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So You Want to Be a (Successful) Writer?

04/11/2014 03:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2014

Since I first read MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction several weeks ago, I've had a mental nag going over Chad Harbach's premise that there are "two centers of gravity in American fiction: "MFA," which is dispersed throughout our university towns, and "NYC," which hews close to Manhattan's trade publishing industry." First, I don't want to believe it. I have a personal, probably naïve investment in the idea that a writer can maintain her distance from these poles -- if poles they are -- and still find the kind of success she's looking for, literary or commercial. Both? Well, that's a feat for the gods and more than I have time to contemplate.

Second, I keep coming up with conflicting observations. What about Donna Tartt? Louise Erdrich? Aren't there authors who stay outside the mainstream and are better for it? Is there evidence enough to contradict this "two culture" business, or do the exceptions prove Harbach right? To satisfy myself, I concocted a version of objective analysis sufficiently rigorous to help a fiction writer relax. Scientists, shut your eyes.

For a snapshot of what's selling versus what's winning critical acclaim, I cross-referenced the top five NY Times Hardcover Fiction bestsellers for the week of April 13, 2014 with the most recent fiction winners of the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN Faulkner Award, and for variety, the Indie Booksellers' Choice Award. The bestsellers are:

1. NYPD Red 2 by James Patterson and Marshall Karp
2. Missing You by Harlan Coben
3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
4. Blossom Street Brides by Debbie Macomber
5. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The prizewinners are:

1. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013 National Book Award)
2. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2013 Pulitzer Prize)
3. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013 National Book Critics Circle Award)
4. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2014 PEN Faulkner Award)
5. The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2013 Indie Booksellers Choice Award)

Either critically or commercially, or both, these authors are arguably at the top of the heap. Note that Harbach didn't say literary fiction (at least not in the quotation I cherrypicked). The fact that Tartt and Erdrich both made the lists feeds my suspicion that there's a thriving American literary culture outside the MFA and NYC camps. My bestseller snapshot is not very representative of the prizewinners' commercial appeal, and some of the bestsellers are also literary prizewinners, so let's set that aside for now. For the sake of the exercise, the question is, do these authors fit the MFA versus NYC plot?

First, who among these authors holds a teaching job? I used Google searches to find out.

1. Adichie "regularly teaches writing workshops" in Nigeria and the United States and recently held a fellowship at Harvard.
2. Johnson is an Associate Professor of English at Stanford.
3. McBride is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

So far, so typical. The majority of the prizewinners are part of the MFA food chain, the workshopping world. The other two on the list, Erdrich and Fowler, don't teach. But wait - Erdrich has a Master of Arts from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, so she's in the MFA club too. Fowler alone seems to have maintained genuine distance from the academy. Wikipedia credits her with a single creative writing class at UC Davis and no past or current teaching. She lives in a university town, and UC Santa Cruz has a creative writing program, but Fowler is not on its faculty.

Four out of five prizewinners have strong creative writing academic credentials or affiliations. Joining the MFA club seems to correlate well with one day writing the sort of book that wins prizes - except that academia also absorbs writers who emerge out of non-MFA backgrounds. Take James McBride. He has an MA in Journalism from Columbia, but he's toured as a saxophonist sideman with Jimmy Scott and was a staff writer for several national publications. This non-MFA background still gets assigned to the MFA camp when McBride starts teaching at NYU, so in a sense he's been adopted by the MFA world because of his literary success.

With the exception of Patterson, who likes to live large, the bestsellers' lifestyles aren't markedly different from those of the prizewinners. Patterson engages in well-publicized literary philanthropy from his home in Palm Beach, Florida, just down the beach from Ivana Trump. Kidd is nearby in southwest Florida. Macomber has a tea room and yarn store in Port Orchard, Washington and "winters in Florida." Ah, to use the seasons as verbs. Coben, on the other hand, has stayed in his home state of New Jersey. Mississippi native Tartt lives on a farm in Virginia.

The takeaway may be that commercially successful authors congregate in Florida, while literary prizewinners tend to stay closer to their roots. The only author on either list who actually lives in New York is McBride, but he's an academic. No clean MFA vs. NYC there. Then there's Tartt, a darling of the current literary prize season, also a bestseller, who has stayed near her Southern roots, perversely refusing to move to New York, get an MFA, or teach writing.

This analysis is getting me nowhere. New York plays a role in the life of every published author because it's an international hub for the publishing industry, but in my sample, few successful writers show much allegiance to the city itself. If anything, there's a stronger correlation between commercial success and Florida.

Maybe the important question is, what would McBride or Johnson or Adichie be doing if the academy weren't paying the bills? Would it be something that fed their imaginations with a more vital diversity of experience, yet still allowed them the freedom to write? After all, poverty is a "diverse" experience that artists have gotten plenty of throughout history, but rarely leads to publishing better work more frequently. If the university has emerged as the modern-day patron of the otherwise-starving writer, should we count that as a bad thing? If we have to take our Medicis with undergraduates instead of courtiers to please, the essential bargain hasn't changed.

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