There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 1,269! This explosion has created a huge source of financial support for working writers, not just in the form of lecture fees, adjunctships, and temporary appointments — though these abound — but honest-to-goodness jobs: decently paid, relatively secure compared with other industries, and often even tenured. It would be fascinating to know the numbers — what percentage of the total income of American fiction writers comes from the university, and what percentage from publishing contracts — but it’s safe to say that the university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world. This situation — of two complementary economic systems of roughly matched strength — is a new one for American fiction. As the mass readership of literary fiction has peaked and subsided, and the march of technology sends the New York publishing world into spasms of perpetual anxiety, if not its much-advertised death throes, the MFA program has picked up the financial slack and then some, offering steady payment to more fiction writers than, perhaps, have ever been paid before.
Everyone knows this. But what’s remarked rarely if at all is the way this balance has created, in effect, two literary cultures (or, more precisely, two literary fiction cultures) in the United States: one condensed in New York, the other spread across the diffuse network of provincial college towns that spans from Irvine, California, to Austin, Texas, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Tallahassee, Florida (with a kind of wormhole at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at The New Yorker offices on 42nd Street).