Nice Try

Why the Poets & Writers MFA rankings are a sham.

Is Poets & Writers trying to shame Columbia into lowering its tuition?

Poets & Writers has just released its 2012 rankings of creative writing MFA programs. Year after year, their ranking of Columbia University—my alma mater—has steadily fallen. I can remember when it was in the toppermost tier. Last year, it plummeted to No. 25 (tied with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). This year, it plunged down to No. 47, and is now presumed to rank behind such august institutions as Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg and Texas State University in San Marcos.

This is, of course, risible.

Columbia is one of the top MFA writing programs in the world, and its ranking should be much higher. (In my opinion, it should be at No. 2, behind only the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa.) Columbia has arguably the finest faculty in the world. Pulitzer winners like Richard Howard and Nobel winners like Orhan Pamuk—and many other authors of lofty accomplishment—call it home. It is also located at the center of the book publishing, agenting, and editing universe. The guest speakers and visitors from New York’s literary scene offer an unmatched immersion into the world of professional writing. And, perhaps most tellingly, it remains a top choice for applicants. (I should note that while the list from Poets & Writers has become the gold-standard for MFA rankings, there have been minority reports. A few years ago, U.S. News and World Report ranked MFA writing programs, and put Columbia at No. 4.)

How then, does one explain P&W’s yearly pummeling of Columbia’s program? It’s very simple. Columbia has expensive tuition, and Poets & Writers is attempting to shame Columbia into lowering it. Why, you might fairly ask? Why are they doing this? Why is it not OK to charge high tuition if folks seem more than willing to pay it?

Now we arrive at the heart of the matter.

Though Poets & Writers presents itself as an utterly neutral resource for scriveners of all stripes, the magazine is largely written for and by people focused on the teaching of creative writing as a profession. For this cohort, the Columbia model makes no sense. Why would you take out large student loans if you’re just going to publish a few chapbooks (with, say, a print run of 500 copies each), settle into a nice teaching residency at the University of Northern South Dakota making $35,000 a year (less, of course, your subscription to Poets & Writers), and achieve tenure based upon your trenchant stewardship of the student literary magazine?

They’re right. It wouldn’t make sense.

But—now the unspeakable heresy—what if your goal were … something else? What if your goal were to write a successful book that lots of people read? What if your goal were to become a person of letters whose writing was read and appreciated by those outside of MFA and academic circles? What if you even dreamed of securing thousands of dollars for something you had written?

If the Columbia University MFA program would help you do these things, which—guess what?—it totally does, then, as a proposition, Columbia begins to make complete and total sense.

Columbia is a school for people who actually want to become better writers, get books published, and survive—or even thrive—in the rough-and-tumble world of American letters. It is not a holistic weekend retreat. Columbia is a place for people who want to be the best and study with the best. (Or, OK, the best after Iowa.) It’s for people whose genitals still work, dammit. For writers who want to be brave and persevere in the real world where people often fail.

Most importantly, Columbia seems to launch writers successfully. At least that’s what it did for me and for most of my friends in the program. I arrived at the school in the fall of 2000 without significant resources. Finding ways to make ends meet during my time there was harrowing, depressing, and frequently terrifying. On top of this, when I graduated in 2002, I had about $45,000 in student loan debt.

And it was totally worth it.

Despite the challenges, I studied with some of the greatest living writers, made publishing contacts that will probably serve me for the rest of my natural life, and—in the nine years since graduation—I have published six books. Many of my colleagues report similar success. And that’s really what’s at issue here: a different definition of the word “success.”

When it comes to MFAs, Poets & Writers is not keen to talk about “success” in terms of “getting books published” (which you’d think would be the first thing used as an arbiter of achievement by writers). Poets & Writers includes fellowship placement and job placement in its criteria for ranking MFA programs but has no category for “publication placement.”

At heart, I think the people at P&W just want to be “nice.” They want a nice world where all the writers get along and do their writing—because all of their writing is equally good and equally important—and don’t get into too much debt in the process. Creative writing departments should be “nice” places where artists can grow and develop and do good creative writing, because all creative writing is good.

But here is another worldview: Some writing is (looks left, looks right) better than other writing. Some writers suck, and some writers are awesome! And maybe a sign of awesome writing is that people outside of the MFA world—such as book critics, literary theorists, magazine editors, newspapers, book publishers, and the book-buying public—also think it is awesome.

So, yes, Columbia University in New York City has an MFA program that costs more than other places. (Know what else costs more in New York City? Everything.) Depending on your worldview, this is a befuddling rip-off or a price you’d be more than happy to pay.

I will not conclude by asking that Poets & Writers refrain from their annual savaging of Columbia. It has become almost fun to watch. And, anyway, by virtue of their position as the Citadel of Niceness, it’s something they must do. (The notion that a sign of good writing could be something other than an offer of assistant professorship at Possum Grape Community College approaches a Lovecraftian unthinkability for these people.) But I do have a modest proposal.

Poets & Writers should add a “manuscript placement” column to its yearly rankings spreadsheet, alongside fellowship placement and job placement. What percentage of fiction graduates secure a publishing contract worth at least four figures within 10 years of graduation? What percentage of poets win a prize that results in the publication of a book within 10 years of graduation? Including these figures would create a more informed worldview for a student thinking of getting an MFA and would allow students to attend the graduate school that most closely fits their own definition of “success.”

Finally, it would also explain why Columbia’s program remains so popular … and so worth the money.