Monday, April 17, 2006

Question about the Michigan Program

Fictioner Against Nepotism writes in...

I applied to Michigan and found myself regretting it when I found out
that Nicholas Delbanco's daughter Francesca attended the Michigan
program. Given how subjective fiction as a field is, I think that even
if she was given the same treatment as all the other applicants, it
still smacks of nepotism and I find it highly objectionable. I don't
know if I'm just overreacting or if my concerns are valid. What do you

I went back and forth with the emailer about this. I don't personally have a problem with the situation. Athletes often play for their dad-the-coach on university sports teams. They still have to pass the university's requirements for admission, just as I'm sure Francesca had to pass the program's requirements for the manuscript and the application.

But, we're a democracy here on the Blog, even though I'm Speaker of the House. We're a forum, and I appreciate FAN's question. We'd both welcome any comments.

My comment: To say that I think highly of the Michigan program would be an understatement. I think it's one of the top five programs out there. This situation would not discourage me in the least.


jaywalke said...

That doesn't really bother me. The possible reasons for her applying are myriad: it could be financial (children of faculty get a break at a lot of state schools), location-dependent (I would live in A~2 if I could, too!), family members needing care, etc.

The reasons for acceptance, well, you'll never know who knew whom on the admissions committe, but that's the case with any applicant. Parents who make large donations never have their children's applications walked up the chain for prestigious schools (cough, cough). Maybe she is a great writer, or maybe not. Either way, I can't see how it would affect anyone else's work in a given program. You may have a worthless corner on the workshop table, but non-faculty parentage is no guarantee that *won't* happen.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently going into the Michigan program, and I have to say I originally had the same reaction. But I believe that while Francesca was at UM, she won a Hopwood, which is judged by people outside the university (and across the country), and where the submissions are anonymous. So even if she may have had a little help from her name getting in, she certainly deserved to be there, winning one of the program's major prizes on her own merit.

Anonymous said...

I was about to post something, but Jaywalker and A. made it better. Couldn't agree more! (Though I share FAN's initial reaction: it does sound fishy. However, upon reflection, there' nothing there that should give us pause. OK, I'm about to repeat Jaywalker's and A.'s words).

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Kostova won a Hopwood there too. She wrote The Historian, a NY Times bestseller that was undoubtedly the worst book I ever read. (Read it. Go ahead, I dare you. See if you can get through the whole thing. Horrendous.) Her connections? Supposedly, she's married to and best friends with folks at her publishing company. So if you're worried about nepotism, be aware that others have similar concerns about Michigan.

Anonymous said...

I was the original poser of the question. The difference between pop coaching son on basketball team is that basketball has more objective standards. I was also not concerned about having a bad contributor. I just kinda feel like fiction spots at MIchigan are so limited, and I would have been annoyed had I been in her class, knowing that she was accepted through a highly subjective process that inevitably couldn't definititvely rule out her pedigree.

Anonymous said...

Oh, please:

"They still have to pass the university's requirements for admission..."

...and to bolster this claim, we invoke: athletics.


Really, guys. If you're headed to a program with only five or so others, you damn sure don't want one of them to be the teacher's kid. It's not just that there's a 'dead corner' at the table--it's that some other poor soul was denied entry.

And has anyone ever checked out lit contests? Cheating is rampant. With a lot of prizes, it's all about who you know. Hell, Iowa is brazen enough to award all of its "anonymous" prizes to recent students and even current teachers. One of them was a Stegner fellow--and if I'm not mistaken, that man's wife was also, miraculously, anonymously, became a Stegner fellow.

The info is certainly out there. Don't soft pedal this stuff, and don't pretend like it doesn't happen...

jaywalke said...

Yet another anon. wrote:

"Really, guys. If you're headed to a program with only five or so others, you damn sure don't want one of them to be the teacher's kid."

What if the teacher's kid is a better writer? It is certainly not outside the realm of possibility. You will never know how or why the other students in any program got in, nor should it matter. The only control you have is over your own experience. Graduate school, like most of life, will probably be what you make of it whether you attend the best-rated program or the worst. Writing is a tough occupation (although there are certainly many just as hard, such as music, art and theatre). If graduate school introduces you to a taste of the dog-eat-dog reality, inadvertently or not, I think it is doing its job.

As I see it, the only thing I can do is focus on the quality of my own work. Obsessing about everyone else's status/connections/cheating will only give me heartburn.


Anonymous said...

I think this is sort of an oh-grow-up thing. Nepotism makes the world go 'round--not love or money, and certainly not quality writing.

Anonymous said...

Um, on Kostova--she's actually married to a guy who's attending grad school at Michigan (he started there after she moved to Ann Arbor). Maybe she had other connections to the publishing world, but nepotism didn't seem to have anything to do with her amazing book deal (more like the fact that the novel was about vampires, a subject that sells). And even if it did, that really has nothing to do with Michigan itself.
Also, my own experience with the UofM MFA program goes a little against insiderism. Last year I applied to the program. I was already a grad student at U of M, had worked with some of the faculty in the MFA, been told my writing was strong by said faculty, even won a Hopwood in competition with the MFA students, but I still didn't get in. This year I did get in, and I know from my experience that it has nothing to do with the people I knew but with the fact that I worked my ass off all year on my writing.

Anonymous said...

all i'm saying is that "better writer" in this context is completely and utterly subjective, and so having the daughter of one of the professors as an applicant to that same program is objectionable in my view, because that person's status is automatically different than any other's according to that subjective standard.

i personally feel like it was ill-advised for her to have applied in the first place, and even more ill-advised that they accepted her. there are dozens of other programs out there, many of them well-funded.

Anonymous said...

This is definitely a valid concern, and one worth thinking about. But I do think that if you're going to be a writer, you have to find a way to deal with these issues. At some point in your career, someone's story/poem/novel is going to get published even though it's not as good as yours, and you'll have to get over it. In writing as in life, contacts can help you, whether it's fair or not.

It's also important to point out that while yes, there may be cases where contacts/legacies help people get in, there are many more cases where people come in, and succeed, without those contacts. I say this as someone who got into the program with no Michigan contacts; no one else in my class did either. And there are a lot of people from the undergrad creative writing program here at UMich that *don't* get into the MFA program.

The same goes for the Hopwoods: yes, sometimes the Hopwoods designate the "best" and "most deserving" writing, and sometimes they don't. (I say this as a Hopwood winner too.)

The bottom line is that none of these things--winning an award, pedigree, even getting accepted into any given program--is really a measure of your value. The only thing you can really control is the quality of your own writing; Jaywalke put it well. Obsessing about everyone else's status/connections/whatever is not going to do any good in the long run, frustrating as that might be. All I can do is focus on my own writing and see what happens.

Thanks to the anonymous poster who pointed out (correctly) that Elizabeth Kostova's deal had nothing to do with Michigan nepotism. I didn't like her book either, but I'd rather not have inaccurate rumors spreading about her.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to say in my last comment (begins with "This is definitely a valid concern..."):

I hope Fictioner Against Nepotism doesn't deny him/herself the opportunity to go to a great program--Michigan or somewhere else--because of this. It would be a shame to miss an incredible experience because of one incidence of *possible* nepotism. This isn't to say that MFA programs are necessary by any means, but attending Michigan's taught me so much and put me in contact with friends who will be long-term readers. So I'd say weigh the benefits of the program too, and decide how much these pedigree issues really matter to you in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I posted the point about Kostova. Used the word "supposedly" but a better connotation would've been "allegedly." I just know what I heard, and I may have recounted wrong, but it also may be that what I heard wasn't accurate in the first place. Needless to say, I obviously had favoritism concerns about UM, where I plan to apply.

Anonymous said...

I went to the UM MFA program. You can't really call Hopwood submissions anonymous or the judging process blind. When submissions are coming from a small group of current students, the faculty panel that does the initial vetting certainly knows who's written what.