The American magazine N+1 has published excellent journalism, memoir and criticism over the last decade. A politically-energised community, real and online, has grown as the Brooklyn-based editors have lead the way in engaging with the practical, intellectual and existential questions that face emerging writers in tough times. It’s exciting then that this month Faber & Faber’s close US cousins publish, in conjunction with N+1, MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, a collection of essays, by contributors including Elif Batuman and George Saunders, which approach in new ways an old question: How do writers make their way in the world?
The title essay by the book’s editor Chad Harbach considers paths that aspiring writers might follow in the fraught years after graduation: further expensive education in a university writing program or a stint writing around full-time work in the literary melting pot of New York.
Harbach, who received an MFA before enduring years of penury and copywriting prior to publication of his best-selling The Art of Fielding, discusses how metropolitan publishing and campus writing communities differ, intersect and feed each other.
MFA vs NYC is as American as the Super Bowl but the growth of creative writing in British universities and beyond – in places such as the Faber Academy which offer an alternative to being inside the university or outside on your own – means our equivalent volume might be titled “MA vs NW1”.
These are two cultures of British fiction that I’ve experienced (I realise many others exist). Is it only a matter of time then before my best-selling debut frees me from my day job? Probably not because these days few writers quit work: Costa Prize winner Nathan Filer is a mental health nurse, one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, Evie Wyld, runs a bookshop while Booker nominee Donal Ryan works in Ireland’s civil service.
The only surprising thing about these examples is the surprise that journalists like me express when describing them, as though working a job alongside writing fiction is unfortunate or new. It’s neither and, having interviewed both Wyld and Ryan, I didn’t get the impression that either resented being away from their manuscripts from 9 to 5.
Creative writing attracts sneering criticism and MFAs have been compared by N+1 editor Keith Gessen, who contributes to MFA vs NYC, to pyramid schemes. The magazine specialises in such apercus – PhD funding is “welfare for intellectuals” – and, as a student, I had similar thoughts. A course director told me he was in “the business of selling dreams” which does make creative writing sound like a late-capitalist scam. However, if you find a course where tutors are honest about the difficulties of writing well and finding publication, which those who taught me were, you receive two vital things: time and community. By the time I realised this I was in London, working every day with people who didn’t read and were confused by the desire to write. I’ve lead a sheltered life so it was surprising to discover that such people exist but being short of time to write or writers to talk to is an excellent opportunity to find out if you really want to write.
Some of the most interesting people who I’ve studied with belonged to a group that Harbach overlooks: students in their 30s, 40s, 50s who came to writing from myriad cultures and experiences. One of these writers, who’s also a graduate of the Faber Academy, sold her first novel to a major publisher last year. When I read about this, three things occurred to me: I’ve never met a writer more deserving of success; when we were classmates she was learning to write while I needed to learn how to live first; what she wrote on her blog when she announced her news –“I was a writer before, and I’m a writer now” – contains an important truth about individuals’ struggle to write, within or without writing programs, regardless of age, circumstance, form. And that I’d like to say congratulations.