‘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.