Being a writer has never been an easy career choice, but these days, it is harder than ever. Publishers are only interested in material guaranteed to sell, popular novelsists make peanuts compared to media moguls in television and film, and magazines and newspapers are still struggling to reinvent themselves online and make a profit. What to do?
On NPR’s Sunday, Dec. 12 edition of All Things Considered, in a segment entitled “Universities Gain Power in the Literary World,” Chad Harbach, editor of the literary magazine n+1, discusses the shifting career path of the professional writer. Harbach argues that the majority of contemporary writers maintain a steady income not by publishing their works, but as teachers.
The university has replaced the publishing house as the writer’s most reliable source of income.
As Chad Harbach notes, in 1975, there were 80 degree granting creative writing programs in the United States. Now, there are 850. This explosion is a response to the needs of contemporary writers to earn higher degrees in order to support themselves, and the rising number of writers who have a degree and need to teach to pay the bills: A symbiotic relationship, if you will.
However, symbiosis requires a delicate balance, and it is hard to believe it will last forever. Creative Writing MFAs will be joining the glut of PHDs on the job market, competing for the same two or three jobs nationwide. MFAs are more likely to prefer part time and adjunct teaching positions than PHDs are, but they still have to support themselves and pay off staggering graduate school loans. Start writing Romance novels? (Read more about the sales explosion of Romance novels for e-books here.) Or keep that part-time job at the restaurant.
If you have to accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt before you can be a partially employed writer, there is something wrong with the system.
Chad Harbach also highlights how the MFA creative writing education has changed the nature of training writers acquire. Programs are often structured around the short story because MFA students critique and workshop shorter fiction, rather than, say, half of an unfinished novel. Ironically, publishing houses aren’t interested in publishing compilations of short stories like they used to, because they don’t sell. Novels sell. So there is a disconnect between what writers are taught to produce, and what they will be able to sell. This is reflected in the writing of today’s leading novelists: many of them are brilliant short story writers that publish novels – novels that are short stories sewn together into a larger, quilted whole. One great example, is Jonathan Franzen, and his novel Freedom. The first chapter was published in the New Yorker several months before the novel was released, and it worked excellently as an autonomous piece. Yet, the novel as a whole pales in comparison. It is comprised of several beautiful short stories, interspersed in a rambling, lazily edited mass of connective tissue. It is too prescriptive to reduce all writers to their training, and certainly, great novelists still exist, but the disconnect between marketplace demand and MFA training is undeniably present in the work of today’s writers.
So if you are an aspiring writer, it might be worth taking a look at MFA programs, reading up on Romance Novel industry, and watching Honest Grad School Ad on College Humor.com: http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1944515
and of course, keep on writing.
Rosie duPont BC ’10