In this occasional blog series, Scratch asks writers and editors six quick questions about upcoming projects.
CHAD HARBACH is the author of the bestselling novel The Art of Fielding and a founding editor of n+1 magazine. He’s the editor of a new collection of essays, MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. The collection looks at two economic and cultural models for fiction writers: “MFA,” in which writers largely teach within the university system as a means to support their work; or the “NYC” world of day jobs, the publishing business, and bright but expensive cultural lights. The book features essays on the topic by contributors that include authors Alexander Chee, Elif Batuman, Emily Gould, and David Foster Wallace and agent Melissa Flashman.
(Read an essay from the book, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington’s “Reality Publishing,” in which Wellington talks about his experience as a behind-the-scenes participant in the spectacle of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.)
Harbach talked with me on the telephone from his home in Virginia about the economics of editing this anthology.
1. How much money did it cost to make this book?
Harbach: I don’t know! It’s an unusual situation because this book is the first book in a partnership between n+1 and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. n+1 has been publishing books for a while and we’ve made these books that have gotten great reviews, but if you’re a really small publisher, which we are, it’s very hard to distribute your book. That’s one reason we got together with FSG. There are many things that FSG does better than we do, of course, they make wonderful books, but the thing that is really hard is distribution. As far as payment, MFA vs NYC is really an n+1 book, which means there’s no advance involved. I didn’t get paid anything, and each of the contributors is getting a few hundred dollars.
2. How do you see internet culture factoring into the literary cultural equation here, specifically for fiction writers? Is there a place for MFA vs NYC vs URL?
Here I have to shout out, or shout down, Tao Lin, who was working on a really great piece for this book about how he has made his way and his living through internet culture. But then at a certain point he dropped out and refused to finish the piece. He had his reasons, but I was sad because that was the essay in the book that was going to go at least a little way towards addressing that question.
But yeah, I mean, the Internet is obviously a thriving ecosystem of independent writing. But economically speaking, it still seems like a route to those other worlds [NYC or MFA].
3. Why does the world need another collection of writers writing about what it’s like to be a writer? At what point are we extending the cultural dialogue and at what point are we navel gazing? (I ask this question, of course, as a person who is entirely complicit in this!)
I never conceived of this as a book of writers writing about writing, or a book by writers entirely. One thing I wanted to do was bring in people who work in publishing who are describing their own experiences within the big friendly diabolical publishing machine and also talking about the mechanics of the big, diabolical, publishing machine, which to me is pretty fascinating.
The basic premise of MFA vs NYC is that making art is about total freedom and independence, and should be that, and yet it’s all contingent on your real circumstances and especially money. Where the money is, and how people earn money, is always going to influence the kind of art that’s being produced in a particular society.
4. What kind of effect do you think larger economic crises have on literary culture?
It’s always been the end of days for writers. Writers as a group have never made money. But I think what we’ve seen recently is that some of the end-of-days things that are happening within the larger economy and within the publishing industry have shifted the focus even more to the university. And, of course, there are a lot of bad and precarious jobs at universities, too, and not nearly enough jobs at universities for the people graduating from MFA programs. But there are more MFA programs than there were 40 years ago and more undergraduate creative writing programs. A lot of the jobs that are not there for humanities PhDs, for instance, are there for MFA graduates within composition departments. MFA programs and undergrad creative writing programs actually have been a kind of boon for a lot of writers, although a double-edged boon, because you’re teaching and not writing and so on.
5. Do you teach?
6. Why not?
I don’t wanna.
Bonus Q: Which of the following is your favorite kind of “scratch”?
1. Baking (“from scratch”)
2. Playing pool
MFA vs NYC is being released tomorrow by Faber and Faber in partnership with n+1. You can order it now.