Two literary worlds
In a 2010 essay that grabbed the book world’s attention, Chad Harbach argued in n+1 magazine that the American literary scene is now divided into two cultures: New York publishing and university MFA programs. In the new book “MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction,” jointly published by n+1 and Faber and Faber, he expands on the critique through essays by other writers as well as professors, students, agents, and editors.
Harbach himself is of both worlds: He has an MFA and his first novel, “The Art of Fielding,” was a New York publishing-world phenom for which Little, Brown paid an advance of about $650,000. “MFA vs NYC” addresses a number of questions, not the least of which is: Should aspiring writers seek an advanced degree or will they simply be accruing more debt than skill?
Beyond the practical matters, Harbach’s literary salon-on-the-page addresses broader concerns, such as how the rise of MFA programs has affected American fiction. In 1975, there were 79 programs granting degrees in creative writing; today there are 1,269.
One of them is at Boston University, which has long offered advanced degrees in creative writing but has had an MFA program only since 2006. BU’s annual reading by creative writing faculty members is Wednesday at 7 p.m. at BU Photonics Center Auditorium, 8 St. Mary’s St., Room 206. Readers include novelist Sigrid Nunez and Leslie Epstein, the longtime director of BU’s creative writing program who is working on a novel about Hollywood and World War II. Also reading will be poet Dan Chiasson, whose new book, “Bicentennial” (Knopf) explores his formative years in Vermont and is an elegy for his father, whom he never knew. Ha Jin also is on the schedule. Perhaps he’ll offer a preview of “A Map of Betrayal,” the novel Pantheon is publishing in November.
How to get from first draft to publication is the challenge that every serious writer faces. The 3-year-old Cambridge-based literary journal Draft: The Journal of Process opens a window on the world of revision. The spring issue presents, side by side, an early draft of a short story by Amy Bloom and the published version, as well as a conversation with her. Founding editors Mark Polanzak, who teaches writing at Berklee College of Music, and Rachel Yoder, who holds MFAs in fiction and creative nonfiction, are probing interviewers as interested in the small details as they are in the big picture.
Hurrah for Harvard professor Leo Damrosch, who earlier this month (March 13) won the biography prize from the National Book Critics Circle for “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” (Yale University), which it called “a spellbinding life of a complicated, contradictory subject.” The poetry prize went to Cambridge resident Frank Bidart for “Metaphysical Dog” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which continues his exploration of the big questions.
■ “The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself” by Andrew Pettegree (Yale University)
■ “A Fairy Tale”by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated from the Danish, by Charlotte Barslund (Other)
■ “Eat What You Kill”by Ted Scofield (St. Martin’s)
Pick of the Week
Elizabeth Merritt of Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich recommends “Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart” by Carol Wall (Amy Einhorn/Putnam): “An unlikely friendship develops between the author, who is dealing with illness and aging parents, and Giles Owita, a Kenyan who works at the local garden center and introduces her to the healing power of gardening.”Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.