Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Frustrations about the Publication Game

Paranoid Poet writes in with some frustrations that I'm sure are not limited to him/her. I'd appreciate any additional comments. I'm a little slammed with work right now, but I'll offer another post with some comments later in the week. Thanks PP.

This is more of a letter, rather than a specific set of questions for you.

Lately, I have to say, I am feeling disillusioned. Luckily, I have your
voice (and others) echoing in my ear that I have done the right thing by
choosing my MFA program. I have chosen it on non-competitive full funding,
location, small size, and to some extent, faculty: the number of poets is
small, but their quality is strong.

This all seems great, right? But the competitive nature of the writing
world, particularly the poetry world, is scaring me, especially because I
am not a very aggressive person. For the past three years, my writing
professors (at a school with a very prestigious MFA program itself, no
less) have been telling me that I could "get in anywhere," or "get a book
now," etc.--that I have the talent and craft to succeed. I never even
applied to Iowa because it just didn't seem like a great fit for me, nor
did most other super-heavyweights that are often talked about on this blog
and elsewhere. I didn't want to apply to a program based on prestige and
"connections," especially because some of the "best" programs don't seem
to have great poets teaching. I wonder why that is. Sometimes it feels
like fiction and poetry programs should definitely be talked about
separately. For example, the poets at Johns Hopkins are not very
impressive (in my opinion, of course), but they seem to have some amazing
fiction writers there.

But more and more the poetry world is seeming like one of networking and
connections. My chosen program, which has a very good reputation in
general, is probably the best for my writing itself, but I won't have as
many opportunities to network as a place like Iowa does. I feel as if I am
going to be on my own in a very competitive field, and that is scaring me.
My work will have to stand by itself. I am the kind of person who usually
strives for the "best" or "top," but I also don't like playing prestige
games, so I decided to put that part of me aside and go somewhere I
thought would be best for my writing itself overall.

--Do you think that an excellent writer will be successful in the end, no
matter where he or she goes for the MFA? That a worthy manuscript will be
picked up for a contest even if he or she never attended a program, never
mind a place like Iowa? Or is this somewhat naive, given the competition?

Sometimes it really does seem like a game. I want to teach poetry writing
(and not just as a way to pay the bills; I really do want to teach). The
fact that you always encourage people to ignore certain "big names" in
favor of other factors makes me think I'm doing the right thing, but
sometimes I wonder if I'm making it harder for myself to succeed. After
all, I am going to a great program for poets, just one that's quieter and
seems more concerned with the art of writing than anything else. In other
words, it seems focused on what it should be! I just ask this question
because I don't remember ever seeing a post where you extensively talk
about the clear presence of connections and networking in the writing
world, and how much attention one should give them in this process.


Anonymous said...


--Do you think that an excellent writer will be successful in the end, no
matter where he or she goes for the MFA? That a worthy manuscript will be
picked up for a contest even if he or she never attended a program, never
mind a place like Iowa? Or is this somewhat naive, given the competition?"

I'm not sure how much your MFA program matters. My gut feeling is it frankly does, at least on the level of a big program like UCI, Columbia or Iowa will help you get connections. Not just becuase of the name, but also becuase agents and such "buzz" around the schools.

But sadly, I think we all know the above isn't a gaurentee. There have been plenty of brillant manuscripts that werne't published for decades, sometimes even after the author's death.

Especially for poetry, I imagine connections are pretty important. Sadly.

Anonymous said...

I hear you re. Johns Hopkins poets. They do seem especially pretentious, don't they? The same for Iowa's poets, except for Dean Young. Irvine and Houston seem the best poet-places among the big-name programs.

As far as the networking goes, it's sort of a sad-but-true situation. 'Tis the world we live in, and have always lived in.

Anonymous said...

I think it's obvious that networking at some level is important, but how much does one need to do it? Is going to a good MFA program enough to "get in there" and meet people, or do you really need a place like Iowa or Columbia? I mean, there are less highly regarded programs out there that FUND ALL THEIR STUDENTS. Is thousands of dollars the price you pay for connections? I guess so.

I agree that Houston is a great place for poets but looking at their financial aid, it's another problem for those people accepted at other places with guaranteed funding for all acceptees. They let you know about TA positions by May 15th. That's late. I don't think I could wait that long...

Bottomline is, though, that connections should not matter for contests. Contests should be blind. And it's very depressing to hear so much bad stuff going on out there, even with the "Jorie Graham rule" in place.

Anonymous said...

There are, of coures, some highly regarded programs that fund everyone. They are mostly small and take a few students though and plenty of good writers won't be able to get in.

As for the "FUND ALL THEIR STUDENTS!!" stuff for programs that aren't highly regarded. Yes, there are many, but are they worth it?

This is the same problem everyone had in undergrad. Do I stay in-state and go to a bad school for really cheap or pay a lot of money to go to an expensive, but amazing, private school?

Sometimes you have to pay to get a quality education. If the choice is between two great programs one who funds you fully and one that doesn't, go with the funding. But if the choice is between one amazing program that you will pay for or one bad one, what do you do?

Do you really want to get an MFA no matter what? Is the title that important? Or is the MFA experience only really worth it if it is going to be quality?

Anonymous said...

But what if it's between a good program that takes 4 or 6 students and funds them all equally, or a program like Iowa or Columbia that holds more name recognition but accepts 20-25 people per genre each year? How much individual attention can one receive in such a large program?

I don't think there are many poorly-regarded programs that fund all their students equally.

I think the issue with the letter above is whether or not one needs to go to a school like Iowa to succeed. He said that he is going to a well-regarded program (that funds everyone, apparently), but that it doesn't hold the same prestige as a school like Iowa. I think it's more about the middle to upper middle class of schools versus the few at the top, not the "bad school" versus the "best school" example that you proposed, because we all know that there are levels between. I think there are plenty of quality programs out there--as far as aiding students with their writing itself--that aren't Iowa, Columbia or Irvine. The question above is whether or not one should sacrifice "good fit" (and funding in this case) for a place with the best networking available.

Anonymous said...

There are advantages and disadvantages to a small or big program.

Most big programs have more teachers, so there is no reason to automatically assume you will have less individual attention.

personally I'd prefer a big program, as I'd have more potential friends and more teachers to choose from. If you dont' like two professors in a program that only has two... well, shit.

But the problem with answering this letter is we don't know how good his program is. He/she says it is regarded pretty well, but what does that mean? I've noticed most people have little knowledge of how well regarded programs are and tend to think that any program is pretty well regarded.

So is this pretty well regarded but not a top-top program in the vein of Syracuse or Brown? Or is this a pretty well regarded program like something that owuld rank in the mid-40s on a 2006 US News list (if that existed)?

Anonymous said...

This is the original letter writer.
It is a program that TK says is a top-twenty program in his book, so somewhere from 10-20 I guess.

btw I think Brown is a "top top" program but it is also marked by its "style" and so that makes a difference I think.

Anonymous said...

Well, if its a top 20 program I wouldn't worry too much.

Surely it probably wont' help you as much as Iowa or Columbia would, as far as connections go, but it will probably help you well enough.

Without knowing your program, my personal guess is that going to one of his top 20s with full funding can't be anything but a good idea. Is it the best idea possible? Maybe not, but certainly nothing to worry about.

I only said Brown as a not top-top because the last rankings put it at like 20th. But those are out of date. As you said, its speciality status makes it hard to rank.

Anonymous said...

OK, this is coming kind of late -- first I couldn't post comments, then Tom fixed it, and then I got backed up with other issues. But I wanted to shout that the original letter writer is doing the right thing by going with the program that, according to her letter, 1) is the perfect fit for her; 2) has excellent faculty, or at least faculty she thinks might be extremely helpful in her case; 3) is focused on improving her writing; 4) gives good funding for everyone.

On top of all these things, she adds in the comments thread that it's a top 20 program. Well, that's a no-brainer to me. She HAS TO go to that program. What good would a program be if, for all the potential connections, it might not help her writing (say, because she feels unhappy there)?

Of course, other things being equal, a program with good connections is better than a program with lousy ones. But it seems that the four points that the letter writer emphasized are hard to match. IF she finds a program that matches those four points AND offers good connections, alright, go with this new program. But otherwise, that's it. Of course, she will have to learn to be more aggressive (in a good way) and maybe approach her mentors and inquire about the publishing world (hey Tom, you could give us all a hand here, although I'm fiction).

In short, I'd try to give primacy to my writing, and I think the importance of fit -- feeling comfortable in the program, feeling you get along and learn from your teachers and classmates, etc. -- cannot be overemphasized. Then, of course, one would have to work on connections by other means, if the program that fits you is not savvy at all on that front. But is that probable? How did the faculty get published on the first place? They must know SOMETHING -- sure, maybe it won't come as easy as if you were attending Iowa, but I don't think you're doomed (again, on the assumption that it's a pretty good program, top 20 or something like that).

As to whether an excellent writer will be successful in the end, well, we all know that quality of work and commercial success don't go necessarily hand in hand. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Sometimes success comes later in life, sometimes it's post-mortem.

My two cents... and keep us posted. I'm curious as to how people make these decisions...

Anonymous said...

I think making connections in any occupation is important to success.
I think it's something many artists working in any field -- film,
painting, writing -- might find a little distasteful and uncomfortable.

I'm new to the whole MFA buzz. I've been an editor for a music magazine
for ten years and was recently accepted at a program because I have a novel
I want to work on and felt I really needed some structure and guidance. My
plan is to work my @$$ off with a graduate school goal of finishing something
ready for publication. Then, I plan to get it published.

I have noticed some sort of unspoken rule that it's not cool to focus on
getting something published, it's about the writing. I agree, partly, it's
about the writing, but it's also about getting it out there for others to
read. In order to do that you need to publish it and promote it. Ain't
no shame in that.

I know -- and you all know -- not everyone is going to care about helping us out,
and some are not going to like our work (or maybe they won't even like us),
and some are going to be just as focused on their career as we are on ours.

Even so, the great thing that I've found so far about getting involved in an MFA,
is that you meet a lot of really interesting people and you get exposed to a lot
of really good writing.

I have every intention of making connections while I'm there, and I will
probably attend workshops on an ongoing basis after I graduate. To help
get that thing published. And once I do, I have every intention of
passing on what I learn, and helping people out when I'm in a position to do so.

Personally, I have an aversion to "top 10, top 20" kind of thinking. As an
employeer, I have found GPA and the college attended do not always necessarily
mean good things. In fact, I'm hestitant to hire people with 3.8,3.9,4.0 kind
of GPAs because I fear they won't have the nerve to challenge things, that they
will try to hard to please me and everyone else here, and in my office, we need
people who are not afraid to take a beating from us or our readers.

Also, our experience here with students coming from top schools has unfortunately
been negative, they have been very lazy, unmotivated to work, came with a feeling
of entitlement. And, based on my experiences, I have to work hard not to judge
someone with "impressive credentials" in a negative way, as crazy as that sounds.

So, dude(s), I guess what I'm saying is: write well. Stay true to your style
and all, but don't be afraid to let people know what a cool person you are and
let them know you want to publish and would appreciate any tips or help. There
are so many really good, really cool people in the world who just want art to
flourish, let's help keep it alive.

Anonymous said...

Previous poster: Do you mean people coming from "top schools" out of undergrad? Because I think grad and undegrad are remarkably different things.

One thing to keep in mind is that it is not the mere name of a top school that is what helps you, although maybe it does a tiny bit, but rather it is the connections that school can provide you.

Going up to agents and saying "Hey, I went to UCI, take my manuscript!" won't do much, but while you are in your MFA agents and other connections might be coming to campus and actively looking for new student work or might have strong connections to the faculty who will recommend you, etc.

The hard part for us prospectives is figuring out how true the above is. Some say it matters a lot, and then there are a lot of people who say it doesn't matter at all, although they often say it a feel good Mr. Rogers/Buddhist way that seems suspect to me.

Hopefully Tom will give us his experienced insight soon.

Anonymous said...

I'll just say that, since the original poster was talking about a top-twenty program (as ranked by Tom), I just flipped through the book and all the programs listed as top twenty are really great programs that I would kill (who?) to go to... with the polite exception of UNLV (too many bad memories associated with Vegas). So go.

Anonymous said...

I am planning to apply for an MFA in creative writing for Fall 2007. Can someone please name a few schools with 'moderate' programs? In short, some sure shot schools..
Also, which schools have guaranteed funding?? I did a google search, but didn't come up with much.

Anonymous said...

There are no sure shots. Even the worst schools probably get 5 times as many applications as spots (as opposed to 20 times for a small top school)

buyt look at the old 1997 rankings and see the programs in the bottom 30. Only a few of those have risen much in the intervening yeras.