The Best of the Best
A guide to graduate programs in creative writing.
Interviews: "Writers in Training" (July 16, 2007)
Edward J. Delaney discusses the country's best graduate writing programs and how to compare them.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop can be found in a quaint wooden house at the north end of the University of Iowa campus. The Workshop’s brand-new and clean-lined Glenn Schaeffer Library adjoins the house in the rear, as a fashionable offspring might flank a more elegantly dressed parent. In the library’s Frank Conroy Reading Room, which overlooks the gray waters of the Iowa River, are tall, glassed bookcases containing some 3,000 volumes published by graduates of the Workshop since it began, in 1936. Upstairs, in an unused office, are 16 large boxes of alumni books for which no shelf space is yet available. In a wire basket, on the desk of program associate Connie Brothers, are dozens of clipped reviews of recent books. “And those are only the ones I happen to have seen,” Brothers says.
The Writers’ Workshop is the best-known, most-established writing program in the country, and the books in that pantheon are both humbling and inspiring to the students there. “Most of us are still walking around amazed we got in,” says Drew Keenan, a 34-year-old former software engineer from San Francisco who gave that life up to spend the two years in Iowa’s M.F.A. program.
The students at Iowa, like the thousands of others enrolled in the growing number of graduate writing programs nationally, are infected with the fever of the emerging artist, and the desire to succeed against the sobering odds of the publishing landscape. Trying to assess graduate writing programs is like rating the top-10 party schools: You can count how many bottles go in, and how many empties go out, but you can’t prove the party was fun. Determining which writing programs are best is an alchemy of hearsay, tenuous connectors, certain measurable facts, and one’s own predilections about the art of writing. The number of graduate creative-writing programs has risen from about 50 three decades ago to perhaps 300 now. All have the presumed goal of training soon-to-be-published writers. But which ones promote the best new work, and how?
Each year, some 20,000 people apply for admission to these programs. Those accepted will, at least in theory, have access to skilled teachers, be surrounded by other talented rising writers, be funded in a way that lessens their financial constraint, and earn an entree into the world of books and writers. For all those reasons, the question of which programs are “best” has value beyond just “writer talk,” and the answers—there are many—aren’t always easy to determine.
One prominent consideration in rating these programs is, of course, reputation itself. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop may be the best example of a program possessing an aura that puts it high on everyone’s list: A common refrain is “Everyone applies to Iowa because it’s Iowa.” The Iowa franchise, which had a three-decade head start on just about everyone else, has become bigger than any of its measurable components. A mythology is a difficult thing to parse. But one source of reputation is the work and the renown of a program’s graduates. Among those thousands of would-be writers who apply, many are driven by the implied example of other notable writers who have emerged from one or another program.
Success, for a writer, is rarely immediate. And by the time success truly comes to pass, judging a writing program by that success can be like observing a star burning brightly in the sky after it imploded an eon ago. Richard Ford, an early product of the University of California at Irvine writing program, eventually won a Pulitzer for his novel Independence Day. But Ford didn’t really break through as a writer until he published The Sportswriter in 1986, some 16 years after getting his M.F.A. This measure often seems more meaningful when a newly minted writer has a quick success that seems directly related to having been in a particular program. Irvine saw its reputation spike after one student, Michael Chabon, got a $155,000 advance for his master’s-thesis novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which went on to become a best seller. (Chabon won the 2001 Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.) Alice Sebold’s memoir about being raped, Lucky, began as a 10-page writing assignment in an Irvine class. It was published in 1999, a year after she graduated; she followed it with her best-selling novel, The Lovely Bones.
Irvine, already a top program, could not have been hotter. “Chabon was the first of a series of people from our program who got a lot of attention, and because of that, we were getting huge numbers of applications,” says James McMichael, a poet and longtime UC-Irvine faculty member.
Across the continent, Boston University’s program director, Leslie Epstein, speaks of a particular group that has cemented BU’s reputation. It includes Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Peter Ho Davies, all of whom were quickly and resoundingly acclaimed after graduation. And at Michigan, 2004 M.F.A. grad Elizabeth Kostova earned a $2 million advance for her novel, The Historian, a year after she finished the program.
One shorter-term measure might be the annual Best New American Voices anthology, which publishes student work from graduate writing programs as well as from a host of non-degree-granting conferences and fellowships. Each program nominates two stories a year, and each entry is read blind by the final editor. In the series, published by Harcourt, the submissions of Iowa students have been selected more times than those from any other degree program, though both Virginia and Florida State have consistently had strong showings. (Oddly, Columbia, always considered a top program, has placed none.)
A seemingly accelerating trend is that of students graduating from two or more programs. The winner of the 2006 Booker Prize, Kiran Desai, had attended both the program at Hollins University (then a master of arts, now converted to a two-year M.F.A.) and the M.F.A. program at Columbia; her win was duly celebrated by proud announcements from both programs. “Program hoppers,” who might study briefly at two or more programs, or even get multiple M.F.A.s, also seem increasingly common.
In the simplest matrix for judging creative-writing programs, the first question is: Which well-known authors attended? The other question must be: Which well-known authors teach there? This particular scorecard celebrates the kind of fame that attends a writer who has achieved that rarest of feats: name recognition derived from writing literary fiction. (Genre writers seem rarely to have faculty positions in prestigious programs.)
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A single faculty-member writer who’s having a notable success often seems to trump a legion of others quietly publishing work that is respected but not widely celebrated. Columbia University’s Web site features its Nobel Prize–winning faculty member Orhan Pamuk, who began teaching last fall; Gary Shteyngart also recently joined the faculty. Boston University has the estimable Ha Jin, along with Robert Pinsky and Derek Walcott in poetry. Syracuse University’s fine M.F.A. program, once synonymous with Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff (who is now at Stanford), seems known these days for the short-story writer George Saunders and the poet and nonfiction writer Mary Karr. New York University has the novelist E. L. Doctorow and the poets Philip Levine and Sharon Olds.
In addition to helping students learn the craft of writing, good teachers can also be good advocates, connecting top students to agents and publishers. “Programs like Michigan, Iowa, Columbia, and Stanford put out great writers who publish strong stories and novels,” says New York agent Gail Hochman of Brandt & Hochman, “but perhaps more important than which program the student attended is which writers that student studied with. And we look favorably on anyone who has an M.F.A., simply because it shows they’re serious about their writing.”
At some programs, however, famous writers seem guilty of propagating the notion that writing can’t be taught at all. “Good faculty members don’t treat the job as if it’s a prize for writing a great book,” says Ben Marcus, the chair of the Columbia University M.F.A. program. “You’ll find a lot of people who run programs desperately trying to eliminate the attitude that nothing is really possible in these classes.”
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At Iowa, some of the faculty members work in large offices where their classes and workshops also meet, like one-room schoolhouses. Marilynne Robinson, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, says that the Iowa teachers, in their duty to the students, “are putting aside things we could otherwise be doing, such as our own work.” But elsewhere, employing writers with large reputations but little enthusiasm for teaching leads to exactly the type of disconnected instructor many former students rue.
“Spending your program’s money to buy a really famous person who’s just not much of a teacher isn’t a good idea,” says Eileen Pollack, an Iowa grad who directs the graduate program at Michigan. Many of the top writers at the top programs teach infrequently (one class in a year or year and a half seems typical), because their published works are believed to do more than their teaching for the program’s image. This is because writing programs must contend with the authorial “star system.” While the stars in most other disciplines are known chiefly to specialists, many of the big names in writing are cultural celebrities; having written The Book They Made Into That Movie, a famous author might even have currency with high-school seniors or alumni donors.
In the sense that a workshop is a meeting of working artists, however, “the work of a faculty member is extraordinarily important,” Marcus says. “It shows students their professor is laboring away, just as they are.”