n+1 and Slate just published an article comparing what the author posited as two distinct literary cultures: the New York City writing and publishing world, and MFA programs across the country. I encourage you to read it and respond if this at all pertains to you. I’m really not convinced that there is such a clear binary between NYC fiction writers and MFA programs, but for the purposes of my response I’ll continue with this assumption.
One thing the article bordered on mentioning, but didn’t discuss, is the social privilege associated with writing and publishing at all in the U.S. today. I’m talking about the white privilege, male privilege, and economic privilege that gives people the education they need to become writers and further perpetuates their economic ability to write and publish. The article made a quick mention of the white male center of NY publishing, but does not discuss the ways in which the academy does and does not function as part of the same dominant culture. Although programs may lean toward including more multicultural literatures, the programs themselves are not that different in makeup or ideology from what the author considers to be the center of the publishing world.
Of the two however, the MFA program provides the most opportunity for people who might not otherwise be able to write and publish. The NYC publishing world is insular, open only to those who already belong to the dominant culture. Successful NYC writers the article mentions were all blessed with financial backing, education, and subtler aspects of privilege that led them to that success. The myth of the American dream may lie in NYC, but in reality it is an expensive place to live and an impossible place to write if one does not already belong to those categories.
To me the clearest difference between these two literary worlds is financial aid. Gaining access to graduate school does depend on the social privilege that correlates with education, but still, many MFA programs provide students with teaching assistantships that clear tuition and add a stipend. The serious student can then attain the gift of time to write in a supportive community while, if she/he is frugal enough, avoiding debt. If you live in the real world, where money matters, you would be crazy not to take this opportunity.
Consider the MFA as a social movement. Not only is it giving more writer-teachers the opportunity to make a living, but it is providing writers who would previously not have belonged to that world a chance to write without trying to make ends meet at the same time. Currently, the MFA does continue to perpetuate privilege, with the majority of students being white, male, and at least middle class. Yet that is changing in ways that the NYC publishing world will not. With an embrace of multicultural literature and more frequent financial aid, we can hope to see even more diverse literary voices, not fewer, emerging through these programs.