A Window into the Class Warfare of Creative Writing

A controversial ranking of MFA programs reveals deeper divisions

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Writers -- what with the dismal pay, the groveling for fellowships, and frequent public appearances at bookstores wedged between the children's section and the self-help aisle -- are not known for looking down on other people for being less successful that they are. (They look down on other people for reading those self-help books, sure.)  They generally leave the social Darwinism to the bankers. But if you want to see the result of combining worldviews of a working writer and a stock trader, read Scott Kenemore's piece in Slate today defending the high tuition of a Columbia MFA. Kenemore's direct target is not poor, unsuccessful writers (as compared to the author of six zombie books, some translated into Chinese, such as himself) but Poets & Writers's annual ranking of MFA programs, which ranked Columbia No. 47 this year in an effort, he says, to "shame Columbia into lowering" its pricey fees.

There are two kinds of writers, according to Kenemore. First the sort who Poets & Writers caters to:

Though Poets & Writers presents itself as an utterly neutral resource for scriveners of all stripes, the magazine is largely written for and by people focused on the teaching of creative writing as a profession. For this cohort, the Columbia model makes no sense. Why would you take out large student loans if you're just going to publish a few chapbooks (with, say, a print run of 500 copies each), settle into a nice teaching residency at the University of Northern South Dakota making $35,000 a year (less, of course, your subscription to Poets & Writers), and achieve tenure based upon your trenchant stewardship of the student literary magazine?

And then the ones who are willing to "brave and persevere in the real world where people" (see above) "often fail":

But--now the unspeakable heresy--what if your goal were … something else? What if your goal were to write a successful book that lots of people read? What if your goal were to become a person of letters whose writing was read and appreciated by those outside of MFA and academic circles? What if you even dreamed of securing thousands of dollars for something you had written?

And where do these future thousandaire writers go? Columbia, of course. A school "for people whose genitals still work," he writes.  Other writers, it should be noted, have problems with the P&W list, including 200 creative writing professors who signed an open letter criticizing the methodology and, vaguely, the notion of giving any ranks at all in such a field. (P&W issued a rebuttal.) But Kenemore's takedown has no problem at all with ranking things. Especially himself.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.