By Elise Blackwell
This year my department weighed the relative advantages of hiring at the junior versus senior level, so I was particularly interested by recent announcements of big-name hires by M.F.A. programs, not least Columbia University’s appointment of Deborah Eisenberg (who was lured from the University of Virginia) and the University of Mississippi’s recruitment of Richard Ford (who was drawn from life outside the academy).
My initial response was envy. It’s the writers (and the not-unrelated presence of the great Square Books) that makes Oxford a place that mapmakers star. With Faulkner long gone and following Barry Hannah’s more recent death, it feels right to return Ford to the state. A well-known writer brings considerable attention to a city and a writing program—often from donors and other community members as well as from potential applicants. (More than a decade after his death, many people continue to think of the program I teach in as the home of James Dickey.) And of course it’s hard not to envy the money some programs have to invest in faculty. I often find myself wishing the generous Grishams hailed from this state.
But do famous writers make great writing mentors and teachers? Some of them do. It’s heady for a young writer to work with someone who has won major prizes, and obviously great writers can write. Some might argue that the connections the famous possess will help their students’ careers, though I think that the truth of this is limited. There’s a bad old joke about the blonde actress who went to Hollywood and slept with the writer. The blonde half of the joke is as false as any other joke of its derogatory ilk, but the other half gets at a fact about writers. Outside of Stephen King, there are maybe two creative writers in this country that most people would recognize on the street, and maybe two dozen who are household names in non-writing households. Most writers can get a student’s book read by their agent or editor if they don’t abuse the channel, but almost no writer can get another writer’s book accepted by an agent or editor if it wouldn’t have been taken on its own merits anyway, not even with the promise of a hyperbolic blurb. Famous writers can get their friends to visit campus, but a nobody with a checkbook can bring in a laureate. Which is to say: an illustrious professor’s connections are probably only slightly more useful than the connections that any published writer has.
Many big-name writers are fabulous classroom teachers who can convey their knowledge and inspire students. Having heard Richard Ford speak and having spoken with him, my guess is that he’s a terrific workshop leader—someone I would have been thrilled to study with. I’ve heard the same about Deborah Eisenberg. Some other well-known writers, though, simply aren’t gifted teachers, and a few are downright contemptuous of those they perceive as less talented. Others are great readers for students who write certain kinds of fiction but of little help to students working out of other traditions or in other styles.
I learned more about writing (and—perhaps as important—about living as a writer) from professors who were modestly famous (Oakley Hall and MacDonald Harris) or respected but not especially well known (Louis Owens and Patricia Geary) than I did from my teachers of largest literary reputation. For one thing, those were the folks who gave me the most of their time. Even the best teachers can’t impart much if students don’t have access to them. Those writers who can demand very light teaching loads are wise to protect their writing time, and most of them do. I know a writer who attended an M.F.A. program just to study with one particular writer. Shortly before the student arrived, the professor won a MacArthur and went on leave. The young writer saw his idol twice in three years. Another writer I know teaches in a program whose star has never directed a thesis and rarely sits on a thesis committee, meaning that others do that work in his place. That doesn’t mean that such folks aren’t good for their programs, but they aren’t directly much good for individual students and colleagues beyond attracting good prospects and the other perks of a raised profile. Prospective students who want to study with a writer of large reputation should find out how often that person teaches, whether those courses are open to everyone in the program, and whether the writer spends much time in town, much less on campus.
When my program was making its case to hire a new poet, I argued for an open-rank hire, figuring we might as well consider the full range of interest. Others in my department advocated a senior hire, a name we could announce loudly. Others suggested a junior hire: a talented poet willing to spend time in the classroom and contribute fully to what we do. In the end, the third category is what we were granted. Now recovered from hiring envy, I am glad we received the line we did and know we’re lucky to be searching for a colleague who will work closely with our students and maybe even hang out. We did include a fancy endowed chair on our program fund-raising wish list, and I hope that will come true too.
The author of four novels, Elise Blackwell directs the M.F.A. program at the University of South Carolina.