To MFA or Not to MFA, Behaving Like a Gentleman


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To MFA or not to MFA. That is the question. —D. G.

It depends on how you feel about putting off the inevitable. That’s what writing programs are for—to give young writers one or two years of camaraderie before they face the market, where writing lives or dies according to whether people will pay to read it. You can learn things in a writing program, of course. It can give you the sanction to spend your days reading and writing, if you need that kind of sanction. More important, it can offer a stipend. This is probably the best thing a program can do, beside helping you to realize if you have no talent. (This service tends not to be advertised.) But I find it hard to believe that spending so much time with other young writers—people so much like you—is good for the spirit, or makes you a more interesting person. Most living writers I admire (and most I don’t) have spent some time either studying or teaching in writing programs. So have I. And some, like the excellent Gary Shteyngart, seem to find them useful. At this point, I think, it’s hard to tell: so few young writers go it alone.

According to my girlfriend, I need to learn how to behave like a gentleman. Any characters I could follow? —Chris M.

As far as I know, the most perfect gentleman in literature is Charles Swann. The son of a stockbroker, Swann is equally at home with his father’s bourgeois neighbors, with seedy bohemians, or with the Prince of Wales. None of whom know about the other worlds through which he moves. Swann, a Jew, is somehow more aristocratic than any aristocrat. Alone among Proust’s male characters, he is free of snobbery. He has beautiful manners. He is a friend to all men.

As a boyfriend, however, Swann leaves much to be desired. In his dealings with women he is guilty, as Proust puts it, of “une certaine muflerie”—boorishness, in the Lydia Davis translation. “Swann did not try to convince himself that the women with whom he spent his time were pretty, but to spend time with women he already knew were pretty.” There tend to be a lot of these. Swann will often use his connections with a duchess, for example, in order to pick up one of her servants. But the real trouble starts when he falls in love. He is pathologically jealous, controlling, obsessive, bullying, and a sneak. Worst of all, he has terrible taste in life-partners. As he famously sums up, “To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!” (Reader, he married her.)

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