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Dear Sir or Madame, Will You Read My Book

By Simon W. Vozick-levinson

There’s a new gripe floating around campus, and this one is even less legitimate than the rest. At issue are the high turn-away rates of Harvard’s creative writing classes; such a tight bottleneck, say the complainers, is just another example of Harvard denying its undergraduates the opportunities that lured them here in the first place.

But there’s a very simple reason why creative writing courses here are chronically over-demanded and under-supplied. It often seems that almost all Harvard undergraduates—from the students originally admitted for extraordinary writing to the most militantly anti-humanities biochem concentrators—secretly think they’ve got a novel in them, or at least a couple of short stories. We’re intellectuals, by and large, and we’re also kind of pretentious, and when you pair vintage Harvard ambition with genuine Harvard intellect, it’s no surprise that creative writing comes up on many students’ “to-do-by-senior-year” lists.

This makes creative writing a convenient way for humanities and non-humanities concentrators alike to easily broaden their horizons. While it’s always possible for little Liebnizes to switch to Sanskrit studies halfway through sophomore year, it’s far easier for those with no other experience writing to discover a previously hidden penchant for haiku—and so they flood the creative writing classes.

If students who come here with impressive high-school literary records end up getting turned away, it is most likely because their applications in some way don’t measure up to these dark horses, these surprise talents. And that’s unfortunate—but that’s also exactly as it should be. We can’t get away from the fact that creative writing classes have built into them a certain measure of subjective judgment. Some applications are better than others, and it’s important that those applicants who can demonstrate their talent upfront get spots. Adding a few sections, as English Department Chair Lawrence Buell has said will be done next year, would certainly be a good idea—but it will not, nor can it, erase the fact that there are not enough qualified faculty to teach enough sections for every would-be author. Easing the crunch by increasing section size—or bringing in additional lower-caliber teachers—is also an unacceptable alternative.

Things must stay essentially as they are then. The unfortunate result is that some students who might have gone on to write brilliantly are turned away by Harvard’s big, bad creative writing program. But spurned applicants should hearten up. After all, when was the last time that angst and rejection did any real harm to a great writer’s genius—or ego?

—Simon W. Vozick-Levinson is an editorial editor.

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