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.)
Interviews: "Same Planet, Different Worlds" (June 15, 2006 )
Gary Shteyngart, author of the novel Absurdistan, discusses American rappers, Azerbaijani kidnappers, and what makes satire serious fiction
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.”
Interviews: "Gilead's Balm" (November 17, 2004)
Marilynne Robinson talks about her long-awaited second novel and the holiness of the everyday.
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.”
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.”
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.
It’s Writers’ Week at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the topic is idiom. In a packed ballroom, a nonfiction writer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, takes students as well as locals through some thoughts about the craft; he’s one guest in a week in which the program turns its classes over to an array of distinguished writers. UNCW has gained notice by looking to reinvent the process, at least a little bit.
“We were pretty deliberate about being different,” says Philip Gerard of the school’s three-year M.F.A. program. “We were keen on not making the mistakes others have.” Gerard is decidedly tepid on regarding the traditional workshop as the ultimate pedagogical tool. “It can be a lot of people sitting around saying, ‘I liked this but I didn’t like that,’ and it can do more harm than good by creating a lot of defensiveness—that you learn from the workshop how to plug up all the holes. What we’re trying to do here is to say that crafting and polishing is wonderful, but something ragged and wild can be very exciting to the reader.”
Students in the UNCW program do other things. They write dialogue, and then see it performed by actors in a black-box theater on campus. They watch films to learn how to build scenes better. They attend “long-narrative workshops” to try to learn how to move stories beyond short-story length. “They need to figure out how to tell a longer story that doesn’t peter out,” Gerard says. “There’s a whole generation of writers that didn’t learn to do that.”
By and large, though, creative-writing programs seem to rest on traditional pedagogy: The workshop remains, for most, the hub of the wheel. The workshop format sets creative writing apart from most other disciplines in giving peers a strong voice in the development of each other’s work. Iowa’s éminence gris, James Alan McPherson, likens it to the midwestern concept of “neighboring,” of one crossing the road to help another with a crop.
Workshops are always useful, sometimes useful, or never useful, depending on whom one is asking. Many teachers of writing agree with Brooklyn College’s director, the Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, that in less-effective workshops, “you typically show up with work in hand, and people tell you what’s wrong with it.” Another hazard, he says, is the consensus nature of the workshop process, which can lead young writers to validate work that seems similar to other, generally acclaimed work; recall “all those years of fake Raymond Carver, followed by all those years of fake Denis Johnson.” Cunningham taught at Columbia before taking over the program at Brooklyn (where students rave about how generously he gives his time and attention to their work). “To heck with the idea of the ‘workshop kind of story,’” adds Virginia’s Tilghman. “There’s also a ‘workshop kind of workshop,’ with all these particular rules and guidelines. Really, we don’t have to sit around and have all these rules.”
While “workshop rules” traditionally require that each class member have a say in the discussion of a work, what does now seem out of fashion is the no-holds-barred approach of past decades when it came to voicing comments and criticism, which could be unnecessarily bruising. Ethan Canin, an Iowa faculty member and alum of its Writers’ Workshop, says he graduated from the program thinking, “I gave writing a try, but it didn’t work.” He noted that the students’ competitiveness could be “humiliating and degrading” but also sobering in useful ways. Canin, who graduated from Harvard Medical School after getting his M.F.A., later returned to Iowa to join the faculty after having published several acclaimed books. He teaches in a way that he says is derived from the process of scientific inquiry, beginning each workshop with a discussion of structure, rather than the “this didn’t work for me” tone that many workshops can take. He says he aims to be blunt when he must, without getting nasty: “About two-thirds of my students love me, and one-third hate me.”
“The ethos of the workshop has become much more polite,” according to the poet T. R. Hummer, who directs the three-year M.F.A. program at Arizona State University’s Piper Center—but still, “a good workshop leader can … probe a basic assumption until it begins to collapse.”
At Boston University, legions of students have carried on a love-hate relationship with the program’s plainspoken director, Leslie Epstein. “BU was a pretty competitive environment—a real and helpful spur to me,” says Peter Ho Davies, now teaching at Michigan, “though I’m not sure it was an ideal environment for all.”
Christopher Castellani has published two novels with Algonquin since finishing BU’s program. He says Epstein “used to read my work aloud in funny voices.” While Castellani says such treatment “can have short-term benefits for people who respond to it,” he confesses to feeling a perverse satisfaction when Epstein’s most recent book got banged around by one reviewer. Ha Jin, whom Epstein calls “the only true genius I’ve ever known,” has helped leaven the BU program.
Epstein is famously demanding, in a landscape that’s often blandly accepting. “Almost no one here gets an A,” says Epstein, who has high and clearly defined expectations for the program: “I don’t like super-literary fiction. I still want to be moved.”
Over the years, Epstein has condensed much of his teaching philosophy into what he calls his “tip sheet”—eight pages, double-spaced, beginning with a disquisition on punctuation, with special distaste for the ellipsis: “those three dreamy dots.” The tip sheet is a compilation of the specific—“Clowns, midgets, mimes and people wearing masks should be abjured,” he writes. “Nor am I a fan of wind chimes.” He moves on to larger perceptions about the process: “One must have in mind between sixty-eight and seventy-three percent of the ending. Any more than that percentage and the writer will be in a strait-jacket … Any less and the project will meander and find itself in danger of sinking into the swamp of indecision.”
Though one student has complained of being “paralyzed” by the demands of the tip sheet, Epstein says he wants to “give students something to react to.” He might have a point. In speaking to many creative-writing graduates, I frequently found a kind of buyer’s remorse: They’d come to bemoan the lack of specific criticism or guidance. But this lack appears to have come about by design. In most cases, the professors and program directors characterize their programs as places where writers can find some sanctuary from judgment. Cunningham says that at Brooklyn, “unless you simply don’t give a shit, you’ll get your A.”
“As a writer, you will be harshly evaluated for the rest of your life, by agents, publishers, critics, and readers,” says Columbia’s Marcus. “In a writing program, you want to have your work grow without a lot of hostility to work around.”
Many faculties characterize themselves as mentors and supporters of a writer’s progress. New York University’s program director, Chuck Wachtel, says, “I see it as not so much ‘teaching students’ as ‘helping them learn.’”
Interviews: "Faraway Voices" (June 14, 2004)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler talks about tapping into different points of view and writing "from the place where you dream."
But the Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler, who teaches at Florida State, differs. He and his colleague Mark Winegardner, the director of the program, have big, energetic personalities and have no problem saying that good teaching leads to good writing. “You can’t teach every piano player to be Thelonious Monk,” Winegardner says, “but no piano teacher seems tortured by the question of whether piano can be taught.”
Butler is devoted to something he loosely calls “method writing.” He believes that too many writers intellectualize their writing but never tap the deep emotions that create great art, and that the practice has led to an abundance of polished, bloodless prose. “Creative-writing students, who are typically trained almost exclusively in craft and technique, come to me knowing the second through the tenth things about being an artist,” Butler says. “But they don’t know the first thing about it.” In his workshop, students first struggle to find what Butler says is a primary element of a story: the yearning of the character. “Many don’t get it by the end of the workshop. Some will get it later. But some will never get it,” he says. “Not everyone is destined to be an artist.”
“Every program devotes 50 percent of its time to the workshop,” Tilghman says, “but the question may be what you’re doing with the other 50 percent.” Brooklyn, rather than requiring its students to take English classes, conducts its own “craft classes,” including one called “Time Management,” a semester- long look at how writers attend to the passage of time in their works.
Master classes are another way of connecting young writers with more-accomplished ones. For a day or a week, students can attend mini-classes or lectures given by a prominent writer. “Not every writer is a great workshop leader, or likes the informality typical of a workshop,” Tilghman says. “I suspect if Nabokov were alive, you wouldn’t find him and the students sitting around a table with someone saying, ‘Hey, Vlad, what do you think?’ He’d be doing a master class, and lecturing about writing.”
Surrounding events also have much to do with a program’s value. When I was at Iowa, guest speakers at the Workshop in a week’s time included the novelist Charles Baxter, who teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of Minnesota, Kiran Desai, and the poet Richard Kenney. Many lesser programs would build an entire semester around such events.
Some programs have taken more-definable approaches in their efforts to distinguish themselves. The University of Oregon’s program, which the poet Garrett Hongo revived by using what a former director called a “dojo” model, requires stringent graduate exams. In Pittsburgh, Chatham University offers an M.F.A. that focuses on nature, the environment, and travel. Indiana University’s prestigious three-year M.F.A. program is one of the few to offer a course in teaching creative writing. Winegardner says Florida State’s program will now partner with the university’s film school. The University of Arkansas has a highly regarded program in literary translation to go along with its four-year M.F.A. The University of Nevada at Las Vegas emphasizes global literature, and it funds fellowships from a donation by Glenn Schaeffer, the 1977 Iowa M.F.A. grad turned casino mogul and literary benefactor (for whom the Iowa Writers’ Workshop library is named). And one of the most exciting programs has yet to commence: The Rutgers-Newark Real Lives, Real Stories M.F.A. program begins this fall and will be led by the novelist Jayne Anne Phillips. The 36 writers entering the program range in age from 24 to 60; one-third are students of color, many are raising families, and some have ongoing careers in other fields.
Some programs, such as Mississippi’s and Brooklyn’s, seem to form around a dynamic teacher—Barry Hannah and Cunningham, respectively. The Hopkins program, once known for being led by the encyclopedic John Barth, is still identifiable as a place hospitable to metafiction and linguistic innovation (although the faculty also includes National Book Award winner Alice McDermott, who writes in a realist vein). Surrounded as it is by doctors and scientists who often don’t see the point of made-up stories, the Hopkins program has something of a bunker mentality and a feeling that it must constantly prove its seriousness. It prizes both rigor and inventiveness of language, says program director Jean McGarry. “If workshops are only about self-expression, then you have literary bums floating in and out,” she says.
Brown University’s Literary Arts Program may be the most unusual of all, a program that is habitually innovative. At 75, Robert Coover teaches “Cavewriting” in the Literary Hypermedia sequence. “Brown has the reputation of trying to reinvent the alphabet,” says Columbia’s Marcus, a graduate of Brown’s program. “I’d like to think a good program works against consensus.”
The emergence of Ph.D. programs in creative writing seems at times confounding. Is a Ph.D. something different, or more of the same? With more universities demanding doctorates for all tenure-track teaching positions, says Florida State’s Butler, “the Ph.D. is the new M.F.A., and the M.F.A. is the new M.A.” With only about 100 tenure-track faculty jobs in creative writing becoming available each year, and more than 2,000 graduate students emerging with new degrees in creative writing, the Ph.D. in creative writing may become more common.
Programs vary, but they all attempt to subject students to the same level of rigor as other Ph.D. candidates. The one at the University of Southern California, like many others, has its students take the same comprehensive exams as other doctoral students in English.
Another fast-growing segment of the market is the “low-residency” M.F.A. program. First developed at Goddard College in Vermont, the low-residency model appeals to people with careers. Students typically attend intensive 7-to-10-day residency periods in winter and summer, which emphasize workshops and offer direct contact with faculty members. With such a schedule, programs such as Bennington’s and Warren Wilson’s can attract star faculty members who are based elsewhere. Bennington’s faculty includes Amy Hempel, who also teaches in the M.F.A. program at Sarah Lawrence; Jill McCorkle, now at North Carolina State; and Sven Birkerts, who teaches at Harvard. Warren Wilson’s complement includes the novelist Robert Boswell, who teaches at New Mexico State; and the poet Tony Hoagland, at the University of Houston.
The low-residency programs distinguish themselves by working with generally older students. Many emphasize close, directed readings of as many as 30 books per semester. At a recent Goddard commencement, one graduating fiction writer referred to the event as “the moment we’ve all been annotating for.”
As the low-residencies have multiplied from a core of four programs two decades ago to nearly 30 now, some have found innovative ways to build identity. A couple of the newest are at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, which is converting its three-decade-old residential M.F.A. program to a low- residency model, and at Hamline University, which is adding a low-residency M.F.A. focused on writing for children and young adults to its residential M.F.A. program. Seton Hill University, in Pennsylvania, offers an M.A. in popular fiction, focusing on mystery, romance, sci-fi, and horror; the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast M.F.A. includes in its program young-adult and popular fiction and offers a residency in Ireland. Lesley University’s program includes a concentration in “writing for young people.” Antioch University at Los Angeles focuses on “literature and the pursuit of social justice.”
Not so long ago, graduate programs in creative writing were considered oddities; now it seems odd for an institution not to have such a program. And at least one consequence is that more good work is now in circulation than in the past. Canin says that when he began teaching at Iowa, “about half the stories I got were quite bad. Now hardly any are.” Highly regarded programs such as those at the universities of Montana, Alabama, and Indiana are seeing droves of graduates publish soon after finishing their M.F.A. or even while working on it. David Fenza, director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, says he sees a landscape changing in the way that television did when it shifted from three networks to more and smaller channels. “I think a lot of good work will be out there, much of it published by smaller presses.” The poet Chase Twichell, an Iowa grad who runs the nonprofit Ausable Press, says she gets about 600 submissions a year, “and the majority read like M.F.A. theses.”
But even in that formalization of the art through degrees and curriculum, the factors that make for a good program are an alchemy of the measurable and unmeasurable. And many still believe that the real writers, rather like the truth, will out, regardless of the pedigree of their program.
“Does any program really improve anybody, as much as simply identifying them?” asks Chang-rae Lee. “And, after identifying them, not ruining them?”