You also make the point that if recognition comes right on the heels of graduation it’s a lot easier for the program to claim some credit.
Absolutely. It’s much easier to be able to say that there was a definitive effect if the person from your program comes right out of the gate with a big success. But after graduating, a lot of students then go on to do fellowships and residencies and workshops and things like that. So when success eventually comes, the question is, where did the crucial training come from. And can the writer even make a fair judgment of that?
So it must have been pretty difficult for you to come up with a top ten list.
I can say this. The top ten list was for the most part a poll. As I went around and did my various interviews, I did a lot of polling. What I tended to see was this. There were probably 5 programs that everybody agreed belonged in the top ten. But then there were probably 20 more that could have taken the other 5 slots. So for every one of the programs that did end up on the top ten list, there were as many if not more programs that could make an absolutely legitimate case as to why they’re just as good and should be there instead. Things that could be measured were certainly an important factor. If a program gives its writers more financial aid or has a smaller faculty-to-student ratio or is more selective (and therefore can offer workshops with better peers), then that makes it a little easier to rate one program a notch above another. But for the most part it was just a matter of talking to a lot of people, and hearing the same programs spoken well of again and again and again.
And of course one of the big ones is Iowa, which has been around the longest. I wonder if we could deconstruct Iowa a little bit. You mention that part of its draw is its “mythology.” How would you describe that mythology? And what observations did you make while you visited?
I joked to the folks at Iowa that they’re everybody’s favorite piñata. A good many people like to take a whack at them because they’re the big name. That includes a number of teachers at other programs who attended Iowa themselves and came out of it with some negatives to go with the positives and are now trying to avoid those negatives in their own programs. There’s also a certain amount of misinformation. I heard again and again that Iowa doesn’t fund some of its students. Apparently in past years students who had first-year fellowships were not guaranteed a second-year fellowship. And if they were turned down, they didn’t get kicked out of the program, but it was very difficult to finish. That was always perceived as a very brutal process. And even though that doesn’t happen anymore, the story persists.
One thing that’s interesting about Iowa is that when it was founded it flew in the face of the conventional wisdom, according to which, if you were a young writer you should go to New York or some other large city and congregate with other writers. What they basically did at Iowa was convince a whole lot of would-be writers that it was really better to get away to a small place in the Midwest—to sequester yourself almost in the form of a retreat—to really work on your writing.
The people there – as at a lot of the schools that are away from the hustle and bustle of the big city—really focus on building a community. Chris Tilghman at Virginia observed that one of the most difficult things to measure is a program’s sense of community. When the workshop ends, you’ve gotten a certain amount of progress. But does everyone then go to dinner together and continue the discussion that was begun in the workshop? Schools such as Montana and the University of Pittsburgh and Virginia and Iowa really spent a lot of time talking about the community they feel they’ve built; whereas in a larger city, it’s a little more difficult. People tend to go their separate ways. Community is part of what has made Iowa work.
Another interesting factor about Iowa is that it has looser requirements than a lot of other programs. But there’s also a lot of open-ended stuff that goes on constantly. For example, while I was there, Charles Baxter spoke. He did a reading in the evening and then the next morning he did a Q&A. And those events were absolutely jam-packed. From what I gathered, that’s how it always is; the people in The Workshop never want to miss a learning opportunity, even if it’s not a formal class.
Iowa’s faculty is a tremendous group of people. I’m a fan of virtually all of them. Overall, I think it really goes back to that basic name recognition. If everyone knows that Iowa is where you go if you want to be a writer, then it’s going to continue to get applications from people who are the most ambitious. So they do have that ability to select and bring together a really top-notch group.