Dispatches | July 23, 2007

People frequently bemoan the death of reading these days, which I find interesting in light of the quiet rise of the MFA. Thirty years ago, there were only fifty or so graduate-level creative writing programs, and today that number is around three hundred. At first glance, this can seem like a welcome statistic, until we look deeper; you could say it’s as if writers are not only competing with technology these days, but in a sense, with the proliferation of higher-learning writing, they are competing with themselves for a smaller and smaller reading base.

I’m not of a the-sky-is-falling disposition. My belief: the MFA, and all of the learning and community such programs generate, is the writing world’s equivalent of surviving in the arctic tundra. Without the luxury of wide readership (the writer’s equivalent of a warm home), it at some point became necessary to carve out niches to keep the candle burning; we’re wrestling a few grizzlies and sleeping in the carcasses to survive the bitter night. Hyperbole? Yes, but until Harry Potter readers put down Book Seven and pick up Stuart Dybek, I don’t find the comparison extreme.

So, if the MFA is like setting up base camp on Everest and you’re thinking of making the climb—I love this metaphor, can you tell?—let Tom Kealey be your sherpa. I’ve checked out two recent publications on MAs and MFAs, the first being Amy Holman’s “Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing,” and the second, Kealey’s “The Creative Writing MFA Handbook.” Both offer listings of creative writing programs and basic rundowns of their vitals, and even though Holman offers a little more in regard to “other” options, such as fellowship opportunities, colonies and low-residency programs, Kealey’s relentless breakdown of the MFA application process is an essential read for any prospective student and easily makes Holman’s guide superfluous.

Kealey approaches the MFA process from the beginning, step by step, from searching out programs to writing letters of personal statement to deciding on a school, and beyond. He has a comforting analytical grip on everything that’s happening, combined with an honesty about any biases he feels may color his views. One of the added bonuses of this manual is the inclusion of interviews with several prominent MFA administrators, providing the reader with a much-welcomed perspective from the other side.

Easily the most controversial aspect of this guide is Kealey’s breakdown of fifty prominent creative writing programs, which at times anoints particular schools “a top-twenty program” or a “top-five program,” quite a quick route to infuriating any fine-arts pedagogue. Kealey notably lambastes Iowa for its competitive funding system and threatens to drop it out of his quasi-vague “top twenty” for that reason, though in another interview on a different compilation of program rankings, Edward Delaney says that this view of Iowa’s funding remains a much-misunderstood myth, which in the end, to me, remains a looming question mark.

Prospective students out there would be well-served to examine the programs listed in Kealey’s book, but if they’re serious about the process they should not limit their research to the programs and information included in this compilation; Kealey even admits as much in his foreword. However, the strengths of this book extend far beyond program rankings and should not deter prospective students from taking a look.

(As an added bonus, you can check out the book’s official blog here. It’s completely free, and chock-full of content.)