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When I first heard about MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, I thought to myself, “That sounds like the title of a made-up book from an episode of Portlandia where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play people who are pretentious.” I’m not being mean, I’m being honest (and a little mean, whatever), but seriously, try to say “MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction” out loud without making a pretentious face, SEE YOU CAN’T DO IT, I COULDN’T EITHER.
Then I read two of the essays online (“Seduce the Whole World” by Carla Blumenkranz via the New Yorker, a piece I have already discussed at length, and“How Much My Novel Cost Me” by Emily Gould via Medium [titled “Into the Woods” in the collection] ) and I thought both pieces were provocative and mesmerizing as HECK AND HELL which made me want to read the book. On the release date I went into the bookstore expecting to spend hardcover money and then I found out that it was released JUST IN PAPERBACK, so I was already in a good mood going in, and then I was in a REALLY good once I realized how passionate and thoughtful and gossipy and prickly and deeply human this book was.
So without further ado, the grades! Fair warning, I gave a lot of A’s. What can I say? They were earned!
MFA vs NYC by Chad Harbach
This was the piece (originally pubbed in n+1) that inspired the collection. It’s good, it lays things out, points for inspiring a great book of essays, but it didn’t change my life. B.
A Mini-Manifesto by George Saunders
George muses about MFA programs in numbered beats, and makes salient and witty points, he gets an A, but real talk, how was George Saunders not going to get an A, he bleeds A, my fingers probably wouldn’t even physically let me type the letter B at the end of this sentence. A
Basket Weaving 101 by Maria Adelmann
Adelmann talks about her journey from living in New York out of college to getting an MFA in The Boonies (Charlottesville,VA, whatever), it’s a solid personal essay and the pie charts that demonstrate the economics of NYC vs The Boonies are supes interesting. B
The Pyramid Scheme by Eric Bennett
This is kind of about the CIA’s role in the evolution of the American MFA writing program and kind of about the author’s experience as an Iowa MFA, and both parts were solid enough, but they just didn’t marry for me in the way I wanted them to wed. B-
The Fictional Future by David Foster Wallace
DFW waxes awesome about MFA programs a year after he graduates, it’s vintage DFW, of course he gets an A, he earned it, dude, I’m not going to give DFW a B just to be a dick, I’m not that kind of schoolmarm. A.
My Parade by Alexander Chee
Author Alexander Chee has his reservations about getting his Iowa MFA, he is Korean and queer in AIDS crisis-era San Francisco (and later NYC), and worries he won’t be able to find his place in the MFA culture, and then he does and it’s gorgeousity, a word I’m pretty sure my dad made up, but nevertheless applies to this essay. A.
How to be Popular by Melissa Flashman
Agent Melissa Flashman talks about her history of predicting trends and how it’s kind of possible but mostly impossible. A fast, fun, smart read. A-.
Into the Woods by Emily Gould
Remember the last time someone got a big, fancy book advance and you were like “Grumble grumble life’s not fair grumble grumble grumble grumble”? This is the dark side of that moon, the unhappy epilogue to that fairytale ending and it’s a painful and phenomenal piece of writing. Also Gould’s boyfriend Keith Gessen figures prominently into this piece, and he has two other essays in this collection, and he runs n+1 and… I don’t know dudes, that’s all the gossip I got. A+
The Disappointment Business by Jim Rutman
A clear-eyed look at how and why manuscripts are accepted for representation/publication. There’s a pry-your-eyes-open-in-the-most-painful-way-possible section where Rutman (an agent) goes through a litany on manuscripts he’s actively considering and wraps up by saying he’s probably going to agree to rep NONE of them. Also, behind the scenes on the sale of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, for anyone who cares about that (I did). A.
People Wear Khakis by Lorin Stein With Astri von Arbin Ahlander
The editor of The Paris Review is interviewed for the website Days of Yore and everything goes as awesomely as planned. A.
Nine Lives by Jynne Martin
You know how people say they want to be best friends with Tina Fey/Mindy Kaling after reading their memoirs? I want to be tight with Jynne Martin after reading this essay. She seems like the raddest girl around and an ace publicist. I loved her publishing worldview and marketing insights and was super into the story about how she and her team rescued Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep from obscurity with a good game plan. RIGHT? Right. A+
This is Keith Gessen’s first of two essays in the collection, a general piece about a modern writer’s relationship with money, it’s fine, it’s good, his second piece is much better. B
This is the much better piece about Gessen, having blown through his book advance and in need of cash stat, taking up a teaching position at a local college teaching creative writing to undergrads. What I LOVED about this is how inadequate Gessen feels as a teacher, I can’t take another inspirational teacher story, but I’m all kinds of down for struggling teacher stories. A+
(I realize I gave both Gould and Gessen’s pieces A+’s) ( I swear to God they earned them) (I promise it’s not just because they’re the homecoming queen and prom king of this essay collection) (I never thought I would ever type that sentence) (I probably won’t ever type that sentence ever again)
Seduce the Whole World by Carla Blumenkranz
We already know what I thought about this essay, I hate the events as they occurred, but difficult people and situations make for, if not A+ writing, then at least solid A writing. A.
Application by Diana Wagman
Wagman is the new creative writing teacher on campus and all her colleagues make her feel like shit, we all know how much I love the “Struggling Creative Writing Teacher” sub genre of this essay collection. A.
The Invisible Vocation by Elif Bautman
In a collection of personal essays, this academic piece felt dry as the SAHARA DESERT. Actually, I just looked up what the driest desert in the world is, and it’s the Atacama, and this came pretty close to Atacama-dry. I consider this more an editing problem than a writing problem, this is a piece in the wrong context. So Chad Harbach is getting this C as much, if not more than Bautman. C.
Dirty Little Secret by Frederic Jameson
This isn’t Sahara or Atacama dry, but it’s, like, anywhere in Arizona dry. Again, this is a context problem. Also, why shove all your academic pieces in at the end? One last chance for pretentious points? Chill out, MFA vs NYC, I liked you better when you weren’t trying so hard. B-
Reality Publishing by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
How the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award resembles reality TV. Solid. B.
A Partial List of Books I’ve Written by Eli S. Evans
Exactly what it sounds like. I’m not sure this was the essay to end the book on, but you know what, it was a good story, I enjoyed my time reading it, let’s go ahead and give it a B.
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