In the sense that a workshop is a meeting of working artists, however, “the work of a faculty member is extraordinarily important,” Marcus says. Iowa director Lan Samantha Chang says Iowa had about 1,300 applicants for its 50 total slots.
“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. “We say we would, if we felt the quality of the pool argued for it.
“And those are only the ones I happen to have seen,” Brothers says. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Boston University has the estimable Ha Jin, along with Robert Pinsky and Derek Walcott in poetry. 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. program admitted only two fiction writers out of 260 applicants.
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.