Recently I was looking through Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists 2 and noticing a lot of MFA graduates represented. Although it is frequently discussed on this blog, I don’t believe there has been any raking of fiction alumni outside of The Atlantic’s short list. I know that this is a tricky area to measure, but it feels like an important factor for applicants. So I decided to augment Granta’s list to see which programs were producing acclaimed writers and also to give future applicants a sense of what type of writers come out what programs. For the establishment opinion I picked the New York Times 100 Notable Books list and for the voice of the people I used The Believer Book Awards Reader Survey. Hopefully this gives a nice balance between the mainstream and more indie literary scenes. I went back through the last five years. After doing some Googling, here is what I found:
MFA Fiction Alumni (gathered from Granta 2007, The Believer Book Awards 2005-2008, NYT Notable Books 2004-2008)
1) Iowa, 18 (Chris Adrian, Daniel Alarcón, Emily Barton, T. C. Boyle, Kevin Brockmeier, Charles D'Ambrosio, Nathan Englander, Sesshu Foster, Colin Harrison, Kathryn Harrison, Ehud Havazelet, Denis Johnson*, Nam Le, Yiyun Li, ZZ Packer, Curtis Sittenfeld, John Edgar Wideman, Stephen Wright)
2) Columbia, 12 (Jonathan Ames, Jesse Ball*, T. Cooper, Kiran Desai, Rivka Galchen, Heidi Julavits, Rachel Kushner, Benjamin Kunkel, Dinaw Mengestu, Richard Price, Karen Russell, Vendela Vida)
3) UCI, 5 (Aimee Bender, Michael Chabon, Joshua Ferris, Richard Ford, Maile Meloy)
T4) Cornell, 3 (Junot Díaz, Jennifer Gilmore, David Vann)
T4) Hollins**, 3 (Madison Smartt Bell, Kiran Desai, Annie Dillard)
T4) JHU**, 3 (Chimamanda Adichie, Louise Erdrich, ZZ Packer)
T4) Michigan, 3 (Joshua Henkin, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Jess Row)
T4) NYU, 3 (Judy Budnitz, Nell Freudenberger, Hannah Tinti**)
T9) Arizona, 2 (Richard Russo, David Foster Wallace)
T9) Bennington, 2 (Charles Bock, Trinie Dalton)
T9) Brown, 2 (Gabe Hudson, Jim Shepard)
T9) OSU, 2 (Rebecca Barry, Christopher Coake)
The following schools had one name represented: Alabama (Tony Earley), Arkansas (Tom Franklin), Bowling Green State University (Anthony Doerr), BU** (Jhumpa Lahiri), Columbia College (Joe Meno), Goddard (Selah Saterstrom), Hunter (Gary Shteyngart), Oregon (Chang-rae Lee), Sarah Lawrence (Dalia Sofer), Syracuse, 2 (Rebecca Curtis), University of Florida (Chris Bachelder), U. Mass (Nancy Reisman), UVA (Edward P. Jones) Vermont (Alicia Erian), Warren Wilson (Michael Thomas), Washington (David Guterson), Wisconsin (Dean Bakopoulos)
* Ball and Johnson made this list for novels, but both received MFAs in poetry.
** Hollins, BU and JHU were MA programs when these writers obtained their degrees. Packer and Desai went on to get MFAs from Iowa and Columbia respectively. Tinti received an MA from NYU.
A couple quick notes:
- I wouldn’t consider this a full ranking as I have not adjusted any variables, such as school size or time of graduation, and the number of data points is low. On both points, if you have any thoughts please suggest away. Should the list stay current by cutting off writers who graduated over 20 years ago? 10? 5? Are there other awards or rankings that could be included to flesh out the list? I’d love community input to make this a more helpful list!
- For its first two years, The Believer Book Awards did not include a reader survey. I included the editors’ lists for those years, which added three names: One each for Iowa, UCI and Goddard.
- It is entirely possible that I missed a few people since not everyone lists their MFA program and it is hard to Google a negative. If you notice an omission please comment and I’ll make the correction!
Hopefully this was interesting or helpful to some of you!
Great job putting this list together. You bring up an interesting point about how current the listings are. I would be interested in seeing if there are any trends, which programs are "producing" more, which ones that are "producing" less. I feel like Iowa would lose some of its luster -- I mean, when did Denis Johnson and T.C. Boyle graduate? In the 70s? Not to say they wouldn't still probably be in first...not to say it's some sort of race...
Great list. A few additions:
Madison Smartt Bell (The Stone that the Builder Refused, NYT 04), Annie Dillard (Maytrees, NYT 2007), and Kiran Desai (Inheritance of Loss, NYT 2006) all obtained MA's from Hollins University. Probably didn't see them because Hollins switched from an MA to an MFA in 2004. Kiran Desai attended Columbia after Hollins.
Thanks for putting in the time.
I agree it would be interesting to see the trend and movements over time. But to defend Iowa, a lot of the names listed are recent so I don't think they would be affected much.
Denis Johnson brings up something else. Johnson was a poetry major at Iowa, even though he is on this list for a novel, and I think a few others on this list might have concentrated in poetry as well.
I decided to include these people because
a) It seems likely they took some classes with fiction teachers and learned things from the fiction programs
b) I frankly couldn't easily determine whether someone got an MFA in fiction, non-fiction or poetry. Many people just list where they got their MFA, not in what genre it was.
That said, do you guys think they should be removed?
Definitely not saying Iowa wouldn't still be in first. Just saying DJ and Boyle are old.
I think you should keep the interdisciplinary folks -- it would be too confusing otherwise. You mention Rebecca Curtis. She's a similar case to Johnson: if I'm not mistaken, she was first accepted to Syracuse in poetry, but later switched to fiction.
Yes, this is interesting! Now do poets LOL. I'm kidding. Thanks for taking the time to put this information together!
a couple corrections:
Dean Bakopoulos did his MFA at Wisconsin (he did his undergrad at Michigan).
and Chris Bachelder did his MFA at Florida (he teaches at UMass, but didn't go there).
Ben: Thanks for the corrections. I knew I should have checked the whole list again.
I did catch those, but wasn't sure what to do with MAs. There was some weirdness with people such as Desai and then there was simply the matter that I knew I probably missed people who got MAs since I was searching for MFAs. I also wasn't sure if MAs that shifted into MFAs should be counted as the same program or not?
That said, I wouldn't want to short change a good program like Hollins. Maybe I should insert programs like that back with a note that they were MAs not MFAs at the time?
I'd want to get everyone I'm missing though. Here is what I noted, but again I likely missed many since I wasn't searching for MA:
Hollins: Madison Smart Bell, Annie Dillard, Kiran Desai
JHU: Louise Erdrich
Boston: Jhumpa Lahiri
Other MA names to add?
I think that TC Boyle, while old, is a good name because he's produced a few books in the last 5-8 years. Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke was shortlisted or won the national book award, or some prestigious thing. So he should definitely be included.
Sana Krasikov (Iowa) should or could be added -- I believe that she has a collection of short fiction coming out.
An interesting list! Would you consider compiling one for Poetry alumni?
I'm pretty sure Ha Jin did his at BU as well.
Nice list. No surprise about Iowa being number 1. In my own informal research of different things--inclusions in Best American Short Stories, winners and finalists for National Book Awards, Pulitzers, PEN/ Hemingway and PEN/Faulkner Awards, etc., Iowa has always had a sizable lead over other programs, with Columbia usually following in second.
Seems like no matter what the criteria is, Iowa always leads the pack in terms of major awards and publications, but I think it's interesting to note some of the other programs that show up on your list--NYU, Brown, and Irvine (though if you're eliminating people because of age, you'd probably have to cut Chabon and Ford from Irvine's list).
Something else that's interesting: people are always championing the program a Texas because of the great funding, but UT doesn't even have one name mentioned on any of the lists, which kind of confirms my suspicions about the lack of notable alumni from that program. Just an observation.
You can find one for poetry here (using the data bank here).
P.S. If you scroll down to the bottom at that first link, the ranking is recast taking into account program size; interestingly, Iowa does not come in first in that one.
Mike Thanks! As for the writer you mention, there are certainly many notable writers who didn't make this list but I think we have to use an outside measurement to make a ranking. Tracking down every writer who has published a book that someone thinks is good would be a never ending task.
If there is a magazine comparable to The Believer or New York Times that has year end lists that wouldn't be redundant I'd love to add them though.
Morgan According to Wikipedia Ha Jin only teaches at Boston University, he didn't get a degree from there.
M./Unsaid I wouldn't know where to start with a poetry list, though I'd love to see a similar one, but I do not familiar with any similar year end poetry lists. What I liked about this list is that instead of measuring predictors of success, like contests or fellowship, it measures actual success: acclaimed books. I tend to hear so many complaints about bias and rigging in poetry awards and so on that someone with more knowledge of the poetry world would need to do it.
In fact I think MFA Blog contributor Seth may have made a poetry ranking before.
Whoops, I guess Seth posted a link to his while I was typing.
Yes, I've noticed the same thing doing cursory looks through anthologies and awards. Iowa leads the pack, followed by Columbia and normally UCI. Which stands true on this list.
Some of the programs that follow are interesting though. For example, I don't normally hear Cornell's alumni talked about, but having three alumni on this list for such a small fiction program probably vaults them to the fourth best program for fiction alumni.
The Atlantic's 5 programs with notable alumni were (in no order):
UCI, Columbia, Iowa, BU and UVA.
But on this list UVA only gets one older writer and BU only had one as well (with the caveat above that I might have missed some MA people as I was searching for names plus MFA)
Ah, good point.
btw, Iowa only has 18?...has it fallen on hard times?
Didn't David Foster Wallace die recently? If we're including dead people, doesn't the MFA handbook (2nd edition) say that Raymond Carver graduated from Syracuse?
Seeing that Junot Diaz graduated from Cornell makes me want to go there so much more.
Again, Lincoln, great list. I hope I didn't sound like I was downplaying the work you did here by program-promoting with those Hollins folks I suggested. I think it'd be a great idea to just throw an MA in parenthesis next to Hopkins, Hollins, and BU's places on the list. Mainly because, at least I'm sure of this in Hollins case, it's virtually the same program just with an additional year added. I think it's the same at Johns Hopkins as I've heard they're very heavy into literature courses which is likely a holdover from the MA. At BU, I don't even think they added another year. So it seems as though these graduates, though they have different letters after their names, went through generally the same programs as exist now (at least to the same extent as we could say this for other MFAs).
Thanks again for putting this together.
Yes, David Foster Wallace sadly passed away this year. I included anyone who made the NYT or Believer lists from the last five years. Raymond Carver has been dead much longer than that though.
Carver graduated from Iowa back in the day. His wife, Tess Gallagher, was the coordinator of the Syracuse program though.
oh, one more correction--evenson didn't do his MFA at Brown. He did a PhD at UW-Seattle and ended up teaching at Brown after a rather interesting career as a writer/academic at BYU.
I do think it's important to take into account the age of programs in these rankings (especially when using the ny times/believer lists). Older programs, like UCI and Iowa, of course, will have more people on that list. While much younger programs, like Michigan and Texas will have a good many fewer--they just haven't been around that long (Michigan since the mid 80s, Texas-Michener since the mid-90s, which isn't so long in MFA terms). Iowa, of course, will always be solid, but because there's a great deal of flux in MFAs (new funding, new faculty, zeitgeist, whatever), sometimes it's hard to know how far to trust the alumni lists. Arizona's hey day seems to have been the 80s, when DFW and Antonya Nelson went there; good writers still come out of there, but it does seem to have fallen generally in stature. And Texas-Michener hasn't yet produced any superstar alumni, but I'm pretty sure it will--those people are probably there now, or have recently graduate, or will be going there next year, and haven't published yet. That is, looking at the Michener by alumni, it doesn't seem as great as it should. But I do think it is a great program--it's just relatively new and hasn't had the time to produce those household names yet.
There's also the interesting effect of bubbles. Most of UCI's better known graduates (aside from their best known--Ford, who went there in the late 60s or early 70s, and Chabon, who went there in the 80s) got there MFAs all about the same time, in the late 90s. And a good many of BU's notable alums were in the same class: Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Peter Ho Davis, and Marhall Klimasiewski (sp?) were all in the same year, in 93, I think. So some schools seem to go through hot moments and then fade and then come back again. The caveat of course is that (1) you never know exactly where and when that might happen and (2) just about all of these places are programs where a writer can do well. It's important to consider a list like this (and kudos to Lincoln for putting it together) but a school's alumni won't determine your future (which is why not ever Iowa MFA succeeds, and great writers emerge from a variety of programs.
And one last comment. Definitely worth considering size. A larger program will of course produce more writers, so helps sometimes to think per capita. I think the Granta list is a really good list to look at, for considering the state of school's recent alumni. I think there are four Iowa MFAs on that list and two Michigan MFAs. But Michigan is half the size of Iowa, and so by that list, when looked at per capita, the programs are about equal when considering recent alumni (anyway, that's just one example. The whole thing is fungible. In the end, I guess, part of what we want from a ranking is to know which programs produce success, which is another way of asking, will I make it? And that, in the end, is unknowable.) OK, enough meta, and enough long post.
Leaving out the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars is a major ommision--that's one of the most highly ranked and oldest in the country, I believe. Plus, in the last few years they've had some amazing acclaimed female fiction writers come out of there:
ZZ Packer, Chimamanda Adichie, and Porochista Khakpour.
Good points all around.
A list like this does not guarantee anything for one's own experience. In fact, I think this is true for any ranking or measurement. Location is important, but it is hard to know what location you will thrive or wilt in. Faculty is important, but you will never know ahead of time who you will click with. Even aspects like funding or class size can change from year to year.
It reminds me of what Arpad Elo said about his chess rating system... that it was like measuring "the position of a cork bobbing up and down on the surface of agitated water with a yard stick tied to a rope and which is swaying in the wind."
So everyone should look at this as nothing but the roughest indicator.
That said, I wanted this first list to show the alumni and then I hoped to later produce a ranking that adjusts for age and class size. I think the list needs to be fleshed out though in terms of the number of data points. When most of the schools only have one or two writers listed, any rating will get skewed. This will be even more pronounced after adjusting for age (though I agree it needs to be done)
I think an ideal ranking for alumni might feature only writers produced in the last 5 years to show what a program is like now. But that wouldn't really work since writers can take 5 or more years to even publish their first book. 10 might simply not include enough names. So maybe a fifteen year cut-off would be best?
I've added the MA names that I have to the list. If there are any I am missing please note.
I don't know what you decided in terms of cross-genre degrees, but I can tell you that Jesse Ball's MFA from Columbia was in poetry.
Yeah, definitely a lot of variables. Maybe there'd be a way to offer alternate lists--one focusing on short term (last five years) and one on long term (fifteen plus), to give an alternate sense of the hotter programs and the stabler programs.
I like the idea of sticking to five years, because while it is limiting, it does seem to isolate those programs where things are happening right now. True, those who take longer to get their books out would be cut off, but I still think it could work as a good indicator, akin to the cock roach theory--for every one you see, there, are many more behind the wall. (OK, not a perfect analogy, but for every person who publishes right out of the program, there are probable one or two others who will emerge later.) So in that way the short-term rubric could be helpful.
And then the long-term one could give evidence of programs with a good track record, or at least provide a balance to the other list, and provide interesting, informative comparisons.
Of course, easier said than done. It sounds like a daunting task, but it's definitely a worthy project, and one that could not only give us a sense of program's success, but the weird patterns of success...
anyway, hope this helps a little. good luck!
Thanks for the link to the poetry data.
And Lincoln, thanks for the response/hard work on the fiction front!
It's interesting to put words aside for a moment and wrestle with some quantitative data.
Of course, individual experience varies. ;)
I mean, the quality of the workshop depends a lot upon the dynamic that occurs between the attending writers and the teacher.
Of course, the effort and vision of the writer must be considered, too.
I do think, though, that high numbers of MFA grads publishing is one signifier of a good program though I don't ascribe to the camp that those grads get published solely because of a programs reputation or the literay connections students might find there.
Ultimately, it is the work that matters.
Part of the role of the program is to create an environment that nurtures the writer so that she or he might refine their vision and produce their very best work.
Thanks for this!
Thank you for putting this together!
In answer to your question about other awards or rankings that could be included, I'd suggest two awards that might expand the list in an interesting way: 1) Lannan Literary Fellowships (not the awards or residencies, that is) and 2) the Whiting Writers' Awards.
I think that Lannans and Whitings might be interesting additions because of the similarities they share: writers can't apply for either; the nominating process for both is anonymous; and both are intended to support writers fairly early in their careers (I think they both use the word "emerging," although they seem to have slightly different senses of what that means).
Incorporating these would result in overlaps (Charles D'Ambrosio, Judy Budnitz, etc.), but I think that they also might add a few new names of fiction writers who are doing interesting stuff but are not on the Granta, Believer, and NYT lists you've included already (Benjamin Percy and Edie Meidav, for example).
I guess the fact that the nominators in both cases are writers, editors, and scholars might mean to some that this is just another "establishment" list. But to me, the anonymity the nominators, combined with the fact that they're professionally deeply involved in the lit world, means that they might notice someone writing really worthwhile work that Believer readers or NYT and Granta editors might have missed (so far).
Just a thought. Hope that might help!
Thanks! Sounds like people thought they should stay, but I made a note of Johnson and Ball's degrees in the post.
I like that idea. Hopefully in the not to distant future I can go back through this list and try to find everyone's graduation dates, then make two rankings with age cutoffs and then weighted for program size.
I would have done this originally, but it was hard enough to find many of these writers MFA status that I didn't find many attached dates.
I still wonder if going down to five years would leave us with like 5 names, but guess I'll have to do the work to see.
I think with alumni success there are three factors: quality of the students before coming into the program, improvement made during/due to the program and connections etc.... well, and I guess luck.
Sorting out how important these aspects were to a given person is certainly impossible though.
Thanks for the suggestion. Those sound interesting and relevant. I'll definitely look into them. My only fear with extending it to awards and fellowships is making value judgments about them. ie, whey these ones and not others? The NYT is the world's biggest newspaper and The Believer is maybe the biggest "indie" literary magazine that does anything like this (also the only one with a large reader survey that I know of) so they seemed easy picks for me.
If we did these fellowships, why not the Stegner and so on?
On the other hand, maybe there are like 5 to 10 major fellowships/awards that most writers could agree on and they could all be included?
Good writers can come out of any program. Iowa and Columbia produce a lot of writers because they're big programs. The only thing that's going to get you anywhere as a writer is focusing on your own work--writing for the sake of writing, because it satisfies YOU--not fixating on the success of others (although reading widely of others is important). This just seems so petty, such a misdirection of energy.
I don't find it petty. It's just an interesting data set for numbers and information geeks!
Of course the work is the most important thing, as I posted above, and of course good, successful writers come out of all the programs. Some even come out of no programs / post-secondary education at all.
But obviously the program and the direction / mentorship faculty provides have value otherwise so many people wouldn't pursue MFAS.
Writing workshops are a good thing for many writers and their work. Period. :)
Good writers can certainly come out of any program. I don't think anyone would deny that and I think this list shows that. I also think we could extend this to any factor one looks at in MFA programs. A new unpublished teacher could be better for you than a pulitzer prize winner. A small town might give you more connections than a big city. But that doesn't mean that factors like location and faculty should be ignored when applying to MFA programs. Iowa and Columbia may have larger fiction programs than most schools, but they are not 18 and 12 times larger.
I absolutely agree that for anyone who has completed an MFA or has no interest in an MFA, looking at measurements of alumni success or anything else is pointless.
But for potential MFA applicants, ie the audience of this blog, I think it is pretty important.
I agree with Lincoln's last post.
I'm applying this year and alumni data was one factor I considered when deciding where to apply.
I'm glad the information's out there.
Okay, for the purpose of drawing conclusions about the dedication of faculty to nurturing and encouraging students, and teaching students to recognize when a piece is truly ready to send out, I concede these lists might be very marginally helpful--though their helpfulness is limited if you include people who graduated generations ago. But what troubles me is that it seems like rankings like these have the potential to divert attention and energy from what's really important. I'm not sure how helpful they really are. For example, I've heard several people comment on how incredibly dedicated and supportive the faculty of, for example, Ohio State is (and okay, that school's on this list), and several of their students seem to have good publishing records, starting while in the program, but it barely seems to register on, for example, the blogger rankings that were just posted. At the same time, should the emphasis while one is in an MFA program even be on publishing, so much as it should be on growing as a writer? Some people are ready to publish great stuff in or before a program. For others, it takes years to be ready. It doesn't mean one is better than the other.
I'm not quite clear what you mean by "but what troubles me is that it seems like rankings like these have the potential to divert attention and energy from what's really important." Do you mean that looking the quality of alumni (which reflects highly on the quality of the student body) is not what's really important when considering which MFA programs to apply to?
What factors do you consider really important in applying to MFAs?
Personally I think that the faculty, the student body/alumni, funding and location are probably the four key issues to look at. That is just my opinion and if others don't care about those factors, I could see lists like these being pointless.
I do agree about including older writers. I wanted to make an initial list for discussion to get ideas on how to make the rankings more helpful. From posts here and emails I think I have a good idea, and I will post an updated ranking that adjusts for age and size
OSU makes the top 10 on the list I posted, I would not call that barely making it. I'd call that a pretty great "ranking."
I'm not sure what you mean about emphasize on publishing while in an MFA. This list is for MFA graduates who have published books, it does not factor in current MFA students who are trying to publish stories in magazines. But I certainly agree that while one is in an MFA program, your focus should be growing as a writer, not publishing.
In fact, that is precisely why I tried to measure the student body of a program by alumni's book publications, not current students magazine pubs.
I guess for me, the reason I made this is that I wish I'd seen lists like this back when I applied. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, as you mention, but much of it is biased or outdated and it is hard to get a more objective idea on what programs are like now. If I had seen this data, I would not have applied to some programs I did (whom were coasting on reputations of one or two authors in the past) and would have applied to others that have been producing great writers recently but whom my undergrad professors and others I consulted were maybe not yet aware of.
Thanks for the survey. Personally, I think it's fine as it is. Alumni are alumni. Period. Once you take age into account, you run into pretty murky territory, since people enter and exit MFA Programs at different ages and achieve success at different times. If you did take it into ccount, you'd have to cut both Wallace and Russo from Arizona, leaving them with zero, Bell and Dillard from Hollins, leaving them with one, Ford, Chabon (maybe even Bender) from Irvine, leaving them with two. You'd end up with a much smaller list. And besides, as another poster said, it means something that some of these alumni are still publishing books and being recognized. That's just my opinion.
I have to agree with Lincoln on this issue. A lot of people care about alumni success. For me, it was one of the most important factors. If it doesn't matter to you, that's fine. Just ignore this post.
BU is also an MFA now, not an MA. You might want to update your post so you don't confuse people.
No problem. I see what you are saying, but at the same time maybe a school like Arizona doesn't deserve to be ranked in the top 10 if it hasn't produced anyone in 20 years?
I would like to do an age (and program size) weighted ranking sometime in the future, but if I do so I'd expand it beyond the last five years. If I do 15 years I'll go back that far in the NYT rankings and add in some things like the Lannan or Whiting awards so it should balance out.
Thanks for the catch. When did that happen? I'd looked this up recently but I guess the site I'd checked was out of date.
For those interested here is how the list looks cropped down to only people in the last 15 years. As I said above, I'll expand this and weight for size later, but just for interest:
1) Columbia, 11 (10 if you exclude Bell)
2) Iowa 10
T3) UCI, 3
T3) Cornell, 3
T3) NYU, 3
T6) Bennington, 2 (I believe. I can't seem to find a date for Dalton)
T6) JHU, 2
T6) Michigan, 2
T6) OSU, 2
Iowa is going to bounce back to #1 in that list after I include the whiting awards, I'm pretty sure.
Manuel Munoz (Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue) got his MFA at Cornell, and he's a 2008 Whiting Writer's Award recipient.
I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at http://couponredeemer.com/federalgrants/
Lincoln, et al - Arizona's recent MFA alumni include Daniyal Mueenuddin and Padma Viswanathan. Mueenuddin is coming out with his first collection in February and has had two stories in the New Yorker within the past year; Viswanathan's novel, The Toss of a Lemon, was completed at UA as her thesis project in 2006. She sold it to Random House right away and it was published earlier this year to rave reviews.
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