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Generation MFA: Neoliberalism and the shifting cultural capital of US Latinx writers


This essay describes the emergence of an MFA generation of Latinx writers as a neoliberal phenomenon that offers critics another lens by which to understand the production and critical reception of US Latinx literature. I argue that, with academic institutions training and credentialing authors through creative writing programs, the market and culture of an MFA education informs generational shifts within the US Latinx canon. The disciplinary training of writers such as Ernesto Quiñonez, Rich Villar, Dagoberto Gilb, Julia Alvarez, Junot Díaz, and Sandra Cisneros provides a glimpse into the limited agency of these authors within racist and neoliberal institutions, particularly how they understand their positioning within the academy as writers of color. Looking at the variable and fluid status of authors within the US Latinx canon helps us think through the strengths and weaknesses of critical practices within US Latinx literary studies, as well as open up the possibility of alternative historiographies for contemporary US Latinx literature.

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  1. I use the term Latinx not only due to its currency within public and academic discourse, but also because it is a gender-inclusive alternative to the binary Latina/o.

  2. See Dalleo and Machado Sáez (2007) and Machado Sáez (2015).

  3. Helena María Viramontes is one example of a 1990s precursor to Quiñonez. With a significant publishing record, Viramontes returned to UC Irvine and completed her MFA in 1994, the same year that she was hired by Cornell, suggesting a similar pattern of credentialing to that of Quiñonez—her literary status as a creative writer had already been cemented via her publications, but these did not suffice for her entry as a tenure-track faculty member in the Ivy League academy (Viramontes 2015).

  4. Juan Flores emphasizes the role that cultural capital plays in the canonization of resident versus immigrant Latinxs, explaining cultural capital as a “differing relation to infrastructures of production and consumption” (2000, p. 177).

  5. For an analysis of how contingent labor fits into a broader trend of deprofessionalization with regard to college teaching, see Berubé and Ruth (2015).

  6. I’m riffing off of Villar’s term, “Poetic Industrial Complex,” which he borrows from Barbara Jane (Villar 2009).

  7. For example, when McGurl discusses the importance of Arte Público Press, he emphasizes that it was “housed by the University of Houston shortly after its founding in 1970” and interprets the success of the press in showcasing US Latinx literary talent as a sign that “it was above all the U.S. university that would sustain the symbolic connection of minority writers to a global pluralist space” (p. 331). Such a narrative implies that the institution of the University of Houston would have created this publishing forum of Arte Público without the initiative of Nicolás Kanellos.

  8. John Alba Cutler (2014) and Paula Moya (2014) have taken McGurl to task for primarily attributing the aesthetics of Sandra Cisneros’s The House of Mango Street to the pedagogical practices of creative writing programs.

  9. For discussions of multiculturalism as co-opted discourse, see Crystal Parikh (2009), David Palumbo-Liu (1995), and Arlene Dávila (2001).

  10. In other words, the cleanliness of the chart format demands that I either incorporate such a writer by breaking the ostensible rules I set up for generating this visual aid or excluding them altogether from consideration. I decided to err on the side of incorporation, with question marks signaling when I was making at best an educated guess about the writer’s educational status.

  11. As Dagoberto Gilb himself notes, “If you look back over the history of authors in and out of the system, writers before the 1970s wrote outside the academic system. Then in the 1980s, you started to see more and more writers graduating from writing programs like Iowa and Stanford. You had to go to school and have the credentials so that people took you seriously. Now it’s so entrenched, it’s like I’m so wild because I had a regular job and I was writing” (quoted in Aldama 2006, p. 115).

  12. It is worthwhile noting that Syracuse is at times understood as one contextual factor that explains the eleven- year gap between the publication of Drown and Oscar Wao: “After Drown, it was the only job offer he’d gotten, and he’d taken it. But Syracuse was a long way from anywhere for the writer. …Now he was alone, working in a cold, postindustrial relic of a city. It was taking its toll on his work…. Díaz was barely writing” (Bures 2007).

  13. Díaz’s title is also speaking back to Chad Harbach’s essay, “MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction,” originally published in n + 1 Magazine (2010). Harbach is himself responding to McGurl’s arguments about the MFA program era.

  14. Brouillette focuses on the historically specific context of Great Britain and how the New Labour party instituted economic policies that informed cultural production (p. 19).

  15. A historiography of canonization offered by US Latinx literary anthologies traces shifts in genre, with the centrality of poetry and drama to the ethnic-specific projects of the 1970s usurped by prose fiction in pan-ethnic anthologies, starting in the 1990s (Dalleo and Machado Sáez 2012, p. 391).


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I would like to thank my former colleagues at Florida Atlantic University as well as the participants at the 2014 Latino Studies Association conference for their helpful feedback on the first drafts of this essay. I’m particularly indebted to Rafe Dalleo, Carrie Johnston, and the anonymous reviewers of Latino Studies for their insightful comments on the final versions of this article.

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Correspondence to Elena Machado Sáez.

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Machado Sáez, E. Generation MFA: Neoliberalism and the shifting cultural capital of US Latinx writers. Lat Stud 16, 361–383 (2018).

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  • MFA
  • Canon
  • Racism
  • Neoliberalism
  • Literature
  • University