The Rumpus Interview with Chad Harbach

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If you had to pick an epigraph for Chad Harbach’s latest project, the essay collection MFA vs NYC, you could do worse than choose this passage from his bestselling novel The Art Of Fielding:

Literature could turn you into an asshole. He’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

Are MFA programs asshole-making machines? The contributors Harbach has assembled for MFA vs NYC offer up some interesting answers to this question. They explore whether fiction programs can turn established writers into jaded teachers, cashing the paychecks necessary for writerly survival while caring little about students’ work. They consider whether MFAs can make talented younger writers into producers of bland, indistinguishable, commercially viable books. They explore the extent to which it might be better to stay in Iowa working on draft #143 of your masterpiece, rather than schmoozing at NYC publishing parties, and they ask—to quote from George Saunders’s own contribution to the book—whether, as MFA programs continue to proliferate, there’s “something gross about a culture telling a bunch of people who are never going to be artists that they maybe are, even if only by implication.”

For the most part, MFA vs NYC manages to avoid the over-simplifications that stick to so many MFA debates. One such over-simplification is the statement that you can’t teach writing. Another is the argument that you can. It’s clear to most people who’ve sat in a writing workshop that it’s possible to teach some things about writing some of the time, just as it’s possible to teach some things about cooking, or playing the violin, or throwing a baseball. MFA vs NYC is at its best when it blurs its own binary oppositions, revealing the ways in which that ‘vs’ in the title could easily be replaced with an ‘and’. As Harbach knows, the MFA culture in this country bleeds into the NYC publishing culture, just as fiction bleeds into nonfiction, and poetry bleeds into prose, and the good things about literature programs bleed into the bad.

The interview that follows took place at The Brooklyneer, a West Village pub with a thirty-foot-long bar top that was once part of the old Coney Island boardwalk. It was the week before AWP in Seattle, where I was to see Harbach manning the table occupied by n+1, the magazine he co-founded with a group of friends back in 2004. He was dutifully selling copies of MFA vs NYC, his brand of quiet cheerfulness seemingly unaffected by the conference center lighting, the long queues for tepid coffee, and whatever hangover he might have been enduring that day. During our interview he was frank about his own tough years working on a novel with no cash in the bank, and no health insurance to fix his busted knee, surrounded by friends who had “tolerantly washed their hands of the whole idea of me writing a book.”

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The Rumpus: The title essay in MFA vs NYC was first published in 2010, in issue 10 of n+1. How did you come to write that piece, and what do you remember of the reaction on publication?

Chad Harbach: Well I attended the University of Virginia MFA program—one of the smaller MFA programs around, albeit a highly regarded one. I finished the program and six years later, in 2010, I went to AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference] in Chicago. I was tabling for n+1 there, and as I walked into the hotel, I saw this huge line of people waiting to pick up their entry badges. It was like this small group of people I did my MFA program with had been endlessly replicated to create the 10,000 people queuing. It began to dawn on me that this program I’d attended in Virginia was actually part of a network, a system—a kind of economy—that had become huge.

There were, of course, quite a lot of people from New York at AWP, but there were thousands more from MFA programs all over the country. I started to think about this—about the fact that there was this MFA subculture, a subculture whose parameters you can define and which overlaps only slightly with the subculture of New York. And of course it’s a subculture that not only produces writers, but sustains them—students become teachers, and the MFA programs have this powerful economic hold over writers in the form of payments for services rendered.

When the essay came out it was in n+1, but we also allowed Slate to publish it online. Quickly it became apparent that a lot of readers were depressed by it, and that even my co-editors at n+1 were depressed. We got a lot of mail from young people saying, “Why did you write this horribly depressing essay?” That took me back a bit, because I hadn’t really understood what I was writing in those terms. I was thinking more about the simple fact that writers have the purity of their art and what they want to achieve with that, and that this purity is bound up with the messy material conditions of trying to make a living while doing that work.

Rumpus: Are those messy material conditions—the element of striving for financial survival that features in most writers’ lives—useful in the making of good art?

Harbach: They’re useful and not useful. Most great books have been about striving in some sense. In a sense, money is the great topic of the novel. You couldn’t necessarily say that about poetry.

Rumpus: The poets have already given up hope.

Harbach: Well… Poetry might be more about the eternal verities, the essence of the human soul, and—although it’s reductive to say so—fiction has perhaps been more about the differences between the unconstrained world of the imagination and the realities you run into, day-to-day, when you’re riding your donkey. Elif [Batuman]’s piece in the book, where she writes about Don Quixote, addresses that.

Rumpus: And what about the question of whether MFA programs produce something identifiable as “MFA Fiction.” I got the sense from Elif’s piece in the collection, and things she’s written elsewhere, that she thinks they do produce a particular type of fiction. Where do you stand on that?

Harbach: I disagree with Elif on the idea that there is such a thing as MFA fiction, at least in the sense she means. I’d defy anyone to start reading a story or novel and to determine, by reading those pages, whether the person has an MFA or not. I think the MFA programs have had a real effect on the state of American fiction, but I don’t think it’s a question of “this is written by someone with an MFA, and this isn’t.” I challenge anyone to identify a book in that way. It’s totally impossible.

The effects of MFA programs, and the rise of creative writing instruction more generally, are far more diffuse than people think. Even if you’re a writer who has avoided institutions your whole life, you’re still going to be reading a lot of writers who have MFAs, and are affiliated with universities. Or if you’re part of any kind of writerly community, some of those people will have gone through MFA programs, and their thinking leaks into yours. So whatever changes MFAs have made to the culture, it’s to the culture as a whole. It can’t be pinned down to individual books in a way that some people would like to do.

Rumpus: That’s linked to the idea you express in the book that we’re “all MFAs now.” Regardless of whether that’s true, is it a good thing? What about the DeLillo idea that artists produce better art on the fringes—are best situated outside the dominant culture, looking in. Is there a place for writers like that now—a third place, a fringe place, that doesn’t involve either NYC or MFA? 

Harbach: I think so. This isn’t about saying MFA and NYC are all there is. But a lot of writers choose to live in New York, partly because of the literary culture here, and partly because Brooklyn’s a pretty nice place to live. And a lot of writers who might not geographically reside in New York still point their ambitions towards New York in some sense. If your dream is to be represented by the Wylie Agency, or to have your book published by Knopf, you’re pointing your dreams towards New York. And DeLillo, despite the reclusiveness that’s remarked upon, used to be an ad-man in New York, and lives in New York.

Rumpus: And writes about it, and is published by a New York house.  

Harbach: Right. And I don’t know exactly at what point in his career DeLillo became so reticent. Maybe at the start of his writing life, he did every publicity event going…

Rumpus: Interspersed with the essays in the book, you have some quotes from different writers and MFA graduates, including one that states, “People go to MFA programs and they think they’re gonna be connected. That’s not going to help you publish. It’s a myth. Writing’s not about connections, writing’s about writing.” There’s an important point there—in the business of writing, the actual writing is often forgotten—but do you agree that connections don’t help a writer publish?

Harbach: It would be naïve for me to say it’s not helpful to meet people. If you’re a writer who lives in New York, and you’ve been to some parties with some agents, these agents are going to pay a little more attention when you query them. Connections help. But of course, to [that] point, they don’t actually do anything for you.

Rumpus: That’s been your experience?

Harbach: When I was finishing The Art Of Fielding, there were a couple of agents I’d met who expressed an interest in seeing what I’d written. Two very good agents who were ready to read a draft. That was great. Amazing. But both of those agents turned me down. Getting your foot in the door with some publishing people can be important when you’re starting out as a writer, but it’s also not enough to get you where you need to be.

Rumpus: The draft of The Art Of Fielding that those two agents rejected—was it much different to the draft that eventually got you represented by Chris Parris-Lamb, and got you your publishing deal?

Harbach: Oh, no, it was the same book almost exactly. Nothing much was different. I sent it out to those two agents I knew, and they said “no.” And then I sent it to another half-dozen agents, including Chris. Of those eight agents, Chris was the only one who wanted to represent the book. The other agents read my book, and maybe even liked it, but they certainly didn’t say, ‘This guy’s a founder of n+1, and we know him, so we’ll take him on.” They just asked themselves whether they could sell The Art Of Fielding to a publisher and then some readers, and they decided it wouldn’t sell.

Rumpus: And they were wrong. 

Harbach: Well…

Rumpus: Do you ever hear from those two agents who knew you, and decided the book was a hopeless cause?

Harbach: Oh, it’s fine. Everyone’s looking for something different—it’s just about whether you can trigger that something within an agent. There were a lot of people that took the reasonable view that a huge novel about baseball, with a big gay relationship element, set on a college campus, written by a guy, was not going to sell well. I took that view, too. It wasn’t exactly a formula for success. And my editor confirmed that when he bought the book—it was the first thing he said to me, that this wouldn’t be a particularly easy book to launch.

Rumpus: In his two essays in the book, Keith Gessen is funny, and seemingly honest, about the financial difficulties he faced when writing. What about your own difficulties? It took you around ten years to write The Art Of Fielding, as I understand it, and there must have been some very difficult periods within that ten years. Perhaps a whole decade of difficulty, in fact. Are you willing to talk about that?

Harbach: Sure. I conceived of the book in 2000, and by the time I got to 2006, 2007, 2008, and was in New York spending a lot of time working for free on n+1, and having another job that just about paid the rent, I was constantly oscillating between hope and panic. I had some pretty psychologically difficult years. It is no fun at all to have been writing a book for seven or so years, especially when you’ve never published anything before. I really didn’t know whether I was ever going to be able to finish The Art Of Fielding, because I’d never really finished anything before. I had no track record to convince myself with.

A lot of my close friends had tolerantly washed their hands of the whole idea of me writing a book. They had said to themselves, “I don’t know what he’s doing.” It’s such a private enterprise, and I was getting older as I wrote it. I turned thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three. Eking it out week by week without health insurance, and so on. During that period I badly tore up my knee but I couldn’t go to the doctor, because I couldn’t afford to. I was hobbled for many months, and I needed surgery but couldn’t afford it—an everyday story here in America—and of course I felt down.

A lot of people sell a book straight out of an MFA program. I sold a book six years after I left an MFA program. In between, there was a lot of endurance of poverty and a lot of fighting off doubt. It’s all a part of the process of being or becoming a writer.

Rumpus: I suspect that what a lot of readers loved about The Art Of Fielding is that sense of striving that we talked about. Mike and Henry and Pella are all struggling in some way against doubt. They all have their different forms of endurance. Is it a stretch to say that your own struggles to get the book finished were absorbed by the characters themselves?

Harbach: No, that’s absolutely true. The challenge for any fiction writer is that your job involves simply sitting at a desk for a very, very long time. How do you convert that fact—the fact of sitting at your desk day after day—into something emotionally useful for your work? With Henry in particular, writing about this athlete who is struggling against himself, who is trying to accomplish this dream, I was smuggling in my own desire to be a writer.

Rumpus: You say at one point in MFA vs NYC that “the best young NYC novelists go to great lengths to write comprehensible prose and tie their plots neat as a bow. How one longs, in a way, for endings like that of Don DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, where everyone just pees on everyone else for no reason.” Now, first of all: good book and great ending. But do you think that’s really true about contemporary novelists going to great lengths to deliver neat endings now? Is that a pressure you yourself have felt?

Harbach: That part of the essay is a tiny bit polemical, I guess. I think the demise of the trade publishing industry has been over-advertised, but there is a way in which, as opposed to several decades ago, there is more pressure on the individual book to sell. There’s more pressure from the publisher. There’s more of a mindset whereby each book an author writes is a money-making proposition. So the idea of the writer who writes nineteen novels, with various ups and downs and levels of experimentation, isn’t around so much now. There’s a focus, I think, on fewer books, with more pressure on each book to succeed. With that there comes, I think, a certain pressure towards shapeliness in fiction. Towards neatness. And I think writers feel that, and it can effect how they write.

I also talk in the book about David Foster Wallace and his predecessors—the idea of the difficult art novel as a viable product. That’s something that existed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and perhaps up through the ‘90s—this tradition of the difficult novel that manages to break out despite or because of its difficulty. Not that these books were huge bestsellers, but there was a place of respect within the culture for challenging novelists. This was closely linked to the university system too—a certain type of novel could become the kind of book that needed to be unpacked by a professor, and thus gain traction within the academy. Now there’s a shift in emphasis within universities from the English department proper, to composition and creative writing. A shift from the teaching of fiction as academic study, to teaching it as a kind of “how-to.”

Rumpus: You’re sometimes compared to Jonathan Franzen. That’s perhaps in part because a quote from him appeared on the cover of The Art Of Fielding. But I think there’s also a deeper sense in which The Art Of Fielding follows Franzen’s blueprint of what a book should be—or at least the blueprint as interpretable from his Harper’s essay all those years ago. Were you consciously trying to combine the literary and the entertaining—to offer the deep, character-driven pleasures that a less traditional novel might not provide?

Harbach: Looking at and shaping your own work is a very intuitive process. You see something you’ve written in your notebook. It’s there on the page and either feels right or it doesn’t, and it’s hard sometimes to go beyond that and discover why it feels that way. I couldn’t really see beyond the edges of the notebook and understand this as a book that might be published. But to the extent I thought about who my audience might be, I was thinking about people I grew up with in Wisconsin—not necessarily people of a literary bent—and of what they would enjoy. I wanted a book that would satisfy me artistically, but would also appeal to the people I grew up with.

In my own mind, I think that was the mechanism for writing something entertaining. It was to say: “I’d like my brother and my high school friends to find something in this novel that speaks to them.” Writing something enjoyable to them was important to me, but I wasn’t thinking about the public—I couldn’t think about that.

Rumpus: Could you talk a little bit about how n+1 came together, and what you hoped to get out of founding the magazine?

Harbach: Well, Keith [Gessen] and I were friends from college, and we’d long talked about setting up a magazine. That idea became close to being realized when we met Mark [Greif] and Ben [Kunkel] and Marco [Roth]. They’d been discussing setting up a magazine too, and we decided to come together. We went from bullshitting to actual planning in 2003. I think what we saw then was this kind of retrenchment by the literary world. This idea sprung up of literature as a kind of endangered flower: something writers needed to huddle together and protect. We saw this as a pretty depressing and retrogressive of art. We wanted literature to be powerful and influential again, a lens through which you could comprehend so many things. We wanted to make a magazine in which literature became not just this little delicate flower, or garden, but a way of viewing the contemporary world.

Around the same time there was the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, which at first the American left was largely on board with. So Keith and I felt our literary ideas weren’t really of the fashion and neither were our political ideas. In a way that solidified things for us—the magazine came out of the sense that our views somehow weren’t being represented in the way we liked, and we had things to say and wanted a forum in which to express them.

Rumpus: Is n+1 its own MFA now? Can a magazine like yours give people what they often end up paying many thousands of dollars for—a circle of writers who reflect on your work, and give you support, and suggest great books you’ve never heard of?

Harbach: Absolutely a magazine can do that. I hope so, anyway. George Saunders’s essay in MFA vs NYC contains a great phrase about what an MFA provides: “time outside the capitalist shit storm.” If you’re lucky enough to get a place on a funded MFA, it’s like a grant: you can get time to write. Now, n+1 doesn’t necessarily provide that! But a lot of MFA programs don’t provide that either, and what you get is community. An independent magazine that has a good culture can definitely provide that sense of community and foster a literary spirit.

With n+1, we wanted a magazine that was an intellectual center around which people could rally, and I hope we’ve achieved that.

Rumpus: Is there any temptation to say “our magazine has done its job now,” and to step away from it?

Harbach: It’s true that you can reach a point where you say “Okay, our work is done here and we’re going to shut this thing down, or we’re going to institutionalize it in some sense—make it more viable.” We reached that point and we decided that we were going to institutionalize it in some way—make it more sustainable and bring on some new staff. For the first five or six years n+1 was run on pure energy from its founders and volunteers. You can’t sustain that forever. There were many periods where we thought we’d go the way of many influential small magazines in the U.S.—we’d have a run of five or six years, accomplish some small portion of what we set out to do, then we’d move on to other things.

Rumpus: Were you happy with that idea on some level—that n+1 would have a limited lifespan, and would then gracefully disappear?

Harbach: I think we might have been happy to say, “We did it for seven years, we’ve changed some things in the literary culture, and now a new generation of small magazines will take things forward.” That would have been a good outcome. But instead we’re keeping going, and it feels more sustainable for us to keep going and keep changing now. Hopefully that’s an even better outcome. We want to live in a world where a lot of independent magazines, and a lot of good books, have a viable outlet for reaching readers.

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Featured image of Chad Harbach © by Beowulf Sheehan. Images of n+1 © by Helen Morgan.


Jonathan Lee is a British writer. His novels are Who is Mr Satoshi? and Joy and his recent short stories are published or forthcoming in Granta, Tin House, Narrative, and A Public Space. More from this author →