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

Television
by Seth Abramson
March 31, 2014 3:54 AM
20 Comments
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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.

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20 Comments

  • mick | July 24, 2014 4:00 AMReply

    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 | May 12, 2014 1:40 PMReply

    raging null!

    IWW 78

  • Me | April 10, 2014 8:08 PMReply

    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 | April 2, 2014 5:12 PMReply

    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 | April 1, 2014 8:22 PMReply

    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.

  • Seth Abramson | April 2, 2014 12:55 AM

    Hi Darren,

    Thanks for your comments. I don't agree with anything you've said here--or any of your presumptions or first principles--and it appears the feeling is mutual, so I'm happy to just leave it there.

    Be well,
    S.

  • darren | April 1, 2014 3:56 PMReply

    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.

  • Seth Abramson | April 1, 2014 6:33 PM

    Darren,

    If it didn't come through in the article that's my responsibility, but the point of the above piece was in no way to say that I'm "worried about [racial and class privilege at the Iowa Writers' Workshop] being exposed"--which implies that the concern here was how better to _hide_ those privileges and the way they operate at the IWW. In fact, every rhetorical salvo in the piece was intended to strike the _opposite_ note: The essay is trying to emphasize that these privileges have run rampant at the IWW and ought _not_ be implicitly celebrated by dramatizing them in a way that will (because of the medium at work) glamorize and/or excuse them. The essay argues that the Workshop needs to restructure its admissions processes dramatically so that a "Hannah Horvath" famously (as it were) attending the IWW no longer constitutes the mere fetishizing of what's actually a serious problem. To imply, as I think you are, that only someone who _doesn't_ enjoy a privilege can speak against the abuse of that privilege is not just counterintuitive but a little perverse--as it ensures that unearned privilege will never be effectively vanquished (because the _only_ people who can combat it through essay-writing or other forms of activism are, according to your view, the very ones who are hamstrung by it). The goal, I think, is to see _all_ people of good conscience critiquing unearned privilege, not just a select (and perhaps, in this context, under-resourced and too-often ignored) few. So while your comment has the tone and other trappings of a righteously indignant observation, it seems to me like exactly the opposite: a staunch insistence that we entrench unearned privilege by being seen to, in a self-righteous and self-aggrandizing way, police exactly _who_ can critique it.

    FWIW, though--and taking nothing away from all the privileges I most certainly do enjoy--the article above doesn't allege gender bias in IWW admissions (re: your observation that I'm a male); you have no idea about my sexuality; I'm from rural Massachusetts, not a bohemian enclave in a cosmopolitan metropolis; and I didn't start studying creative writing until the day I arrived in Iowa, so I had no pre-application connections among the illustrious and well-networked creative writing faculties of the Ivy League (which is the context in which I raised the specter of educational pedigree granting special access). Again, this is one reason the essay is careful to approach the question of privilege at the IWW as a matter of systemic injustice, rather than one in which we can or should "call out" individual admittees or IWW employees. I don't have any interest in doing that, for many reasons--one of which is that, in making such arguments, one usually ends up making silly assumptions like the ones you've made about me here.

    S.

  • robby | March 31, 2014 7:35 PMReply

    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 | March 31, 2014 6:01 PMReply

    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.

  • mick | July 24, 2014 4:08 AM

    I'm late to the discussion since I just came upon the article right after participating in some sessions at the workshop. You've perfectly articulated about the program. Quite an eye-opener for me, a person of ethnicity, to experience such a place. I came away concluding that in fact, aspects of the program are outdated. You see, I've attended some exceptional, intensive writing workshops in other locales. And, to tell the truth, they offer far more substantial and thorough workshops. I can't help but wonder if the Iowa program is simply a money making program, resting on its laurels, on a name it made for itself years ago. The Emperor might just not be clothed after all.

  • Elizabeth | March 31, 2014 5:10 PMReply

    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.

  • mick | July 24, 2014 4:09 AM

    I say just go ahead and get self-published. Dare to be bold.

  • John | March 31, 2014 12:29 PMReply

    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

  • Seth Abramson | March 31, 2014 1:33 PM

    Hi John,

    Just an hour ago, New York Magazine published this about Hannah, GIRLS, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop: "Girls is about the decline of white privilege, and Iowa plays right into it." If you read the rest of that article, you find that New York Magazine is arguing that Iowa's writing program is _so_ diverse that it will emphasize the decline of white privilege. So, FWIW, one doesn't have to go very far to find the narrative described above, as much as you say it can't be found anywhere right now.

    S.

  • Tyler | March 31, 2014 10:27 AMReply

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

  • Seth Abramson | March 31, 2014 10:32 AM

    Hi Tyler,
    Yes, Sarah was a classmate of mine.
    S.

  • Kara | March 31, 2014 8:38 AMReply

    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.

  • mick | July 24, 2014 4:15 AM

    I'm confident the university, unfortunately, plays a hand on who is selected to attend. It is not a mistake that there is such an obvious absence of people of ethnicity and diversity of class level.

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