Once upon a time, students in graduate fiction writing programs dreamed of publishing stories in obscure Midwestern literary quarterlies with readerships that could all fit into a Volkswagen. Then, with a lot of hard work and a lot of luck, someday, maybe, they might have something published in Harper’s or even The New Yorker. But today these students and their increasingly preprofessional programs have much grander ambitions, aiming for a published novel or a Hollywood contract.
What’s more, they are getting them. In the last five years, for example, recent graduates of the fiction writing program at the University of California at Irvine have published 10 first novels, two short-story collections and one memoir, and have had six screenplays optioned by Hollywood studios.
“The growth of these programs is a function of the amazing number of first-book contracts and film options that are making some young writers rich,” said Tamara Strauss, editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, a magazine owned by Francis Ford Coppola that publishes stories with the goal of turning them into films. “About 40 percent of the 600 to 1,000 manuscripts we receive each quarter come from students in these programs.”
While Ms. Strauss said that there were too many programs and that they produced too many predictable first-person narratives, she added that some universities, like Iowa, Columbia and Stanford, had become “a priority read.”
“It is undeniable that certain programs repeatedly produce a quality in writing that, I think, is energizing American literature,” she said.
Universities and colleges have realized that creative writing programs can offer payoffs for them as well. With low overhead, they can be big moneymakers (tuition can run as high as $30,000 a year), attracting students, celebrity writers and publicity. Some institutions even try to give these programs marquee status akin to that of respected law or medical schools. The program at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Tex., for example, has built a $4 million endowment and hired the acclaimed novelist Tim O’Brien to teach one semester every other year for a salary of $120,000. The vision is to build a program that might rival the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
In 1967, there were just 13 creative writing programs in the United States, according to the Writing Program Association. But the Iowa Writers’ Workshop kept producing novelists like T. Coraghessen Boyle, Jane Smiley and Gail Godwin, and the programs took off. The 330 today receive about 20,000 applications and enroll about 4,000 students. Administrators note the sharpest growth in applications at places with famous teachers who attract students seeking publishing and screenwriting success.
Nicole DeSalle, 28, a student at Southwest Texas State, said she had been attracted to studying with writers like Mr. O’Brien and gaining entree to the publishing world. Students receive “a lot of opportunities to get published that we wouldn’t be aware of otherwise,” she said.
“We get information about agents and publishing companies,” she continued. “We regularly get e-mails and flyers for new journals coming out all the time. It’s all here at your fingertips. It’s an ongoing battle if you should sell out and become a screenwriter, but most of my friends are diehard book people.”
The students’ ambition rarely leads them to television writing. Elitism toward the medium, or plain disinterest, seems to account for this.
The University of California at Irvine claims alumni like Alice Sebold, author of the best-selling first novel “The Lovely Bones” and a memoir, “Lucky”; David Benioff, the writer of several lucrative screenplays, like the forthcoming “Stay,” for which he was paid $1.8 million; and Glen David Gold, whose debut as a novelist was “Carter Beats the Devil.”
“It was great to enter a false world for a few years, where writing was the supreme thing,” said Ms. Sebold, whose “Lovely Bones” was her thesis and who studied and taught at Irvine from 1995 through 1999.
She says that the program’s director for the last seven years, Geoffrey Wolff, tries hard to keep it pure but that “we are living in the shadow of Hollywood.” She added: “I was stunned at how students talked about movies when we went out to dinner, when I was expecting them to talk about novels. There is big money in Hollywood, and it lures away really good minds.”
Mr. Benioff, who used workshops at Irvine to write “The 25th Hour,” a novel that recently became a Spike Lee movie, said: “Thirty years ago, students probably wanted to be the next great novelist. Now many want to write the next great screenplay. But Geoffrey keeps film out of the workshop. I had the best editors of my life as my fellow students. Sure, film is something young writers think about, but I never thought I would write a screenplay until I finished at Irvine.”
Joshua Ferris, a 28-year-old Irvine student, said predecessors like Ms. Sebold and Mr. Benioff set the bar for current students. “The amount of talent that has come out of the program certainly makes our futures easier in terms of getting noticed,” he said. “They established a certain expectation. Their success has a snowballing effect.”
Mr. Wolff, whose books include the autobiography “The Duke of Deception,” and the novel “The Age of Consent,” said his distaste for exorbitant tuitions, debt-ridden students and shabby teaching at many big-name programs persuaded him to develop a course of study that undermined the traditional model.
Between fellowships and teaching jobs, he said, students at Irvine incur little debt during two to three years in the program. Mr. Wolff hires visiting professors, like Margot Livesey and Jim Shepard, who are as renowned for their teaching skills as for their books. And the program does not advertise.
Southwest Texas State took an entrepreneurial approach to its program. Tom Grimes, the author and former New York businessman who directs it, recognized the draw of high-profile teachers and a boutiquelike setting, where the program is essentially the campus’s main event.
“The administration realized what we could do for its stature with this program,” he said, “and students realize this is a unique opportunity to learn from great writers committed to teaching.” Mr. Grimes helped raise the funds to restore the nearby Katherine Anne Porter House, which offers a literary center.
In addition to helping establish the endowment and Mr. O’Brien’s teaching chair, Mr. Grimes, whose books include “City of God” and “WILL@epicqwest.com,” built a community teaching and tutoring center. He also developed an elite list of thesis readers that includes Rick Bass and Rick DeMarinis. Mr. Grimes’s strategy required a commitment from the university to develop what its president, Denise M. Trauth, calls “a fundamental program for this university as we build our national reputation.”
Mr. O’Brien was an important hire for Mr. Grimes, a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop himself. “The word Texas scared me, but it was a lot of money,” Mr. O’Brien said. “They just have this phenomenal institutional support. Not long ago, I didn’t know what these programs were, and I only planned to stay a year. But the program has great momentum now.”
The programs’ success, however, has drawn some criticism from academics and writers who are concerned about a growing professional-school mentality and the influence screenwriting and film options have on aspiring writers.
“Many students are deciding to come at film from these programs, as if from an indirect position of power,” said Mr. Shepard, author of books like the short-story collection “Batting Against Castro” and “Nosferatu.” “And many programs are accepting or accommodating themselves to the disturbing notion that students will arrive with much less knowledge about literature. As there probably is everywhere else, there’s a declining level of literacy at M.F.A. programs. If you go into a classroom and ask who’s read Michael Cunningham’s `The Hours,’ half the students will raise their hands and say they’ve seen the movie. All of these students are interested in writing books. But more and more are finding it hard to keep their eyes off the brass ring that film represents.”
Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed “American Gigolo” and “Affliction” (adapted from Russell Banks’s novel), and also wrote movies like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” said more literature was being written “to be film-friendly.”
“When I was a student, the writer Robert Coover said the goal should be to write a novel that cannot be adapted to film,” he said. “I doubt any student aspires to that today. I suppose these writing programs now resemble film school, a mad cancer putting out more and more people. I was once asked to run the film school at Columbia, and I said I wanted to winnow people out. The school said: ‘You can’t do that. We make money for the university.’ Writing programs are doing the same thing.”
But like it or not, creative writing programs have become forces on the literary landscape. As Mr. Wolff said: “Most writers of my generation didn’t pass through one of these programs, and as a young writer I certainly looked askance at them. And, yes, many universities treat them as cash cows, which I find repulsive. Somehow a huge number of people believe the myth that they’ll get into a top program, and it will change their lives forever. I’ve taught at Columbia, and there’s a huge tension in the room where there are a few students with a $30,000-a-year fellowship, and the rest of the room is paying $30,000.”
“But at the same time,” he added, “it has struck me that it’s the best time I’ve ever known to be a young writer. There has always been a myth that first books are in hard times. But today all acquisition editors are looking for something new and put an outsized value on the new. The best programs provide an ideal apprenticeship for young writers.”