Why critics of MFA programs have it wrong

Salon exclusive: The Iowa Writers' Workshop director defends MFAs, laments young stardom and book-world cynicism

Published October 22, 2011 9:00PM (EDT)

Curtis Sittenfeld and Lan Samantha Chang
Curtis Sittenfeld and Lan Samantha Chang

Lan Samantha Chang was already one of literature's young stars -- the author of the acclaimed "Hunger: A Novella and Stories" and the novel "Inheritance" -- when she was tapped to succeed Frank Conroy as the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the most prestigious MFA program in American letters. Her latest novel, "All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost," now in paperback, is set within a writing program, and the Workshop celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, at a time when writers like Chad Harbach and Elif Batuman have written critiques of MFA culture. So we asked fellow Iowa graduate Curtis Sittenfeld, the bestselling author of "Prep" and "American Wife," to discuss what really happens at Iowa, the consequences of early literary stardom and whether any criticism of workshop culture and "the Iowa story" rings true.

We're having this conversation on the occasion of the paperback publication of "All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost," so I thought I’d start with a few questions about that. The first is a two-pronged question, and I’ll ask both prongs before you answer. One, what is it in human nature that makes us, as readers, want fiction to be autobiographical, or draw from real life? The second part of the question is what is your response to the people who want the writing program in your novel to be the Iowa Writers' Workshop?

Interesting. OK: What is it in human nature that makes us want to read autobiographical fiction?

Perhaps not seeking out autobiographical fiction, as much as wanting fiction, in this sort of winking way, to draw from real life?

First of all, I think that fiction is deep and wide, and not all readers want the work they read to draw from real life. For example, in our program we have a science fiction writer who is deeply engaged in world building, and I don’t think that most of the people who are coming to his work are interested in his life. They are interested in the world he is able to build. They are interested in a world they haven’t experienced before and don’t know anything about. So that’s one thing. Prong one.

But the flip side of reading is that we read because we want to feel something. We want to get in on it. So there is a lot of reading that takes place where the reader is desiring some kind of inside information, or entrance, into a world that they know something about or nothing about. So it’s a completely different motivation, and these people want to believe that something really happened. They want to believe that what they’re getting is the inside scoop. It's human nature. This is why people tell stories. The first stories were sort of the “I alone have survived to tell the tale,” and we get to hear the tale. So I guess that’s a pretty natural impulse.

What is my response to the people who want my novel to be about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? You know, it’s so funny because I kind of knew this was going to happen, and that’s one of the reasons why when I wrote the book it was a secret project. I didn’t tell anyone I was working on it. It was this huge, private pleasure that I afforded myself in the middle of this hectic, chaotic period, which started with getting married at age 39, and then starting my job as director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and then having a child.

My nonwriting life suddenly loomed large, so I think in response, the writing life sort of rose up against it in my mind and it became this secret box I retreated to. I created this secret novel that I thought would never get published because it seemed really kind of private, and it seemed also to be about a world that no one would be interested in. Then at some point I realized that I had written an entire novel, that it could very well be published -- and that there were some problems bringing it out into the world. The main problem was that people would think that it was Iowa, and that the characters represented real people, and that I was doing it for the purpose of writing about real people, which was as far from the truth as I can imagine. So I guess I just have to tell people who want this book to be about the Workshop that, in a certain way -- now that the book has been out for a year, I can think about it from more of a distance -- maybe it is. It’s not about the actual Iowa Writers' Workshop, but it’s about the part of the workshop that really matters, which is this intimate struggle with art. I have this privilege in my job of experiencing gifted people’s intimate struggles with art, and I wanted to capture what is a pretty ineffable experience of struggle as it affected the lives of two friends and their loved ones. I think to that extent, the story that takes place in the book is the kind of story that would happen to people here in this program, or at any number of places for that matter.

I can see that -- the book doesn’t have a dishy feel at all. If you had been told as a student in the Workshop that you would become director of the Workshop, what do you think you would have thought?

Well, you know, the thought did occur to me when I was a student. I would watch Frank Conroy -- the director that you and I both knew -- and I would think I could never have his job because he had to make tough decisions and everybody got upset with him, and I wouldn’t like that. So I’d never do that.

Ha! Now that you are the director, can you explain how your time is divided? People probably imagine the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop reads nonstop. What is the breakdown of how you spend your time, day-to-day, month-to-month, etc.?

I do read a lot of wonderful fiction, but a lot of it is student fiction. And it’s true that a lot of the fiction that I read ends up being published, in somewhat different form, or in the exact same form as it was when I read it. But I have to make a concerted effort to read. My time is seasonal. The worst time of the year is in January, because that’s when the admissions applications come in. With the recession, the number of applications we’ve received at our program has jumped. In 2010 it jumped by 50 percent.

Wait, how many applications in 2010?

In fiction, it was over 1,200. I think it was more like 1,300.

What was it in poetry?

Gosh, close to 500. I’m not responsible for reading the poetry manuscripts, thank goodness.

Am I right in thinking that of the 1,300 applicants in fiction, 25 were accepted, and of the 500 in poetry, 25 were accepted?

That particular year I think I accepted 29 people because there were so many good people I just couldn’t resist. The poets accept around 25.

Those numbers are terrifying. For someone applying in fiction, if there are a maximum of 30 spots, and 1,200 people are applying -- let’s say you met someone on an airplane who desperately wanted to go to the Workshop. What advice would you give that person?

Well, I would say turn in your best work. That’s the only advice. It doesn’t matter what your letters of recommendation say; it doesn’t matter what kind of grades you got. We just don’t look at that. We look at the work. We’ve done that always, and it’s still true.

Can you describe a little bit about how the admissions process works?

Ultimately what happens is that I choose 50 or 60 finalists, and then the permanent faculty and the visiting faculty read all of the finalists and have a vote. And every year, I’d say there are probably 25 or 30 people admitted to the program in fiction, and every year there are 80 people who deserve to be in the program. So, as you can imagine, we vote down a lot of wonderful people. What’s interesting to me is the number of extraordinary writers who are good enough to get in but who don’t get in because we don’t have enough spots.

Do you think there is an element of randomness? If 80 applicants are qualified to get in, is there much difference between the 30 who get in and the 50 who don’t? Is it the flip of a coin? Is it the subjectivity of the faculty’s taste? 

I don’t think that there is one answer for that question. What I have noticed is that among the, say, 50 finalists, it’s often the case that 10 of them don’t get any faculty votes at all. So, then I think, "Is there something off about the way of voting?" so I added a system where the faculty are allowed to choose one or two people that they feel that should get in even if they don’t get enough votes.

I want the admissions system to allow for quirks, because it seems to be that outliers are the ones who often end up being quite good. I don’t know what the difference would be between the people who get in and the people who don’t except sometimes I think it’s timing. A really promising writer in their early 20s who has just graduated from college and applies to the MFA, like straight out of college, stands a lower chance of getting into our program than someone who has been out for a few years and has had a chance to have some experience, and grow, and season, and write some more, and test their writing, and develop a larger body of work. That undergraduate who gets rejected from our program when they’re 22 could easily get in when they’re 26.

There's the larger question, not specific to Iowa, about the purpose of an MFA: There are some people who lament the explosion of MFA programs. There was that essay by Elif Batuman ...

“Get a Real Degree.”

When I was teaching at the Writers' Workshop last fall, I talked to my students about that particular essay. I thought it made some interesting points. I’m not sure I agree with its overall argument, but it is something that is popular for people to say, that there are too many MFA programs. What’s your response to that?

It's funny. When I took this job, I certainly didn’t expect that I would be in a position of being expected to defend the MFA system, because, as a matter of fact, I feel that this program is a specific program and that it doesn’t have very much to do with the MFA system at all. It’s its own quirky program.

Do you think, “Fine. Criticize MFAs. Who cares?”

No. It’s so fascinating to me that smart people waste, or spend, an enormous amount of effort criticizing people who love to read and write. You know?

I mean, people enter the MFA system, and some of them are paying money to do so, because they love to read and write. Bottom line. That’s not a sin to me. I feel that people have a lot of reasons for pursuing an MFA and they’re not all the reasons that the critics of the MFA program would necessarily accept and understand. For example, I think when you go to an MFA program, it gives you a different orientation toward time, generally.

How so?

You have time to think and to pursue something that you love. That’s pretty basic. I mean, if the program is supporting you, which I think it should. I think an MFA program should fund its students.

But you have more time to think, and you have time to think about your life. And to think about the lives of other human beings. That is a privilege, but it is something that a lot of people need and want. It’s a privilege and a basic human need. Our society pushes us toward productivity in a way that is antithetical to our basic needs.

Sometimes Iowa is used as a shorthand for MFA programs in general, or among critics there’s the idea of a particular kind of Iowa story, or Iowa novel, or Iowa kind of writing. Do you think that that view holds any truth?

Well, let’s see. First, in regard to people seeing us as representative of MFA programs, I don’t think we are. I should try to explain what it’s like here. For one thing, the Workshop was the first degree-granting creative writing program in the country. This is our 75th anniversary. I think people talk about the Workshop because it has such a high level of accomplishment. For example, in the last 20 years, 40 percent of the Pulitzer Prizes in poetry have been won by former students or faculty.

We’re also strange. I mean, I don’t know how many other programs you’ve been to, but we’re a little odder than most.

How so?

The program is so old, and so geographically on it own. It’s like we’re centrally located and geographically isolated, and we’re big. We’re big enough that we have our own community and our own traditions. And because of that, a lot of good things from way back, decades and decades ago, haven’t really changed. We’re still in some ways very similar to the way we were 75 years ago. An example of this is that we’re still very laissez-faire. We don’t really demand high productivity, and this is the age of professionalization, and in this day and age the degree of individuality that we encourage in our students, as I’ve come to realize, is stubbornly anachronistic. And to a large extent, the Workshop is protected from the current trend of widget-counting standards of the academy, and it works. We exist in order to bring writing to the center of life and to grow writers. Thankfully, the University of Iowa understands this and has been supportive of us for 75 years.

And then there’s the fact that we’re four to six hours by car from Chicago, Milwaukee, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis and Minneapolis. What that means is that we’re a high-residence program. So people are really here when they’re here. So some of the most significant learning in the program doesn’t take place in the Dey House at all -- the Dey House is where we’re located; it’s our building. As you know, it takes place in the bars and restaurants, and people’s backyards and living rooms, and even though I’m the last person to hear about student romances, I assume in the bedrooms of Iowa City.

So we’re not small. We have, at any given time, 100 poets and fiction writers. We’ve got dozens of former students living in town. We have 10 professors; we have writers from all over the community in Iowa City. Then there are these other great graduate writing programs on campus: the International Writing Program, which is like a writers’ colony for writers from all over the world; the playwriting program; the nonfiction program; and then programs that didn’t exist when we were students -- the Irish writing and Spanish writing programs -- and then the translation program, which has a long history. Then there’s the thousands of undergrads who now come to Iowa because it has a reputation as a school that values writing. So there’s a huge community here, and that creates a kind of, I think, quirkiness. This is a town where if you say to somebody, “I’m a poet,” the person will be like, “Oh, yeah. My neighbor’s a poet.”

Instead of saying, “What?”

Yeah, “What do you do?”

So, those of us who work at the program, we see the Workshop as a kind of quirky home for gifted misfits. We feel like we’re nurturing young writers, and we’re thrilled by signs of promise. We have our own -- and I don’t mean to speak for everyone -- somewhat eclectic or eccentric lives. Small town lives. We don’t think of ourselves as representing anything at all.

So it's more like the Iowa identity is thrust onto the Workshop, or members of the Workshop, from the outside?

I guess because of the place we hold in the history of the MFA, people equate us with the MFA. And actually, the MFA has taken on its own life, and our graduates have sort of coaxed MFA programs out of universities all over the country, and in that way we are related. You know, they call it the Iowa model. So in that way we are related to all other programs, and I think that some of the quirky messages carry along, but I don’t think we really represent anything at this point.

You mentioned that Iowa is a bigger program than most, which might be part of why it seems like there's a disproportionate number of graduates of the Workshop who have been published. But I think there is an idea that you get a book contract at the same time you get your master's degree.

That’s not true. You know that’s not true. But I will say that out of my spring semester 2009 workshop, five out of the 10 students in that workshop now have books.

Wait, spring 2009? So it’s been two and half years and 50 percent of them have books?

I guess so. There are a lot of recent graduates who have books, but can I just say, though, that for those of us who work and teach at the program, who see the Workshop as a quirky home for gifted misfits, we’re thrilled when people show signs of promise, but we also know that it takes a long time, sometimes decades, for talent to mature.  All the hoopla over the program and the people who graduate from the program has very little to do with the mission of the program, which is to make writing the center of each writer’s life for the brief period of time when they are here.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about your very recent students who already have books in light of your own path. You were in your early 30s when your story collection "Hunger" came out, and then you spent about 10 years writing your first novel, "Inheritance." What are some of the pros and cons of having a career with that young sizzle?

Not to speak on behalf of others who’ve published books before 35, but I think it can be stressful to move from that period of life when your struggles are huge, private struggles, to suddenly being in a situation where people assume that you’ve never struggled, or have no struggles. And the fact is that the struggles continue. Being a writer is not easy.

And publishing a book is stressful. Very stressful. The book stops being a private thing and becomes a public thing. "All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost" is an example of this. My first two books were about Asian-American immigrants, which I think is pretty much what everyone expected out of me. And then with "All Is Forgotten," I published a book from the point of view of a man, and it was not about ethnic identity at all. All of a sudden, I found that my work was being scrutinized in a different way and that was a surprise. And because I had lived a private life for 20 years and was now writing about the things I’d learned about the life of the writer, and the influence of art on one’s emotional development, it was a surprise to see that stuff taken out of context and discussed as if I were writing -- what did they say? They said it was an MFA novel, which it wasn’t. They said it was a novel of ideas, which it wasn’t. I wish I could write a novel of ideas.

I forget that critics are part of the production and marketing process; that their first job is to label and categorize what they call the product, or what people in business call the product. So it was a real shock to me, I think because I sat so close to the material, I couldn’t see how others might view it more cynically. As I said before, I have this privilege of experiencing gifted people’s intimate struggles with art, and I wanted to write about that, and it was a very strange thing to have it suddenly turned inside-out -- from being something very intimate, to something very public.

I think that when you’re a young writer -- and often young writers’ first books are about their identity and their life -- and you suddenly discover that information is public, and, moreover, that it’s a product, it can be really disconcerting. My big plan when I was a student here was to wait to publish until I was ready. There were all these agents coming in and out of the program, and I didn’t go to a single meeting with an agent when I was here because I just felt like I wasn’t ready.

And when did you feel like you were ready?

Oh, a few years later. I’d revised the work that I did when I was in Iowa, and started thinking about a longer project, and something happened that just made me decide, "OK, I can handle it now."

It was gradual, and one day I just realized I was ready to approach the world. I’m really glad I waited.


Because I wanted to have the emotional resources to cope with that kind of change.

You talked about writing "All Is Forgotten" as a secret project. Did you literally show it to zero people before completing it?

When I finished a draft, which is very similar to the current book, I showed it to one friend of mine, an old friend from the Workshop who I trust. I said to her, “Oh, this is this private thing I’ve been writing and I wanted to show it to you to see what you thought.” She said, “This is really good, and you should publish it.” And I thought, "What a strange idea."

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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