Tuesday, November 30, 2010

America's "Two Literary Cultures"

For those of you who have not seen this article, it is a very interesting angle on what is happening in the American literary community today. Do you agree with the points made? How many of you attend school/write or wish you attended school/wrote in New York City?


Seth Abramson said...

Re: "How many of you attend school/write or wish you attended school/wrote in New York City?"

I think to be fair we have to add a third option, don't we? I.e., "How many of you are glad you don't write/attend school in NYC, because it's the most expensive city to live in in the world and has no fully-funded MFA programs?" I only mention this because I think one implicit point of the article is just how many people are presenty happy and productive in large writing communities in Iowa City, Madison, Ann Arbor, Austin, Bloomington, Urbana-Champaign, Providence, Ithaca, Syracuse, Eugene, &c &c &c. All of which are cities with a relatively reasonable cost of living and which host MFA programs that fully fund their students.


Sally Jane said...

Okay, I have to respond to the "cost of living" issue. I live in Manhattan, and I actually think I save money by doing so. Here's why:

Let's say I lived in Beaumont, Texas (my hometown). To rent a nice 1BR apartment would be about $550/month. In addition, I would have to own a car, so add in another $550 or so in car payments, insurance, gas, etc. Then there's utilities, groceries, printer ink, etc., and you're looking at needing about $1500 in income just to get by.

In Manhattan (Inwood to be exact), I pay $600/month in rent (I share a 2BR with a roommate). My transportation costs are $89/month. With my share of the utilities, groceries, printer ink, theatre tickets, etc., I only need about $1300/month to get by.

It's possible to live cheaply and well in Manhattan, you just have to know how. And no matter what, it's much better than living anywhere else.

Laura Maylene said...

I thought that article made some good points, even if it depressed me by the end. However, as a writer who neither lives in New York City nor has an MFA, it's hard not to feel a little left out! But even so, I've somehow managed, even have a book coming out next year, etc.

While I have no intention of moving to NYC, I do sometimes wish I had an MFA. Let's just say I'd lean in that direction rather than the NYC route.

FZA said...

@Sally Jane

But the comparison is not totally equal because you gave yourself a roommate in Manhattan and not in Texas. Also, I think it should be said that your rent is exceptionally cheap and that you don't live in the most central park of manhattan, making your rent cheaper, but your subway commute much longer.

I also live in Manhattan. I do not save money living here. My gas per month in the last city I lived in (one known for awful traffic, mind you) was much cheaper than the $89 subway I pay a month and the insurance and cheaper food and booze costs more than made up for any car insurance costs.

But that's not even the point. Forget the costs. I live in manhattan now. I love it here. I have a lot going for me right now. I'm applying to MFA programs and I deliberately did not apply to any NYC programs though it would be much easier for me to not have to move, to stay where I have friends and a great relationship, and where I know my city well. Partly because the schools dont' give good funding and I want a fully funded program. BUT even if that wasn't the case, if I really wanted to, I COULD pay for my MFA and maybe I'll still end up having to. But money aside there's another reason i didn't want to be here for my MFA: the literary scene here.

As an emerging writer, it's a VERY hard scene to navigate. It's very fragmented full of pockets here and pockets there. It's hard to find your niche, or your right pocket, and it can be even harder to get your foot in the door once you find it.

Maybe after I am somebody, I'll want to come back here and take advantage of all the city offers in terms of arts and culture.

But right now, it's intimidating and distracting. And as someone seeking their MFA, I would much rather be in a city with a more concentrated scene. I also think MFA programs often help/bridge writers into the scene. And that happens less so in NYC because of the way the literary community is here.

Just my two cents.

Lindsay said...

I have nothing against NYC -- I think it's a great city to visit -- but I would honestly never want to live there. I like where I am (Columbus, Ohio): it's relatively inexpensive to live here, it's quiet when I need it to be, it has a small town atmosphere in a lot of ways but it's still a big city (to me, anyway), etc.

I don't think I'm missing out on anything -- there are still crazy people on the bus when I ride to campus, I still have access to tons of bars and restaurants and museums, etc. There are literary readings on campus almost every week and honestly, I don't think I'd be able to go to any more than I already do. And the program is big enough and vibrant enough that I don't feel like I'm missing out on some great big literary scene. Honestly, if I was in New York, I'd probably need to work at least one extra job, which means I would have TIME to enjoy any of the "literary extras."

In short, I'm happy to be where I am. I think there's plenty of room in the world for both NYC writers and non-NYC writers and I'm glad to be in the latter category.

JED17 said...

"New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it—once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough. All of everything is concentrated here, population, theatre, art, writing, publishing, importing, business, murder, mugging, luxury, poverty. It is all of everything."
--John Steinbeck

No offense to people who want or choose to live elsewhere--whatever makes you happy is fine. New York isn't for everyone but if it is, it'll ruin you for living elsewhere.
It is a very expensive place, but as Sally Jane said, you can choose to live frugally. (Blob, Inwood is only a 25-minute subway ride from midtown.)
True there are no fully funded MFA writing programs but you can get a degree from Stony Brook Manhattan and other public universities for less than $20,000 in tuition and fees. Not an insignificant figure, but it's not Columbia money by a long shot.
Count me in as thrilled to be living, working, and attending school in New York City.

FZA said...

I think you'd be lucky to get a 25 minute commute from Inwood to Midtown(I'm very familiar with the area as well). I also think no matter how frugally you live, if you do live in Manhattan, $600 is pretty rare.

I live alone for $1,000 here. But It's BY FAR the best rent of any one I know personally. And I have my rent through a special situation.

My point being, I love NY. I love being here. But for people who don't live here, I don't think it does anyone a service to make things seem very affordable. Yes, people make things work and if you want to live here, you can make it happen. But it's not cheap compared to other cities.

Seth Abramson said...


Even if that $20,000 figure is correct... you haven't eaten yet (as Cliff Huxtable once told his son Theo in a classic episode of The Cosby Show -- okay, dating myself here). Nor have you paid rent. Assume that one needs $15,000/year to live in NYC, which is sort of laughable, and you're still looking at $50,000 or so for a two-year MFA in NYC -- even at the least expensive program -- when a three-year program in another place would be literally free because there's not only no tuition but you get paid. And FWIW, I think living in Madison, Wisconsin has ruined plenty of people on living anywhere else, including a dirty, over-crowded hellhole like NYC. And I'm from Boston, so yes, I'm well familiar with the glorious closets some poets and writers are thrilled to live in in NYC. I say flush and happy in a beautiful, vibrant city like Madison is ten times better than flushing your toilet and making your breakfast three feet from your bed in NYC, but hey, that's me.


Sally Jane said...

Yay JED17! And sorry Blob, but it is 25 minutes from W. 207th to W. 42nd St. The A runs express. I do it all the time.

And I don't know what you were paying for gas, but when I lived in Rockland County I was paying at least $30/week for gas. Granted I was commuting over the GWB everyday (I didn't even mention tolls!) but still. Give me public transportation any day of the week.

My point was to defend NYC against the naysayers. Is it easy to live here? No. Is it totally worth it? Yes. For a playwright like me, NYC is theatre. End of story. Sure, there are other places with some vibrant theatre communities, but it's not the same. Never will be.

As a girl who grew up in Texas, there's just no comparison. Never again will I live in some podunk city with a shopping mall and an Applebee's. Fuggedaboutit.

JED17 said...

FYI, I'm reposting the comment I sent a few minutes ago. It showed up on the blog for a minute and then disappeared. I apologize if this is a double post.



The original question posted was “How many of you attend school/write or wish you attended school/wrote in New York City?” You (fairly) posed another question: How many of you are glad you don't write/attend school in NYC, because it's the most expensive city to live in the world and has no fully-funded MFA programs?"

I posted my personal opinion that I was thrilled to live, work, and attend school in NYC and you respond with veiled insults and stereotypical generalities.

“Even if that $20,000 figure is correct…” It is. Check the web—graduate tuition is $350 a credit. Thanks for implying that I’m a liar. And I clearly stated that figure was only for tuition and fees—and did not include living expenses.

“I say flush and happy in a beautiful, vibrant city like Madison is ten times better than flushing your toilet and making your breakfast three feet from your bed in NYC.” A typical 2-bedroom, 2 bath in Inwood is 1150 square feet—not giant but hardly a “glorious closet.” If you want to live by yourself in a trendy neighborhood and not pay a lot of money, then yes, you’ll be living in a glorified closet.

I’ve never been to Madison but I have an acquaintance who did his undergraduate work there and he loved it. I’m sure it’s a lovely city. Cheers to you or anyone else who’d like to live in Madison. Again I clearly stated there’s nothing wrong with that, that living in NY was, FOR ME, the best place to live.

I completely understand why an MFA student would prefer to go to a fully funded school in a pleasant, inexpensive city where they could have three years to focus on their writing. I might choose that too if I could, but I’m older than most posters here (in my forties) with a full-time job and because of family and other commitments it’s not feasible for me to leave the NYC area. (And by the way, NYC is very expensive to live in certainly, but it’s not even the most expensive city in the US, let alone the world.)

I love my dirty, over-crowded (you forgot to mention bedbug-infested) hellhole, but hey, that’s just me. I apologize for having the temerity to post my personal opinion in response to a question posed on this blog and expect a rational discussion of the issue.

Jonathan said...

It’s a worthwhile debate to consider the relative affordability of living and writing in NYC, and I don’t in any way want to sound dismissive towards the previous comments. But I will point out that they don’t really have anything to do with the Slate article that prompted this post, an article about two “cultures” or approaches to writing and success that are little concerned with the nuts and bolts of surviving in one city or another. When you boil it down to the question “Which is a better place to live, NYC or Madison or Austin or Ann Arbor,” I think you miss a lot of what I found really interesting about the article.
Namely, how does one define success as a writer? Is it in the size of an advance and the number of copies sold, per an “NYC writer,” or in the number of books published (even with no advance and no copies sold) and a tenure track position received, per the “MFA writer.” Or is success some un-definable sense of artistic satisfaction available to anyone?
Sure, this question is related only indirectly to the average MFA applicant, but I think that’s true of the article generally. The author’s dichotomy between MFA writers and NYC writers is really distinguishing between those living in academia as professors and those living and working professionally in NYC, not between prospective students deciding between NYC and a small college town.
And of course poets are entirely excluded from the discussion, since I’m not sure there really is a way to make a living as a poet except in academia.

FZA said...


It's not something anyone has really commented on. But in my first post I did respond a bit to the NYC writing culture dilemma in a way that had nothing to do with cost.

It's a hard writing community to be a part of and it's a very fragmented and spread out community. I think if I was 'somebody' it's an amazing community. As an emerging writer, it's definitely not the best enviornment for me. But it's something I could see myself coming back to.


If you're a theatre person, then yes, you should be in NY. But other genres don't require it quite in the same way.

And I honestly don't want to fight about it, but 25 minutes on the A is less than ideal (in my opinion). I lived in Atlanta before NYC. It's a city where I could afford to live smack dab in the middle so that my commute to and from work, to and from school, and to and from the places I went on a regular basis were close enough and my car's gas mileage were good enough that I filled my tank about every 3 weeks or so, making it a good bit cheaper than $89 metro card (which is going up in a few weeks as it is). Of course, that's not to say I don't love the subway system here, it's fantastic and functional and runs 24 hrs and I will NEVER complain about it. But, saving money is not one of it's perks for me.

la said...

Thanks @Jonathan and @Blob in part for responding to the article, which I found interesting. I have friends in both worlds (fiction) but as a poet don't know anyone making it in the 'NYC world' of literature...unless they've turned to writing novels.

As for the rest, I live in California and have lived in NYC. I love them both. I love living in highly unaffordable places. They're unaffordable for a reason. And the only way I would move to one of these middle of the country locales is if they paid me to...which is exactly why neither NYC or SF needs to fund their candidates. I'm not saying they shouldn't but they needn't. And yes, I'm applying to some middle of the country locales (and praying that somebody in NYC or CA picks me...).

jaime said...

People love to hate on NYC and the MFA programs there. Yes, Columbia is less than desirable with funding...but Hunter is approximately 10k for the first year, and if you've already lived in NY for a year, in-state tuition is a little more than 5k. How come no one ever mentions that program?
People go to places like NY and CA for the scenes. In this day and age, whether we like it or not, jobs are obtained through networking and schmoozing, and who you know. While I love living in North Carolina, all I have to do is look on craigslist at the writing jobs here and the writing jobs listed in the nyc craigslist and it says it all - tons more jobs there.

Danny said...
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Danny said...
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Danny said...
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Danny said...


Hunter may be a little more than $5,000 a year, but that's on top of living costs. I don't know about you, but I couldn't work 40 hours per week AND take part in an MFA program. I once figured that it costs me about $18,000 a year to live in Manhattan. Well, since then things have changed. I can now live on much less, but that is considering that I have a partner. As I mentioned, I could live easily on what I make if I were solo and willing to live in the remotest parts of Brooklyn, but that's not the case.

$5,000 a semester for Hunter is a hell of a lot more than any fully-funded program. But is it worth it to live in NYC? Maybe. For me, no. I've been here long enough. I'm ready to focus. And NYC, though good for many things, is not good for focusing.

la said...


just a hello to another vegan with kids(s).

and are you my sister's neighbor? she's upper west off the park.

see you in january when I visit! you're my new best friend.

Seth Abramson said...


I didn't imply you were a liar. I wasn't even questioning your estimate of the costs of attendance (I say estimate because none of us are using exact figures here). I was saying, "even if it's correct it doesn't matter," which is a way of saying, "I grant you that it's correct and it doesn't matter anyway." So there was no insult there, veiled or otherwise. And what you call stereotypes are based on my personal knowledge of how poor people -- that includes starving artists and students -- generally live in NYC. I'm entitled to that opinion; I'm a Northeasterner, I'm not spitballing here, I do know the City somewhat and certainly many people who live or have lived there. As far as whether you only came on here to give your opinion of NYC, well, no -- and in fact it's the part of your post that wasn't mere opinion that was exactly what I chose to respond to. That is, your careful framing of the cost of attending an MFA in NYC. Like many inclined to feel kindly toward the City, you couch your math in very particular ways (another poster here, similarly inclined, artfully pointed out that one year at Hunter -- a two-year program -- is 10K). My point was only that we have to be honest about cost of attendance, and only providing tuition costs, or only providing one year's worth of tuition costs, is misleading. It's not nefarious, I'm simply saying it's (unintentionally) misleading. The reason isn't because your numbers are wrong, I've no reason not to trust you on your numbers, but because other MFA programs pay their students and because tuition is not the only cost of being a student. It's meaningless to say a program costs 20K in tuition if it actually costs 50K to attend, as compared to another program which costs zero in tuition and zero to attend (because living expenses can be earned through a minimal-hour TAship).


Seth Abramson said...


I don't think anyone here or anywhere else said that any city was "better than" NYC in terms of culture. I think what I'm saying is that many other cities are "better than" NYC in virtually every other way. And that includes dining -- because you have to set cost and travel time against everything else. I can get reasonably priced, close-by sushi in Madison at a place whose quality is probably ahead of 80%-90% of what's in NYC. I'll take that. Likewise, there are more poets per capita in NYC than in Madison -- but we can regularly get 70-90 people to attend a reading here (and there are seven active poetry reading series with near-weekly events), whereas you're not going to get that number at a NYC reading unless it's at a bar that already has 30-40 patrons on-hand. Sorry, but some of us are well aware of what NYC and other East Coast cities have to offer, and we ain't biting.


Danny said...

I'm upper east, but I can walk across in about 15 minutes.

Sheila Lamb said...

"The author’s dichotomy between MFA writers and NYC writers is really distinguishing between those living in academia as professors and those living and working professionally in NYC..."

I have to agree with Jonathan on the points made in the (very long) article. Does the rise in MFA programs only perpetuate MFA programs whose purpose is to give writers jobs in academia?

Which, according to some, seems to be less worthy than the NYC "real writing" culture (at least this was my interpretation as I slogged through the whole thing - maybe I'm wrong.)

Some of the article comments also mention the real debate is between literary (MFA) fiction and genre (NYC) fiction. Don't know if that can be so neatly divided.

I don't live in NYC and have never wanted to live in NYC. I'm happy to be an Amtrak ride away in the DC suburbs. Look at the number of successful literary agents who *don't* live in NYC.

And my goal, aside from publishing my work, is to teach, ideally at the college level. Thus, the MFA.

I'm not sure why all these article writers care about people who choose to get an MFA, and/or live in NYC and those who don't.

Claire said...

I thought the article was great. Granted I only have one semester of an MFA program under my belt, but in my experience many of the observations made about the MFA "culture" are correct...the emphasis on short stories, the canonization of authors like Dybeck, the desire to procure academic employment. It makes sense for the MFA culture to be the way it is, and I don't necessarily criticize it for that, but as someone who wants to write novels, and (in my dream life) novels that are publishable, I found these aspects of the MFA culture frustrating, which is part of the reason I withdrew from my program after one semester (though money was the main reason).

I have no experience with NYC, but it seems like the n+1 article doesn't focus at all on how expensive it is to live in New York, or even the differences between getting an MFA in New York vs. another place, but the two different literary cultures that rise up when money is the bottom line vs. the more studied, slower-paced work of academia. While we all want to be published and read, it seems like nowadays, as explained in this article, there are two different ways to "write for a living." In my experience this is a very real difference and I think people should be talking about it more.

I'm also writing this comment after a long day and very little sleep, so I apologize if it's not very eloquent.

Sally Jane said...

In response to the "MFA vs. NYC" article, I thought this rant was pretty entertaining.


nic said...

I'd argue that the article was hopeful. I mean, we all know that a functional relationship between fine literature and mass-market publishing has long since disintegrated. And it probably won't change much if any in our lifetimes. So fuck it! Why not carve out comfy little enclaves of like-minded people in comfy little towns?

[Even if it means you'll have to spend more time teaching bratty undergrads and less time in your idyllic birch forest cabin studio (or hobnobbing in a Fort Green brownstone with a bunch of people who are secretly rooting for your failure just as much as they are their own success; that's the mentality there, love NYC or not)]

As for the quality of life/cost of living discussion that has erupted here, I'll chime in. I left NYC in July. Yes, there really is no place like NYC. I will always miss it; the city personified.

But. But! I couldn't afford it. My journalism B.A. from my land-grant U. and my writerly ambitions weren't exactly helping me come up with rent, let alone pay cash on a bar tab.

It's cool if you can do it though; live "cheaply" and enjoy yourself at the same time. I just couldn't hack it anymore. And I know the same goes for hordes of people every day, who don't have a monthly nest egg from daddy and couldn't land that save-my-ass job they scoured Craigslist for months for.

[I guess I could have been someone's PA...]


@Claire: Well put!

Rebecca said...

I find it much more affordable to live as a writer in NYC than I would anywhere else, but that's because I work in the hospitality industry. There's not anywhere else in the world (well, Vegas, maybe, but that holds no appeal whatsoever) where I could be making around $1000 a week in four shifts. If you're a reasonably good looking girl, and you can manage not to lose your soul/sanity/health to all the partying, NYC nightlife is a pretty great job for an aspiring writer. As an undergrad in Ann Arbor, I worked at a busy, fairly high end brewery/restaurant and made around half that much (when it wasn't football season). I got by okay, but that's because I paid my tuition with Hopwood awards (no parent help, no loans, it was rough, but I'm thankful for it). I'm able to save a lot more here, go on vacation and enjoy more cultural activities. My rent in a nice part of Williamsburg is only $200 more than it was in A2 and it's for a much, much, nicer, larger place. I see the appeal of small college towns, and to be honest, Chicago is where my heart is, but right now, NYC makes sense and I'm happy to be here.

Also, I just want to add to the Inwood love. I lived there my first year in NYC, and while it didn't make sense for me to stay (my work is experimental, I like to party. both personally and professionally, I'm a downtown girl) it can be really fantastic. It really is only 25min to Columbus Circle, and $600 is a pretty normal rent for someone with a roommate. We had a 3bdrm for $2100, a half a block from the Dyckman stop, brand new kitchen and bath and it was HUGE. Seriously, HUGE. We ended up building a divider in the largest bedroom (which was 15 by 28) and adding an additional roommate when a friend decided to move to the city so we were paying $500 (not ideal for normal people, but for 4 recent grad starving artists/best friends, it worked and it was WAY better than anything we'd had in A2 with a similar price tag). The west side of Broadway is quiet, safe and really beautiful, with Inwood Hill and Fort Tryon Park right there. There's a 24hr gym that's only $10/month and the area is gentrifying in a really interesting way (more "local kid does good", than "fixie riding Midwestern transplant displaces mom an pop"). There aren't a TON of restaurants and bars in the area, but there are a couple great ones and I was on a first name basis with many of the owners. Sally Jane, if you haven't already, you must try the tequila joint on Dyckman that openned this spring. Their cocktails impress even my most discerning craft-booze snob friends, and they're $4 less than anyone downtown would charge.

Wow, this has really gotten off topic. Anyway, read the n+1 article, thought it was interesting. Love NYC. Don't know if I'll be here forever, but right now it's all right by me.

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jzz said...

I was seriously torn for awhile with this question and approaching 30, having lived not in NYC, but in Chicago and San Francisco. Also big cities with strong literary and publishing cultures. Personally, I hated living in a "small college town" and wanted to leave soon as I was 19. It saddens me there aren't very many funded programs in big cities. I have talked with my girlfriend about this as well on the types of writers, those who prefer small scenic towns, and those who prefer the big vibrant city. I think they are very different types of people. I have worked in publishing and journalism, I like interacting and traveling in the real world as fuel for my stories. I would DREAD a job at some small college teaching intro comp or into CW, the stagnant environment, the lack of diversity, the lack of culture, the ivory tower structure. Just not for me.
I did my undergrad in writing though and took 6 advanced workshops (4 fiction, 2 non fiction), 2 courses in screenwriting/film, a theater course, about 4 other technique courses, several rhetoric/philosophy courses and a couple lit courses. I'm not sure if the MFA would have helped much more as I would super ambitious as an undergrad already and took as many writing heavy classes as I possibly could.
I've also wondered how many of the people going to MFA had substantial workshop and technique classes in their undergraduate degree?