centers of gravity

a review of Chad Harbach’s MFA vs NYC

The basic idea behind Harbach’s essay – and of the book after which it is named – is that American fiction now has ‘two centers of gravity: “MFA”, which is dispersed throughout our university towns, and “NYC”, which hews close to Manhattan’s trade publishing industry’. The collection takes stock of this split from the standpoints of various actors – authors, teachers, and other links in writing’s supply chain. And while it sometimes slips into banal self-involvement (e.g., bourgeois Brooklynites exaggerating their money worries) it also achieves, at a composite level, both a distinctive documentary value and a degree of critical reflexivity. Nor does the book reify its ‘two cultures’ into entirely separate spheres. Instead, several essays illustrate how ‘writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC worlds’, blurring both their cultures and their economies (note, for instance, that NYC agents routinely ‘scout’ MFA cohorts, and MFA teachers get jobs on the back of book deals). While these articles are always partial, perhaps the volume surpasses the sum of its parts: cover to cover, MFA vs NYC implicitly demonstrates the inadequacies of divisive thinking.

read the rest in Critical Quarterly, 57:1