‘MFA vs NYC’: Is a Degree in Creative Writing Necessary?

9780865478138The best answer I’ve seen might be:

“It was what you needed at the time.”

The essay collection MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach and published by the literary magazine n+1, discusses whether getting a master of fine arts degree in creative writing is a good idea. Or is living in New York just as helpful?

“MFA vs NYC,” according to the back cover, “brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists, and agents” to explore the “two cultures of American fiction.”

In the introduction that Harbach writes, he seems to look at MFA and NYC these two systems as different economic arrangements. In the MFA system, writers get a degree so that they can teach in the program to support their writing. In the NYC publishing system, writers need to write more readable pieces so that they can survive in the market.

Nothing is ideal. So people build institutions or systems to serve different needs, which also can lead to many problems. Then people compromise.

Many readers find this book frustrating because for most of the time writing life is frustrating. There’s no one single book that can tell you what you should do so that you can be a good writer. “The things that make good fiction—things like families, relationships, and death—have very little to do with either M.F.A.s or New York City.

The attitude for a writer should be counterproductive. If you’re thinking about publishing all the time, when the heck will you write?


The Two Cultures of American Fiction

Edited by Chad Harbach
Faber and Faber/n+1: 320 pp., $16 paper




‘Fresh Off The Boat’: What It Means To Be American

Eddie Huang is the proprietor of Baohaus, a raffish Taiwanese street-food joint in the East Village.  He also hosts a show on Vice TV — it too is called “Fresh Off the Boat” — in which he does things like roll with biker gangs, wriggle in Taiwan’s metal scene and ingest a vast amount of offal.

freshofftheboatThe New York Times says Fresh Off the Boat is a surprisingly sophisticated memoir about race and assimilation in America. It’s an angry book, as much James Baldwin and Jay-Z as Amy Tan. That it’s also bawdy and frequently hilarious nearly, if not entirely, seals the deal.

In this book, Huang uses profane language to tell you what his childhood was like, but when you read it, you just want to give that little boy a big hug. For example, he talked about he and his brother shared  two dinosaurs. They both liked the blue dinosaur and neither of them liked to played with the orange one. But when he first went his friend Jeff’s room, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He writes:”Everywhere you walked: toys, games, huge television, stuffed animals, it was like living in a Toys’R’Us. I remember thinking to myself that if I died, I wanted to come back a white man.”

He describes how hard he tried to convince his parents that they bought him a pair of basketball sneakers. Good shoes were “like having cars on your feet,” he says. “Shoes were literally your hopes and dreams in a box.”

Huang fits in by not fitting in at all. “We lived in a world that treated us like deviants and we were outcast.” Fortunately He was born a rebel.  When people hurt him, he just fought back. But the harder he fought, the sorrier I feel for him.


A Memoir

By Eddie Huang

276 pages. Spiegel & Grau. $26.



‘It’s an Daring Thing to Write about a Evil Person’

Francine Prose’s new novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, is based on a real-life French cross-dressing lesbian and race-car driver, “an emotionally wounded misfit whose anger was exploited by the Nazis.”

LoversClub hc c

Edmund White wrote a review for this book that appeared on the New York Times. His first line is “It’s a daring thing to write about an evil person.” Even though it can be fascinating to write about a villian, but it’s really hard to write well, because the writer needs to have compassion, like sympathy for the devil. Literature doesn’t care about “politically correct”, it cares about human beings.

But Prose managed to do it and she did so well. White wrote: “Prose is careful to show how a decent but under-loved girl becomes a monster. Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford referred frequently to the strategy known as progression d’effet. Prose has mastered this kind of narrative magic, revealing the gradual transformation of white to black through tiny gradations.”

 What makes the tale so nuanced is that it is recounted by various alternating narrators. All these characters deliver overlapping but occasionally discordant accounts.  Prose enjoys manipulating unreliable narrators, whose cabaret-night sexuality bears no relation to their workaday lives, and wealthy French aristocrats who believe, with some reason, that their privilege will protect them from harm but still feel the need to commit their thoughts to paper.


By Francine Prose

436 pp. Harper. $26.99.


‘Art Just Isn’t Worth That Much’

This week in the New York Times  Bookends, two writers Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison take on the question: Is it O.K. to mine real relationships for literary material?

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I find the short introduction an interesting story:

 When Robert Lowell used his ex-wife’s letters for his poetry, Elizabeth Bishop told him, “Art just isn’t worth that much.”

Similarly, Prose tells a little story about the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose memoir-novel “My Struggle” has been criticized for revealing too much about his close relatives. He says the question of whether a writer ought to use his family as material is akin to asking the question: Would you save the cat or the Rembrandt from the burning house?

He says we must save the cat, choose life over art.

This is an surprising answer from a writer who portrays his own family in such intimate detail, which also implies how tricky the question is for writers. It just might be impossbile to answer.

For me, the real life is much more complicated than fiction.  When my friends get back to me when they finish reading my stories, the last question I expect is “which part is real? ” I mean… where do I start? If I could write all my real life down, how relieved could I be?




Writing About A Character As If She Were Already Dead

In The New Yorker issued on March 10, 2014, the story, “A Sheltered Woman” written by YiYun Li, is about a baby nurse named Auntie Mei, a Chinese immigrant who has established a solid career for herself looking after infants and their breast-feeding mothers in the Bay Area.

Auntie Mei keeps a distance between herself and her charges, rarely staying longer than the first month of a baby’s life and establishing an orderly regime in the households she enters. Yet her disciplined approach starts to falter when she’s faced with Chanel, a disgruntled young mother, and her son.


Let’s look at another story appeared on the New Yorker issued on March 24, 2014, “Under the Sign of the Moon” written by Tessa Hadley.

The protagonist Greta, who’s in her convalescence, is on a train heading off to visit her grown daughter Kate in Liverpool. Though she tries to read, she finds herself forced to be polite to a young man who seems to want to chat with her. As Hadley said in a interview with The New Yorker:

“Greta is at a point where her life story seems to have settled into its essential shape: all its crucial twists and turns and accidents are behind her. Anything that happens now, she thinks, will be a coda. Then this elegiac distance is confounded by the peculiarity of her semi-flirtation with the young man, which is not predicted by anything that’s happened to her so far. Life starts up again, with all its effort, its vanity and hunger and absurdity. The future’s unknown.”

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Both Auntie Mei and Greta keep distanced from the people around them deliberately. They think their emotions– sadness, anger, or dismay– are insignificant, but in fact, they are heavy enough to crush them. They hide their emotions as they hide all the crucial twists and turns and accidents behind them. So they live a life as if they were dead until someone wakes them up. When they wake up, they find out that the world is as absurd as the one they’ve already known.

Why did I remind of Alice Munro when I was reading both Yiyun Li and Tessa Hadley? Perhaps one  of the reasons is that they all write about a character as if she were already dead, dead inside.

Should Writers Only Write What They Know?


Last week in New York Times’ column Bookends, two writers, Zoë Heller and Mohsin Hamid, discuss whether writers should stick to what they know.


Zoe Heller

You should write what you really know — as opposed to a slick, bowdlerized version of what you know… For most writers, it actually takes a lot of hard work and many false starts before they are in a position to extract what is most valuable and interesting form their autobiographies.

Mohsin Hamid

It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish experience, of the impulse to write in order to know.

For me, writing is like a circle. I started writing about people I hadn’t met and lives I hadn’t experienced, but the stories I came up with all went back to my own perception and observation of the world, in other words, what I know about the world.

For example, I wrote some stories about love. The characters were different, from high school students to migrant workers, but when two characters started to interact in my stories, one of them would keep quite silent, and the other one would be wondering all the time. This surprised me because I hadn’t thought I might write the same story again and again in different ways, and this was also frustrating because I didn’t know if I could write another story. So I thought about it, then I realized it was just the way I perceived love. Love is mystery.

So, it is not a choice for writers to choose whether they should write what know or write what they want to know, but a fact that what they know eventually defines what they write.