Ruddy-cheeked and only 21, an unknown writer at a small Southern college is publishing his first novella, "When You Fall." But it's not a major publisher picking up his prose: His own school is sending the manuscript off to be pressed into 2,000 copies.
Meanwhile, at Georgia College & State University in the rural town of Milledgeville, where author Flannery O'Connor grew up, a new master of fine arts degree in creative writing has become the talk of the campus as big-name authors wend their way into the Southern outback to tell their tales.
And at the University of Texas, Austin, author James Michener has set up the school's first creative writing MFA.
As book sales hit an all-time high, more students are in pursuit of the perfect paragraph at colleges across the United States. Schools are raising the stakes and even staking their reputations on grooming great writers - and fine-tuning their degrees to cater to the growing numbers of would-be Faulkners and O'Connors entering their gates.
But they're not doing it by beefing up traditional English classes. Instead, they're starting creative writing programs, which were once unknown at all but a few schools such as the University of Iowa and the University of New Hampshire. Today, more than 320 colleges and universities feature in-depth creative writing classes, and about 240 have established creative writing MFA programs, up from half a dozen such programs in the early 1980s.
Intense demand is driving the phenomenon. At the University of Iowa, for example, 600 aspiring fiction writers applied last year for 25 slots in the writing program. At Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., enrollment in creative writing classes has gone from a handful of students to more than 50 in fewer than five years; next year, the number of creative writing students there is expected to surpass the number of literature students.
People who sign up for these programs edit in peer review groups, write 30 pages a week in "novel classes," dig deep for personal essays, and listen to professional writers expound on "how to get published."
It's a distinct departure from classical English - and there's been "blood in the hallways" over whether students should be discussing the intricacies of Charlotte Bronte and John Donne or eyeing one another's half-baked prose. But such canonical controversies haven't stemmed the creative flow of ink.
"A lot of English majors became disaffected with deconstructionism and various other scholarly fads that were in vogue," says author Frank Conroy, who heads the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "They said, 'I don't want to do that; I want to write.' And the thing has just ballooned. These days, we don't talk about theory very much, because nobody's particularly interested. We talk about books."
But not everyone is thrilled with the sudden rush to pen a masterpiece. Too much self-indulgent prose, they argue, is unwisely being treated as if it were important.
Mr. Conroy concedes that lots of writing being done on campus is unpalatable. "Let's say there are 250 workshops in which poetry is part of the deal," Conroy says. "Well, three-quarters of them are completely unproductive. There are a lot of people teaching [creative writing] who are not really qualified to teach."
Coming soon to a bookshelf near you
Here at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., students are enrolling for the September launch of the new concentration in creative writing. But since 1995, the college has offered the Benjamin Wofford Prize to an outstanding student writer, publishing and distributing copies of his or her "thesis" as a publishing company would.
Increasingly, creative writing master's programs are also offering perks such as scholarships, publishing opportunities, or inside access to literary …