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August 3rd, 2009 / 11:25 am
Mean

Abramson Leslie Consulting v. Steve Fellner

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Recently, and just in time for the fall application season, Abramson Leslie Consulting opened for business with a domain registered to GoDaddy and a serious-looking website. The firm calls itself “the first-ever consulting firm designed exclusively for applicants to Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.), and doctorate (Ph.D.) in Creative Writing Programs.”

Shortly thereafter, poet Steve Fellner posted a critique of Abramson Leslie Consulting(ALC), saying it “seems corrupt,” “is evil,” and “is pure greed.” C. Dale Young and Eduardo C. Corral, among others, linked to Fellner’s post.

Several hours later, Fellner removed the post for “legal issues” (and today he removed the post that said he had removed the post for legal issues).

Given the recent controversy here at HTMLGIANT, I have to say that what worries me about the Fellner thing is that, due to some “legal issues,” whatever those were, Fellner decided to delete his criticism of ALC; fortunately, this was an ineffective, though no less meaningful act, as the post is still widely available online (not Fellner’s fault). Thanks to Google, you may read Fellner’s post, titled “Why a Creative Writing ‘Firm’ May be the Most Unethical Entity in the Literary Community At Large,” in your Google Reader – simply follow Fellner’s blog, Pansy Poetics, and the post will show up in the feed. (Update: the Google cache snapshot is no longer accessible.) Here’s a tidbit from Fellner’s post, in which he questions the firm’s basic concept:

Or am I reading this “under construction” website wrong? Am I supposed to read this as a parody? As a satire of the idea that one should ethically manipulate their art to receive possible help from other poets and fiction writers? Is the firm also broadly mocking Kaplan Education Centers? Where students pay a tidy fee to improve their test scores? Where test scores are considered to be the measure of excellence? Is the firm ridiculing the inherent nature of MFA programs? That within colleges, institutions that offer grades, art is something that be measured and assessed with perfunctory, mechanical accuracy?

I’d really be interested to know more details on the legal issues behind Fellner’s removing his post.

Now direct your attention to the latest post about ALC at Seth Abramson’s blog. If you’d like to read the whole thing, go ahead. But I’ll just quote the last bit for you:

what we (the eight souls presently committed to ALC) are doing not only comes with a long line of precedent both within the poetry community and without, but adheres to our own–and any–standard of business ethics, personal ethics, and the ethics of being members of a community where just finding the community, i.e. a genuine sense of community, in the first place sometimes seems impossible. And with all the gossip and nonsense on the blogs these days–the non-reality-based analyses, the cruel attacks, the rubber-necking/flame-fanning, and the scurrilous presumptions and accusations–it’s no wonder a young writer would be looking somewhere other than the blogosphere for some help, advice, support, guidance, and honesty. Such things are in short supply these days, and those who try to give them don’t fare any better in the gossip mill, it sometimes seems, than those who sole contribution to this community is to do all they can to burn it down.

I have more to say on this, but haven’t the time to articulate it intelligently, so for now I’ll just leave it at that.

Feel free to discuss.

Update: follow Daniel Nester, No Tell Motel, and Elisa Gabbert for more discussion.

Update: Thanks to Corey Spaley for pointing us to this post at Abramson’s blog, in which Abramson states he did not email Steve Fellner.

Update: Fellner’s ‘final words’ on the issue.

II.

Given the recent controversy here at HTMLGIANT, I have to say that what bothers me about the Fellner thing is that, due to some “legal issues,” whatever those were, Fellner decided to delete his criticism of Abramson Leslie Consulting (ALC); fortunately, this was an ineffective, though no less meaningful act, as the post is still widely available online (not Fellner’s fault). Thanks to Google, you may read Fellner’s post, titled “Why a Creative Writing ‘Firm’ May be the Most Unethical Entity in the Literary Community At Large,” either as a page in Google’s cache or in your Google Reader (simply follow Fellner’s blog, Pansy Poetics, and the post will show up in the feed).

Sure, perhaps Fellner overstepped a little, grew too passionate, got carried away with the “seems corrupt,” “is evil,” and “pure greed” bits and a few assumptions he makes (“But the blog, I guess, felt compelled to disclose the numerical data to increase the anxiety of MFA applicants. That’s right: the blog its and [sic] oh-so-generous information was a strategy for providing the ultimate solution”), but I really don’t see anything that appears to be libelous in the post (note: I’m no lawyer)? Instead, I see a bunch of questions about the legitimacy of a project such as this, a firm that intends to charge $335 in order to review/respond to a fiction writer’s application portfolio, and I see someone making his negative opinion of the project publicly known. I don’t see anything wrong with that?

Nor does ALC seem to have a problem handling questions regarding its practices:

You have questions; that’s understandable. As no one has ever before tried to create a consulting firm exclusively for poets and writers, it would make sense for the exact mechanics of the thing to be the subject of some discussion

So, if questions are understandable and if discussion makes sense, then why would Fellner delete the post due to “legal issues”?

(And, obviously, I’m making the assumption here that some sort of private exchange occured between Abramson and Fellner that led to Fellner’s removing the post. Unfortunately, I have no verification that this happened, nor did I try to find out. So, I can’t stress enough how irresponsible it is of me to make this assumption.)

It would probably be best to hear from either Abramson or Fellner on the matter, so until then, I’ll simply leave the speculation at that and move on. My apologies to both Abramson and Fellner.

Instead, let’s start some discussion.

III.

First, what are the exact mechanics of this thing anyhow? Based on the website, ALC contracts work out to one of its six consulting associates, who are assigned a client. The client, who first had to be ‘accepted’ by ALC as an eligible client, then emails to the consultant his or her portfolio ($335 or $260 according to genre), or statement of purpose ($80), or a request for help “formulating a list of programs to apply to” ($75). After 14-21 days, the consultant sends the client an initial email response/evaluation of the application materials with suggestions, line-edits, and so on. The client then can set up a follow-up email or phone conference to speak further with the consultant about the comments/suggestions. Interestingly, ALC requires that clients that request a consultation make payment beforehand (other services of this sort offer a free preliminary consultation; that’s what I’ve seen anyhow). In the event of the client’s being turned down, ALC will refund the cash through the post.

A fiction writer, for example, could spend up to $490 dollars, if he or she requested all three services. That plus the $20 application fee (across, let’s say, five programs), and he or she has spent nearly $600 dollars for a chance at studying creative writing in a graduate program.

For that’s really the purpose of all this money: to help one move closer to an opportunity. Nothing more. There’s no guarantee that all of this cash will lead to an acceptance, and ALC says as much. Submission services make the same disclaimer. Writers who offer private one-to-one manuscript consultations for a fee also make the same disclaimer. In a sense, MFA programs, which can run up a graduate student’s debt load, also carry this same uncertainty. Money cannot guarantee that one’s writing will improve, or be published, or win awards.

So why spend all that money?

IV.

I do not know Seth Abramson (nor do I know Steven Fuller), but I am sort of familiar with Seth Abramson’s blog, his devotion to helping writers navigate the MFA application process (even if his careful collection of statistics sometimes makes the process more complicated than it really should be), and how much time he seems to put into the MFA world. For example, he is a pretty active commentor on the Poets&Writers MFA Programs forum; he often responds directly to fellow commentors’ questions, and he is really generous with his advice (read: it’s FREE).

I understand that, after all of the time and effort Abramson has put into studying the MFA application world, he has become an expert of sorts. He has contributed to Tom Kealey’s book. His blog gets massive hits, especially during application season. He writes for the MFA Weblog. He went to a top creative writing program. He has a new book out. And so on. Basically, he has succesfully navigated the MFA world, so it makes sense that he commands a certain amount of respect from those who wish to be a part of that world.

Furthermore, I understand that everyone’s got to support themselves. It makes sense, then, for Abramson to find a way to turn his expertise into a bit of income, right? Just like other writers try to earn some cash by running workshops, right?

But I adamantly resist ventures of this sort because they significantly, in my opinion, change the literary atmosphere from that of a community bent upon stumbling forward together to that of a weirdly competitive marketplace. ALC takes my concern with submission services, which I think hurt the writer/editor relationship as well as the little nodes of communities that surround various periodicals, and explodes it: now submitting to writing programs is a statistical problem to solve. A service that attempts to help a client impress a review board risks, whether it means to or not, giving less creedence to the art itself.

I’m not saying that Abramson Leslie Consulting is going to churn out writers with uninspired portfolios, or that its clients won’t benefit in other ways aside from simply receiving that acceptance call late one night. How could I when I haven’t even experienced a consultation with them? Nor am I saying that making money is wrong and that marketing is wrong and on and on. I only mean to say that I get worried each time I see someone take a step towards commodifying some aspect of the artistic world, especially that aspect that revolves around our inherent need to make something beautiful. So, despite the respect I hold for Abramson’s passion for the subject, I think ALC is a mistake.

V.

Which brings me to my specific concern with Abramson’s ALC. Take a look at the copy from the FAQ page of ALC’s site:

It’s important to note that Abramson Leslie is, at base, a one-on-one tutorial service, no different in aim or concept than the sort of undergraduate courses or private workshops for which young writers routinely – and with excellent results – pay some form of tuition or admission fee. We have no interest in turning creative writing into a business, or “gaming” the graduate creative writing program admissions process. Our partners and asociates are all professional writers who enjoy working with younger authors on a one-on-one basis, and who see their role as being one of guidance and instruction. We don’t aim to steer our clients toward and particular aesthetic, but rather to help clients do whatever it is they’ve chosen to do better.

I have to correct ALC here. Though ALC and undergraduate/private workshops might share similar structures, in that all three are organized based on a loose workshop model, their basic aims are quite different. The instructors of undergraduate workshops, at least those I’ve studied with, often cite as the course’s objective some variation of “this workship will help you harness traditional story-telling techniques.” The participants in private workshops with whom I’ve worked are more general in their objectives: “I’m just here to, like, improve my writing and meet people, you know.” I have yet to see a workshop leader, undergraduate or private, specifically claim that the goal of the course is for the workshop to help its participants gain admission to graduate creative writing programs. Whereas ALC specifically says that it is a firm “designed exclusively for applicants to […] Creative Writing programs” and that all of its services are executed “with an eye towards admission to the top programs in this extremely competitive field of study.” Its target clients are writers expressly interested in applying to creative writing programs.

What I’m interested to know, then, is how ALC will reconcile its intention to “help clients do whatever it is they’ve chosen to do better” with its aim to help clients get into “the top programs in this extremely competitive field of study.” How, if the field is “almost entirely subjective,” can ALC offer portfolio advice aimed at getting those clients into the targeted program? What sort of research and data exists that could possibly help a writer improve his or her writing?

I seriously don’t believe there are answers to these questions, though I’m sure Abramson has some of his own. Rather, I think these sorts of questions simply point to a greater issue regarding MFA programs and the debate surrounding them. Fellner writes, “Is the firm ridiculing the inherent nature of MFA programs? That within colleges, institutions that offer grades, art is something that [can] be measured and assesed with perfunctory, mechanical accuracy?”

VI.

I have no doubt that Abramson and his associates are committed to helping out fellow (“younger”) writers, nor do I doubt the sincerity behind their wanting to avoid “gaming” the system and “turning creative writing into a business.” But, seriously, let’s be realistic here: what is this but the very act of turning creative writing into a business?

I cannot say that I agree with Fellner regarding the evil nature of ALC, though it’s not something I’ll recommend to anyone. Instead, I’ll be happy to share with prospective MFA candidates what little I can regarding my application process/experience. It’ll cost nothing.

The following information is taken directly from the website of Abramson Leslie Consulting:

Abramson Leslie Consulting (ALC) is a creative writing program application/portfolio consulting firm launched by poet Seth Abramson and novelist Chris Leslie-Hynan. The firm currently claims, in addition to the two partners, four fiction associates (Katie Chase, Jennifer duBois, Kevin Gonzalez, and Matt Griffin) and two poetry associates (Luca Bernhardt and Jane Lewty). 100% of the contracted associates and partners of this firm graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, have published extensively, and have held fellowships/residencies.

ALC’s fees are as follows:

  • $335 fiction/$260 poetry for a portfolio review, which includes an initial response from the associate regarding the portfolio and a follow-up email/phone conference.
  • $75 for assistance from Seth Abramson in “formulating a list of programs to apply to.”
  • $80 for “in-line commentary, suggestions for improvement, and a general critique” of the Statement of Purpose essay.

ALC will respond in 14-21 days regarding the above services.

ALC provides the following disclaimers:

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