NYC novels represent literature’s best hope of continued cultural significance; at their worst, the bland, (mostly) male and pale reflection of philistine capitalism.
At the conclusion of the original essay, the relentless expansion of the profit-making MFA industry (elsewhere in the collection it is noted that postgraduate creative writing degrees can cost students up to $80,000) is compared with financially embattled NYC publishers. Harbach foretells the ultimate economic victory of MFA over NYC as leading to a situation in which:
“…writers, even more so than now, will write for other writers. And so their common mission and ambition and salvation, their profession – indeed their only hope – will be to make writers of us all.”
MA vs LON
Are there two cultures in UK fiction? Is MA similarly destined to triumph over London, heralding the extinction of a species almost as endangered as Freedom’s cerulean warbler – the British reader?
Compared with the States there is, of course, a smaller literary community within a smaller geographical area in this country, and thus the university creative writing and London publishing cultures are even more intermarried than their US equivalents. However, a very broadly identifiable MA canon could be said to exist which, like its MFA cousin, has a greater interest in the short story and/or is more formally inventive and culturally diverse than NYC/London fiction.
An indicator of the rising status of this canon can perhaps be seen in Granta magazine’s Best of Young British Novelists published last year. Of the twenty writers under forty identified by the magazine’s judging panel, a quick Google suggests that half of these have either taught on or graduated from a creative writing master’s course, whether an MA in Britain or an MFA in the United States. In addition to this ten, Helen Oyeyemi started but did not complete an MFA at Colombia University and Taiye Selasie studied creative writing at her American high school. Four more have taught creative writing workshops organised by the British Council.
By contrast, of the original 1983 Best of Young British Novelists list, only Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro are recipients of creative writing Master of Arts degrees, having famously studied under Malcolm Bradbury at UEA. Three other members of the 1983 list (Maggie Gee, Rose Tremain and Clive Sinclair) teach or have taught postgraduate creative writing courses.
This numerical comparison is a crude measure of the waxing influence of the MA canon, not least if we take Harbach’s more nuanced distinction between individuals and cultures. For example, notwithstanding his possession of an MFA Jonathan Franzen belongs to ‘NYC’ by virtue of the form and content of his novels (lengthy realist works addressing large-scale social themes). But there is tentative evidence to suggest the British class of 2013 is also culturally MA-influenced. Taking the short story form as an albeit unsophisticated signifier of M(F)A fiction, three of the authors have published short-story collections and a further nine have written short stories published individually or in anthologies. In other departures from the orthodox social novel, Adam Foulds’ most recent work is a prose poem and Adam Thirlwell’s latest, Kapow, is an experimental work featuring upside-down text and unfolding pages.
Alan Bennett was perhaps articulating a more widespread lack of confidence in the London canon, or at least the sort which aims to show with a certain ironic detachment the way we live.”
If MA culture appears to be in relatively vigorous health, then, it is less clear this is the case with its London counterpart. (The ‘London writer’ being the literary novelist whose economic fortunes are exclusively tied to those of the big London/international publishers, and who probably did not study creative writing at a university.) When he recently said “I don’t feel any of the people writing in England can tell me very much,” Alan Bennett was perhaps articulating a more widespread lack of confidence in the London canon, or at least the sort which aims to show with a certain ironic detachment the way we live, by means of a cast of variously round and flat characters enacting a plot which takes in culturally relevant political themes. It doesn’t help that Zadie Smith, the most famous young exponent of the London tradition, has at least for the time being defected geographically to NYC, and culturally to Planet MFA, by becoming a creative writing professor at New York University and abandoning the 450-page-plus, comic social realism of White Teeth and On Beauty for the modernist-influenced, pared-down style of NW.
What has caused this seeming decline? For one thing, the economic determinism of Chad Harbach’s essay is more acutely applicable to London than NYC. Indeed, for a thesis founded on the financially-imperilled nature of New York publishing and its consequences for NYC writers, it’s not immediately obvious there’s much of a problem. In ‘Money (2006)’ and ‘Money (2014)’, Keith Gessen’s two admirably candid pieces in MFA vs NYC on the material challenges of the writing life, he mentions selling his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, for $160,000. Elsewhere he states “advances on first books vary… between $50,000 and $250,000 for a ‘literary’ novel, though also, sometimes, higher.”
It is true that Gessen wrote this sentence in reference to the pre-Kindle year of 2006. But Chad Harbach himself famously sold The Art of Fielding for over $650,000 in 2011, and only last year Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel City on Fire was acquired by Knopf for “almost $2 million” according to The New York Times. (Hallberg’s as-yet-unpublished novel appears to conform to Harbach’s NYC canon criteria of a long book that “is shaped by the need to make a broad appeal, to communicate quickly, and to be socially relevant in ways that can be recreated in a review”: the Guardian has described the 900-page opus as having “a breadth that illuminates every corner of (New York City)”, as well as referring to the Dickensian nature of Hallberg’s “ambition, accessibility and characterisation”.)
To put those figures into perspective, a London publisher may offer an advance of perhaps £5,000 for a literary debut by an unknown British writer. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the period between 1980 and 2007 – described by former Faber editor-in-chief Robert McCrum as a “period of prosperity and tranquillity for British fiction”, during which some if not all literary authors made a living from writing novels – was also a golden age for the London canon, featuring a stable of internationally admired professional novelists (Amis, Barnes, Rushdie, etc.).
There is clearly a danger of reverting to a situation where only the independently wealthy are in a position to write literary fiction. The MA novelist will still exist, of course; but his or her income will derive primarily from, and energies will be primarily expended on, teaching rather than practising writing. What’s more, his or her audience, per Harbach’s argument, will consist of a relatively closed community of readers initiated in M(F)A culture.
Nor are the problems facing the London writer purely economic. Just as ‘discoverability’ – connecting readers with books – is threatened by the decline in bricks-and-mortar bookshops, with the increasing volume of manuscript submissions it is becoming harder for the MA-less writer without prior contacts to get the attention of agents and publishers. In that sense industry-established writing schools such as Curtis Brown Creative may help at the margins in providing a channel linking aspiring authors to the London publishing world.
That is not to say the Curtis Brown course has been uncontroversial. It doesn’t offer students any academic title on completion, and its values probably incline towards the readerly over writing that is self-consciously difficult or avant-garde: in other words, it is culturally London rather than MA. Worse, to the course’s detractors it represents little more than a cynical attempt to monetise the agency’s slush pile. But there’s also an argument that it’s more democratic than the university route. I chose the CB course over a place on the UEA creative writing masters because the former’s fees were lower and its teaching scheduled for the evenings, meaning I didn’t have to give up my full-time job. The age range of my classmates varied from early twenties to early sixties. There is now a bursary scheme sponsored by an e-reader company.
It is hard, however, to see the wider structural challenges to London authors – the demise of the Net Book Agreement, Amazon, the ever-shrinking space for fiction reviews, the Americanisation of British literary prizes, the diminished role of physical books and bookshops – disappearing any time soon. Faced with this doom-laden scenario, what can the London writer do? There is always professional poker-playing, or signing for Chelsea. Or they can simply battle on with trying, as Chad Harbach puts it, to convert “heroic effort into effortless prose”.
Perhaps the last word should go to Hanif Kureishi. “Multiculturalism,” Mr Kureishi told me when I once interviewed him, is “based on the idea that purity is incestuous.” The two cultures of fiction need each other: NYC/London for M(F)A’s intellectual vitality and political radicalism, and M(F)A for NYC/London’s albeit fraying link to the public consciousness and wider artistic relevance – even if the idea of reading Freedom makes some MA writers feel nauseous.
Tim Glencross studied modern languages at Cambridge University and lives in London. He worked as a Shadow Minister’s researcher and speechwriter before qualifying as a lawyer. His debut novel Barbarians, a delightfully excoriating tale of love, money, art and politics in modern Britain, is published by John Murray in hardback, eBook and downloadable audio. Read more.
Author portrait © Mario Schwarz