Thursday, August 06, 2009

Reflections on the Current Creative Writing Consulting Controversy

When I drafted yesterday's post mentioning Abramson Leslie Consulting, the new firm offering services for prospective graduate students in creative writing, I had no idea about the storm that was brewing in the blogosphere around it. As I suggested in the post, there's been controversy concerning similar ventures for prospective undergraduates. But I have to admit that the speed and intensity of the opposition to Abramson Leslie has surprised me. So I've been reading the objections as I've discovered them (for just a sampling, see the comment threads here and here). And I've been trying to formulate my own response, wondering why I did not react to the discovery of the new enterprise with the same vehement dismay so many others have.

My first reflection: Maybe I'm simply jaded. After all, I attended a high school where it was common for students to "train" locally with a private SAT "coach." I worked with one. Would I have attained Harvard admission and National Merit Scholarship eligibility "on my own," without the structure of my tutor's assignments and the time I spent reviewing sample tests with her? Possibly. Was I too intimidated/crazed by the insane level of competition within the top stratum of my high school class to risk a bad test performance? Yes. Does the fact that I also had the transcript (four years of challenging coursework and high grades), recommendations, mini-essays and personal statement, and everything else that was required to confirm the test results and affirm the appropriateness of both the Harvard admission letter and the ultimate National Merit Scholarship award I received mean anything? I think so. But some might have doubts.

Then I thought: Maybe I'm simply less focused on the portfolio review portion of the services. That, after all, seems to be the aspect driving much of the online upset. Maybe my experiences are leading me to consider instead the broader array of services the new firm says it's offering, like helping prospective applicants draw up lists of potential schools. Maybe I'm thinking of all the time I've spent responding to strangers' e-queries concerning low-residency MFA applications/admissions. Brief exchanges I've sustained gratis, but if people really wanted my personalized response to their questions and my extended attention, I did charge for the service back when I was freelancing and adjuncting full-time. I can envision doing so again if appropriate.

And that is at least in part because it is established professional practice to do so. I do not see a difference, for example, between the consulting services for MFA applicants that are offered by respected organizations like Grub Street or the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop and those from Abramson Leslie. Except, of course, for the fact that Seth Abramson (whom I do not know personally although we are both contributors to the second edition of Tom Kealey's Creative Writing MFA Handbook) sure seems to have made a lot of enemies. And the curious situation that no one seems to be complaining as strenously about other organizations' apparently higher fees.

Then, when I read protests about the products of consultations presenting inflated impressions of applicants' inherent abilities, I recalled that my own MFA application submission was workshopped multiple times (and, horrors, even reviewed by a paid Grub Street consultant). Not, it's true, because I wanted to polish it for the MFA application, but because I was seeking to perfect that first novel chapter for an agent/publication. So how representative of an applicant's (my) inherent ability was that writing sample? How representative is any sample that's been critiqued (and hopefully, improved) thanks to the paid work of trained, professional others?

There's another point the anti-Abramson Leslie voices are making that I keep thinking about. It goes something like this: Abramson Leslie is "unethical" and "disgusting" (to cite two adjectives I've seen) because it's not only morally wrong to give people who can and are willing to pay the fees a presumed advantage in this process. The endeavor will also lead to a sort of corruption of the (presumably, heretofore unadulterated) arena of artistic talent that is a graduate writing workshop and program, not merely because candidates will henceforth be admitted on the basis of work that isn't really representative of their abilities, but also due to the tragic consequence that their peers will have to suffer through reading utterly abysmal original work when they could have enjoyed the gorgeous prose or poetry of someone more innately gifted—who didn't (or couldn't) pay for an application portfolio review.

Well, I hate to break this news, but in my experience, at least, the system just isn't that pure. There is plenty of abysmal work being circulated in graduate writing workshops. And, again, for quite some time now, people have paid good money for other consultants, conferences, and workshops to improve their work (whether with the express intent of using the advice for graduate writing program applications or not).

I think, too, that those who are arguing against the portfolio review may not see it the way that I do. Based on my reading of the Abramsom Leslie Web site, for instance, I understand the consultants to be individuals who, as workshop teachers and other editorial consultants have done before them and will continue to do whether or not the new venture succeeds, will offer critiques and suggestions, not rewrites. If the client can't apply the suggestions or think through questions the critiques raise, s/he actually isn't going to be able to improve his or her work very much. And if s/he can, in fact, apply sound suggestions and engage with the critiques, maybe s/he is even more of an ideal candidate than one might have thought before the consultation began.

Finally, and with a bit of faith in the process, I am hypothesizing that someone who is truly unable to write poetry or prose at a level appropriate for graduate school may similarly lack a solid undergraduate transcript. Or strong recommendations. Or a satisfactory critical essay/GRE scores/statement(s) about herself or the books that have meant the most to her. I expect that someone applying to a graduate program in creative writing will present multiple qualifications in the application package. I am hoping that would-be graduate students in creative writing don't waste the time they spend assembling these packages. Because if the writing sample truly were the only thing that mattered, there'd be no need for full applications in the first place.

But I hear the critics. Some of them I know, from other online discussions, at least. I respect them. I am still thinking about what they have to say. What say you?


margosita said...

This was a really good post.

My problem with Abramson Leslie is more a general distaste for things like private SAT tutors. The kind of people who can afford to pay for a service offered by Abramson Leslie are the kinds of people who are already privileged with the best education and resources. All applications are judged the same and I wish that everyone's submissions processes would therefore be the same. That's simply not a reality, though. And ultimately Abramson Leslie isn't any worse than any other consulting business. I'd never use it and, honestly, I'd feel jealous and resentful of those people who were able to afford it (on top of the hefty application fees!). But people need to calm down and stop harassing Seth Abramson personally.

Plus, having all the consultants be graduates of Iowa just reinforces the idea that Iowa is at the top of the food chain. It's kind of absurd. Plus, how familiar are those who get in to Iowa with the myriad of other MFA programs? Is it smart or logical to have such a limited range of experience to offer?

Delia Lloyd said...

I tend to agree with you, Erika. The whole world uses consultants/tutors (I live in the UK and it's completely normal to tutor your kid to get into a competitive school at 11). But there's another aspect to this. We all know that it's nigh on impossible to make money as a writer. So I see this as just one more way poets and writers are supplementing their income-i.e. the proverbial day job. I would think other writers and poets would welcome this opportunity to expand the sorts of things we writers can do to make a buck.
Delia Lloyd

Deb said...

Thanks for taking the time to provide us with such a thoughtful analysis, Erika!

Anne said...

This is a very thoughtful and pragmatic response. I haven't waded through all the mire here. I've read Tayari's post, urging folks not to pay for help & yours and, though you're in "opposite" camps, I see the humanity in both of your posts--the reason why you're both good teachers and friends:

What Tayari says, which you don't, is that an over-edited piece, a piece that's workshopped/edited/polished beyond your own talents may get you admitted to a place that isn't ultimately where you may learn the most. I

But what I like here, Erika, is your practical sense of the point of getting help on an application.

I do hope that schools ask for enough material from enough sources to make deception and mistakes rare.

It's such an imperfect process.

And though I don't think coaching evil, as a girl from public school in the provinces where little was available, I am suspicious of it (though I turned out just fine, in spite of the Harvard rejection letter long ago! :) )--of the unseen class/location/race/etc. advantages of coaching, of the ways that paid consultations continues to give richer, urban folk a head start.

Celeste said...

Erika, thanks for your thoughtful and well-put response. When I saw your post yesterday, I was so struck by it that I had to write about it myself (on Fiction Writers' Review, here). As I put that post together, I also questioned the difference between Abraham Leslie and any other paid critiquing service. (Full disclosure--I teach at Grub Street and do occasionally do those paid consults, almost always for former students.)

I'm still on the fence. Though I do paid consults myself, I honestly have mixed feelings about them, because they're extra help for those who can afford it. (A side note about the "higher fees"--I can speak only about Grub Street, since that's the only place I know, but the fee for a 40-page manuscript would actually come out to less than at Abraham Leslie, and a HEFTY chunk of that fee goes to support Grub Street, a nonprofit writing center.) At the same time, as you and others have pointed out, we pay for classes--at grad school, at college, or elsewhere--where we receive the same type of critique. Money always opens up more opportunities, and perhaps this is a sad fact.

With all that said, while I don't begrudge the consultants at Abraham Leslie for offering their services, I do have some hesitations: There's the focus on *admission*, as I noted in my blog post on FWR above. That, for me, does change the situation a bit. As margosita pointed out, there's the perpetuation of the idea that Iowa is at the top of the food chain; certainly it is, but it's not alone up there. And finally, there's the question of whether the consult, any consult, makes YOU a better writer--a worthy goal--or simply makes your PIECE better without teaching you, thus upping your odds of getting into a better school (and of getting in over your head once you're there).

I don't know. I certainly don't think it's fair to knee-jerk condemn Abraham Leslie, and yet I think there are valid questions and concerns.

Erika D. said...

Thank you all for the generous comments. I may have more to say, but not this evening. Again, I really appreciate the reception accorded to this post.

Erika D. said...

Some quick additional thoughts.

Again, I really do hear the arguments. And I do share the conflict over the privilege aspect. It's something that I feel, again, privileged enough to struggle with given the life that I have had. But true equality of opportunity, as we seem to acknowledge, is so elusive. For instance, even *I* could perceive myself to be "disadvantaged": One of the reasons I worried about admission to Harvard was because, unlike several of the other applicants from my high school class, I had neither parents nor siblings who had attended. In fact, my parents are first-generation Americans and first-generation college students (who were only able to attend college thanks to the then-virtually free public university in New York City). Does (or should) the history of struggle and sacrifice in my family history somehow make my privilege more palatable (to myself or to others)? Again, hard questions that probably can't really be resolved.

Now, math is not among my stronger points, so Celeste, I do apologize for any mistakes there. What I was looking at on the Grub Street and Sackett sites were the specific descriptions of services for MFA applicants. I thought I saw a package for Grub priced at $350 (higher than the Abramson Leslie portfolio review). But the Grub package does seem to include coming up with a list of recommended programs, which is an add-on for the Abramson Leslie program. In the end, I think the prices aren't that far apart. Simply put, I thought that it was worth noting that other organizations do offer services--for a fee--designed specifically for prospective students in creative writing. But all the vituperation seems to have been directed to Abramson Leslie (and I'm glad that we all seem to agree that this particular venom seems inappropriate and misdirected).

Finally, I'm also on the fence about the shared IWW background of all the Abramson Leslie consultants. Quite likely, there'd be a benefit from a diversity of backgrounds. But let's think about this: Most people attend only one MFA program (just as many of us attend and graduate from one undergraduate college). That doesn't mean we aren't equipped to help others consider their own options. My perspective as an advisor with graduate degrees in both in higher education administration and creative writing is to point people to helpful sources for further information; highlight areas/questions to think about; and address the full range of options that may be available to them. My individual MFA experience is, in fact, likely to be wholly irrelevant to anyone else. But it definitely shapes the advice I offer and the things that I suggest people consider (about online workshops, the emphasis of critical reading and writing in a given program, the relevance of program-associated teaching or publishing opportunities, etc.). And if I have been able to learn about the range of programs that are exist, I am confident that others can, too.

For what any of this may be worth....