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The prestigious UC Irvine program gives grad students what they crave--time to write. But after they've created, they face some tough critics--their peers.

December 17, 1995

For someone undergoing her baptism of fire, Aimee Bender doesn't look nervous.

The weekly graduate fiction writing workshop at UC Irvine is in progress, and Bender, a 26-year-old first-year grad student from San Francisco, is having one of her short stories critiqued for the first time.

Bender listens intently as her 11 fellow writers, seated at two pushed-together conference tables, take turns holding forth in a sort of literary round robin:

The combination of "being plain and somewhat fanciful in style" works well, says one.

The transition of one character seemed too abrupt, says another.

"There's a part there in the first couple of paragraphs," says yet another, "where she says, 'My hands are the hands of an elephant.' Well, an elephant has no hands. . . ."

With that, the room breaks up, no one laughing harder than Bender.

The weekly Monday afternoon workshop--three-hour sessions in which students' short stories or novels-in-progress are analyzed--is the heart of the graduate fiction writing program at UCI.

Now in its 30th year, the program has served as an elite proving ground for launching literary careers.

"It's a supportive community for young writers," explains fall fiction workshop leader Judith Grossman, an associate professor of English. "It's that, and it gives every writer a bunch of really sharp readers. . . . If you can get your stuff past them, then you have a good chance of getting attention from editors and readers beyond that."

UCI's graduate writing workshop is considered among the best in the country. Many deem the two-year Master of Fine Arts writing program, which offers degrees in both fiction and poetry, second only to the University of Iowa's Writing Program, the nation's oldest and most prestigious graduate writing workshop.

And, even as the UCI workshop's reputation grows, the fiction program is in transition.

Geoffrey Wolff, a nationally recognized novelist and nonfiction writer, is the new director. He recently arrived from Brandeis University near Boston where he taught an undergraduate writing workshop and literature courses.

He succeeds Thomas Keneally, the Australian author of "Schindler's List," who has returned to Sydney after four years at UCI.

"My responsibility here is really to make certain the program stays as good as it is," Wolff says. But, just as he is settling in, a university search committee is seeking a replacement for Grossman, who will leave as early as next June.

After three years of bicoastal commuting during school breaks, she is returning to Baltimore, where her husband is a humanities professor at Johns Hopkins University. Grossman, whom Wolff describes as "the best friend this program can conceivably have," will be leaving reluctantly.

"These are clearly the best young student writers I've ever had or hope to have--that's unqualified," she says.

Wolff echoes her remarks.

"I just don't think there's any better," he says. "The students speak for themselves with what they've done."

Wolff was familiar with the UCI writing program long before he arrived on campus.

"A dear friend of mine, Richard Ford, went here and has followed it very carefully," he says.

Ford, MFA class of 1970, is an award-winning novelist and short story writer--one of a number of accomplished authors who have passed through the program.

Among the dozen alumni who have seen their MFA theses wind up on bookstore shelves in the 1990s are Louis B. Jones ("Ordinary Money"), Varley O'Connor ("Like China"), Lane Von Herzen ("Copper Crown"), Marti Leimbach ("Dying Young") and Whitney Otto ("How to Make an American Quilt," which spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 1991 and is now a movie).

The most recent addition to the list is Leonard Chang, a 1993 graduate whose thesis novel, "The Fruit 'n' Food," about the life in and around a Korean-run convenience store in New York City, will be published soon.

Novelists Oakley Hall and the late Donald Heiney are credited with building the fiction workshop to its current status as a place where students turn out "literary" fiction. They were the graduate fiction program's guiding lights for more than two decades before retiring in the early '90s.

One book, though, in Heiney's words, "changed everything."

Michael Chabon's "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," which the then-23-year-old graduate workshop student sold to William Morrow even before it was approved as his thesis in 1987, brought the program national visibility virtually overnight.

The buzz over the coming-of-age novel was generated as much by Chabon's literary skill as by his $150,000 advance--a princely sum for a first novel, particularly one considered a serious work of literature.

In the wake of Chabon's high-profile success, applications to the program doubled. Each year since then, more than 200 writers from around the country have applied for the six first-year openings.

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