Janette Turner Hospital is the author of Orpheus Lost and other books, and a professor at Columbia. She sent MFA students at her old school, the University of South Carolina, the following note about their inferiority. It is amazing.
Hospital sent this note to all of the MFA students on the University of South Carolina listserv. More than one of them forwarded it to us. "We're all enraged," one MFA grad from USC tells us. "She is nuts!" says another. Indeed. What's your favorite part? The personal revelations? The breathtaking undertone of insult towards those in South Carolina? Her special pet name for the Upper West Side? This is fertile ground.
From: "HOSPITAL, JANETTE"
Date: September 27, 2010 9:42:27 AM EDT
Subject: News from a different MFA planet
To those I'm supervising and to all other MFA students:
Forwarded below are a couple of emails sent to all of our Columbia MFA students. It's the kind of invitation students here receive-and take up-at least once or twice a week in a cornucopia of literary riches. It seems to me that USC writing students should also know about these opportunities, since you could car-pool up to NYC very cheaply and stay at youth hostels on Manhattan (within walking distance of Columbia U and Central Park) for just $30/night (shared room) with linen, towels, and breakfast provided. MFA students from other states take advantage of this and visit in groups. Why not USC?
As for news from this very different MFA planet, I'm in seventh heaven teaching here, and not only because I have Orhan Pamuk (whom I hope to bring to USC for Caught in the Creative Act), Oliver Sacks, Simon Schama, Richard Howard, Margo Jefferson, etc., etc., as colleagues, though that is obviously part of it.
My students also live and move and write in seventh heaven and in a fever of creative excitement. Columbia's MFA is rigorous and competitive but students don't just have publication as a goal – they take that for granted, since about half the graduating class has a book published or a publishing contract in hand by graduation – so they have their sights set on Pulitzers.
This program is huge, the largest in the country. It's a 3-year degree, with 300 students enrolled at a given time. Each year, 100 are admitted (in fiction, poetry, nonfiction) with fiction by far the largest segment. But 600+ apply, so the 100 who get in are the cream of the cream.
Students take workshops and literature courses in equal measure. They are avid readers and intense participants in seminar discussion. And here is one of their toughest hurdles: they do not pick their own committee for the thesis. They do not even pick their own supervisor. These roles are assigned. They are not even informed who their committee members are until one week before the defense, when they receive the detailed written reports signed by their committee members. This is certainly a bit nerve-wracking for the student, but replicates exactly what happens in the publishing world where the coldly neutral eyes of agents and editors are assessing your manuscript. Columbia's MFA feels this rigor has a lot to do with the high publication rate of students.
In my first week here, I was presented with two theses of students unknown to me and required to write detailed reports. I was given the names of other committee members, and it was up to us to make contact and arrange to meet to discuss the theses we'd been assigned. There are 30+ members on the MFA faculty, but the program also uses a number of well-known writers resident in NYC who are not faculty. I have found these meetings and discussions with NYC writers rather wonderful.
Sixty theses have been submitted for fall graduation (approx. 35 fiction; 15 poetry; 10 nonfiction). On average, each year from 5 – 10% of these will be failed, and the student will be advised to try again for spring graduation. If the thesis is failed, the student will not meet with the committee but will receive the detailed reports. In the two weeks from Oct 4 – Oct 15, all those who pass will meet with their committee for the "thesis conference." Since pass or fail has already been decided, this is not a "defense" but a conference in which the committee discusses positive and problematic issues with the student and makes recommendations of what should be done before submission to a publisher.
This kind of rigor about the thesis (absolutely no easy rides here) has a lot to do with the high publication rate. But there are certainly other factors which contribute: students do internships at the New Yorker, Publishers' Weekly, Paris Review, and at major publishing houses. They attend multiple readings by famous writers every week (not by any means all at Columbia, but at the NY Public Library, the 92nd St Y, at NYU, etc.
Also, the program hosts a reception for all graduating students with about 30 major editors and agents invited. At his reception, each agent or editor is presented with an anthology of the work of the graduating students, along with contact emails. No wonder the students are off to a flying start. Agents and editors hover like major-league recruiters at college championships.
But I think what thrills me most of all is the sheer intellectual intensity of the students. Although I have taught at a number of the most highly regarded MFA programs in this country and in England, there's only one other place I've ever taught where there was a comparable atmosphere, and that was MIT, where I taught for 3 years. At both places the crackle of intellectual energy in the air is almost visible, like blue fire.
And then there are all the peripheral pleasures of living on Manhattan: we've seen the Matisse exhibition at MOMA, have tickets for the opening of Don Pasquale at the Met Opera, have tickets to see Al Pacino on stage as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, etc etc. Plus I'm just 15 minutes walking distance from Columbia and from all the sidewalk bistros on Broadway, and 3 minutes from Central Park where we join the joggers every morning. This is Cloud Nine living on the Upper West Side (which is known to my agent and my Norton editor, who live in Greenwich Village, as "Upstate Manhattan." ) We love it.
All best wishes,
and think about the invitations below which my Columbia students will be attending.
[Invitations to literary events in NYC redacted, for being boring]
Janette Turner Hospital
Carolina Distinguished Professor Emerita
University of South Carolina
Concurrently:Professor, MFA Program
Columbia University, New York