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Hannah Horvath from GIRLS Is the Last Thing the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Needs

Hannah Horvath from GIRLS Is the Last Thing the Iowa Writers' Workshop Needs

I
studied poetry at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 2007 to
2009, and had an amazing experience in Iowa City, primarily because,
as a non-traditional student, I was largely left to my own devices by
the program’s famously hands-off curriculum. To be a thirty year-old
poet at the nation’s oldest graduate creative writing
program—seventy-eight years old this year—is to marvel at how anyone
in America can be permitted so much license with so little
responsibility. Currently, the university fully funds all Workshop admittees with
tuition remission and either fellowships or teaching assistantships, and
it requires in return little more than attendance at one three-hour
writing workshop per week. Sure, in the first of a student’s two years
in Iowa City, he or she is likely to take an ungraded
seminar or two (one run by and for working writers, rather than through
the university’s English Department), but in the second year of the
curriculum, most students do little more than take independent studies
and thesis hours. It’s a two-year writing vacation, and one I was happy
to have as a poet still finding my footing. What it isn’t, or shouldn’t
be, is a hideaway for entitled, directionless young people for whom
living anywhere but a cosmopolitan enclave on the nation’s East Coast is
a source of shirt-rending psychic turmoil. By sending Hannah Horvath
(Lena Dunham) off to Iowa City for two years at the Writer’s Workshop,
HBO’s Girls is giving not just the Workshop but the discipline of creative writing in general exactly what it doesn’t need: a bad rap.
The
student body of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop comprises, at any one time,
about a hundred poets and novelists; depending upon the semester, the
permanent faculty is made up of three or four poets and three or four
fiction writers. Speaking only from my own experience—but mindful, too,
of the similar experiences reported by dozens of fellow Workshop
graduates—you couldn’t ask for a more talented and artistically diverse group of classmates than the ones you routinely find in the Workshop’s
creative writing courses. That said, you also couldn’t find many
bohemian communities in the United States that are less diverse in
several important ways: namely, in terms of race, ethnicity,
socioeconomic status, and educational background. By and large, the
student body at the University of Iowa’s most revered graduate program
is white,
upper-class, and well-pedigreed. Blacks and Latinos in particular are
woefully underrepresented, as are members of the working class and those
from smaller, regional institutions of higher education. When I
attended the Workshop in the late aughts, an appreciable percentage of
my classmates hailed from just two universities, Harvard and Stanford;
had wealthy parents (some of whom were donors to the program); or had
lived for years in provincial but ostensibly worldly enclaves like those
found in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
To
be clear, everybody in America has every right to apply to the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop if they wish—and, if admitted, to
attend. My classmates between 2007 and 2009 were no more responsible
for the circumstances of their birth than I was then or now. And the
majority of the largely white, upper-class, well-pedigreed student body
at the Workshop is made up of talented, committed authors whose future
work will undoubtedly be worth reading. The question, rather, is whether
the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—institutionally, that is, and not as a responsibility of any individual (faculty, student, or staff) associated with
the program—does the discipline of creative writing an implicit
disservice by leaving the impression that creative writing is reserved
for children of privilege from the coasts. If the hard sciences have struggled for
years against the (not entirely) unfair impression that they do
little to actively recruit women and minorities, the struggle of
creative writing since its first appearance in academia in the 1880s has
been to shirk the sense that it’s a haven for sheltered,
arrogant, self-indulgent bullshitters.
All
of the above is Exhibit A for why it’s a sad day—and by no means a
cause for celebration—when we discover that one of the most sheltered,
arrogant, self-indulgent bullshitters on American television today is
likely headed to Iowa City. Whether you love the show Girls
or detest it, it’d be tough to call series lead Hannah Horvath anything
but that archetypal spoiled white kid with whom the streets of New York
City are increasingly lousy. Unlike previous generations of young New
Yorkers, this generation seems less invested
in either the history of the city or, more importantly, its
unparalleled contributions to American art and the American literary
community in particular. And while it’s fair to say that Girls critiques this new class of New York City-dwelling enfants terribles
as much or even far more than it glamorizes it, the fact remains that
the medium of television invariably glamorizes anything it depicts, and
American viewing audiences invariably under-theorize their
entertainments. Whatever Lena Dunham’s motivation might be in depicting in
agonizing detail the lives of seven to ten young people many of us would
want nothing to do with, the fact remains that New York City is already
popularly identified with such figures but the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
(to its great benefit) is not. Bringing Dunham and crew to town will
erase once and for all
the lingering fantasy that the most visible institution in graduate creative
writing is a diverse, resolutely populist haven.
Perhaps this is one reason the University of Iowa has now formally denied Dunham’s request to film episodes from Season 4 on the university’s
campus. The official explanation is that such filming would cause
disruption to the institution’s educational mission—possibly
true–though more plausible would be an acknowledgment that University
of Iowa in general and the Writers’ Workshop in particular has
little to gain by being dramatized through the eyes of an entitled and
only intermittently self-aware New Yorker. For the Writers’ Workshop to
be ready for primetime, it would need to commit itself to a
forward-looking admissions policy—one in which former students of
faculty members, or current students of friends of faculty members,
receive no leg up in the admissions process; one in which existing
pipelines between certain colleges and the Workshop (notably, Harvard
and Stanford) are stopped up; and one in which all forms of diversity
(including socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, and sexual orientation) are
given at least some consideration by application readers.
Not
all the blame for the Writers’ Workshop being so homogeneous falls on
the Workshop itself. As someone who’s interviewed literally thousands of
MFA applicants since 2006 as part of his doctoral research, I can say
that many such applicants, particularly those who are gay or non-white,
are leery of moving to a town in Iowa that’s 83% white and (not unusual
for a small city) overwhelmingly straight. Given how politically
progressive the town is, however, and frankly how homogeneous most
American locales unfortunately are—my own home state, Massachusetts, is
84% white, but I don’t hear of artists refusing to move there—it’s
regrettable that some of the nation’s most talented poets and writers might potentially
feel Iowa City isn’t welcoming to anyone but the Hannah Horvaths of the
world. The truth is that the
Writers’ Workshop offers a community in which anything goes and
everyone is welcome, a fact made more probative by the Workshop’s
dramatic segregation (culturally and geographically) from the bulk of
Iowa City’s university and non-university communities. The best way to
feel stifled at the Writer’s Workshop is to come to it with
overdetermined expectations about what writing (or, for that matter, Iowa)
really is; another is to come to Iowa City adamant that you’ll do
nothing to complicate your relationship with your past—whether it be
your past as an artist, or your past as a cloistered resident of New
York City.
Nothing in the plot of Girls thus
far indicates that Hannah is ready to leave behind either her New York
City sensibilities or her sense of herself as not just unique but
superlative. Writing is neither a glamorous profession nor one in which
practitioners benefit much from self-glamorization; the age-old adage to
“write what you know” is profitable only when you first forget what you
know, something Hannah has never seemed capable of or even very much
interested in doing. Not only is Hannah unready for the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, the Workshop—however much it might be able to see Dunham’s interest in it
as a net positive—isn’t ready for her, either. And until the discipline
of creative writing does more than it has thus far to focus attention
on writing as a sustainable practice for the many rather than the few,
for the working
class every bit as much as the well-heeled class, the sort of attention
Girls can bring to it will likewise be more a danger than a boon.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

This Article is related to: Television


Comments

mick

Your essay is absolutely true. Interestingly, I stumbled upon this article just after returning from the summer session of the Iowa Writers Workshop. What I witnessed and expressed concern about to friends and loved ones was exactly that: Participants were overwhelmingly white and upper class. Yes, even the short-term participants were not at all representative of our society as a whole. I'm grateful for my experience there, however–certain things were confirmed, certain things were an eye opener. Especially for someone like me who is ethnic. The people of Iowa were very kind and pleasant. But you are absolutely right: the leadership of this program truly needs to open it up to a socio-economic diversity of student body. That's how it will thrive, evolve. To fail to do so, it can only eventually erode, and become obsolete, narrow of mind. It's just a matter of time…

don wallace

raging null!

IWW 78

Me

sour grapes
phrase of sour
1.
used to refer to an attitude in which someone adopts a negative attitude to something because they cannot have it themselves.
"…we discover that one the most sheltered, arrogant, self-indulgent bullshitters on American television today is likely headed to Iowa city."

Darren

You don't have to agree. You jizz your assumed privilege all over the article:

"I studied poetry at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop from 2007 to 2009, and had an amazing experience in Iowa City, primarily because, as a non-traditional student…" as if being a white presumed straight male in his thirties at a graduate program is non-traditional. I really feel your otherness here.

"That said, you also couldn't find many bohemian communities in the United States that are less diverse in several important ways: namely, in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and educational background." Funny, the people I talked to who went to Iowa with you had some choice comments to say in regards to your lumping of them as homogenous due to their perceived lack of "diversity."

" The question, rather, is whether the Iowa Writers' Workshop—institutionally, that is, and not as a responsibility of any individual (faculty, student, or staff) associated with the program—does the discipline of creative writing an implicit disservice by leaving the impression that creative writing is reserved for children of privilege from the coasts." I'm glad to hear the IWW is say all in determining all creative writing politics and that your extensive research has pinpointed the locales of all creative writers.

"And while it's fair to say that Girls critiques this new class of New York City-dwelling enfants terribles as much or even far more than it glamorizes it, the fact remains that the medium of television invariably glamorizes anything it depicts, and American viewing audiences invariably under-theorize their entertainments." I'd say this is true if you're absolutely an idiot.

"Not only is Hannah unready for the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the Workshop—however much it might be able to see Dunham's interest in it as a net positive—isn't ready for her, either." This is my favorite line in the piece because it's the money shot where you splooge all your ideas of what a writer is supposed be like, supposed to behave like, supposed to think like into a condensed ball of playing the other in some holier than thou construct (hello I could be queer even though I'm not card) while ignoring the fact that you are saying an accepted applicant is not worthy of admission because of her personal life and character regardless of ability.

At the end of the day, Seth, my argument is I take issue with how you dole out the right to be a part of the IWW in this piece; your problem is that you take issue with fictional character reinscribing a life barely anyone in America cares for. Few people care about the IWW or any MFA program. Not that many people watch Girls. This whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. If you really have a beef with these issues, you don't need a television show to call out the IWW. Write an article about the problematic nature of the program and focus on those merits without having to conclude some audience that doesn't really exist is somehow marginalized/affected in the process.

Darren

No, I'm still going to disagree.

I haven't slept with you, so I can't say you're not queer from experience, but given there's never been a word whispered about you in publication about queerness, you should drop the charade of "I could be queer" or come out of the closet. It's insulting to play that card to queer person.

And I never said you were from a bustling metropolis nor did I say you studied creative writing. I said you're an East Coaster who attended two Ivy League schools. The implication is that you are essentially cut from the same cloth as Hannah Horvath. That doesn't mean you both ended up in the same article of clothing.

Furthermore, the idea of invoking your privilege is that your argument seems predicated on your rationalization of privilege supersedes that of anyone else's from a similar vein, which, by the way, is a super masculine form of rhetoric. Why do you get to decide Hannah Horvah is unworthy or hasn't earned a place yet, which, also by the way, is super problematic because you are a male (whether you like it or not). You lament the lack of diversity, but your construction of diversity seems super shallow in that it reads as predicated on check-box anecdotal observations that dismiss the amalgam of intersectionality. Did you know everyone's class background at the IWW? Did you know their family structures? Did you know the million and one things that collectively comprises diversity in individuals such that even two white males from Stanford are not even remotely the same person, and it's an insult to suggest they contribute to a lack of diversity on those metrics. Are all white (probably straight) males from the East Coast who went to Ivy League schools the same as you? I should hope not because your response implicitly says no.

I'm all about increasing representation of many different types of diversities into MFA programs. But I'm also about admitting the best writers who earn a place. To say a person, even a fictional one, is unworthy or unready to study based on your criteria is steeped in a long history of denying people access to education (even those from privileged backgrounds, which, given the title of the show, I can't hit home enough in regard to your sex).

Your article posits you as the arbiter or readiness and keeper of the gates of what it means to be a writer. That's your definition, and that's fine for you, but to argue someone else is not ready to be a writer despite the fact said writer is clearly good enough to be admitted into the IWW smacks of ego. If you have a problem with Hannah Horvah going to one workshop a week and continuing her schtick in a way that degrades your conception of what a writer is, perhaps you should reconsider your definition. Your dislike of her privilege is not cause for you to assert your own constructed privilege. Awful people can still make awfully good writers. So if you're worried about the glamorization of a homogenous view of diversity in relation to program that you feel is emblematic of such a view, perhaps you can add a "diversity" supplement to your rankings system. Call out the programs in reality versus where they err in fictional landscapes. Stop referring to your graduating from the IWW. And, for god's sake, stop speaking for other people.

darren

Aren't you a straight, white male from the East Coast who went to two Ivy League universities, including Harvard? You're speaking from the very privilege you are worried about being exposed.

robby

so, basically, your argument is that because the iww is homogenous and full of all sorts of problematic constructions dealing with entitlement, race, etc., the show girls should not film there because the lead character is part of a coterie of characters that are homogenous and full of all sorts of problematic constructions dealing with entitlement, race, etc. because this in turn will cause america to think the iww is homogenous and full of all sorts of problematic constructions dealing with entitlement, race, etc.? and your concern is that by girls accurately portraying the problems of the iww somehow the system won't reflexively fix its problems and the world will recognize the iww for its problems?

Matt Miller

Seth, this article is spot on. The class issue in particular is astonishing at Iowa. The percentage of people who attend there and come from upper class families is grotesquely out of step with the country at large. While this is true of MFA programs in general, at Iowa it's crazy. I also appreciate your comments about pipeline admissions from certain schools like Harvard. It's absolutely true, and from what I've heard it has remained that way since Jorie left as well. Like you said, it's not these applicants fault. Everyone who is admitted deserves to attend. But the admissions process needs to evolve.

Elizabeth

Well done, Seth! I'm so relieved to see in print what's been stewing in me for weeks. Thank you for putting this out there.

John

Adam,

I’m not sure I get the premise of this article. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but Iowa is less diverse than most people give it credit for? As in there are people who are aware of the program, hold it in high regard, but don’t yet consider it a bastion of privilege? And subsequently, were the university to expand their admissions policy (which apparently they should) they would be in a better position to accept HBO’s crew onto campus. Hence, Dunham is not ready for Iowa, and Iowa not ready for Dunham.

Are there really practicing poets (Iowa grads included) who don’t think of Iowa as exactly the kind of place that Dunham’s character would feel at home? I’m not saying this is necessarily so, but I believe it is widely understood. Is creative writing really in danger of getting a bad rap? I would ask because it seems to me unlikely it could have a worse one.

You write:
“The question, rather, is whether the Iowa Writers' Workshop—institutionally, that is, and not as a responsibility of any individual (faculty, student, or staff) associated with the program—does the discipline of creative writing an implicit disservice by leaving the impression that creative writing is reserved for children of privilege from the coasts.”

Is there anyone for whom that is a question? I would posit that no one thinks this is a question. I communicate almost exclusively with working creative artists, most of them writers, most of those poets. The attitude towards Iowa among them runs from reverence to bile. But the question you frame above does not exist for any of them. It would be more accurate to state that Iowa’s institutional disregard of diversity issues merely points out the degree to which creative writing is generally accepted as being reserved for children of privilege from the coasts.

The question then becomes (as far as Iowa is concerned) what kind of value Dunham et al’s presence on campus would provide to the university, and might that value not be a negative one, a black eye, a mark on their reputation and that would beg the subsequent question of whether this black comes from a newly formed association (Iowa students are like Dunham’s character) or simply a louder broadcast of a “fact” most already know.

I jumped off the Girls wagon a season ago. The most prevalent impression of the Iowa writer’s workshop among educated Americans makes it an excellent destination for Hannah Horvath. I’m not saying the impression of it or of Hannah’s Brooklyn is necessarily correct. I have a secret hope that enough people will watch this show, find its protagonists so despicable that no one will wish to move to Brooklyn and I will be able to afford to return. My desire to return is founded in that there are many things still of value there, not the least of which is its population.

If in New York “this generation seems less invested in either the history of the city or, more importantly, its unparalleled contributions to American art and the American literary community in particular”, then it may “seem” that way in just the same way that Iowa seems so Hannah-ready.

Just my first thoughts on this. Thanks, J

Tyler

Worth noting that Sarah Heyward, a writer on "Girls," attended the Iowa Writers Workshop before landing her gig on the HBO series.

Kara

I read your article, it is very well constructed. The points you make are quite alarming, it it ashame that some universities are still like that one in Iowa. As an African- American women, I have read about lack of diversity in places and so on and so forth. I think that like you said, the lack of diversity may not be the fault of the university. Hopefully, that lack of diversity will change.

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