"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.
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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.