In his column, TLR Publisher Joe Ponepinto has written insightfully about what are being called the “two cultures” of American fiction: MFA vs NYC, as snappily captured in the title of a new book edited by Chad Harbach. In a 2010 essay of the same name (now included in the book), Harbach offers a rather grim portrait of the contemporary literary world. Essentially depicting modern fiction as something extruded from the narrowing confines of insular writing programs and commercial publishing interests, Harbach’s essay reads like a cynical but ultimately sincere meditation on why American literature is the way it is.
To me this also seems to be the most interesting question addressed in Eric Bennett’s essay, “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” which caused a flurry of controversy earlier this year, when it was published online just before the release of MFA vs NYC (in which it is also included). Though initially about easily-sensationalized connections between the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the CIA, Bennett’s essay is moreover concerned with the development of certain reductive literary trends in America. Bennett describes the bias against writing “of full-throttle experience, erudition, and cognition” and novels “of ideas … of systems, but … also with characters, and also heart … comprising everything.”
Bennett links this bias—compellingly, I think—to the ethos of the Iowa-influenced MFA programs that have proliferated since the 1970s. I don’t know if this trend is quite as problematic or pervasive as Bennett indicates; my shelves are stocked with favorite authors—Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, etc.—whose continued influence suggests otherwise. Likewise I’m not sure if the state of literature is a dire as Harbach claims; in many ways the diverse world of literary journals and independent bookstores continues to thrive, despite industry predictions to the contrary. In my experience as a writer, however, I’ve sensed that the kind of fiction I like most—work that “engages my intellect,” as Joe Ponepinto says, “as well as my heart”—is often less well-received than work that leverages a few favored styles to elicit a primarily visceral emotional response.
Ponepinto’s own reflections on MFA vs NYC focus not so much on why literature “is the way it is,” but on how we as writers can navigate the ongoing complexities of our craft. What seems important, as a starting point at least, is to recognize the pressures exerted by the interface of these two cultures, and then to make space for alternatives that continue to support the actualization of literature’s full potential. Upon reflection, it seems to me that my own trajectory has been something of an instinctual attempt to move in that direction.
Rather than enroll in an MFA program, I decided instead to pursue a graduate degree in Religious Studies, also the main focus of my undergraduate education. The way I see it, Religious Studies is situated at an interdisciplinary nexus where history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy and the arts are all utilized to explore how we engage in the ongoing, uniquely human project of meaning-making.
Our religious traditions are the repository of the world’s oldest and most durable texts, myths and cultural narratives—that is to say, the stories with which we script our lives, both collectively and individually. At its best, I think, literature provides access to this same space, endlessly refracting and reflecting on how we narrativize our experience, establish meaningful connections, and create, à la Donald Barthelme, “strings of language extend[ing] in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.” Whether writing or reading, I find that literature sensitizes me to the mysterious machinery of my own ongoing habits of storying, mythologizing and meaning-making. David R. Loy: “Literature supplements and supplants traditional sacred stories.”
I finished my Master’s at Naropa University this May, and am already seeing the influence of my graduate studies on both the form and content of my work as a fiction writer. I’ve got nothing against writing programs; many of my best friends have MFAs, or are in the midst of earning one now. I feel fortunate to have made some connection with Naropa’s MFA program while a student there; I’m realizing more and more how much writers need each other. Pursuing other studies, however, has given me a feel for how I might begin to write between the “two cultures,” and I want to know more about the pathways others are discovering. By finding a generative terrain that challenges my conceptual confines and enlarges my affinities, I aim to write fiction that supports readers’ efforts to do the same.