When Jonathan Safran Foer attended Princeton in the late nineties, his creative-writing professor did something she has only done once in her 32 years of teaching: She wrote his parents a letter informing them of his unusual literary gifts. “When I was an undergraduate at Syracuse University, a much-revered professor wrote to my parents in this way, and it made a profound impression upon them, and deeply touched me,” says the teacher, who happens to be Joyce Carol Oates.
Up until Foer met Oates in the fiction workshop he took on a whim during sophomore year, he thought he wanted to study medicine. The class changed his life. “She made me believe that I had talent, which no one had suggested to me before,” says Foer, 33. Her praise encouraged him to continuously revise his drafts, and her brutal honesty kept his writing on the right track. “I once had given her, like, 80 pages of something that I was excited about, and her only comment at the bottom was ‘distracting but confusing,’ ” he recalls.
Oates advised him on his senior thesis, which became the blueprint for his novel Everything Is Illuminated. “I went into her class with no ambition to become a writer, and I left it wanting to be a writer because of the things she showed me,” says Foer. “Ever since, I always thought it would be nice to do that for someone else.”
Two and a half years ago, Foer fulfilled that desire when he started teaching creative writing at New York University, already home to E. L. Doctorow, Rick Moody, and Anne Carson. This fall, Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith started teaching there as well. Over at Hunter College, students are taught by Colum McCann, Peter Carey, and Nathan Englander. The New School has Dale Peck, Phillip Lopate, and, until recently, Jhumpa Lahiri. Up at Columbia, Gary Shteyngart, Stacey D’Erasmo, Orhan Pamuk, and Sam Lipsyte teach, while Brooklyn College has Colin Harrison and Myla Goldberg.
Given the number of writers in New York City, it is competitive to land these gigs. Nontenured fiction writers make between $8,000 and $15,000 per semester. “There has been a little bit of a change since the crash in 2008,” says Lipsyte, author of The Ask. “I think there were writers who you thought were making enough on their books that they didn’t need a job, and I think that more and more writers who perhaps are wary of the future of publishing, of the economy, have come to take real jobs at universities.” Still, it’s a compromise. “I don’t get a lot of writing done during the semester,” says Lipsyte. “On my writing days I only, only write,” says Goldberg, author of Bee Season. “On my teaching days, I only, only teach. I found that on a writing day I can’t divide my time between writing and anything else, because it eats into my brain in a way that is completely not productive.”