Interviews July 2007

Writers in Training

Edward J. Delaney discusses the country's best graduate writing programs and how to compare them

"Trying to assess graduate programs is like rating the top ten party schools,” writes journalist and fiction writer Edward J. Delaney in “ Where Great Writers Are Made,” his essay in this summer’s Atlantic fiction issue. “You can count how many bottles go in, and how many empties go out, but you can’t prove the party was fun.”

Delaney set out to assess the burgeoning—and predominantly American—phenomenon of the graduate program in creative writing.  Thirty years ago, he notes, there were 50 programs; today the number hovers around 300. Most of these programs offer a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing (some offer an MA). All claim to allow a certain amount of time for a student to work on the craft of writing in a chosen genre, and with completion, to confer a degree that will enable the writer (in theory) to find a teaching position in a university.

Also see:

"Close Reading" (2006 Fiction Issue)
Learning to write by learning to read. By Francine Prose

Flashbacks: "So You Want To Be a Writer" (August 14, 2006)
Wallace Stegner, Francine Prose, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others offer advice to aspiring wordsmiths.

"Writers and Mentors" (2005 Fiction Issue)
Rick Moody thinks back to his earliest years as a writer, and the kind of teaching that helped or hindered him.

"The Perils of Literary Success" (2005 Fiction Issue)
Her novel, unexpectedly, became a best seller. Then the fun began. By Curtis Sittenfeld.

Delaney made in-person visits to about 30 creative writing programs and interviewed program directors, faculty, students, and graduates of many more. The success of these programs, he found, was difficult to measure. Yes, publication of a highly regarded book soon after a student’s completion of the degree might mean that a program can share in the credit for that writer’s success. But what if the writer publishes ten years after graduation, when myriad other influences may have played a part? What if that writer’s graduate school mentors have since moved on to other programs or that writer’s success comes in a genre she didn’t study in graduate school at all?

And yet, as immeasurable—or meaningless, as some might argue—a degree in creative writing may be, Delaney found that there was enough consensus of opinion to produce a top-ten list.  In the resulting article—a piece that should be required reading for any prospective student in creative writing – he discusses his observations in depth.

There are many factors, he emphasizes, that an aspiring writer can consider in comparing MFA programs. Some offer students more funding. Some are smaller and focus on community in a way that the larger, more urban programs might not. Some offer teaching fellowships. Some  offer a  low-residency  option, which allows a writer to correspond with mentors by e-mail, only meeting for intensive week-long craft sessions once or twice a year. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop has been around the longest—it had about a thirty-year head start on the others—and its reputation, its output of successful writers, and, as Delaney notes, it’s “mythology” remain strong.

One measurable factor is the number of applicants a given program receives versus the number of students accepted. The University of California at Irvine, The University of Michigan, and The Michener Center at the University of Texas (the latter two of which are among the top-funded schools) each saw about 500 applications for their 5 or 6 openings. Those are tough odds.

In “The Words & the Bees: Advice for Graduating MFA Students in Writing,” D.W. Fenza, the executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, writes that MFA recipients are now so numerous as to be “part of a great democratic experiment in public access to higher education and the arts. [They] are part of a new plurality.” The MFA program is indeed an intriguing experiment, and its effect on American literature is something to watch closely. What does the growing popularity of these programs mean? Do these droves of aspiring writers bode well for American literature? Is it as problematic as it seems that more and more people are studying “serious” literary fiction while fewer and fewer Americans are reading it?

Delaney’s essay offers an instructive overview of the playing field, showcasing not only the most prominent schools, but also an array of lesser-known programs that nonetheless have strong reputations, strong teachers, a unique personality, or are doing something innovative in the classroom. (He notes there are also many other strong programs, however, that he didn’t have room to mention.)

A selection of Atlantic fiction by Edward J. Delaney:

"The Warp and the Weft" (November 2001)

"The Drowning" (March 1994)

Delaney himself is both a journalist and fiction writer. He has written a novel, Warp & Weft and a collection of short stories, The Drowning and Other Stories, a number of which were first published in The Atlantic. Before trying his hand at fiction, he received an MA in journalism from Boston University, and he now teaches mostly journalism classes at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Like countless writers before him, he learned to write fiction simply by writing and by reading other great writers; proof that getting a graduate degree in creative writing is not the only way to learn how to write.

Jessica Murphy


How many creative writing programs were you able to visit? And while you were there what were you looking to observe?

I visited about 30 schools and did phone interviews or in-person interviews with people at another hundred to 150. A lot of the interviews I did were at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Atlanta. At the places I visited I wanted to get a feel for the curriculum and what role the workshop plays in the teaching of creative writing. I found that at most places the workshop is still the center of what’s done. So the next question was, What are they doing outside of the workshops? If 50% of your curriculum is the workshop, the other 50% may range from literature courses to specialized craft courses to things like guest speakers and other outside activities. On paper, some programs might not seem to have the most cutting-edge curriculums, but a lot of them bring in so many different types of speakers and have so many different types of outside events that they basically fulfill the same goals.

The workshop seems to be the main mode of teaching, but not everyone is in agreement about its value as a pedagogical tool. When I interviewed Francine Prose last year, she said she doesn’t teach workshops anymore. She prefers to teach classes on close reading because she feels that close reading is a better way to learn to write. What are your thoughts on that? Did you hear that view expressed by others?

I did hear that from some.  If you’re in a top program where you can virtually guarantee that every student coming in is extremely well read, highly motivated, talented as a writer, and has a desire to help the others in the workshop, then the workshop can really function well. One workshop I particularly enjoyed was at Boston University with Ha Jin. The perceptiveness of the students and the way they helped their fellow students work through a piece really seemed to strike the right tone. A lot of that comes from the faculty member, who is as much a facilitator in this dynamic as a teacher. But at some of the newer or less selective programs, I found that you do tend to get a high number of students who haven’t read much. I met students at some of those programs who, while they seemed to be very capable writers, were only beginning to read seriously as graduate students. And if the workshop is made up of people who don’t have a lot of reference points, that tends to be less effective.

To what extent did you find that MFA programs today are stressing reading within their curriculum? Do some stress it more than others?

There’s definitely a range. There was one creative writing professor I talked to who completely dismissed the whole notion of having to be well read. He used himself as an example, and explained that before he came to writing he had only read a small number of acclaimed works, and that those few had been enough to give him the momentum to want to become a writer. The question for most is not should you read, but what should you read? Are you better off reading a work that is generally considered a classic? Or are you better off reading a lot of works that have been successful and acclaimed in the last ten years? Someone I interviewed pointed out that if you want to learn to make movies, Sure, it’s good to watch Citizen Kane, but what you really need to know is what came out last year. At some of the top programs, I think there is just a presumption that the students are already well read and that the focus should now be on the writing. But some of the students at those top programs admitted they hadn’t done all that much reading beforehand.

Did you see any innovative structures within the workshop setting? I know there are a lot of different ways to set up a workshop, so I wondered whether sitting in on so many had introduced you to any that worked especially well.

They seemed in a lot of ways much the same. On the workshop level you’re mostly dealing with shorter pieces and addressing their most visceral elements—the things that people can react immediately to. Dealing with chapters of a novel over a longer period of time, though, is more difficult; it’s a lot to ask your fellow workshoppers to stay with something like that over a sustained period of time. So one workshop that I found to be especially innovative was at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington where they had specifically put together a class on how to do those longer works.

What were some of your general impressions of the teachers you met?

Teachers of creative writing today are far, far more serious and devoted to the art of teaching than their predecessors.  I interviewed a lot of people who went to creative writing programs twenty, thirty years ago and felt that they really didn’t get much from their faculty. A lot of the faculty in those days tended to focus mostly on their own writing. And the workshop model sometimes turned into a racket for people to sit back, let the students do the work, and not really bring that much to the table themselves.

You’re a writer. You’re a teacher. You have a background in journalism, and you also write fiction. But you don’t have an MFA. Before there were MFA programs, people learned to write in other ways. How did you get into writing? And how did you learn to write?

That’s right – I didn’t go to a creative writing program.  When I was an undergraduate I wasn’t even vaguely aware there was such a thing. I wasn’t that worldly. I went to Boston University’s school of communications because I wanted a job where I could get paid to write. So that brought me to journalism. And of course, when you’re in a newsroom of any size, there are a lot of aspiring writers—people with the proverbial novel in their top drawer. Over time I moved from being a news reporter to a feature writer and then on to a columnist. And as that evolved I became interested in doing more creative types of writing. As of my early 30s I still didn’t think I’d ever try writing fiction. But eventually I began to make the switch.

It’s interesting that I’m the one who ended up writing this article. I think one of the reasons The Atlantic asked me to do it was because I didn’t have many predispositions or any particular kind of loyalty. I couldn’t be accused of favoring a certain program or type of program; it was all new to me. One of the driving questions I kept asking myself was: What did I miss as someone who didn’t get to do this myself? It’s hard to say. The natural presumption is that if one goes to a graduate program in creative writing, one has to get at least a little better. I’ve never heard anyone say that their writing was ruined by a creative writing program.

One interesting thing to note is that many people attribute their improvement more to their mentor than to the program itself. Often there are programs within programs, where one faculty member has a certain way of looking at things and another does things a completely different way. The result is a program that lacks cohesion, but it gives students an opportunity to find someone congenial whom they can apprentice themselves to.

I’ve heard some writers say that the creative writing degree and the two years it gave them to really focus on their writing probably saved them time. They feel they’ve made gains more quickly than they might have had they just done the reading and writing on their own.

I’m sure. Anyone who’s been through a program where they’ve had to work hard and learn things about their own writing has to be helped by it – especially if they’ve gotten thoughtful, well-meaning guidance.

One of the points you make right up front in your essay is that ranking MFA programs is somewhat of a slippery thing; it’s hard to pin down. Why is it so hard to measure an MFA program’s success?

It was amazing how many times I was given “facts” about a program that were simply not true and hadn’t been true for a long time. For example, even as recently as a week ago, I was chatting with someone who told me that Columbia’s program doesn’t give tenure to its faculty and that they use nothing but part-timers. In fact, that was never completely true, and what was a bit true hasn't been in years. So you have to be aware that when you do a poll or you informally interview people about these programs, they may be operating on misperceptions and out-of-date information.

Another factor is that with these programs there’s usually a certain lag time before it becomes clear whether its graduates are finding success. Harvard Law School can measure its success by something as simple as the percentage of its graduates who pass the bar exam. Or they can gauge how many of its graduates are getting jobs at the top law firms. But with writing programs, it’s understood that for the most part these writers are going to spend a decade or more after graduation toiling away in obscurity, just continuing to work on their craft. So if a student in a program has some success 10 or 15 years later, is that an adequate measure of the program as it exists now? It’s easier for a program to claim that credit if there’s been a lot of faculty stability. If a student who studied with writer X 15 years ago meets some success and writer X is still working at the same institution, then that would seem to be a more accurate measure.

Then of course there’s the question of how one even determines what success means. The traditional measure is: Have you published a hardcover book of short stories or poems or a novel? But a graduate creative writing student from the Columbia program just won a big award at the Sundance Film Festival. As some of these creative writing students move out into the world and start getting into other media and find success there – in television or film or wherever, should they be viewed as successful or unsuccessful in terms of their writing? There are all kinds of new and innovative ways that writers are finding success these days. One of the most interesting places I visited was Brown University, where they don’t call it creative writing; they call it the Department of Literary Arts. Some of those students are working on fiction that can be sent on a cell phone, or in hypertext, and things like that.

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.

Now that you’ve done all this research, if you yourself were a student just graduating from college and wanting to go into creative writing, which program might you choose to attend and why?

Funding would definitely be a crucial factor. At a well-funded school like Texas or Michigan or Virginia or Brown, you can spend a good deal of time focused on your writing and then when you come out you don’t necessarily have to get a “legitimate” job in order to pay off your loans. It just makes things easier. And in my own situation, when I was getting out of undergrad, money would have been really important.

It’s hard, even for the students at a place like Iowa; you have to kind of sell this idea to your family and friends—that you’re going away for a couple years and that you’re going to try to write poems or short stories.  There are an awful lot of people who don’t get that. I talked to one student at Iowa who previously had been working at a small newspaper. She said that the people at her newspaper were mystified as to why she’d give up a paying job to go study creative writing. To say that that’s what you want to do and that even after you get out it will probably take years to have any kind of real success, that’s a tough sell.

Can you speak a little bit about some of the strengths of the low-residency programs?

Those were fascinating. One of the most important strengths is that they’re for the most part drawing older students. I visited Bennington and Goddard during the week that they had their residencies. The students tended to be in their 30s and 40s and they tended to have far more diverse interests in terms of what they wanted to write about.  They seemed to look at this as a wonderful opportunity to kind of—I shouldn’t say “legitimize”—but to kind of honor the writing that they otherwise do quietly after work or early in the morning or whenever it may be. These people have stories to tell. When you’re in a room with a bunch of people who have had some life experiences, it’s going to produce a different type of writing.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Sentence by Sentence" (April 17, 2006)
Short story writer Amy Hempel talks about forensics, seeing eye dogs, and her new Collected Stories.

The other big advantage of the low-residencies is the faculties that they’re able to assemble. I look at Bennington’s as an example. They had some tremendous people there because they teach at other programs during the year but they’re able to come up and be there for this set period of time. At one of the workshops I sat in on at Bennington, David Gates and Amy Hempel co-taught the workshop, and it was just a pleasure to sit back and listen to what they had to say about writing.

You mention in the piece that some programs are selling themselves by getting big-name writers. It seems to me that there could be pros and cons to that.

I remember a story about Bobby Orr, the great hockey player back in the 70s. Bobby Orr tried coaching at one point, and he said, “Well when the puck goes down here, just do this.” And all the players just looked at him dumbfounded and said, “But you can do that because you’re Bobby Orr.” There are some very talented people out there who just do what they do almost unconsciously. And then there are others who succeed by examining what they’re doing and breaking it down to its elements and really understanding the process. There are great writers of both types. But one is going to be a better teacher than the other.

One of the teachers who just seemed to have the absolute unanimous affection of his students was Michael Cunningham at Brooklyn College. It takes a lot of his time to be able to devote himself to those students. You can’t always guarantee that. There were professors at some other schools who barely seemed to show up. So I think that there are two questions to ask. One: Is this person, apart from being successful, really able to articulate what it is that works? And two: Will this person, who obviously wants to continue producing good work, put the brakes on that work to some degree in order to really spend time with the students in the program? It’s always a difficult balance.

I wonder whether having a lot of big name writers also perpetuates the myth that that’s how you make it as a writer—that it’s a direct and easy path with a dramatic payoff.

Well, considering that there are fewer opportunities these days to make significant money publishing serious fiction, then any given writer is either going to have to a) do less serious and more profitable types of writing or b) take some sort of other job that will keep them solvent. There are some, but not many of the John Updike model, who make a living day in and day out by writing. So an appointment to a well-paying, prestigious university that allows you the time to write is sort of a plum. And the question then becomes: what do they do with that? Are they comfortable teaching? Do they enjoy teaching? Is it something they look forward to doing? Or would they rather just not?

What do you teach?

I primarily teach journalism. But I do teach some creative writing classes.

Do you use the workshop format?

Rarely. The courses I do tend to be more craft courses, and since it’s undergraduates, it’s a different ballgame. A student doesn’t get as much benefit from the perspectives of folks who aren’t as well read. If someone writes a certain type of story, a lesser-read person might say, “Oh that’s wonderful, that’s brilliant.” But a better-read person might say, “You know, that’s a rip off of Tobias Wolff. You’re mimicking.” That becomes an important distinction.

There’s also a common criticism that the workshop turns out cookie-cutter stories that are distinguishable as “workshop” stories. I’ve heard people say they can identify the workshop story. Is this a phenomenon you’ve seen? In the piece, you do mention the “generations of Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson imitations.” 

As I talked to people for this piece, what I kept hearing was that there really isn’t a “workshop” type story, but that there is to some degree a twentysomething story. It’s not so much the workshop that’s producing this work; it’s more the point in life at which the student is writing.

Why don’t “genre” writers tend to get faculty positions in prestigious writing programs? Is it snobbery? And will that maybe start to change?

There is definitely an orientation at most of the better programs to teach a certain type of “serious” fiction. A couple of people I asked about that seemed to feel that if you learn to write serious fiction, you’ll learn the basics of good writing and that you can always then apply that to genres later because genre writing is more formula based.

What advice would you give to a young writer who’s about to go into one of these programs?

There were some people in those workshops who clearly thought they already knew what good writing was. So they tended to criticize from a particular position they had already taken. That seems a shame. Because there are an assortment of people in a program—both faculty and peers—who can really help you shake up all your perceptions about writing. And that would seem to me to be the best part about being there.  If you’re really looking to be a better writer, why not be open to every suggestion and see what happens?

There also seems to be a growing perception that the work you do while you’re in the program should be the work that you get published rather than as the stuff you work on in order to learn how to write. The result is that many people are getting too narrowed down too soon. Students who bring work they’ve already been working on for years find it especially difficult to free themselves from what they’ve been doing. Several of the faculty members I spoke to said that what we need to help the students understand is that your best writing isn’t going to happen for years, so loosen up, be open to suggestions and really try to something different for the sake of trying something different. That competes with that natural desire to prove as soon as possible that it was worth going away to school for this. Someone who simply graduates with an MFA may feel they have a less defensible position than someone who graduates with a book contract.

If you were to give advice to a graduate of one of these programs what would it be?

I guess I’d have to quote Chang Rae Lee [the Korean-American novelist who teaches writing at Princeton] who I talked to and who basically said that you have to recognize that the degree in and of itself only does so much. If someone goes to Harvard for an MBA, one can presume that that becomes their calling card. But even with the top programs, this may be how you get rolling, but there’s a whole lot more to do from here.

I went to the AWP convention, which had a huge number of attendees who were either currently in programs or had recently graduated. It was interesting to talk to groups of people from various programs who had been out maybe two or three years. They were using the convention as something of a reunion opportunity. And they were definitely comparing notes on who had published, how many stories or poems in what publication, and so on. Certain people were like racehorses—way out in front. And there was an inordinate amount of attention focused on who had accomplished what. Because people were trying to figure out, to some extent, whether it had been worth going to a program like this.

That can be really tough, that kind of competitiveness.

Right. If Student A, or recent graduate A gets published in a top magazine or quarterly, and the other writer’s struggling away and hasn’t really published anywhere yet, does that mean anything? It may well not.

Some of these programs are extraordinarily selective. Your piece points out, for example, that last year Johns Hopkins only admitted two fiction writers.

That’s right.

That’s really tough odds for the applicant. In terms of the application, would you say that the writing sample is the most important part?

That’s what I kept hearing. It can be frustrating that you can’t send them 500 pages of your work so they can really get a sense of it. Instead, you send them somewhere from 10 to 50 pages on average and from that some sort of determination gets made. A couple of the people I spoke to in some of the better programs talked about how they had agonized over whether to send this short story or that one, or a little of this and a piece of that, because they understood how crucial the samples are.

A number of the top programs told me, “We had 12 slots,” let’s say, for fiction writers. “We offered our first twelve, and all twelve accepted and came here.”  I heard that from a number of the top programs, and I know that a lot of students apply to all of these programs. So it suggests to me that each of these programs, either consciously or unconsciously, is choosing certain types of writers. That then shapes what their programs are like. For example, if Michigan gets all the writers that they offer places to on the first round and Iowa gets all theirs and Irvine gets all theirs, and yet all these people applied to all three programs, then that suggests that there is no absolute as to who are the best. It’s a matter of something about each of their writing appealing to someone in a particular program, which indicates a good match.

That’s encouraging, I think. It sounds like they’re really reading and choosing very carefully.

It seems they are. They say they are. They made a lot of the fact that January is usually crunch month, where you’re just sitting and reading and reading and reading because, ultimately—especially with the programs that only accept 5 or 6—these are really crucial decisions that can’t be taken lightly.

You write that “at some programs, famous writers seem guilty of propagating the notion that writing can’t be taught at all.” You probably can’t say who these people are, but my first reaction was: Who are these people? And why do they say this?  Aren’t certain elements of craft teachable? And why is writing such a strange art in this way? An artist teaching someone about visual art or a musician teaching someone about music probably wouldn’t be doubting whether they really have anything to teach.

Well, there are a certain number of people teaching in the programs who just feel like there are no absolutes. They may well be right. But for students, for whom knowing a few absolutes is at least one way of feeling like they’re getting something out of their education, it can be frustrating. What you tend to find is that there are some teachers who would say, “Never say never,” and then there are those who would say “No, always be sure to follow such-and-such rule.”  One thing that people tend to disagree over, for example, is whether you should always know where your story is headed as you’re writing it, or whether you should just let it unfold and see what happens. There are teachers who don’t want to get pinned down saying one or the other. But a lot of the students I talked to seemed to react better to hearing something specific, even if they disagreed with it.

Some of the teachers that I talked to said they would prefer not to even give grades if they had their way. They’d rather set things up like the Stegner fellowships at Stanford where people are supported in their writing and given some feedback, but nothing gets assigned value; you just try to help people move from one step to the next. But some students, particularly at Ivy League schools, said that people in departments other than creative writing don’t take them very seriously, because there isn’t that heavy attrition that goes on in a law program or a medical program. People view it as unserious because once you’re in, pretty much everybody passes.

You have a section at the end of your article about the PhD. There are a number of people writing about this. A recent Poets & Writers article raised the same question that you did about whether the creative writing PhD will be the new MFA. Do you think it’s the new degree people will need to get in order to get teaching jobs? What, in your view, are the ramifications of this potential move into the creative writing PhD?

The US News College Rankings puts a fair amount of weight on the percentage of your faculty who have PhDs. But let’s say you have a business school. Would you rather have someone who’s worked in finance or advertising and has an MBA from Harvard, or someone who has a PhD in business but has never actually worked in business?  The students I talked to about PhD programs weren’t that enthusiastic about the idea. They feel their writing is an art, and they didn’t want to intellectualize it too much.

Do you think the creative writing PhD could have an interesting effect on the traditional PhD in literature? Could it bring fresh eyes to literary theory?

I did note at a lot of programs that there seemed to be a real sense that the people over in the English department had kind of lost touch with what’s really going on in writing and had become much too theoretical and abstract. So maybe the people getting their PhDs in creative writing now are the ones who used to get their PhDs in English years ago – the ones who really want to talk about good stories and have a knowledge base that can illuminate that.

You note that the number of creative writing programs has gone from 50 to about 350 in the last 30 years. What do you think this proliferation means for literature in America?

One thing I found interesting is that as publishers are publishing less and less serious fiction, there are more programs in which the focus of the writing is exactly that. Other than the low-residency programs, which have gone more into genre work, most of the standard programs don’t pay a lot of attention to anything other than what you might call literary fiction. It becomes a very difficult market for all those new writers. So I think there will be good work being done on all kinds of levels, but probably not a tremendous profit motive.

Presented by

Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is the 2006-2007 Milton Center writing fellow in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and her fiction has appeared in Memorious magazine.

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