Here’s something I find really interesting: in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers, there’s an extensive article/interview on book contests. Included in the article are some pie charts representing some overall statistics on the winners of last year’s book contests (there were 129 total, or at least, those are the ones P & W announced in their Grants and Awards pages over the course of the year).
The statistics were fascinating for a number of reasons (I was not at all surprised but interested to find out that roughly 77% of the book length contests out there are for poetry books), but the most interesting of the pie charts, for me, was the one that showed that 111 of the 129 winners hold an MFA, MA, or PhD. Only 18 of the winners (roughly 14%) did not hold a graduate degree (presumably—at least for the majority of the 111—we’re talking about a graduate degree in creative writing. At least, that's an assumption I'm starting from, and I think it's very likely. I’m guessing a small number of the winners probably hold a degree in some other field, but I’m betting—and who knows, I could be wrong—that most of them studied creative writing. At any rate, there's no way to know for sure, so let's allow ourselves to speculate a bit here).
As someone who has always been (perhaps overly) fascinated by the difference between formally studying creative writing in a graduate program and practicing writing other ways, of course I found this news extremely thought-provoking. Is this definitive proof at last that writers who earn a graduate level education in creative writing are better than those who don’t? Well, not so fast. I can think of a couple of possibilities that might explain this statistic another way.
For one thing, I can’t help but wonder if writers who go through formal, graduate level creative writing programs are simply more aware of the variety of small presses and book contests out there. I think a lot of would-be writers who haven’t had any formal training just don’t know about certain paths that are available to them. In a graduate level program, you become very aware of these sorts of things—often your own instructors are past recipients of some of these awards.
Another possibility is that the sort of writer who studies in a graduate level program tends to be more the sort of writer whose work is very well suited for small presses. Now that sounds like a very sharp distinction, and certainly there are people who fall on one end or the other of the line. There are MFA students who mostly write science fiction/fantasy. There are non-MFA students who mostly write highly literary short fiction, and there are, of course, faculty members in graduate level programs who have agents and publish with major presses.
I am not suggesting that people who go to grad school don’t or can’t publish with major presses, but we all know that the major presses are primarily interested in the bottom line ($$$) and are far, far, far less willing to publish work that is of high literary merit but has little chance of selling many copies than small presses are. Publishing with a major press has a lot to do with who you know and luck. Publishing with a small press has a lot more to do with how good of a writer you are. So all I’m saying here is that in general, in general (I repeat it to hopefully avoid any misreading of what I’m trying to say here), graduate level creative writing programs accept and train literary writers, and small presses (and, thus, book contests, most of which are run by small presses) are seeking work from the very same type of writer.
Of course, there is always also the possibility that the statistic is a result of a number of factors, and included in those factors might well be that there are possibly more good writers who have studied creative writing in advanced programs than those who haven’t. This would certainly not mean that any writer who hasn’t earned a graduate level degree in creative writing is crap—14% of the winners had no graduate level education, after all. But maybe it’s true that of the writers out there who have really gotten good at writing, who have learned the value of revision and have found their own unique voices, maybe there are more who got there through the aid of a graduate level education than any other way.
I think the statistic probably results from a heavy mix of all these factors and more, but either way, it’s worth thinking about. The statistic is simply too striking not to raise some questions.