Notes on n+1’s “MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction”

"I'm going to New York City to become a famous writer!" "New York can be really tough on a cat."
“I’m going to New York City to become a famous writer!”
“New York can be really tough on a cat.”

The blogger is the busker of the writing world, sidewalk setup with pre-production to distribution in a snap, with or without an MFA or ever having set foot in Brooklyn, where it’s easy to mistake an NYC for a hipster, the new hepcat, but the character with a sign on a street corner, selling short stories, has got to be an MFA. Of course I bought one. It’s titled, “Sixteen short stories, and what do you get? Another day older and money in debt.” That’s it, the whole story, a study in minimalism.

n+1’sMFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction” sounds more highfalutin that it is. The eclectic collection of analytic and reflective pieces is very engaging: personal, down-to-earth, and sincere; witty, informative, and cantankerous. The stories of the aspiring writers though are often wrapped in disappointment, and don’t amount to good news for the latest whiz kids on their way to the big time.

The big time here is the coveted publishing contract and the freedom to write it suggests. But if the big time is part of the great American novel, the form is protean: movie stardom, big league baseball star, corporate head-honcho, founder of the next mega-church, on the cover of Rolling Stone. How does a relentless pursuit of excellence turn rancorous and begin to have a negative effect on the game, or the business, or the art? Subcultures are constantly being subsumed by the dominant, overarching culture, the umbrella over the barrel. The writers and scholars that appear in “MFA VS NYC” have big time stories to tell, and readers interested in the making of literature will find intriguing stuff on the ways the writing of fiction is taught or learned and the resulting fiction influenced and modified by the many players in the process: teachers, programs, agents, publishers, editors, publicists, booksellers, critics, readers.

People write for all kinds of reasons and purposes, usually to someone, and if the writing is sent off – the memo, the email, the love letter, the white paper, the blog post, the letter to the editor, the book proposal, the sign in a window, the graffiti on a train car, the busker’s song sang on the sidewalk – the writing is published. Just as often, no doubt, and just as well, probably, the writing is trashed or deleted, but whether the writing is read or heard or not, by whom or how, or how long it lives, is all another matter. Some writers write to themselves, diarists. Their work is published when it’s found. Writers often hold up a mirror to the culture, and if the mirror is cracked, the culture turns away. Writers, like the rest of us, all seem to have a particular picture of themselves, hardly ever the same picture others have of them. It’s the picture of ourselves we don’t recognize that might make for the best writing and reading. The pictures of writers and writing, of literature, that unfold in “MFA VS NYC” merge the ones the writers have with the ones their readers might have, bringing the whole affair into better focus.


  1. Cracks suggest openings to other layers and realms, sometimes seen in a certain light or mood, like a clashing pov or a surprising metaphor in writing. The internet is riddled with cracks.
    When once in a while I make an attempt to paint it’s always layers that inspire.


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yes, a surface without cracks is impermeable and airtight, and imperturbable, which suggests a lack of empathy. And a substance without layers is like a surface without cracks, one big chunk of the same thing, no Achilles’ heel. And no changes! The onomatopoeia of crack is appropriate, the inter[net]stice that awakens the airtight surface (the behind the paywall text, in another context, which the internet cracks). And we’ve cracked the code: the unfaulted life is not worth living.


    1. Joe Linker says:

      The black panther lies under his rose-tree.
      J’ai eu pitié des autres.
      Pas assez! Pas assez!
      For me nothing. But that the child
      Walk in peace in her basilica,
      The light there almost solid.

      Pound, from Canto XCIII


  2. bristlehound says:

    ‘Writers often hold up a mirror to the culture, and if the mirror is cracked, the culture turns away’. This is quite profound Joe and possibly applies to one’s own culture. Sometimes, when writing is at its most pure, it shows up a character or a trait that equally disgusts or disappoints. Writing is so raw and naked. I have presented exhibitions of my paintings and expressed on paper and canvas a selection of ideas and dreams, never to be overwhelmed. Yet writing draws something even deeper and more personal from me, it can be threatening to oneself when something in writing says what paintings and actions do not.B


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yes, a bit of ambiguity in the cracked mirror – did the artist crack it, and so the picture untrue? or is the culture “cracked,” and turns away because it doesn’t like what it sees? or is a crack what happens when the reader meets the text, never the same text the writer sent? Someone, McLuhan?, said a pun is a fracture of language into which falls laughter. From the opening to Joyce’s “Ulysses”:

      Laughing again, he brought the mirror away from Stephen’s peering eyes.

      –The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If
      Wilde were only alive to see you!

      Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:

      –It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.

      Buck Mulligan suddenly linked his arm in Stephen’s and walked with him
      round the tower, his razor and mirror clacking in the pocket where he had
      thrust them.

      –It’s not fair to tease you like that, Kinch, is it? he said kindly. God
      knows you have more spirit than any of them.

      Parried again. He fears the lancet of my art as I fear that of his. The
      cold steelpen.


  3. Award, award, claim your Versatile Blogger Award :-) Right here, :


    1. Joe Linker says:

      I would like to thank the Academy of Hopeful Herbalist and accept this award on behalf of the cats, without whom this post would not have been possible.


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