Who Wins Literary Prizes?
Cast your eyes to a university in the Midwest with a bird for a mascot.
The odds of a writer winning a literary prize are vanishingly small, but there is one way to increase your odds 49 times: be a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
This data comes from a study by Claire Grossman, Stephanie Young, and Juliana Spahr that was published at Public Books back in April, but which I didn’t see until it started coursing through the Twitter-sphere this week.
If a layperson is going to know any creative writing program, it is Iowa. While it may not be the first, it is by far the most established, most prestigious, and most selective program in the country. If someone finds out I have an MFA in creative writing, they often ask if I went to Iowa and are then disappointed when I tell them no.
The writing workshop methodology where groups of writers read another writer’s story and then get together to talk about it while the author sits silently became the standard creative writing pedagogy in classrooms across the country. Even the so-called minimalist aesthetic associated with writers like Raymond Carver (who taught in the program) has dominated creative writing classrooms.
Fortunately, some of this folklore around how to teach writing has begun to be upended, but it is impossible to overstate the influence of the place on how creative writing is studied and done inside academia.
(Brief pause here to recommend Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping as an antidote to the folklore attached to the standard creative writing workshop.)
Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath (from her show Girls) had a brief, disastrous stint in the program. Kurt Vonnegut was handed a teaching gig there right when he was about to give up on writing. When a rejected (68-year-old) applicant sued the program for age discrimination, Iowa’s response to the complaint revealed that from 2013 to 2017 the program had a 2.7% admission rate, making it more selective than any undergraduate college, medical school, law school, or other group this side of the apostles.
Also hundreds, thousands of great writers have passed through the program, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet and know in real life. You will not hear a negative word from me about the literature produced by folks who matriculated through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
But one thing we should understand about this data is not that Iowa is especially good at identifying the absolutely most talented and ultimately future prizewinning writers. No, it’s more that attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop provides a significant leg up in the nearly impossible pursuit of being an acclaimed, prizewinning writer.
Or maybe even being able to pursue a life of writing at all.
There are at least three significant benefits: 1. Being chosen for the program is a tremendous affirmation and may bolster the self-belief necessary to slog through the inevitable doubts. (The downside is you’re going to spend a couple years alongside other equally or more talented people than you, but if you serve that, you’re good). 2. Attending Iowa allows you to learn alongside not just your talented peers, but under the tutelage of accomplished faculty mentors with the power and connections to bring your work to the attention of people in publishing.
And 3: An MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop is a giant signal to everyone who cares about these things that you are someone whose work is worth taking seriously. This doesn’t mean one will clear the bar for say, landing an agent, or selling a manuscript, but lots of people never even make it to the bar to make an attempt at getting over.
After that, if your book is in the world, reviewers are more likely to give it a glance, meaning your book may get some share of rather scarce media real estate. You also have a network of other accomplished writers who can champion your work to the world.
This is starting to sound a little resentful, but I promise it isn’t. Attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop is a guarantee of exactly nothing, and my personal experience observing the types of writers who go on to attention and critical acclaim and literary prizes is that they are not only talented, but more dedicated and hardworking than the rest of us, me very much included in that us.
But…I think it’s also important to occasionally pause and recognize who these systems exclude, which is central point of the piece at Public Books. We want to believe that these things are a whole reflection of merit because it is nice to believe that merit is what matters above all, but let’s be real now.
Pulling back the curtain on the capricious nature of literary prizes is the motivation behind The Morning News Tournament of Books, for which we just announced the 68-book long longlist. Sixty-eight sounds like a lot of books, but it is a fraction of what was considered, which is a fraction of what was published. It is a good faith attempt at making a list of very worthy books that is inevitably limited by the people making the list, of which I happen to be one of them.
That list will be winnowed to 16 (or so) competitors for the tournament itself, starting in March. One of those books will win a literary prize (of sorts). It will be a deserving winner, but we could run the experiment over 100 times and get a hundred different winners.
We’ve entered the “best” books of the year season, which is fun and I’m as likely to click on those links as anyone, but let us all be cognizant of what lurks underneath that word “best.”
My Chicago Tribune column this week is an expression of approval for the U.S. Justice Department deciding to take a look at the Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster proposed merger.
Also at the Tribune, Christopher Borrelli mulls over four recent Korean American memoirs, including an interview with Jay Caspian Kang, author of The Loneliest Americans, whose book I talked about last week.
Because it is getting towards the end of the year, we’re getting lists like Libro.fm’s (the excellent alternative to Amazon’s Audible) list of top selling audiobooks of the year.
I had not heard of the word “cottagecore” before reading this “18 Bookish Cottagecore Gifts,” but I think I get it now. Context is king.
Powell’s, the city of books, has released its list of the best fiction for 2021. It’s a good list.
The Aspen Literary Prize to be awarded to “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture,” announced its 16-book longlist.
Sorry, no recommendations this week because I used the ready supply for my column and I’m supposed to go play tennis in like 15 minutes so I can’t put out a call on Twitter and wait for a couple to come in.
But if you’re looking for something to read, I have a variety of lists at The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago.
Very modest increase this week to reach $207.45 for the year. For every dollar of affiliate income up to $300, I’ll match it at the end of the year with a donation of my own. Make me give away my money!
If you’d like to see every book I’ve recommended in this space this year, check out my list of 2021 Recommendations at the Bookshop.org bookshop.
Recommendations are always open for. Wait times should be minimal and some will even be featured in the print edition of the Chicago Tribune.
Be well, read hard!