MFA vs NYC? Notes on a False Debate

Since I didn’t attend AWP 2014, Facebook friends clued me in to MFA vs NYC, a collection that “brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists, and agents to talk about these overlapping worlds, and the ways writers make (or fail to make) a living within them.”

I read the book’s description, a chapter on Gordon Lish’s workshop of seduction, online discussions about it, and more recently a rejoinder entitled “Stop blaming Iowa! MFA vs. NYC is a phony debate”. Through all of it, I can’t help but think that it’s a ridiculously narrow viewpoint to be debating the role of creative writing in the academy and the nature of publishing in the 21st century. Two essays are dedicated to Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, but that seems to be it for thinking about how and why creative writing came to its current place in the academy.

My question: where are the PhDs in creative writing in this discussion? Why is the PhD in creative writing scarcely mentioned in MFA vs NYC? My suspicion is that there are far more MFAs than CW PhDs in the US and they’re the ones carrying the conversation. While I’m leery about saying too much about the MFA experience (because I didn’t attend an MFA program), I feel on safe ground saying that the MFA programs I’m familiar with are more about reproducing traditional literary print culture whereas PhD programs inject a not insignificant amount of literary theory and writing pedagogy into the curriculum. The chapter on Lish’s preposterous pedagogy–reprinted in the New Yorker, no less–was enough to suggest to me that there was too little of either for me to take this book or its conclusions seriously.

Instead I’ve been reading both The Creativity Market: Creative Writing in the 21st Century and Creative Writing and the New Humanities, both of which I’m enjoying quite a bit. A chapter by Jeff Sparrow entitled “Creative Writing, Neo-Liberalism, and the Literary Paradigm” is just one example from the former that frames the issue in much more relevant terms.

Stephanie Vanderslice has a good review of MFA vs NYC on HuffPo that confirms my suspicions that I should spend my time reading something else.

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