Essays Fiction Issue

Where Great Writers are Made

Assessing America’s top graduate writing programs
Selectivity

Programs such as those at Virginia, Syracuse, and UC-Irvine take as few as five or six students a year in fiction, and five or six in poetry, while Iowa takes 25 in each and Columbia takes about 35 in each. Last year, Johns Hopkins University’s two-year M.F.A. program admitted only two fiction writers out of 260 applicants. Iowa director Lan Samantha Chang says Iowa had about 1,300 applicants for its 50 total slots.

“Sometimes we’re accused of not being willing to expand,” Irvine’s McMichael says. “We say we would, if we felt the quality of the pool argued for it. Sometimes we have some trouble identifying more than four people we really want.” With those exacting standards come certain pressures, “but we’ve had some years where every member of the class ends up with a book contract,” McMichael says.

In writing, more than in almost any other academic discipline, “the content walks through your door,” says the novelist Christopher Tilghman, who teaches at Virginia. There and at Irvine and Michigan and Texas, to name a few, the numbers of applicants are staggering—often 500 or more. The eventual notoriety or prominence of one’s program can be made or broken in that first step.

At Virginia, the fiction faculty meets in Tilghman’s living room to hash out the choices. Almost every program director says virtually the same thing about the process: GREs, college grades, and what institution one attended as an undergrad are nearly meaningless, used at best as tie-breakers. Of main importance is the short writing sample each student submits for consideration. Almost exclusively from that sample of 10 to 50 pages or so, the selectors must try to divine talent, ambition, teachability, and collegiality—the four critical elements of the ideal apprentice writer’s makeup.

Ha Jin says, “Looking at the writing samples allows you to get to a list of 30 to 40 out of the 300. From there, each person in some ways deserves to be accepted. That’s where other factors enter the discussion.” Here may be where the personality of a program is truly shaped, even if not consciously. For example, he says, “what if you have someone applying who has already published four books? Is that person really willing to consider re‑ examining his writing?” Others worry that applicants who have already published extensively are looking for the degree only as a teaching credential.

At Michigan, where each applicant’s work gets read by at least two faculty members, Pollack says, “you’re still trying to think of how this writer will fit into the community.”

Funding

When the historical novelist James Michener endowed the University of Texas with $20 million to support a writing program, the university “started to get good writers,” says James Magnuson, director of the James A. Michener Center, probably the top program in the country in funding creative-writing graduate students. The Michener Center gives its writers free tuition, a $20,000 annual stipend for three years with no teaching responsibility, and a $6,000 “professional development fund” for travel and research.

Texas has the distinction of being a university with two graduate programs in creative writing, which seems something like being a college with two basketball teams. The Texas English department offers a two-year M.A. in creative writing in poetry or fiction, and the Michener Center is a three-year M.F.A. program that requires its students to work in two of the four disciplines offered—playwriting, screenwriting, poetry, and fiction. While paying customers might be more attracted to a program that confers a degree in fewer years, the Michener Center “offers the gift of time,” Magnuson says. “We sometimes overvalue what we do as teachers, when it’s about just letting people write.”

In 2005, University of Michigan alumna Helen Zell donated $5 million to the university’s graduate program in creative writing, to be spent quickly to build the program’s reputation. While Michigan had already been considered one of the country’s top 10, the donation allowed the program to claim to be, as director Eileen Pollack puts it, “one of the top two programs in the country.” Michigan M.F.A. students have their tuition waived for both years. In the first year, each receives a $20,000 stipend; in the second year, each student teaches and receives a slightly smaller amount. Michigan increased its stipend in February from $18,000, in part to match that given by Texas, raising the stakes for the University of Virginia, which had already increased its award to keep up with Michigan’s former rate.

“This has changed everything,” says Virginia’s Tilghman. Virginia was concerned enough to reduce the six or seven available slots in its program to five or six in order to boost its financial award (now about $15,000 for first-year students, Tilghman says). His colleague Ann Beattie is more direct: “It doesn’t compute to do all this work, only to lose people to other programs. We’re not talking about huge amounts.” Cornell takes only four poets and four fiction writers a year, funding them nearly as well as Texas; its faculty-to-student ratio is a touch more than 1:1. Across the country, Irvine’s McMichael says that after these award increases, “we lost two top candidates to Texas, and we had really not been losing anybody we’d accepted before that.”

Another program that may be on the rise is the one at the University of Washington; last October, it was promised a $15 million donation in the will of philanthropist Grace Pollock. At 87, Pollock is alive and well, “but we have time to plan how we’ll use the money,” says director Maya Sonenberg. The program’s faculty boasts three MacArthur “genius grant” recipients, including novelist Charles Johnson.

When programs are assessed on the basis of the financial support they offer, Columbia fares relatively poorly. Its Web site lays out the applicant’s cost bluntly: The estimated total per year, including materials and living expenses, is $50,000.

Criticism of Columbia has been harsh from those who can’t comprehend how a university with a $6 billion endowment could not find a way to fund a few poets and fiction writers. But the history of the School of the Arts, which houses the writing program along with film, theater, and visual arts, has often been one of marginalization.

Dan Kleinman, acting dean of the School of the Arts, says that in its first 25 years or so, the school “was a bit of a backwater, created and left to its own devices.” Little more than a decade ago, Columbia’s creative-writing program rarely tenured faculty, had high turnover among its professors, and got little help with fund-raising. All through, students got little aid. Marcus says that up to now, “it’s our dismal fellowship situation that really hamstrings us.”

Columbia, as a consequence, has lost out on a number of applicants. Roman Skaskiw, a 30-year-old Stanford grad and former Army captain who served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was accepted at Columbia, “but when they told me what it cost,” he said, “it made my decision very easy.” He’s at Iowa, which now funds all its students (although not equally) for both years.

Marcus believes that with greater financial aid, Columbia’s would be “right up there among the most serious, attractive programs in the country.” And good news came to the program in June. Columbia President Lee Bollinger pledged to provide the School of the Arts an additional $1 million annually in financial aid for graduate students, a chunk of which will go toward the M.F.A. program. While there are no firm plans yet for disbursing the money, “I suspect it will be used to match other institutions to get the students we most want,” said Kleinman. “I also hope it will stimulate fund-raising, as it’s another sign of the support the [M.F.A.] program has from administration.” Students entering during the 2008–2009 academic year will be eligible for the increased assistance.

The financial-aid escalation at the top programs has been like an arms race among superpowers. Brian Evenson, director of Brown University’s Literary Arts M.F.A. program, echoes a growing attitude among the top programs: “With the struggle it already is to start one’s career as a writer, we feel it’s unethical of us to give the students a large debt to carry around with them. We admit only people to whom we can give financial support, which is why our program is so small.”

“One worries—especially if people are paying tens of thousands of dollars for a worthless degree,” says the novelist Chang-rae Lee, currently the director of the creative-writing program at Princeton. His program doesn’t offer a degree but gives its Hodder Fellows the opportunity to write with financial support (like Stanford’s Stegner Fellows and the fellows of the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing, which now is associated with Wisconsin’s newer M.F.A. program). Lee, a former director of Hunter College’s M.F.A. program, says, “I did tell my students at Hunter that only if you publish a book or two does the degree become worth anything at all.” He notes that public universities such as Hunter and Brooklyn College can’t give much money, but don’t charge very much, either.

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