Here we go again (Iowa yay! Iowa boo!)

Even as I link to this Galley Cat piece, I regret yet again lifting the lid on such a fruitless squabble and re-releasing those noxious fumes, but there are some who like to get their ire up every quarter, and this is a blog about the topic in question, so here you go. In brief: An MFA Handbook has downgraded Iowa out of the top ten MFA writing programs. Now that I think about it, this could be a brilliant publicity stunt to boost sales for the book.


Saltwater Farmer said...

I've been reading Kealey's blog for months now and I read the Handbook last weekend. To be fair, Kealey bases his "rankings" primarily upon funding for students. I think he is more than fair in his description of The Writer's Workshop. He is looking from the outside in, after all. Spend some time on his blog and you'll see what I mean.
I recommend his book and blog to prospective MFA applicants. Heck, in the EarthGoat interview with Lan Samantha Chang, it's clear that competitive funding is an issue she wants to address during her reign.

Pete said...

As a Sox fan, it kills me to say this, but I think it is the only way:

I suggest we all take play out of Derek Jeter's book. After all, we do "play" for the NY Yankees of MFA programs. Have some class, nay INSIST on how classy you are. Don't acknowledge the "Yankees Suck!" chants. Don't get mad when a man holds up his button-nosed child so she can scream at the top of her lungs about how you swallow semen. Just take your swings, all the while saying to yourself, over and over, under your breath: "Mystique and Destiny, Mystique and Destiny, Mystique and Destiny."

ihateiowaww said...

Don’t even go there. Yankees play fair. I never heard of Yankees players trashing their own organization as some of you people do yours. If there’s a problem in the WW, admit it and then try to do something about it instead of being so protective of it.

wehateiowaww said...

It’s amazing this kind of a tiered funding system has existed for decades in the so called best writing program in the US but nobody wanted to do anything about it. There’s no other way to look at it than you guys are part of the problem. The same type of people came in and out of the program for decades, the kind of people who have a history of sucking up to the system in power. They climb up the literary ladder and praise the current status quo in The New York Times or The Washington Post, and the rest of the group is silenced. Isn’t it sad?

Pete said...

Fair! Fair! There's no way in hell the New York Yankees play fair. Putting aside for the moment that the Yankees have over $200 million to spend each year on their players (even as some other teams don't have much more than a tenth of that amount), they don't even always follow the rules of the game (consider the infamous A-rod slap of the 2004 ALCS). That, and they make their players shave everyday. No, sir, that doesn not meet any definition of "fair" with which I am familiar.

the plunge said...

THIS IS AN OUTRAGE! More baseless assaults on our program by jealous outsiders. Don't you realize the harm you're doing to my resume and earning power when you attempt to damage the Workshop's reputation? It is one step away from outright thievery!

Charlemagne said...

Thank god this isn't directed at us poets! Whew! As long as the poetry workshop can stay out of the way long enough and keep repeaping in oodles and oodles of money! If I were a rich poet, la da de da de da da!

Who gives a crap about FUNDING! You are artists you whinny ihateiowaww and wehateiowaww whinners. If you are an artist, then be an artist and shut your trap. Don't whine about the hierarchy in NY Times blah blah blah. Writing is
b). An art form one does because it
1). Makes one happy. Or sexy.
2). Fufills your need to speak your grand ideas to the world.

I'm sorry if your feelings were hurt and you didn't get into a writing program. But you should still be writing and I hope you went to a different MFA and had 2 glorious years of your own to write. Do you realize how many people would kill for the opportunity to have some time off to write!

El Gordo de Amore said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
El Gordo de Amore said...

I always enjoy the legend that people that graduate from Iowa are somehow industry "insiders" on a predetermined path to New Yorker glory.

If only that were true -- really, I sincerely wish it were true, considering my mortgage payments, unpublishable novel, and fairly shredded ego.

But I guess something has to explain publishing and the powers that control it (considering JT Leroy, "A Million Little Bullshits," and "The DaVinci Diet").

depressedworkshopper said...

We’re still young we’re very sensitive. Artists are sensitive people, aren’t we, alhough I see many thick-skinned people here with a loud voicewho still try to imitate the voice of a dead person? Maybe it’s not about money, whether I get a TWF or not, but the whole industry makes me depressed and the WW is a major part of this industry and the WW makes me feel like nothing, waving little money at our faces and urging us to shake our booties like strippers. it’s depressing, isn’t it?

We know who’s running the show here. It’s not the man with a chocolate face, it’s not going to be the woman with a China doll face, but the person who’s long been mollycoddled by the monied people sitting in the dark who always like to pull the strings. We know who they are, aren’t we? They put on a good show last spring, didn’t they?

I’m depressed now and I wonder when I can be happy again.

Charlemagne said...

What monetary value the WW places on you has no bearing on what type of writer you are or your success. If as an artist you need someone to pat you on the head and tell you that you are doing a good job then you are doing the wrong thing. What happens when you get a book published and the reviewer knocks you down? What happens when you can't find an agent? Being sensitive because you didn't get a TWF is a bad sign.

If I remember right, the last page of the TWF guidelines has a paragraph written by Jim Galvin, another "thick-skinned person with a loud voice." In it he says something along the lines that the TWF has no historical bearing on whether a) a person is successful or b) a person is going to be the best or brightest to come out of the class.

You want to talk about being sensitive and depressed "depressedworkshopper"? Well lets talk about being sensitive. As a poet, we don't have agents and we have to win contests to get published. Not only our first book but perhaps our second book too. We have no advocates except the work on the page and no monetary pay off except sometimes 2 or 3 grand to use to travel around and read from your book at audiences of twenty people. All I am saying is that it is not worth it to wring your hands while you are in the WW. It gets worse. But you didn't start writing because you wanted to be patted on the head and told you were good. Sensitive is fine by me. But confusing the sensitivity needed to be a writer and to convey the world in language with the sensitivity one has when ones ego is not buffed is inexcusible.

Saltwater Farmer said...

I think you should read the book (or at least the blog), Charlemagne. Tom Kealey earned an MFA from UMass and was a Stegner fellow at Stanford. I don't think his evaluation of Iowa has anything to do with jealousy.

I'll be applying to MFA programs in the fall and I found his book extremely helpful. If you read it, Charlemagne, you'll find that he concurs with your argument that "Writing is
b). An art form one does because it
1). Makes one happy. Or sexy.
2). Fufills your need to speak your grand ideas to the world."

Iowa is a great program; no doubt about it. Kealey says as much. But the inequity of funding drops it out of Kealey's top 10, because that is HIS top criteria. That's no reason to get hypersensitive and defensive.

justanother-iowagraduate said...

The “monetary value” tag the WW stamps on your writing will follow you around even after your graduation. As a graduate of Iowa myself I quickly realized it’s not the Iowa people who will help further my writing career but the people who are often despised or not highly regarded by the WW. So I decided to distance myself from the WW.

The WW so adamantly subscribes to the mainstream values or mainstream success stories that it often embarrasses me when I see its people pooping around all over the place. People like me just yawn at seven decades of Iowa’s literary achievements, since we already figured out what the WW’s so-called vaunted reputation is all about and who’s benefiting from this program and who’s not.

Hey Farmer, go to the program where you’ll be happy, and don’t buy into the hype on the perceived hierarchy among MFA programs. The industry created the hierarchy for its own greedy purposes, not us writers and people who really care about literature.

Just another Iowa graduate

Sam said...

It's also worth noting that UI's relatively low in-state tuition (for which most if not all Workshop students qualify), plus the fact that most if not all Workshop students receive some form of aid make the IWW one of the cheapest MFAs around.

Anyway, who cares about a few thousand bucks in tuition? We're all on easy street now, having parlayed our IWW insider status into eleventy-million dollar book deals.

AnanonymousWWgraduate said...

I am an assistant editor at one of the respected lit magazines. Whenever I receive stories from you guys and any other WW students, I place them in a separate pile and then later take them all to the bathroom and tear them into pieces. I’ll get fired if my boss finds this out but I can’t help myself. Back in the office, other people see my red face and see me still shaking from the excitement and ask me whether I am all right, and I tell them that I am OK and sit at my desk. Anyway that’s my secret, and I’m a graduate of the WW!

bihari said...

Oh, now I see! It's all about the power to be grabbed! And here I was thinking meaning, sense and clarity. Silly me.

ian said...

Hey anonymouswwgraduate,

I went ahead and sent a copy of your post to the editors of about a dozen of the most esteemed lit mags. Hope I missed yours!

A WW graduate who doesn't give a shit about this argument anymore, but sure does love messing with people like you!

Grendel said...

Tom Kealey, author of the Creative Writing MFA Handbook, has posted some additional information and a response to some of the blowback he's had tossed into his mailbag.

Pete said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pete said...

Just a quick note: I think there's at least one person in this thread and maybe over at Kealey's place too that is more interested in fucking with people than in being honest. Just keep in mind that the internet is really easy venue for wholesale fabrications.

edit- i posted twice.

ian said...

Yeah, I figure the AnonymousWWgraduate claim is bullshit, but if they're fucking with us, it sure is fun to fuck with them back.

professor x said...

Ever wonder how Iowa maintains its, uh, 'prestige'? By holding contests and awarding its own current students, recent students, recent faculty, and last year, its current faculty! Follow the links, find out just how deep the prestige goes!



Pete said...

I told you guys Dick Cheney should have been the new director. He'd have had this foetry on their last legs by now.

ian said...

I'm confused. Why is Professor X posting on EarthGoat? Did Rogue finally complete her manuscript? Did Wolverine finally open that copy of Writing Down the Bones that Professor X loaned him and channel some deep, Freudian shit? I mean, I'm actually kind of flattered. Professor freakin' X. Sweet.

Trevor Jackson said...

I'll bet Beast writes some really deep shit and is getting published all over.

Rogue's poetry, though? Sylvia Plath's zombie rose from the grave just to tell her to grow up and quit with the whining.

beetlejuice said...

you see what i’m saying? this kind of dismissive attitude is predominant in the ww? where do you think this iowa posse learned this bad-ass motherfxxxing attitude? from whom?…these suckers gang up on anybody blowing a whistle!!!

El Gordo de Amore said...

I've got your whistle!


And ananonymouswwgraduate eats poop!

Double Touche!

Nate said...

I'm a little late to the party here, but I can't help but ask why we aren't thinking about Kealey's completely skewed criteria: the sole thing he's thinking about is funding (actually, he says that the "two criteria of this handbook" are "location and funding," but goes on to say he can't say much about location as it's relatively subjective). So, from the beginning we're not talking about: a) quality of instruction; b) community of writers/poets (i.e. how your colleagues contribute to the experience); c) the actual work of recent graduates and professors (published or un-, since publication is clearly not the only guage of 'success'). Kealey's right to shed light on the role of funding... it's there. You have to eat. But if one really makes a decision based on how many hamburgers can be purchased on a TA salary, well... what do you expect? Stop whining and a write me a fucking poem.

, while an important

matt said...

Duh, those are all subjective criteria and they can be interpreted differently, depending on what kind of a writer or poet you are!

bababooie said...

Beetlejuice rules!!!!

sean said...

Nate, my Gosh, it makes me wonder if the sole criterion for admission to the WW is your ability to suck up rather than your talent as a writer!

Grendel said...

Okay, that "sean" post is just fucking stupid. Any more idiocy like that will be deleted.

Saltwater Farmer said...

Am I the only responder to this post who has read Kealey's book or blog beyond the snippet about WW? Kealey advocates location and funding as the two top criteria for choosing which programs one APPLIES to.
After receiving acceptance letters, he recommends readjusting the criteria to include:
"a) quality of instruction;
b) community of writers/poets (i.e. how your colleagues contribute to the experience);
c) the actual work of recent graduates and professors."
Some of these criteria (a & b) are difficult to guage without discussing them with current students. After acceptance, he strongly suggests contacting current students from the programs to to ask precisely these questions.
As for the importance of faculty in the decision-making process, it is farther down his list because
a) strength of writing does not always equate to strength of instruction
b) writing faculty won't necessarily remain in place during your time in a program.
It iseems the affordability of WW was not clearly understood by Kealey. But the WW website left me wondering, too.
I think it speaks well of the program that so many of you are defending it so strongly, but I would hope some of you would spend some time putting Kealey's WW profile in its proper context before slamming him and his book.

chad said...

I actually kind of like the mudslinging. I haven't heard the word "gosh" used seriously for some time. Fight with a preacher, don't ask. One has to hope this Nate (if that is his real name) has a thick skin. Really, besides the time to write, the great boon was making "literary friends." And that will happen anywhere unless you're obnoxious and enjoy insulting people anonymously.

Pete said...

Saltwater Farmer- for me, at least, there's two things going on here: responding to Kealey, and responding to anonymous internet jackasses who have decided that all us here are iniquitous tools of the man because of where we spent two years writing and talking about writing. It's unfortunate that legitimate discussion and criticism of the writers workshop can't really exist without the accompanying static, but that just appears to be the package-- at least on the interpoo.

SER said...

I also am late to the party, but that won’t stop me from offering up my thoughts in manifesto format – and because it’s in manifesto, stream-of-consciousness, unedited format, please forgive any typos.

I’m going to act as if everyone’s interest is sincere (like Saltwater Farmer’s), but I suspect many visitors here (you know who you are) would hate Iowa regardless. Or, as they say, if it isn’t funding, it’s funother. Ha! Okay, I’ll stop.

Anyway, to begin, I wonder whether we can all agree on what I see as a basic truth: there are many ways to become a writer and many ways to become a successful (whatever that means to you) writer. While you have to get an MD to be a doctor, you do not have to get an MFA to be a writer. And this isn’t just a technicality – in the world, many, many successful writers do not have MFAs. So the first question you should ask yourself is whether you feel that the MFA experience or the MFA degree itself will help you in any meaningful way as a writer, and, if so, how. When I applied to MFA programs, I was not at all sure whether an MFA was the best way for me to move myself along as a writer. I had a regular job and managed to write by taking night courses. I ended up applying to five MFA programs. I got into two – Iowa and a second-tier one. I made it to the final round of another top program (which I only know because I had fucked something up on my application and they had to fix it before final decisions were made), but was ultimately rejected there and at two other good programs. So that leads me to the second self-evident truth that every would-be writer ought to know: there is a great deal of subjectivity involved, not just in MFA applications, but in the world of writing. You aren’t totally awesome and set just because you get in somewhere like Iowa, and you aren’t a total loser because you get rejected. One of the best writers in our class, in my opinion, was someone who had been rejected the year before. Someone I know from my night writing classes was also rejected, and I think she is a fantastic, fantastic writer. (Even in my MBA program, the guy who graduated first in our class had been rejected the year before – and that’s a process that should be more consistent, I would think.) In any case, I believe in Frank’s old maxim: (this is paraphrased) to be a writer, you have to have both talent and character, and character entails keeping going when things absolutely suck for you.

When I got into Iowa, I couldn’t believe it. I lucked out and was offered one of the two-year fellowships, which was great and is something I will come back to later on in the funding discussion. Nevertheless, I wasn’t at all sure it was the right move for me. I was worried about the super-competitiveness I had heard about; I was worried about being in Iowa, since where was that?; and I was worried about something I’d heard from a graduate, which was that there was “grad-student-poverty-elitism,” as she called it – in other words, people going to great lengths to seem poorer than the next person, and that didn’t sound all that fab to me because I was 30 and not about to go back to eating rice for every meal.

So I called every former student, current student, or friend-of-a-friend or cousin-of-a-roommate-who-had-a-friend-of-a-friend-who-had-gone-to-the-Workshop I could find. I asked about the atmosphere, the experience, the faculty, the town, what they thought they’d got out of it, what they would do differently, etc. Gradually, it started to take shape for me and I decided to go. Still, though, I was worried about the alleged hyper-competitiveness. But a couple of my former night-class teachers had gone to Iowa and made the point that you can affect your own atmosphere, and I found that to be entirely true – from the get-go, I felt as though people in our class (and the ones above and below) were mature and professional and, despite all of our innate neuroticism, the place did not devolve into some of the scenes of horror, despair, and recriminations we heard of from Back in the Day.

It is my opinion that those horror stories were the result of funding – yes, it used to be worse. Apparently, there was not enough funding to go around, and so people would come in with funding their first year and then get blanked for their second year and have to work three crappy jobs to get by. Once there was at least enough to go around, people improved. More on this to come, but first, I have some other points to make.

First, there are myths beyond the hyper-competitive reputation. The biggest one of these is that there is a “Workshop story.” This is total crap. It is almost as much crap as the person on Kealey’s post who claims that there is a “Christianist agenda” at Iowa now, which is not just crap but completely fucking insane – Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter insane. Anyway, the faculty at Iowa have wildly different aesthetics, and Frank always let in people with a variety of styles (and I assume Sam Chang will do the same). And I found this to be quite valuable, even though getting totally skewered – nay, disemboweled – by one faculty member in particular was not that pleasant in the moment. I loved the diversity of opinions from the students, too – many of whom now post here and still have diverse opinions. In the real world, people are going to have varying reactions to your work, and it’s good to get used to this.

Another myth is that Iowa grads have a quick and easy path into literary magazines and getting their novels published. I do believe that the Iowa name on your cover letter helps get your story read at some places – and that’s a useful thing – but it does not get your story published. Believe me, I wish it did. But all of these conspiracy theories are hilarious to me (even though I do love a conspiracy theory).

What did I like about the Workshop? I liked the pool of outstanding peers and would encourage any applicant to consider this over the perceived quality of the faculty (and I agree with Kealey’s point that quality of writing does not always – or even often – correlate with quality of teaching). I liked that Iowa City was inexpensive, had lots of interesting and often free things to do, and was a place where people really respect writers (which is nice, if not representative of reality) - working on your novel is a totally legitimate pursuit as far as Iowa City residents are concerned. I liked that I had plenty of time to write and the opportunity to take workshops from so many different faculty members.

Now, if I were in charge of the Workshop, here’s what I would change. I know for sure that there will be disagreement with me here, but I shall press ahead because I have a meeting in 30 minutes.

First, funding. I would make all funding equal and I would make tuition free. The former would require raising money, but I think the latter could be squeezed out of the UI somehow – the university gets so many advantages out of its having the Workshop that it should be willing to do this; some people already get free tuition. I would make funding equal because I think the angst surrounding second-year funding (both the application process and the decisions) is not useful. Let me tell you, it was GREAT not to have to be involved with that. People have to apply with one semester’s worth of work, which seems kind of high-stakes for when you’re just getting going. You spend a lot of time worrying about funding instead of writing at a time when you should be hitting your stride. I think the programs that offer up equal funding are savvy to do so.

Second, the application. I like how Iowa counts the stories you submit above all other components of the application – and it should stay that way. But I would propose that a couple of other things factor in, and let me preface by saying that I propose these for a simple reason: to help make sure that people who are admitted will actually get a lot of work done while they’re here. Obviously, this program is competitive, and because we have all agreed that taste is at least somewhat subjective (which means that there are people who are admitted who could have just as easily been rejected, and vice versa), it seems important to me that you should be an engaged member of the program once you are here. (This isn’t aimed at anyone in particular, incidentally.) So I would suggest that recommendations address whether the person is disciplined at writing on their own and committed to being a productive member of the workshop (which means thoughtfully reading and commenting on others’ work as well). And I would also require that every applicant have spent at least one year NOT in school. This is something that I recommend to my finance students and I feel very strongly about it – I can’t think of any exceptions to my belief that you should spend at least a year in the world working, volunteering, etc. I think even just one to two years in the real world will make you appreciate what a place like Iowa offers (ie, time to write) properly and help make sure you get shit done. This isn’t foolproof, of course, but I think it would help. And if we’re giving everyone equal funding and perhaps eliminating some teaching responsibilities, then you need people who can manage their time and kick their own asses.

Third, the workshop format. I know people here will disagree with this, but I was always astounded that only two stories (or novel excerpts) were required each semester. I think it should be three. When Frank made our workshop do this my first semester, I thought that people took some big chances on their third stories that were very interesting. I also think that the workshop should help you learn to work, not just work on your craft, and that requiring more output would help beat good habits into you. I would also allow no revisions to be put up. I’ve thought a great deal about how to teach revision (because I struggle with revision), and I suspect that it works best in conference with your instructor or first readers a bit after your workshop. This would, of course, require that instructors be more available for conferences, which I wholeheartedly support.

Fourth, vocational preparation. Teaching comp as an adjunct is slave labor and I’m very glad that I happened to have experience that I could fall back on for pay after I graduated. People should have other skills that they can use to work flexibly and still write on the side after they graduate. So maybe Iowa could let its writers take a series of courses in web design, or do a joint MFA and master’s of library sciences, or learn some other career that is flexible, pays all right, and uses a different part of your brain than writing. Some people love teaching and it doesn’t interfere with their own output. But that is hardly true for everyone.

I think that’s it. For now. I look forward to our guest commenters’ flames.

AAIWW said...

this is just another opinion from someone who had one of the few coveted fellowships in the WW. most of it has been already discussed here. nothing new but just damn long so it makes my eyes tired. As kealy says in his handbook, students’ reactions towards the WW are widely different. some of them are related to funding or other things like the lack of aesthetic diversity in the WW. so a person who received lesser or no funding may have a completely different view.

SER says that there’s no “workshop story.” maybe it should be called “iowa aesthetic” which is very traditional, realistic and most of all, mainstream. this kind of writing is considered as “good fiction” by most of lit agents out there. there have been many people who talked in public or in private about this Iowa esthetic. if you say there’s nothing like that, that’s fine with us. people’s opinions are different depending on what kind of literary aesthetic you have. Please learn to tolerate different views from yours, SER.

there are four permanent fac members here. although the faculty may look diverse in terms of race but basically they are the same person inside who share almost the same lit esthetic. let’s admit that nobody in this program is qualified to teach experimental fiction. as some of its graduates have already said, iowa is a depressing place for some, if not all, writers who want to try something different.

matt said...

SER’s been a sort of spokeswoman for the WW for years. Some of the people in this blog also have been barking like crazy dogs for years at anybody criticizing the program, and I understand why they do that. Iowa’s prestige is all they have. It’s sort of pathetic but understandable. They BELIEVE they should be sucessful because they are a part of this prestigious program. Some believe it more strongly because they are the cream of the crop (TWFs). They’re almost blind to all the ugly crimes the WW commit to keep its pathetic reputation. But why wound’t they want to protect the people who favered their writing over others? If Iowa doesn’t rank in the top 10 in the next US News and World Report rankings, expect to hear about several suicide stories in Iowa City.

wehateiowaww said...

people who write a "Workshop story" never want to admit that they write a "Workshop story."

professorX2 said...

So what is this 'workshop story', exactly? Dry, realist, three to four thousand words? 'Psychological', with no working knowledge of psychology? 'Traditional', but not so vulgar as to have what laymen would call a plot? Prose that is transparant and uninspiring? "Daring", but politically correct? Variants of which may include some fill in the blanks ethnic stuff? ("My tia Yrma has callused hands. From rolling tacos, she says. 'From rolling tacos, abuelita!'. Then she curls up in a serape and takes a nap. 'Be like American girls," she says. "Just never forget me, little nina!") (Or like the Jhumpa Lahiri thing, where everything smells like curry because its so damn authentic?). Like the stories you see in Paris Review, they're technically perfect, and perfectly forgettable?

Or is the 'workshop' story something else?

Grendel said...

You're so right, Matt! It's so clear now. What we should have done is refused to come here, or better yet not applied in the first place! Ah, but hind-sight. Sigh.

Still, even though we had already made the mistake of uprooting our SO's and families and dogs and so forth to accept the cruel and worthless invitation, we at least should have had the courage to repudiate the soulless and identical "workshop" stories we were all forced to write by our dark overlords. Week after week after week of removing anything that resembled plot, flattening characters, fuzzing up the diction to be more acceptable to the LIterary Establishment ... as I look back now, I don't see how I was such a fool. But no, we were too mesmerized -- too busy sucking up to them! The Tractor Beam was too great -- or it would have been, had the very concept of "tractor beam" not been sneeringly dismissed by them as "genre."

It is tragic that the eye-opening wisdom of these critics has reached many of us us too late. I could have already saved myself three semesters of anguish if I had killed myself the day I learned I didn't get a TWF! Killing myself now would just be adding to my pathos, and yet ... maybe there would be a poetic justice to that. It could be my Magnum Opus -- written in blood rather than ink! My poor wife. Or wait, I could kill SER instead! Putting her out of her misery would simply be a mercy killing at this point. Then in prison I could reform monastically while shoring up my street cred and taking up Real Writing -- and YES! even write about it! I have a lot to think about.

Just where those who could have told us all this and saved us so much time and roboticization got their trance-shattering knowledge about the ugly crimes of the WW is mysterious -- but is it enough that they have decided to share it with us sad hordes of "prestige zombies" at long last? We shall see. For now, I guess we can only thank them for this Pyrrhic enlightenment.

El Gordo de Amore said...

Oh Matt, Wehateiowaww, and bababooie, don't take out your frustrations on others who, in the grand scheme of life, are closer to you than you would probably like to admit.

But, all three of you still eat poop!

Triple touche!

A prospective student said...

Hello SER,

Thanks for your post. I have applied to Iowa and am hoping to get in this year, but I heard a story from my friend who’s also applied this year that most students at Iowa can't get recommendation letters from the faculty there. Is that true? She says that they were asked to write their own letters and bring them to their professors so the professors can just edit them! Only teaching writing fellows can get real letters? I am confused. She says she's been reading your blogs for several months so she knows a lot about the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

And I can feel the tension in this thread. Is this the true reflection of the atmosphere in the Workshop?

A prospective student

cj said...

I'm an utterly unpublished, non-TWF WW graduate, and I loved my experience here. I learned (i.e., changed) a lot, and my life changed radically for the better.

Maybe that would have happened in any program, but I don't know of any other program that gives students as much freedom -- more than many of my classmates even wanted, I think. So few requirements, no grades, "studio" in the extreme. We were always treated as artists, never as "students." (I certainly never heard people complaining that the faculty were determined to indoctrinate us into a particular aesthetic. The more common complaint was that the faculty paid no attention to us at all!) Two years to pursue my interest in writing in any way I chose to do it -- that was everything for me. I found it very easy here to put the rat race behind and immerse myself in developing both my writing and my thinking about literature, all at my own pace and in my own way. (I do think that some people carry the rat race around inside them, and that their experience is bound to be different.)

That freedom was the most valuable aspect of the program for me, and I suspect it doesn't play a role in anyone's ranking criteria. (I bristle at the phrase "quality of instruction" -- I wasn't here to be "instructed.") From interviews I've read, my sense is that Sam Chang understands the value of that freedom and of that attitude toward the workshoppers, so she's all right with me.

Nate said...

Observations that will probably draw wrath from anonymous surfers w/ chips (gouges?) on their shoulders:

1) this is a silly, but amusing childish argument--Iowa rules! Iowa sucks!--probably the product of paranoia and over-professionalizing literature

2) this is primarily a fiction discussion as the "workshop" poem syndrome and lack of diversity (in style) are less applicable to the poetry workshop--at least most recent grads would tell you this--oh, but wait, everything's subjective, as matt's undergraduate wisdom assures us. so take it or leave it.

3) scatology is alive and well [yay poop! te amo, El Gordo]

SER said...

Ah, I should have realized that the only correct response was "Iowa bites!" I will adjust my talking points, although I fear that this may cause me to lose my longstanding and lucrative sinecure as spokesperson of the Workshop, not to mention my fast track to the Iowa Short Fiction Award (do I even have to apply?).

I do appreciate the experimental readings given to my comment on this posting, and feel confident that this will better prepare me for any future interviews I have with Sean Hannity. But I do wonder the following: if it is common knowledge that Iowa isn't good at dealing with experimental fiction, AAIWW, then why on earth would you (who presumably want to focus there) deign to attend? The Workshop conspiracy must be farther-reaching than I thought, perhaps engaging in midnight kidnapings and brainwashings and other effective (if temporary) mind-control exercises.

To "a prospective student" - I don't have firsthand knowledge of this because I have never asked for a recommendation. Also, despite my coronation by Matt, I am not really the spokesperson for the IWW. Others will be able to tell you more. My gut instinct would be that what your friend says is partially true. I do know Jim McPherson seems to be at the Hy-Vee every day mailing out recommendations. As for the tension, it's not among people who attended the Workshop together; if you look at other threads not related to the always-controversial debate "Iowa yay! Iowa boo!", I think you'll get more of a sense of what it's like - lively disagreements at times, but also a great deal of respect for one another.

sean said...

SER, many of us are very young. We don’t get into the WW with a big name tag “an experimental writer” on our chest. We just want to try different things once we get in but it’s sad the WW doesn’t have much to offer…

A prospective student said...

Thanks for your response, SER. If they can’t get letters, how do they apply for CW jobs.

In one of the last year’s posts I found some of you in this blog saying that the selection of TWFs has nothing to do with the quality of your writing. If so, what’s the criteria for selction? It may sound like a stupid question, but please enlighten me.

A prospective student

mdn said...

And herewith, an unsolicited guest manifesto!

I stop by this blog every once in a while for one main reason: to drop in on an ongoing conversation about writing and the writing life. As an editor at a sports magazine, I am surrounded by people who care about the written word, but not necessarily about literary fiction or poetry. This blog is written by a group of people who seem to care very much about literature and who take the time to debate the fine and/or fuzzy points of it – the sort of points that most people can't be bothered to think about.

Being allowed to follow along seems like a tremendous luxury to me. Here is a community of people who care about the same sort of things that I do, and that the world at large mostly doesn't. That's why I'm here. The people who seem to be here just to throw stones and whine, I don't know what your deal is, but you just seem like bitter cranks. Your complaints about Iowa seem political and petty. You are defining mainstream how? As something people might want to read? You can't mean it literally, as the common approach, because that negates the elitism/exclusivity that you're complaining about. As for unfair advantages, I don't have an MFA at all, and I have a pile of good publishing credits. Publishing is hard work. Rejections happen. Get on with it.

It seems like the strength of the Iowa program may come not from the Dark Side of the Force or whatever is being alleged, but from having fostered a community of people who care about and discuss what good writing is and should be – yes, that's subjective, thus the discussion – and who spend their energy working on their own writing, rather than tearing down that of others. Doesn't that seem more likely than some sinister literary conspiracy?

wehateiowaww said...


read this interview: http://www.identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum49.html

This guy is a graduate of the WW:

A prospective student said...

dunkeys, were you a TWF?

A prospective student said...

Aren't they all visiting writers?

MSF said...


welcome! and thank you for bringing the topic beautifully full circle. to wit, a summary:

the iowa alums who loved the workshop loved it for the community of writers that gathers here in ic. that's the number one best thing about the program, hands down. we are disappointed that the kealey book primarily on funding in its initial selection criteria, because that fails to reflect the community aspect. that said, i think we'd all agree that the funding situation here could be improved, though it has improved in recent years. it would be much nicer not to have to deal with it at all. this is something that will likely have to happen in the future, since wonderful programs like michigan and ut (among many others) are committed to a more egalitarian (or at least predictable) funding system.

so, to those who are seriously considering mfa programs and are trying to decide how to make decisions, take everything into account. think about what's most important to you, be it funding or community or teacher attention, and make that the basis of your application process. use all the resources you have--kealey's book, your own research, communication with people in the programs*--and make educated, balanced decisions. if you're worried that workshop people are producing formulaic fiction, read what they're getting published and determine for yourselves if there's some sort of community aesthetic. don't worry so much about what people bitch about on blogs, and just hope that the people who seemed inclined to nastiness don't end up in a program with you.

good afternoon, and good luck.

*SER and i coordinated efforts in contacting alums during our application process (though, as those of you who know us can imagine, she was wildly on top of it and i piggybacked on her hard work), and we found two interesting things: 1) everyone we wrote to gave us copious feedback, both good and bad, all honest, and 2) everyone we wrote to told us to come here, even the people who'd clearly been miserable. strange, but true.

A prospective student said...

MSF, were you a TWF? thanks

dunkeys said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TLB said...

Belatedly putting my two cents in about rec letters:

I also got excellent rec letters from several professors, which helped me land a great visiting CW prof job the year after I graduated. Both visiting and current faculty write letters. No, I was not a TWF.

About experimental fiction: It's not Iowa's primary focus. Most of the people who come here want to write realism, AND YET I know first-hand that most of the people responding here wrote experimental pieces while they were students. Including me. The last one I wrote got a middling-poor review from one prof, one good review from another, and a complete rave from the last, for the EXACT SAME story. Now if that doesn't speak for differing aesthetics, I don't know what will.

a good friend said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
professorX2 said...

Howdy, all:

I’m just wonder why Iowa is mythologized more than say, UT, which is right down the road. I won’t get accepted to both (or, oh god – either.), but it sure would be nice to know just in case.

The ‘community’ / ‘time to write’ argument doesn’t impress me. They’re great things, don’t get me wrong, but typical of every program – isn’t that why MFA’s exist at all? Does it matter if it’s an Iowan writer I hit when I toss a stone in any direction? Why not a Texan or an Eskimo? Kealey says as much in his blog. If I’m not mistaken, this is why he doesn’t rate ‘community’ a big factor at any school (accepting low-residencies, which get dinked for this), but at all schools.

And you’ll notice my take on the ‘Workshop Story’ was a genuine question. That’s how I perceive that others perceive it. If I’m wrong, I’d love to know why. This Experimental Lament is rooted as much in frustration as anything else. We want to attend a Top 10 program, but worry that instructors and peers might stuff our work into their mold, rather than helping it find what it wants to be. I faced this as an undergrad, and my writing was nowhere near the FC2 fringe. I do wonder that if this is a big concern, why more people don’t just apply to Syracuse, Irvine, or the more experimentally inclined programs.

What irks me most about what I’m finding out about Iowa is its apparent lack of ethics. Here’s where that and the elitism appear to come in: letters penned by the applicant’s themselves? Glowing reviews for average students? Careers gained not by merit, but solely by initial acceptance into the program? Also, it looks like graduates such as Ryan Harty et. al secure tenure track positions even when they fail to find ethical publication (as ‘winners’ of Iowa’s ‘contest’). Anyone may laugh this off, but the record speaks for itself. The poetry folks are even worse. It’s like a big dose of reverse Darwinism…if the school is really that good, it’s students that special, why are these measures needed?

It’s not my intention to bash Iowa. I’m just hoping to find better information.

professorX2 said...


Well, this is shocking. Here's a conversation with David Callan, a '98 Iowa Writer's Workshop grad and Maytag Fellow. He discusses the workshop, how fraud there builds careers, and other matters.

I'm not sure what a 'podcast' is, but you can right click on 'David James Callan' to save the mp3 to your computer.


Pete said...

If you're honestly asking:

I think that Foetry makes the workshop (and other MFA programs, btw) a convenient and caricatured symbol of an issue within academia that, honestly,has plenty of other manifestations with both higher stakes and graver consequences. I don't know why this is, but on the other hand, I don't exactly wonder why there isn't a site devoted to the injustices of Classics or Library Science awards. It just wouldn't fit into such a compelling narrative. Literature is both academic and pop cultural- maybe that's it. I don't know.

The point is- the object of your disaffection might be bigger than you think.

professorx3 said...

HOLY CRAP!!! An Iowa graduate selects another Iowa graduate!


2005 Editors’ Awards for Emerging Writers
Winners and Finalists

Fiction Winner
Sarah Strickley, The Roads Are Like That

Charles D'Ambrosio is the author of the story collection, The Point and a book of essays, Orphans. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and in numerous anthologies, including Best American Short Stories. His work has received a number of prizes including a James Michener Fellowship and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. A graduate of Iowa Writers Workshop, he grew up in Seattle and currently lives in Portland.

professorX2 said...

Just for the record, I'm uh, not professorX3, if that's what anyone's thinking.

The D'sio (pronounced 'DEE-zshyo' or 'The DEEZH') graduated years earlier. He is big on the whole contest/travelling teach circuuit, so who knows?) But GD, I'm glad I didn't enter that one. Sample of winner's prose: "Eight brothers and sisters split down the middle of the house boys up girls down it's how it was you never get over this you are impatient sometimes the rain is so hard you stop hearing it like a train keeps passing and you forget you're waiting to cross the tracks it's a wonder you all didn't die even the paint was poisonous the water had arsenic in it the best word for it awful full of awe sounds like somebody strangling you eventually you see you planned on..."


Grendel said...

Swink took down their guidelines on their Web site, so there's no way at the moment for me to check what rules were used. But I just want to be clear. Professor X2 and/or Professor X3, are you alleging that Swink and Charles d'A are guilty of fraud? Do you suspect them of fraud? You really think that Charles d'A really gives a hoot where some entrant went to school -- to the point where he'd risk his reputation? I just want to make sure I understand what is being alleged here, anonymously. Of course if it turns out to be that C d'A couldn't have known who wrote the winning story -- which is how most story contests are run -- then of course there will be an apology to him, right, and to Swink magazine? Not to mention to Sarah Strickley, whose moment of achievment is being questioned, anonymously? Sure there will.

Trevor Jackson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Trevor Jackson said...

Foetry? Really?

My last comment said more than that about using that site as evidence in an argument, but I'll just leave it at:

Foetry? Really?

Charlemagne said...

Perspective Student: If you are looking for a program with a respect for dynamic experimentation you might try going somewhere else. Or, you can come to a place that maybe isn't what you would like your aesthetic to be. Say you get into big bad Iowa. As some of the guests to this page would like you to believe, your writing will change forever. You will be pulled into this maniacs world of the worskshop story, the Iowa story. Your writing will change forever! You will be a shell of yourself and all of your talent will be lost.

Ok, so obviously, that is not going to happen. You are not going to lose your ideas and your drive to do what you want to do. I think people like IhateIowa and WehateIowa and ProfX and X2 and whoever have absolutely no respect for you or for any person entering or thinking of entering Iowa. They think that you cannot handle hearing other points of view or having your work put through the rigor of a possible opposing point of view.

Let me tell you some stories about this from my experience as a poet in the workshop. First off, my first day of class my first year I had a poem up. Now I was nervous of course, but confident that the way I was writing was good. Hey, I'd gotten into a good deal of MFA programs and I thought I was an ok poet. Imagine the great surprise when my teacher said, "I wouldn't write like you if someone put a gun to my head."

Wow, so here I am, crushed, somewhat appalled at such a comment. The point of the story is though that this prof, the most senior poetry prof left at Iowa, said that he wouldn't write like "me." That doesn't mean that he didn't want me to write like him. And in the long run, that was my best moment in the classroom at Iowa. I learned to stand for what I thought was good writing and I also sought out this prof over the next two years to learn what was different between my writing and his writing, to learn about something else.

You must grow as a writer. This is why even being surrounded by some sort of aesthetic (even if there is one because I think it is a myth for both poets and fiction) is not bad. You think for yourself and you take this comments and go on with them.

No one will change how you write. So yeah, you may not get a TWF. But is that why you are really there? To get a title? Its not a freaking pulitzer for god's sake. Its not the National Book Award. No. Its a title that a bunch of people get each year and over the course of years people forget.

And I will say again, that if you are in it for the money you should write romance novels. People, stop arguing about book deals and this and that. For the love of god we are all a dying breed. Lit fiction writers will be on the same outsider track as poets very soon. We are writers. Our audiences are small. Places like Iowa or Michigan or UMass or UC Irvine are safe havens in the storm. I chose Iowa because I thought that judging by the staff of writers there I thought there would be some really good peers. And there were.

Yeah, you can get that at any writing program, people who like writing. But the fact of the matter is that since Iowa is considered top tier top tier people apply and when top tier people are choosing between programs they got into they are going to choose what is historically considered the best. So the bottom line is that you get a lot of really engaged and intelligent peers.

professorx4 said...

HOLY CRAP!!! An Iowa graduate selected four Iowa graduates!!!

Just for the record, I'm not professorX1, 2,or 3 if that's what anyone's thinking.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005 Prize Jury: Ann Patchett

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

The Brief History of the Dead
Kevin Brockmeier

The High Divide
Charles D’Ambrosio

The Drowned Woman
Frances De Pontes Peebles

ian said...

Whew! Sorry I've missed the latest twists and turns in this argument. I just got back on the ICM charter jet from NYC. Dave Remnick and I just pissed away the entire night, drinking single-malt scotch and snorting coke off the netherparts of supermodels.

We started off with dinner at Nobu. Dave didn't think we could score a table without reservation, but I just promised to include the maitre d's short story, "I Eat Lunch With a Guy Who's Maybe Latvian," in the 2008 edition of O. Henry. (He wanted the 2007 edition, but I've already used up my Iowa Writers' Workshop Patronage Placement Allowance for that year.) The food was overrated, but I think everyone here will agree that after fifteen-course tasting menu at the French Laundry during last year's Brotherhood of Simpering IWW Sycophants Conference, a meal will have to be sent from God to impress us.

Anyway, Dave and I enjoyed a leisurely meal, then invited a few of the lovely ladies who'd come up to our table during dinner to the Conde Nast building. We built a vodka luge out of the fiction slush pile, and then took turns having sex with the fine ladies on a bed made of stories submitted by Brown and Columbia MFA graduates.

The night went downhill from there, though. At, like, 3 in the morning, Dave got out his cell and called Jonathan Safron Foer. "Hey, Foer!" he shouted. "Who's EXTREMELY LOUD and INCREDIBLY CLOSE now, motherfucker?" It was funny the first time, but got old quick. Seriously, Remnick's a great editor, and he sure know his contemporary Russian politics, but give the guy some booze, coke, and pussy, and he's a real terror.

So I staggered back to my hotel room, alone, and sipped a glass of Grey Goose while I watched the sunrise, reflecting, as I do everyday, that the cost of admission to the Iowa Writer's Workshop was worth it. Besides, nowhere in the rules for Best American Short Stories does it say you need a soul. I know. I've checked the by-laws.

El Gordo de Amore said...


professorx5 said...

Ian, parody is not you guys' forte. Please stick to what you guys do best: wagging your tails...

Just for the record, I'm not professorX1, 2, 3, or 4 if that's what anyone's thinking.

Grendel said...

Yes, if he'd only had more quality feedback like that in workshop, Ian wouldn't have to rely his connections to get where he is today -- that is, Easy Street. You'd be great in class, I can tell, professor x5. At least he wrote something. And it wasn't parody, fyi. It was satire.

SER said...

First, I think this must be the post with the most comments ever on Earth Goat. A round of Cristal for everyone!

Second, regarding the presumably sincere question of UT vs. Iowa, I will weigh in since I once asked the same questions. I believe the reason UT wasn't ranked highly on the 1997 US News list was that it had not yet received the big bucks from the Michener estate and had therefore not yet kicked into high gear. I think it's a very impressive program, and I am envious of the dual-major structure and the screenwriting option. Three years, equal funding, and no TA-ing are also attractive features. I do know people who have been admitted to both, so it is possible. Michigan also seems to be quite smart with the way it goes about funding and teaching opportunities. UT's $17,500 or whatever would not be a great wage for Austin, but it's better than trying to live in NYC.

As for Foetry, I think they originally had some legitimate points but have lost their credibility by going so far off the deep end. It seems obvious to me that all contests should be blind and all contest rules clearly spelled out. Professionalism should be the rule, not the exception. But would the universal adoption of such rules persuade Foetry that there is no cronyist conspiracy? I doubt it.

Finally, I liked Ian's satire. Of course, I like anything he or anyone else here does, because despite the vicious competition over every last morsel of funding or approbation that fraught our days at Iowa, we are united in our fealty to a Masonic code of loyalty and secrecy. Oh, you should see the rituals! I've said too much.

professorx5 said...

Ian & you folks, please at least workshop it before positng it here if you're trying to imitate us. I meant "parody of our style." Got it, Grendel? Wow, these days there're too many smart dogs!!!

El Gordo de Amore said...

Dude, you totally know what ProfessorX5 eats.

El Gordo de Amore said...

It's poop, by the way.

Grendel said...

In Spanish it's called mierda.


ian said...

Who's being satirical? I wipe my ass with all the book deals I've rejected.

Also, poop.

Seriously, though, to all the haters—and I use such a juvenile term intentionally—if you spent half as much time writing as you did researching your intricate Iowa back-scratching conspiracies and berating us for our cushy post-Iowa lives, you probably wouldn't be so worried about getting into MFA programs, or half as angry at us for having gone through it already. I respect anyone who can outwrite me. You guys, though, are just pathetic.

Rev. Ames said...

Hey boys, Mrs. Gilead is waiting for you! You’re late for the Bible class!!!

ian said...

Hey, ProfessorX4,

Not sure what you're on about now, but should your post about Julia result in spam or hate email, you might want to take into account that a court of law could probably access the IP address of everyone who logs onto the site. In fact, just by clicking on SiteMeter, I was able to make a fairly good guess of where you're posting from—and determine all but the last few digits of your IP address.


Grendel said...

Eh? What's this about Julia?

The professors have become tiresome.

As for you, Rev. Ames, you just ... stop it! We are not, you stupidhead! There's no stupid Bible class! (Here Grendel breaks down sobbing)

Pete said...

I can't speak for Julia, but as someone who teaches an adult ed class to supplement my meager income as a writer (meager despite the sundry benefits of being in a secret society that rules publishing from behind the scenes), I will say that there is no shame in marketing. You market on the basis of anything that might net customers. So damn right she lists all that.

(But I'm confused: is an MFA from Iowa the preferred route of sycophantic hacks into the big time, or is it a desperately useless piece of paper that, laughably, only results in adult ed classes?)

Not to prolong a conversation that really just deserves to end, but some of the Iowa-haters in this thread don't seem like they'd be happy in any MFA program. Because honestly, the similarities outweigh the differences- tremendously so. Those commenters should just join a writer's colony, preferably one without internet access. (I have the feeling they'd get more done that way.)

A prospective student said...

Pete, since SER ignores my question, I want to ask you. I think it's you who said something like the TWF selction has nothing to do with the quality of your writing. If so, what are the creteria? It seems like the most vocal people in this blog were TWFs or people who had fellowships.

Grendel said...

Prospective student, you didn't ask me, but let me just throw this out: the TWF competition is about the quality of the writing, but subjectively, through the eyes of the faculty at the time.

Everyone submits a story or two, which can't be the one(s) you applied with, somewhere around the beginning of the second term. The faculty reads them and pick the TWFs, the handful of the best, depending on the amout of money they have on hand. Like any writing contest.

The thing is, based on surveys in later years, having been selected as a TWF does not predict writing success. In other words, jkust because you'r ea TWF doesn't give you a greater chance of becoming a successful writer, and just because you weren't a TWF doesn't give you less of a chance. That's because the talent is pretty evenly spread, and whatever jumped out at the faculty at the time may not hold true later, or for journals, or agents, or publishing houses.

As for TWFs on this blog, actually, without naming names, most of the active posters were not TWFs, but got regular teaching assistantships, meaning they taught rhetoric, literature, and/or creative writing to undergrads for their paychecks (TWFs teach higher level classes in their genre -- poets teach poetry writing, etc.). Some posters here were TWFs, though to be honest, I have trouble sometimes remembering who was and who wasn't a TWF, which may itself say something about TWF's importance.

Bottom line, if the TWF system is still in place when you get here, and there is some reason to think it may not survive much longer as we know it, it's not something to worry too much about. Certainly it's nothing to obsess over, although some have and do. You'll either get it or not, but in the long view, supposedly, it doesn't predict success in writing one way or the other. The main thing is to write, write, write, read, read, read, write, write, write. The atmosphere and freedom are the main things. Hope that helps.

Pete said...

Grendel handled that well, but to avoid accusations of dodginess, I'll just say I more or less agree. The fact that you have to reapply for funding (for your second year) at the end of your first semester sucks, there's no question about that. I won't really defend the current system, and if you read through this thread and others on the topic, most of us are at best ambivalent about the current funding system. I'm glad to see it might be revised by the new director.

Just remember that prestige is the biggest difference between many of the appointments. I won't pretend that at the time I wasn't disappointed that my application wasn't chosen as one of the seven best, but I made only about $1000 less than the TWFS my second year as a TA, if I recall correctly, by picking up a third class. So things worked out okay for me.

For students like myself who sometimes had financial trouble, the workshop office was VERY supportive. I got a mysterious scholarship at one point in my first year, and I know Connie helped at least one other student find a job so he could afford to stay on. For all the talk about this stuff, that support is easy to overlook. I arrived to Iowa with $200 to my name and a broken down chevy. I took on some debt because my girlfriend was working a crappy social service job and we needed it for living expenses. But it turned out okay. So long as you arrive with some savings and a commitment to making it work, you should be fine.

professorx3 said...

We advise all the prospective students to read this essay by a graduate of the WW. This is the most honest look at Iowa’s ‘tiered’ system of funding: www.litline.org/abr/PDF/Volume25/bernard.pdf

professorX2 said...

As another prospective student, the funding isn't a concern. A part time job can net you $10K year with less hassle than a teaching load. And the prestige of a TWF(?) fellowship may count with academic institutions, but not publishers - and even during your new post-grad job search (with no book just yet), is it really a significant improvement over the prestige of attending the IWW in general? More than knowing someone who can give you a break? Doesn't seem like it. Or am I missing something?

I'm find it hard to gauge the usefulness of any program I look into. All afford a sense of community. A lot of them have 'prestige' - though no one can define this in measurable terms. None guarantee publishing success (unless you settle for an academic contest win). Kealey recommends you choose a program based on reputation, rather than who teaches there. No method will determine which teachers will actually teach you.

Anyone have some solid advice? Can anyone break down some clear advantages of Iowa vs. somewhere else? It's all very frustrating.

Pete said...

In most "measurable terms," an MFA is an entirely useless degree. I don't think the kind of certainty you want is possible.

dunkeys said...

I wrote a lengthy response last night that got lost, but here's the recap:

1. If any outsiders are still reading this thread in earnest, you should question the motives of the negative (and largely sweeping and wild) criticisms of the Workshop, which haven't been stated by anyone posting said criticisms. (Is it to get angry responses from grads? Check. Or to dissuade people from attending Iowa? If so, why? Would someone explain in a rational way?)

2. The Iowa WW is not a perfect MFA program -- probably none exists. Most all grads posting on this blog have conceded that the disproportionate funding is a flaw (read the first post to the thread!). But this does not change the fact that the majority of people in charge at Iowa, faculty and admistrators both, try their best to make it the best program it can be, or the fact that the majority of students try their hardest, or the fact that it's a studio program rather than academic, or the fact that it's located in Iowa City, an amazing town.

3. I wrote that ABR essay that's been linked to, and it's a flawed piece. I still stand by much of it, but specifically the representation of funding is misleading, which is one of several aspects of that essay I regret. That the "critics" of the Iowa MFA have turned me into a "defender" of the program is amusing, to be honest (as I said above, it's not perfect . . . but the more negative representations on this thread are irresponsible and vague, at best).

pocono said...

If it’s a flawed one now, why did you write it in the first place? What was the purpose of it? Do you know how much damage it did to the WW’s reputation? And people like Kealey prey on your pathetic essay. Now you say it’s flawed, explain what’s flawed to everyone here and why. Don’t you think you owe an apology to the WW and all the other earth goats here???

El Gordo de Amore said...

Pocono -- I think you owe an apology --

for speaking with a mouth full of Poop!

Yee Hah!

dunkeys said...

In all sincerity, I wrote that essay to point out a few flaws at Iowa and to suggest some simple remedies. Some frustration colored the essay's tone; if I wrote it again, I'd point out that students who attend Iowa should probably expect to study realism more than experimentalism, generally calm it down, and more strongly emphasize that the problems with funding, while a bit unfair, don't even always impact second year funding. This last one is the detail you're complaining about, isn't it? Sorry about that.

professorx4 said...

El Gordo de Amore,

Here is your lunch for the day: http://www.mierda.com/

El Gordo de Amore said...

I think ProfessorX4 has just proven something -- he, she, or other knows where to find the Poop!

Because ProfessorX4 eats it.

A lot.

It makes people nervous.

matt said...


I think it’s more accurate to say "expect to study realism RATHER than experimentalism." Maybe experimentalism is not the right word, but it should be innovative fiction. You won’t get much help neither from the faculty nor from the other students. I heard some of the graduates saying that one of the most traumatic experiences they had while they were at Iowa was to read their classmates' stories more than anything else. I think they're saying this not necessarily because the stories were bad but because...you know why...

professorX2 said...

Well, there goes my application...

Pardon my incessant questions, but how are you, matt and dunkeys, defining 'experimental'? I know many use this word as a substitute for 'weird'. For instance, I've heard George Saunders, Judy Budnitz, and Aimee Bender called 'experimental', though really, their stories are quite traditional. Hopefully, you guys refer to some way out there, FC2 journal style, multiple confusing viewpoints, extreme run-on sentences, Robbes-Grillet-type-navel-gazing, really-trying-to-expand-the-definition-of-fiction experimental, right? The kind that nobody secretly likes, even if it is rumored to be all intellectual and stuff?

Pete said...

To me, the most innovative writers out there are either writing sci fi- China Mieville, Carol Emschwiller-- or else are playing with the issues of modernity in a way that is striking and novel, even if it falls under "realism"- Percival Everett, Ali Smith, etc.

I don't think any of these writers would be laughed out of the room at Iowa. I think that many if not most would recognize them as the greats they are. But you know what? ANY committee-- and a workshop is in many ways a committee-- is going to include naysayers. So fucking what? Don't be such a delicate flower. If you really want to turn fiction upside down, then take your licks.

Earnest innovation seems really hard, no matter where you go. It involves risks and many revisions to achieve clarity of vision. So I wouldn't be surprised if people working outside of convention have trouble in any workshop. If only because they have to "test" every single decision they make that strays from the tried and true (and sometimes tired) manners of convention. To expect an experiment to be successful on the first try is silly. There's often a lot to criticize in rough drafts, and probably more than usual in "innovative" writing. Given a high level of discourse, all these flaws will be drawn to your attention. And if you're truly being innovative, no one anywhere will know what you should do to fix these flaws-- no one but you. So you'll probably also get a higher rate of useless advice.

But again, I don't think any of these problems would be specific to Iowa. I think it is the workshop model. I think it is the nature of sharing your work with a group who wants to help you make it better. Outside of a self-consciously "experimental" program like Brown, anyway. And even there, I have to wonder how they operate.

Vampiro said...

Are you seriously telling me that this hilarious thread isn't going to make it to 100? That's disappointing.

chad said...

I was going to try to wait and be 100, but oh well.

TLB said...

I wanna be 100! I wanna be 100!

SER said...

I can't believe I missed it by just one. TLB, you bested me yet again!