The last few years have challenged the field of creative writing and academia more generally, though the current discussion of identity in the field is rooted in very longstanding issues in the larger culture. Junot Diaz’s article “MFA vs. POC” appeared in April 2014. Most recently, writers lambasted The New Yorker for a Calvin Trillin poem steeped in simplistic orientalism and called The Antioch Review to the carpet for an essay extraordinarily critical of transgender rights.

One of the most comprehensive overviews of the intertwined issues is “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room” by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young. That article discusses, among other events, the rise of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, the Kenneth Goldsmith reading of the manipulated text of an autopsy report of Michael Brown’s body, and the use of a Chinese classmate’s name as a pseudonym by Michael Derrick Hudson. As Spahr and Young look at urban gentrification, shifts in student loan programs, and the rise of contingent academic positions as all contributing to the perpetuation of the white room of creative writing. They also run a lot of numbers, a striking example of which is that only 18 percent of MFA graduates identified as other than white in 2013, up from 12 percent in 1995, a relatively meager increase for two decades and far below the 36 percent of masters degree students overall who identified as other than white in 2013.

As Beverly Daniel Tatum asserts in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, “Unchallenged personal, cultural, and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a rising tide of fear and violence in our society.” While creative writing did not create racism on its own, the racism in which the field participates “alienates us not only from others but also from ourselves and our own experiences.” More recently, in an interview with The Guardian, poet and cultural critic Claudia Rankine echoed Tatum’s conclusions: “White people feel personally responsible for racism when they should understand the problem as systemic. It is interfering as much with their lives as with the lives of people of colour.” A mainly white room—or a mainly male room, a mainly straight room, a room that is not physically accessible to all—impoverishes us all.

William Arrowsmith offers an analogy that may be helpful as we attempt to create a less impoverished discipline: “If you want to restore a Druid priesthood, you cannot do it by offering prizes for Druid-of-the-year. If you want Druids, you must grow forests.” Creative writing hasn’t grown the forest well enough. We have not yet created a culture that invites, nourishes, and retains a more inclusive group of individuals.

Tatum demonstrates that a variety of biases work against an inclusive community. What’s striking in situations that she discusses, situations that are akin to MFA applications and academic faculty searches, is that “the more competent the Black person is, the more likely this bias is to occur.” The higher the stakes, the greater the bias (intentional or not), so that, while a white person’s accomplishments pave a smoother way, the person of color is likely to encounter more racism and difficulty as he or she climbs the professional ladder.

As Tatum suggests, “If making our organization a more inclusive environment is a goal, then perhaps we should have the goal reflected in our criteria so that whoever is selected can support the organization’s goals.” Inclusivity makes for a better creative writing program and stronger literary culture and should be included in our goals.

“We like to think of ourselves as autonomous and inner-directed, that who we are and how we act is something permanently set by our genes and our temperament,” Malcolm Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point. Autonomy and individuality are deeply held American values. Originality and authorship are variations on these values; writers think of our work as integral to who we are. We tend to assume that, if we are not prejudiced as individuals, racism or sexism is not a problem in our programs or in what we write—or is a problem that will work itself out as the larger society changes rather than a problem that we can solve as individuals. As Tatum points out, however, one need not be to blame for prior discrimination to benefit from it anyway. Complacency—doing nothing to counteract systemic bias—extends impoverishment.

The NEA report on participation in the arts indicates that having a graduate degree doubles the likelihood that an individual will do creative writing, and more than 80% of those who had attended graduate school read a book in 2012. In other words, the composition of graduate students—across fields, not just in creative writing—tells us who is most likely to write and read. That same report also indicates that those with family incomes above $75,000 are most likely to write and those with family incomes under $20,000 are least likely to write. Racism, sexism, and classism affect the field of creative writing—who teaches it, who studies it, and who ends up writing, publishing, and winning awards. The composition of our faculty, students, and published writers affects the larger culture as well as the future of our discipline.

In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty points to the cascade effect of bias; increasing diversity of faculty is difficult without increasing diversity in graduate programs. Lack of inclusivity in our MFA and BFA/BA programs has a long-term effect on faculty composition and also who publishes and reads. In addition, Flaherty hints at the tree-planting issue: “Even trickier, experts agree, is getting more black students to stay in academe after they earn their Ph.D.s., given climate concerns and the fact that they are also in demand elsewhere, including the much better paying corporate world. So any successful diversity plan, those experts say, will involve not only bringing more black faculty members to campus, but also address the climate issues that will influence whether they stay there.” One of the workload issues that faculty of color face, for instance, is the heavy and often unacknowledged informal advising of students of color. In addition, tools like such as student evaluations are known—after numerous studies—to play into biases that include race, gender, and attractiveness. In other words, our focus must be on multiple aspects at once: students, faculty, and the university culture.

Identity issues have long been important to me; scholarly and creative work I’ve done in this area has been most focused on gender. In an article for Legacy in 2008, I examined gender disparity in Poetry magazine, major poetry awards and the Poet Laureate, and academic positions. I argued that these functioned as interrelated aspects of how gender bias works in creative writing. I saw the same phenomenon happening to women that Tatum outlines for Blacks, namely that sexism increases by level of achievement.

Overall, thirty-nine percent of full-time faculty are women; women hold 44.8 percent of tenure-track jobs; but only thirty-one per cent of tenured faculty are women. Male full professors outnumber female full professors across types of institutions. Doctoral institutions, more likely to house graduate creative writing programs, reveal the greatest disparity: Just nineteen percent of full professors are women. These numbers are particularly perplexing because women earn the majority of Ph.D.s conferred, have outnumbered men in baccalaureate degrees since the early 1980s, and have consistently earned two-thirds of the English undergraduate degrees over the past forty years.

Creative writing could look like a forest filled with women, but that’s not quite the case.

In 2010, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts started The Count, in which volunteers “manually, painstakingly tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews.” Focusing on prestigious venues such as the New Yorker and The Paris Review, VIDA concludes about its results, “We were not surprised to find that men dominate the pages of venues that are known to further one’s career.” VIDA’s study of The Best American series pans out similarly, which is no surprise, since you’re more likely to make it into The Best American if your work was published in the New Yorker or The Paris Review than in less well-funded, less well-known journals. In other words, even if women are perceived to be publishing a lot, Tatum’s ladder effect exists: bias increases with achievement.

Importantly, when editors responded to VIDA’s counts by saying that the publication ratio matched the submission ratio, VIDA explained why this view was problematic. In a piece called “Why the Submissions Numbers Don’t Count,” Danielle Pafunda points out that editors have control over submission guidelines and how submissions are solicited (representing an organization’s goals), that women may submit at a lower rate but at higher quality because of their slower submission cycle, that male writers likely benefit from socially embedded overconfidence, that no one reads gender blind, and that every journal tends to get more good work than it can publish. Most telling, this piece suggests that blaming women for their lack of prestigious publication does not contribute to a better or more vibrant literary landscape. All these assertions seem good reference points for creative writing programs and university administrators who blame the composition of the students and faculty on the applicant pools. Once again, we see that the look and vibe of the forest depends on the trees there, and the trees that thrive there depend on the environment of the forest. We haven’t grown a good enough forest.

Creative writing should welcome opportunities for growth and innovation with increased inclusivity—race, gender, class, sexual identity, physical ability, and so on. Where are the burgeoning English-Spanish bilingual programs that would welcome bilingual students and foster bilingual literature? Some of my undergraduate students, including some Asian-American students, are studying Japanese and are interested in anime and manga, but MFA programs have been slow to respond to this literature and the market it represents. What do our course reading lists represent? Curriculum is part of the forest.

According to the NEA report, “Women are slightly more likely to write than men.” In addition, “Women are far more likely to read books or literature than are men,” and, when men read, they are more likely to read nonfiction than are women. How might this information about gender help us reshape our creative writing programs to serve the current market and trends and, more importantly, create a more vibrant—larger and more wide-ranging—reading culture in the future? What if we treat curriculum as a way to attract individuals to the community? What if we treat an inclusive creative writing program as part of enlarging the reading culture globally?

Gladwell’s The Tipping Point suggests hope for a more inclusive future for creative writing. “Look at the world around you,” he says. “It may seem an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.” We must find the right places to push for our efforts to make the most meaningful, swift, and lasting changes. It sounds too simple to work, and possibly it is. Not pushing must no longer be an option. And pushing without thought, focus, and goals—or pushing only with a short-term or unsupported diversity quota for university faculty—is mostly for show.

Creating group effort—instead of relying on individual good intentions—seems key to greater inclusivity. “Once we’re part of a group, we’re all susceptible to peer pressure and social norms.” This dynamic usually keeps existing social norms in place (and limits forest growth). These influences within a group, however, “can play a critical role in sweeping us up in the beginnings of an epidemic.” Gladwell claims, “If you wanted to bring about a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior, a change that would persist and serve as an example to others, you needed to create a community around them, where those new beliefs could be practiced and expressed and nurtured.” That community creation sounds daunting, but he suggests, based on studies of religious movements, surprise best-selling novels, and our capacity for social relationships, that 150 is the ideal number of individuals for incubating sweeping change. Change certainly requires more than a token hire but also far less than complete consensus to create and build momentum. We’re building the creative writing community all the time, after all.

Large-scale changes in creative writing or in academia more generally require that a social epidemic catch on, but an epidemic starts with a group of individuals within a program and across programs. The potential for such an epidemic may have been seeded by Claudia Rankine’s keynote talk at the most recent conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and the discussions among program directors that articulated identity issues there.

Because writers think of our work as integral to our individual identity and also as responding to and shaping the larger culture in which we live, it seems counter-intuitive that creative writing is not leading the way toward greater inclusivity in academia, publishing, and society. “Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas.” I’d like at least 150 of those who read this article to ask, what are those keys areas in my workplace, in my classroom, in my published work?

This essay is excerpted and adapted from the book What We Talk About When We Talk About Creative Writingout July 15. 

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

About The Author

Anna Leahy

Anna Leahy is the co-author of Generation Space: A Love Story and the author of Tumor (Object Lessons series) and Aperture (poetry), all forthcoming in 2017. What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing is available at Amazon and Multilingual Matters. Anna teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, where she curates the Tabula Poetica Reading Series and edits the international journal TAB. See more at www.amleahy.com and www.loftyambitions.wordpress.com