MFA + NYC + Norway: Rebecca Dinerstein’s ‘The Sunlit Night’

dinersteinLast year, you may remember, n+1 magazine published a book called MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. Written by authors of varying opinions and experience levels, the collection nonetheless coalesces around an opposition in literary publishing, or at least within the literary mind. And this opposition hinges on a simple answer to a straightforward question: Did you come to be a novelist or poet or nonfiction writer by way of an MFA program — Columbia, Iowa, NYU, etc. — or were you educated in the school of life: New York City? Your answer to this question says something about your likely quality as a writer, or your longevity, or your style, or who your friends are, or your discipline level, or your current income, or whether you teach, or whatever.

Objections have been raised, to be sure, in the interim. But the opposition between MFA and NYC still possesses some heuristic value. There is, let’s be honest, a fair amount of workshopped sameness to many MFA novels, and books by NYC authors live or die by their self-perceived worldliness and cosmopolitan indifference.

Nevertheless, as the years go by — as the advances won from bidding wars are expended, as prized debuts make way for sophomore slumps — the MFA vs. NYC binary is often undermined by publishing’s favored third way. If you can overcome the opposition, if you can show that you possess the worked-over blurb-readiness of an MFA author as well as the savoir faire of a New Yorker — if you can show, in other words, that your bond with New York City is insoluble — you may find yourself the leading candidate for one of literary publishing’s six- or seven-figure advances. It’s not always a “versus” in other words; often, for the bigger money, it’s an ampersand.

Just take a quick look at the very recent evidence. In 2011, Virginia MFA graduate Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a novel he struggled to write and sell while living in New York City over many years — years when he worked as an editor of New York’s most respected intellectual magazine — earned a $650,000 advance. (Harbach, to drive the point home, edited MFA vs NYC.) Or take the forthcoming City on Fire, NYU MFA graduate Garth Risk Hallberg’s 900-page novel about New York City in the 1970s: $2 million.

And, this June, readers may find themselves in the cool grip of debut novelist Rebecca Dinerstein’s The Sunlit Night, a hybridized product of MFA workshopping and New York City upbringing. The novel was also (unsurprisingly) at the center of a bidding war that led to a “rumored six-figure advance,” as well its author’s upbuilding reputation. “Meet Rebecca Dinerstein,” London’s Telegraph wrote last month, “the latest US literary sensation.” “Meet” is the right verb. Most of us had no idea who she was.

Dinerstein — whose writing has been praised by Jonathan Safran Foer, perhaps the apotheosis of the contemporary New York writer — wrote her novel some time after a fellowship that took her from Yale, at the age of 21, to Lofoten, Norway. While there, she acquainted herself with the Norwegian language, learned to live in daylight that stretches for days, and wrote Lofoten, a book of poetry published in 2012. The present novel deals, in part, with her time there.

So, the question on everyone’s mind: does Dinerstein deserve the huge deal and international profile? That depends on your point of view. The novel, which tells the story of two young people — a native New York woman and an immigrant teen whose families are beset from every direction by textbook dysfunction, and who meet near the Arctic Circle to work it all out in the title’s sunlit nights — is paradoxically hobbled by the author’s more recent writing. This is to say that the less biographical sections about a family of Russian immigrants, apparently written while Dinerstein was an MFA student at NYU, are far superior to the more recently written, more autobiographical sections of the book.

But it hardly matters whether The Sunlit Night is a bad book — it isn’t. It’s merely uneven. From Big Publishing’s perspective, Dinerstein’s admixture of YA innocence and cultural tourism (Scandinavia is always added value for cosmopolitans) is precisely measured out for her audience. Or, to put it in the words of Frances, the novel’s protagonist:

Maybe they could teach me how to paint light. Maybe I could teach them how to paint buildings. Maybe they knew of whole new un-American colors. Colors New Yorkers would want to buy.

Dinerstein will likely write better books. But should she? The Sunlit Night is already striped with “colors New Yorkers would want to buy.”