Chad Harbach

That n+1 piece was mighty good, but needed reporting

Slate has posted what I take to be all of Chad Harbach's n+1 piece about the two worlds of publishing, the MFA world and the New York world (these are his terms). A few comments: First, I admire the gutsiness of making such a big, bold, ridiculous generalization, one that can immediately be torn apart with lots of counter-examples, exceptions, alternative schemas and taxonomies, etc. Such grand generalizations are almost always intellectually flawed, but they can advance how we think about a topic, open up new insights, etc., and I think his does. I mean, I could nitpick him--OF COURSE the MFA students are interested in Gary Shteyngart, and plenty of MFA students are working on novels, and, well, you get the point--but I think his division is an interesting one. And he sure wrote the heck out of it. I mean, the essay is really fun to read, which is odd, since it is a topic with absolutely no consequences for anybody except the people talked about in it.

Second, here is a criticism: The essay does not really deal with nonfiction writing at all, which is a shame, and limits the conceptual reach of the essay. After all, David Foster Wallace's nonfiction was his really great stuff. I think J-Saf Foer's nonfiction boo, Eating Animals, is his best by a lot. And Zadie Smith may yet prove to be a more lasting essayist than novelist. You would not know that any fiction writers even write nonfiction, to read Harbach's essay.

Third, I envy how much Harbach's name is perfect for a Pac-10 quarterback.

Fourth, the piece could have benefited from some reporting. Reporting is when a person, often called a "reporter," makes phone calls, or knocks on people's doors, or sends emails, or even Google searches, so as to find supporting evidence. It would not have been hard, for example, to find actual syllabi of courses taught in MFA programs. Then we would know if in fact all these kiddoes are reading is Joy Williams and Ann Beattie, or if maybe they are reading classic works of literature from the 1880s or 1910s or 1950s. Maybe when these profs teach their classes, they assign "Araby," by Joyce. Maybe they read My Antonia in its entirety. Or early short stories by Philip Roth. Or excerpts from Trollope novels. Who knows? I don't. I don't have an MFA. I don't have an MBA either. But if I were writing an essay about MFA fiction, I would go find out first. I realize Harbach was in an MBA program, but that only makes it more puzzling he didn’t share what particular books he was assigned.

Finally, I wish Harbach had spent more time puzzling over his own assertion here:

And the NYC writer, because she lives in New York, has constant opportunity to intuit and internalize the demands of her industry. It could be objected that just because the NYC writer's editor, publisher, agent, and publicist all live in New York, that doesn't mean that she does, too. After all, it would be cheaper and calmer to live most anywhere else. This objection is sound in theory; in practice, it is false. NYC novelists live in New York—specifically, they live in a small area of west-central Brooklyn bounded by DUMBO and Prospect Heights. They partake of a social world defined by the selection (by agents), evaluation (by editors), purchase (by publishers), production, publication, publicization, and second evaluation (by reviewers) and purchase (by readers) of NYC novels. The NYC novelist gathers her news not from Poets & Writers but from the Observer and Gawker; not from the academic grapevine but from publishing parties, where she drinks with agents and editors and publicists. She writes reviews for Bookforum and the Sunday Times. She also tends to set her work in the city where she and her imagined reader reside: as in the most recent novels of Shteyngart, Ferris, Galchen, and Foer, to name just four prominent members of The New Yorker's 20-under-40 list.

I can't decide if this is anything more than a tautology: young NYC writers are young and live in NYC. Or a truism: a lot of hip young writers will tend to live in hip, young neighborhoods of major cultural centers. Whatever the case, the interesting question to ask is why, in a culture whose great writers have tended not to be New Yorkers — Cather, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Wallace Stevens, Sinclair Lewis, Roth (NJ is not NY, and he lives in CT anyway), Bellow, and I could go on — so many writers now do live in New York. I attempted some musings on that question here.

But look, Harbach (9 TDs and 4 interceptions so far this season) did serious yeoman's labor getting these thoughts down on paper. I was turning his essay over in my head as I fell asleep last night. I think I kicked my dog beneath the covers as I cursed out one of Harbach’s conclusions. Good work, QB.

Also, could I have some money?