Aug 7, 2008, 1:44 AM
Post #179 of 316
Re: [Junior Maas] Fiction Acceptance Rates?
[In reply to]
Things seems more disturbing when you consider that most who do make it in appear to be rich white Ivy Leaguers...or folks born into heartwarming semi-poverty in another country who went to Ivy League schools on scholarship. One Iowa blogger even reports that (on the poetry side at least) they tend to admit the bored daughters of uber-rich, Rockefeller-type families -- because those daughters will one day marry, become even more bored, and bestow endowments.
I mean...Ack! 80%!? This makes the whittling down process look even worse... !
Once again, I feel the need to respond to some of the things being said about Iowa on this messageboard. First of all, the notion that Iowa only accepts Ivy Leaguers is absurd. I can remember a few students from Ivy League schools when I was there, but the vast majority were from state universities, small liberals arts colleges, and even a few community colleges. For years, in fact, Iowa was known for accepting students who hadnít even graduated from college (I donít think they can get away with that now). But the point is, all they care about there is how good a writer you are, regardless of where you went to school. In fact theyíre probably the program that places the least weight on GPAs and GRE scores. As for the diversity issue, thatís equally absurd, and all you have to do is look at some of the important writers who have come out of there over the years: James Alan McPherson, Rita Dove, Sandra Cisneros, Bharti Mukherjee, Susan Power, Gish Jen, Abraham Verghese, Lan Samanthat Chang, or more recently, Yiyun Le, Sue Kwok Kim, Nam Le, ZZ Packer, etc. I could go on and on. The point is, if youíd actually ever spent a day there, youíd realize how ridiculous this type of statement was.
Anyway, every now and then I feel the need to respond to these types of statements, and Iíve been wondering recently why it is the Iowa seems to incur so much wrath. In Edward Delaneyís interview about his rankings in the Atlantic, he makes the point that ďIowa is everyoneís favorite piŮata,Ē and this is of course the price you pay for being perceived by the general public as the best program in the country. In other words, people rarely take shots at other strong programs, like UVA or Cornell or Michigan, because they donít feel that they need to degrade those programs in order to establish their own (or their programís) superiority. And, of course, a part of me understands this. But whatís troubling to me is the way the program, and the students in the program, are so vilified and misrepresented. When I was there, the students were warm, generous supportive and kind. They also happened to be incredibly talented writers, but that was beside the point. They were, first and foremost, good people. Moreover, what people need to understand is that the students there, at least when I was there, care far less about Iowaís famous reputation than it seems students at every other MFA program do. In fact, I would be hard pressed to remember one conversation in which anyone even talked about Iowaís ranking at all, except to say that they were surprised they got in. I was even there when the famous 1997 US News rankings came out, and I donít think anyone said more than two words about it, whereas I remember my friends at other programs getting extremely worked up about where their particular program fell on that list.
All of which is to say that while students from various other programs feel the need to degrade Iowa, the students at Iowa donít feel the need to degrade them. In fact, I donít think Iíve ever seen one negative post on these messageboards from an Iowa grad belittling another program. Mostly, you have good people like Seth, who, if anything, are championing other programs. And Iím sure if you asked the typical Iowa student what they thought of a program like, say, Michigan, theyíd probably say ďThatís a great program!Ē Not ďThatís a great program, but not as good as ours.Ē Because, quite frankly, they donít care. Theyíre not thinking about that or talking about that, in part, because thereís an understanding there (perhaps because of the famous legacy) that one has to be humble, that one canít believe too much in the external significance of things, and that all that really matters is trying to do the best work you can do every day. And if thereís one reason why so many Iowa grads have actually had success itís probably because this belief is so ingrained in them.
So why is it then that this incredibly cool, supportive environment, filled with nice, humble, hard-working writers, who are just as insecure and unsure of themselves as writers at any other program in the country, why is it then that this place incurs so much wrath? I think part of it is the top dog issue, but I think, more specifically, it relates to a kind of frustration, which is perfectly understandable. The students from other programs see their program getting better, increasing their financial aid, improving their faculty, etc., and yet, no matter how much their programs improve, they canít seem to shake the public opinion that Iowa is still the most prestigious program in the country. And the problem is, itís kind of a futile battle to fight. The fame and legacy of The Writersí Workshop is just too ingrained in the public consciousness at this point. And Iím not talking about MFA students, or even writers, here. Iím talking about the general public. The Iowa program is simply a part of popular culture. Itís the one program that people who donít know anything about MFA Programs know about. Itís the one program thatís written about the most, talked about the most, referenced the most, etc, and thatís just not something that people can control or reverse. Once something is part of the public consciousness, once a certain opinion is formed and reinforced by the media, it becomes extremely hard to compete with, and so I think thatís where some of this frustration comes from. Iowa begins to represent some sort of giant machine that canít be stopped, and so the only thing people can do is take pot shots at it. And of course the fact that so many of its graduates continue to have success only fuels this resentment
But what I want to express to people here is that neither the students, nor the Iowa Writers Workshop itself, are doing anything to perpetuate this public opinion. Just look at the Iowa website compared to other programsí websites. Considering all of the famous alumni and past faculty and honors they could list, itís pretty amazing how humble and understated their website is. But thatís the attitude there. Thatís Iowa. Theyíre not interested in posting flashy advertisements in Poets & Writers or The Writerís Chronicle or others trade magazines, like so many other programs do. Theyíre not even interested in attracting more applicants. In fact, when I was there, they actually sent out a list of all the other MFA programs out there as a way of discouraging applicants from only applying to Iowa and also as a way of helping those other programs grow.
So, what Iím saying to the people who feel the need to attack Iowa is ďlet it go.Ē What youíre attacking is an idea, a public opinion, and one that canít be easily reversed. And the thing is, the students at Iowa arenít even invested in this public opinion, at least they werenít when I was there, so why should you be? They arenít walking around feeling superior to you, so why should feel the need to cast dispersions on them or their program? The only thing you should be focusing on is your own work and the quality of it, because, in the long run, that all that really matters. Thatís the main thingóprobably the most important thingóI actually learned at Iowa.