A Tale of Two Literary Cultures

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Two Literary Cultures


AMERICA IS HOME TO TWO DISTINCT literary cultures, defined by where a writer earns his keep: the university (which we'll refer to as MFA) and the publishing house (hereafter, NYC). Each culture has its own heroes (Stuart Dybek in the former, Philip Roth in the latter), standard genre (short story versus novel), must-read publications (Poets & Writers versus The New York Oberver), and social events (departmental open homes versus book parties).

In 1975 there were 79 programs in creative writing offering a master of fine arts (MFA) or other degree. Today there are 854, and each is a source of financial support for writers--lecture fees, adjunct professorships, and something pen porters could once only dream about: steady employment, even tenure. "It's safe to say that the university now rivals, if it hasn't surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world," observes the unnamed author of this article, an n+1 editor.

Some have celebrated this new economic cushion as liberation for the writer from the profit-driven marketplace of publishing. But any writer who leaves NYC for MFA will find that freeing herself of one market's pressures just places her under another's. In MFA-land, a prospective writer will first experience pressure to publish short stories in literary quarterlies, followed by a race to publish her thesis, and finally, the necessity of continuing to publish more stories, all while teaching a fresh crop of literary hopefuls. …

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