Speakeasy with Chad Harbach

Last year, n+1 published an essay by bestselling novelist Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) on the polarized world of American fiction: getting an MFA v. the school of NYC. [Read the original essay here.]  The essay struck a nerve and prompted spirited debate online and among writers. Clearly, Harbach was onto something.  MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction (n+1/Faber & Faber) is the new book edited by Harbach that digs deeper and features writers such as George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, and Jynne Martin tackling questions like: Should you seek an advanced degree, or will workshops smother your style? Do you need to move to New York, or will the high cost of living undo you? How has the rise of MFA programs affected American fiction?

In anticipation of the book launch, Culture Binge gave Harbach our grueling Speakeasy author questionnaire, chatted about day jobs and the impact of MFA programs.

What book do you wish you’d written?
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Hemingway had mojitos, Raymond Chandler had gimlets. Henry Miller had French prostitutes. Hunter S. Thomson had, well, everything. What are your writing vices?
French prostitutes seem more like an aprés-writing vice — it would be distracting to have them around the office all day. Brandy is the vice of my ancestors and I’m sticking with it.

What book is currently on your nightstand/next to your toilet?
The Art of Cooking Omelettes by Madame Romaine de Lyon.

Before becoming a full-time writer, what was your strangest day job?
I had a bunch. For a couple of years, I worked as the assistant to Boston’s foremost marriage therapist. He was in his seventies, and really wanted to stop seeing couples and concentrate on his writing and other projects, but he was so good that no one would let him quit. That was a pretty good job, actually. His office was in the basement of his townhouse. I would answer the phones and pay the quarterly taxes and sometimes do more engaging research, while he fixed people’s lives and sent them home holding hands.

Finish the joke. A writer walks into a bar…
… and clocks in for his shift.

For readers, what is the biggest impact that MFA programs have had on American fiction?
The programs have often been accused of fostering well-crafted but cautious books, and probably there’s some truth there. But they’ve also, I think, fostered daring and powerful books, by offering talented writers — as George Saunders says in MFA vs. NYC — “some time out of the capitalist shitstorm.”

In your essay in MFA vs. NYC, you mention that writers in MFA culture are obsessed with the short story, while the American reading public is not. Will technology (Kindle singles, blogs publishing short works and essays) change the public’s appetite as it has in other parts of the world? Or is this a form that is going to fade away?
Technology confuses me. But I definitely don’t think the short story will fade away — one consequence of the expansion of the creative writing industry is that many, many more undergraduates are taking writing workshops, and in these courses they’re reading contemporary short stories almost exclusively. So every semester thousands of college kids are being introduced to contemporary short-story writers — and it’s those students, more or less, who grow up to become the “reading public.”

Chad Harbach will read from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, Tuesday, February 25 at 7pm at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, 126 Crosby St., New York. Free and open to the public.

MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction is available at your local independent bookstore or can be ordered here. Visit the n+1 website for more information on the magazine and upcoming events. 


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