Leslie Jamison thoughtful and smart essay “Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City?” examines the issues brought up in MFA vs. NYC, an essay collection edited by Chad Harbach. The collection is an extension of the questions Hardbach asked in his 2010 essay by the same title, which was written in response to Mark McGurl’s 2009 book The Program Era.
I remember some of the arguments debates that heated up the internet four years ago, and it seems like the collection continues those discussions.
The Los Angeles Times thinks the book ‘ponders whether getting a master of fine arts degree in creative writing is a good idea.’ Though in the article that follows this headline, reviewer Carolyn Kellogg broadens the issue: ‘The larger question is whether institutionalizing a creative endeavor benefits our culture.’ In the New York Times, Dwight Garner calls it a ‘volume that asks whether fiction writing can, or should, be taught.’
Jamison expands these questions in her essay and clarifies why the debate will probably never be settled.
“Not so much whether writers can be taught but what it means that they are getting taught, and what it means that we keep asking this question about the legitimacy of the discipline; what our anxieties about the institutionalization of writing might teach us. The volume asks who pays the bills, and how; and also how these flows of money—the pressures they generate and the institutional affiliations they produce—affect the work itself.”
Reading this article right after AWP resonated with me. It’s been four years since I last attended the conference and yet many of the panels this year discussed the same issues as the talks I attended then, including “…the legitimacy of the discipline; what our anxieties about the institutionalization of writing might teach us.” And many of the students in the audience again brought up variations of “who pays the bills, and how; and also how these flows of money—the pressures they generate and the institutional affiliations they produce—affect the work itself.”
I’m not sure we’ll ever get concrete answers. I kind of hope we don’t, because I like the landscape of the writing market to be as fluid and diverse as I hope new writers (and writing programs) will continue to be. And so, I’m quite happy to debate these issues, now and in the future.