Universities Gain Power In Literary World

Chad Harbach argues that there's been a sea change in the literary world, as the center of power has moved out of New York City and into the nation's universities. Harbach is an author and editor of the literary magazine n + 1, and he talks with NPR's Audie Cornish about the idea and what it means for American books.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Back in the late 1960s, Philip Roth was struggling to make it as a writer. So he did what any struggling writer did at the time: He went to the Big Apple.

(Soundbite of song, "New York, New York")

Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Novelist): The art of living in New York at this time.

CORNISH: And as he told FRESH AIR's Terry Gross in 2005, he'd written a short story that would become the basis for the novel that was his big break: "Portnoy's Complaint."

Mr. ROTH: Nobody wanted to publish that and - except a very unlikely magazine, a very elite journal called the Partisan Review.

CORNISH: The Partisan Review, like anything important in the literary world at that time, had started in New York.

(Soundbite of song, "New York, New York")

Mr. ROTH: But there it was in Partisan Review; that prompted a tremendous response from people around me, who read it. And that was when I was encouraged to go all the way with the book. This is the way to go; you're free.

Well, there's - no two words are more precious to a writer than: You're free.

(Soundbite of song, "New York, New York")

CORNISH: Now, you probably know that writers today have a much more difficult time earning that freedom or breaking into the New York publishing world. But novelist and writer Chad Harbach argues in a new article, that's OK.

Mr. CHAD HARBACH (Editor, n + 1): Historically, writers have made money by publishing books in New York with New York publishing houses, and that's what I call NYC.

CORNISH: Chad Harbach edits the literary magazine n + 1. In a new article for that journal, he says there's now a second literary world where writers can earn their living.

Mr. HARBACH: In the last 30 years or so, we've seen the rise of the MFA program at the universities throughout the country. You know, there were about 80 degree-granting programs in 1975, in creative writing. Now, instead of 80, there are 850 of these programs.

CORNISH: Wow.

Mr. HARBACH: So - and there are correspondingly greater number of teachers in these programs who are working writers.

CORNISH: Give us two examples of folks who are these MFA - or sort of, writers based in academia, and writers who aren't.

Mr. HARBACH: Well, the New York writers tend to be people who you think of as sort of literary superstars, like Jonathan Franzen, one who's been much in the news - or Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon on the other side.

I mean, first, almost all writers these days teach because they don't make enough money publishing to live on, to support themselves - people like Tobias Wolff, Anne Beattie, Amy Hempel, Stuart Dybek; a lot of short story writers, for one thing.

CORNISH: So the idea that essentially, in order to make a living now, you almost have to be doing it in academia, or you have to be writing blockbuster, "Freedom"-type novels, basically.

Mr. HARBACH: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it's - of course, you know, I don't want to exaggerate the change because it's always been very difficult. You know, in the old days, you might be able to slowly sort of build an audience for your work by publishing two, three novels before you hit it big. You know, now, there's much more of an emphasis in the publishing houses on making sure that every book makes money.

CORNISH: So what does this matter in terms of what kind of writing we all get to read?

Mr. HARBACH: The NYC model, it tends toward the novel. You know, it's sort of common wisdom among New York publishers that short story collections don't make money. On the other hand, the MFA world is really - is built around the short story because it's hard to bring in half of your novel, and have your workshop mates comment on that. You'd never get to the end of it.

CORNISH: So answer the question laid out by your own article's subheader: Which of these literary worlds will last?

Mr. HARBACH: Well, the subhead was not written by me, I should say.

CORNISH: Don't try and duck out of it, my friend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARBACH: I think that the MFA world is probably the more durable model. I think, you know, that programs in the university, and the publishing avenues at university houses and the university quarterlies that have opened up, are not going anywhere.

And so I think we might find a time when, although, of course, writers are still publishing books with New York houses, very, very few are going to actually be able to make a living that way.

CORNISH: Chad Harbach is a writer and editor of the literary magazine n + 1. He spoke to us from our studios in New York City.

Chad, thank you for talking with us.

Mr. HARBACH: Thank you. My pleasure.

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