Is Writers’ Workshop undermining its legacy with age considerations?


Rekha Basu - Des Moines Register



It’s getting harder to find purity in places where you once could count on it: In media, where anything labeled “reporting” was supposed to be free from commercial or politically motivated spin. In food, where growth hormones, GMOs, chemical pesticides and fertilizers weren’t structured into your dishes as a matter of course. In elections that were not skewed by gerrymandering or tainted by special-interest money. Or in medical advice that was not nudged by a pharmaceutical company paying a doctor, however circuitously, to push its drugs.

One place you can look for purity is in literature. Love or hate a poem, novel or short story, if it’s someone’s authentic, original work, it has to be evaluated on its merit. So it breaks my heart a little to think that the acclaimed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has for 81 years been turning out top-flight writers, could be accepting or rejecting people into its master’s program with another consideration in mind that is less than pure: Age. That would be a terrible blow to its illustrious legacy.

In complaints filed with the University of Iowa and the U.S. Department of Education, Dan Thomson of Wisconsin alleges he was rejected from the program because at 68, they felt he was too old. It’s possible that Thomson, who has done graduate studies in law and anthropology, just couldn’t accept that his writing wasn’t of the same caliber as the admitted students’, and went looking for another explanation.

But his research has unearthed some discouraging admissions statistics: In the past five years (2013 through 2017), only three of the 287 applicants over age 40 were accepted into the fiction program. Not a single person over 50 was, though 105 applied.

The fresh-faced group of students pictured on the Writers’ Workshop home page tends to underscore the profile. As Thomson told the Des Moines Register, “It seems like a program just for millennials.”

The workshop’s director, Lan Samantha Chang, has denied that age is a factor in admissions decisions and said she and workshop faculty who assess applicants’ writing samples don’t look at other materials like transcripts, which are handled by the graduate college. But Chang has access to them. The federal education department has said nothing, as is customary after receiving a complaint.

The highly selective workshop, which admits only 25 students into the fiction writing program, has graduated such luminaries as Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Wallace Stegner, Jane Smiley and T.C. Boyle. Writers and poets affiliated with it have chalked up more than 24 Pulitzer Prizes and many other top awards.

It’s possible none of the writing samples from people over 50 passed muster with the evaluating team those five years, but that would be an odd coincidence. Maybe they were so far superior to everyone else’s work that the workshop felt it had nothing to teach those candidates. But neither explanation is very satisfying.

See, a writer’s age is beside the point when you’re reading a good book. You don’t even necessarily think of how the sentences are strung together or how the images are evoked. You feel the rhythm. You put yourself in the setting. You know the characters. That’s the craft that is honed in a place like the Writers’ Workshop. You feel a sense of anticipation each time you pick the book up, and a sense of loss when you finish it. What matters is whether the writer has something to say, and the talent to say it well.

In excluding older writers, the workshop wouldn’t just be depriving them of a chance to sharpen their writing skills. It would deprive readers of access to their work, and other students of their different life experiences and perspectives. I’m sure the workshop strives for other kinds of diversity in the makeup of its classes. I’m sure its leaders would be the first to argue that having a good mix of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds is an essential part of the learning experience.

Yet in our increasingly youth-centric culture, some employers find ways to justify excluding older workers by pinning it on a technology and social-media divide between young and old. Let’s face it, because of their longer tenures, older workers tend to get paid more and cost employers more in benefits.

Whether or not Thomson succeeds at his goal, which is simply getting admitted to the program, perhaps his lawsuit will force school officials there and everywhere to think harder before excluding an entire age group, whether unconsciously or deliberately. Perhaps the workshop will produce evidence to show why each of the students selected over the last five years was superior to those not chosen.

But it’s also possible that an advanced degree program is more interested in millennials because they’ll live longer, hopefully go on to long and distinguished careers and have a longer window to earn awards and honors, publish books and bring acclaim and money to the institution. Maybe older students are deemed more set in their ways and less open to suggestion and criticism. Maybe the university wants to showcase a more contemporary face.

Sure, those are considerations, but not very pure ones as far as great writers and literature go. And creative writing is meant to be pure.

Rekha Basu

Des Moines Register

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.