Dispatches | November 29, 2010

Last week, Chad Harbach of N+1, a literary magazine based in New York, posted an excerpt of his forthcoming essay. Harbach’s excerpt, posted on Slate, posits the provocative suggestion that contemporary prose writers have two publishing options: MFA or NYC.  The former is the university circuit which has a heavy focus on the short story, and an emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism that one would expect to find in academia. The latter is the New York publishing world of big social realist novels of middlebrow art, written mostly by older white males, with a production philosophy similar to the Hollywood blockbuster.  I am paraphrasing a bit (a lot?) but it’s a fascinating article because, unlike most discussions of MFA programs and publishing, it is rational, thoughtful, curious, and engaging.

Recently, our blog discussed why MFA programs struggle to teach good novel writing, and Harbach’s article has expanded the discussion to examine the “systems” that create novels, and makes two distinct classifications.  Naturally, as with any “either/or” choice, this is a little reductive and there are natural outliers that will spring to your mind.  That’s okay.  The premise, though, seems relatively sound, if a bit simplistic.  The article nods to the excellent book by Mark McGurl that examines the “program era” of fiction writing.  McGurl’s book—which you should read if you haven’t already—narrows things down significantly in order to explore the influence of programs; McGurl examines only American fiction in the academy after World War II.  Most criticism of McGurl’s book often ignores this, which McGurl states clearly in his epilogue.

Anyway, the point is that when Harbach, McGurl, and others try to identify what is happening in contemporary literature, there is a quick and enraged group of voices who are incensed that they aren’t writing a withering attack on writing programs (see: Shivani, Anis).  Harbach and McGurl are not, though, interested in taking polemic sides.  Rather, they are simply trying to identify what they see and say “Isn’t that interesting?”

Okay, sure.  But it needs more than that.  Now that we’ve identified this distinction, what does it mean?

Let’s stick with that pretty simple “either/or” and say that there are two groups of people that are interested in this: readers and writers.

One of my good friends recently wrote me and explained her interest in writing a “young adult” novel.  I’m a bit of an elitist, and I think she was just making sure I wouldn’t fold my arms and look down my nose in disdain at her.  Of course I wouldn’t: she’s an awesome writer, a dear friend, and we have to write the stories we are compelled to write.  But here’s the thing that puzzles me about YA—or any other genre of fiction, even any category of books—that doesn’t seem to get discussed much: I don’t know if people read only one category of writing.

That’s probably not entirely true.  Market research indicates that people that buy one self-help book tend to buy many more self-help books.  They are hooked.  Certainly, some readers devour all of Elmore Leonard or lots of crime fiction or whatever.  Most readers I know, however, are diverse.  The categories that publishing house or bookstores put on books doesn’t really matter to readers: we want to read good work, we want to read often, and we tend to resist being told what to read.  We—the modern reader, the person who not only does still read, but reads widely—doesn’t really care what tags we put on things.

Did this book come out on Knopf?  Random House?  Akashic?  Dzanc?  Flatman Crooked?  I’m suggesting the modern reader doesn’t really care.  This conversation, MFA or NYC, doesn’t matter to a reader in the least.  Thanks to the internet, it’s pretty easy to find unusual or strange or off-beat titles: the long tail of publishing means nothing is out of print or inaccessible.  Harbach’s article isn’t really for readers.  It’s for writers and reaching an audience.

Am I obsessed with the idea of audience?  It seems to me that if you are creating art, whatever your medium is, you must have an audience in mind.  We don’t create art solely for our own satisfaction; that strikes me as solipsistic and narcissistic, and good art communicates (unless you want to say you are communicating with yourself, but you know, that’s the kind of circular late-night bar argument that gives me a whiskey headache, and makes me close my tab and head home earlier than I’d like).

What Harbach is pointing out then is that as a prose writer, you have a choice.  To me, he doesn’t present a very compelling choice: the NYC option seems to be pretty rough unless you have an AARP card and plan on writing a very particular novel.  One of the elements that Harbach generally ignores, genre fiction, strikes me as having a similar if less explicit problem: by tagging yourself a particular genre, you have to give yourself over to particular conventions and techniques (“tricks”?) that are expected of your predetermined style of choice.

The question of audience seems to be a problem particular to the novelist.  Poets and short story writers live in a vacuum (I know, I know; but c’mon, this needs to be a short-ish post, okay?) that novelists do not.  The novel is a choice implicitly accepting the constraints of audience.

And yet, as a writer, I think perhaps the best approach is to ignore audience.

For those of you who know me well, you are probably laughing and shaking your head.  I think way too hard about everything.  Everything!  And the idea that I would suggest a “Don’t worry, be happy” attitude (digression for Marc McKee: “…was the number one jam/Damned if I said you could slap me right here!”) towards your audience seems as out of character as I could possibly get.  I won’t disagree.

But writing is often about paradoxes.  Take a real basic one: we all want to be happy, but when it comes to fiction, we don’t want to read about happiness.  We want drama, in whatever capacity the writer presents it, because only trouble is interesting.  Happy in life, miserable on the page.  That’s weird, right?  Hey, that’s being human.  And, maybe, being a writer.

Thinking about audience, or what publishing market or house or category your work fits in, can become paralyzing.  It’s like muscle memory in sports: you do the same thing over and over again, painstakingly working on the mechanics of a movement—jump shot, backstroke, whatever—until you aren’t thinking about it at all.  Same thing here.  You read and read and read, digesting all those novels, stories, poems, and essays, until your sense of audience is second nature, a thing that you respond to subconsciously.

The audience will be there for good work.  I really believe that.  Hold those two opposing ideas in your mind—who is my audience, there is no audience—and you might discover something freeing about letting it all go.  A little touchy-feely?  Yeah, maybe.  But those of who rage against the dying light are, I think, in the end, optimistic.  We think it matters.  And what publishing house, academic machine, or cultural critic can really tell us otherwise?

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.