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Masters of the Fine Arts Universe

“So weird how writing ability is directly proportional to being able to afford a creative writing MFA. The universe is mysterious sometimes.” So sayeth the popular Twitter account @GuyInYourMFA, run by a straw man writer who weighs in on topics ranging from cigarettes (only hand-rolled, of course) to influences—“Straight white males have had such an influential presence in literature,” as they told the Brown Daily Herald. Though the account satirizes pretentious fiction writers, it also raises cogent questions: Are MFA programs really so exclusively straight, rich, white and male?

One of the first, and perhaps most distinguished, Master in Fine Arts programs in creative writing was established in 1936 in a small city in Iowa. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, whose star-studded faculty and graduate list include Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver, set the standard for MFA programs: intensive writing workshops taught by a staff of decorated writers. With the meteoric rise of such programs, starting in the ‘70s, came an array of degree options — one year, two year, part time, full time, fully funded, pay-your-own-way — and a generation of degreed writers.

Historically, MFA workshop programs have been accessible primarily to the wealthy, or at least those who can afford to take two years off from work. As universities have moved to more fully funded prestigious programs for a wider range of students, one would hope that these workshops would become increasingly socioeconomically and culturally diverse. In our post-affirmative action society in which women and minorities are increasingly closing the gap in educational attainment, one would imagine a reconstitution of the writer’s classroom.

This past spring, Junot Díaz published a piece in the New Yorker titled “MFA Vs. POC.” Drawing both on his time as a student in Cornell’s MFA program and his tenures at various MFA programs today, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American author served up a succinct indictment: “That shit was too white.” Even more alarming is his assessment that nothing has really changed over the past two decades. Díaz observes that young writers of color find themselves talked over and down to by white peers. His piece served as a wakeup call for the writing and publishing world, and sparked conversations — both online and offline — about diversity in MFA programs.

Due to the lack of demographic data and the different admissions standards, it’s difficult to assess the specific depth of the MFA’s problem quantitatively.

Statistically speaking, MFA programs are notoriously opaque. There are no legal requirements to publish student demographics the way there are for universities, though a few programs do advertise the makeup of their class years. Indiana University holds its program’s historic commitment to diversity as a point of pride: Over a third of its students are of African-American, Latino/a, Asian-American or Native American descent. Peterson’s, a guide to higher education which keeps a database on MFA programs, also provides some interesting statistics. University of Michigan’s classes are 58 percent white, while University of Houston’s, which are closer to the average, are 80 percent white. Gender ratios lean towards female, by a little over half to two-thirds. But the majority of programs, including the gold-standard Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Brown University’s MFA program, are unlisted or undisclosed.

Even if we had a clearer picture of these programs’ demographic breakdowns, figuring out who exactly applies — and gets rejected — is more complex. There’s reason to think that people of color are less likely to apply to MFA programs in the first place. As Díaz shows, being one of the only writers of color in a workshop can be alienating, a deterrent that manifests in earlier education. Socioeconomic status is one obvious factor: Even for fully-funded programs, prospective writers saddled with student debt from previous higher education are more likely to enter the workforce rather than take two years off for an MFA program. And even though women are heavily represented in workshops, as a chilling piece about rape culture published this summer proves, sexism and patriarchy still cast shadows over the writer’s classroom.

The problems, and rhetoric, around diversity in MFA programs aren’t dissimilar from the broader conversation in higher education. But unlike those discussions, conversations about access to MFA programs don’t have common understandings, with observers alternately decrying the homogeneity of programs or claiming that affirmative action is already in place. And while some critics have argued that measuring diversity by skin color or statistics is less beneficial to a workshop than prioritizing differences in genre and style, it’s a stretch to believe that personal identities and histories don’t impact a writer’s work as well as the conversations in a workshop.

Fighting for diversity in MFA programs is complicated. It’s an ill-defined problem and a product of structural oppressions. Oftentimes, administrations do acknowledge that lack of diversity is a problem and take steps to reach out to underrepresented groups. However, the programs are small enough that putting just one more student of color in an esteemed workshop is unlikely to impact the structural dynamics at play, though it may bump up statistics for an ethnicity another percentage point.

Although tedious and forlorn, increasing diversity in MFA programs is necessary work. MFA programs may not be the flashiest cause, but there’s no question that their presence on a resume is hugely influential when it comes to publishing. Landing a spot in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop doesn’t guarantee a writer success, but it puts their work on top of the pile for agents and publishers. As Ayana Mathis, a graduate of the program, outlined for NPR, “If there isn’t a real representation of writers of color who are able to take advantage of that kind of access, that’s a problem.” There are countless studies that prove that diverse representation in media matters, from TV to stock photos to video games. This goes for literature as well — who’s given an equal platform to speak, or write, is important. If MFA programs don’t help diverse groups of people find their voices and amplify them, we’ll be left with literary culture defined by the @GuyInYourMFA.

This article is part of BPR’s special feature on higher education. Please click here to return to the rest of the feature. 

About the Author

Liz Studlick '16 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review and former Layout Director.