Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 List, and MFA Rankings

So, as you will have no doubt heard, The New Yorker recently released its list of 20 fiction writers under 40 years of age -- the names we should all be looking out for in years to come, though several of them are pretty well known already. There's been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about the validity of such lists and the methodology behind them but I'm interested in one aspect here: does the appearance of a few writers from particular MFA programs have any influence on your decisions about where to apply?

Here's the list broken down by MFA (this was taken from a comment on HTMLGiant, and I haven't fact checked it -- if anything proves to be inaccurate, let me know.)

IOWA (6)

Chris Adrian
Daniel Alarcón
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Yiyun Li
Z Z Packer
Salvatore Scibona


Rivka Galchen
Dinaw Mengestu
Karen Russell
Wells Tower


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Joshua Ferris

NYU (1)

Nell Freudenberger

CUNY (1)

Gary Shteyngart,


Téa Obreht


Philipp Meyer

NO MFA (4)

Jonathan Safran Foer
Nicole Krauss,
David Bezmozgis (MFA in film from USC film school)
C. E. Morgan

Full disclosure before we go any further: I'm a graduate of Columbia and I know two of the people on the list, so, yeah, I have a horse in this race. But still, for a program that has been pretty thoroughly bashed around on various MFA websites (including this one), not a bad showing. Most of the Columbia-bashing has been about their funding -- but people have made the link between that and the quality and diversity of their cohort. This list would seem to counter that argument, at least.

For the record, I do think it's a bad idea to go into debt for an MFA, and I have advised many of my students and clients against choosing expensive schools such as Columbia for that very reason. Still -- does this list make anyone reconsider? Or is Columbia's good showing just evidence of a New York publishing conspiracy? Or is it just a numbers game: big program = more names to choose from? Or...or....leave your opinions after the jump.


Andrea said...

Someone posted this list in the Mailbag and it sparked yet another Columbia debate. Please, let's not re-hash that again.

Seth Abramson said...


As the OP mentioned, this was recently posted in the mailbag here, and it sparked a debate primarily because the list isn't weighted for program size (understandably), yet any analysis of it absolutely must be (equally understandably). Columbia had -- as compared to Cornell, for instance, and looking only at the past two decades -- approximately 1000% the number of fiction graduates as its Ithacan sister. It's just not fair -- to Cornell -- to say that Columbia should get special credit for placing 4 of 800 fiction graduates on this list, even as Cornell placed 1 of 80 fiction graduates (from the past two decades). The placement rate adjusted for size would be equal, in that instance.

I also want to note that Columbia is getting bashed more in poetry than fiction -- it's about to drop from the top 50 in poetry, but it's still a strong top 25 program in fiction. Realistically no poet should be attending Columbia, as there's simply no way whatsoever for a poet to pay back -- ever -- those kinds of loans ($150,000). In fiction, sure, some will take the leap. But when most of the programs on that list have a better size-adjusted success rate than Columbia -- and all (I believe) -- a better postgrad fellowship placement rate, why spent $150,000 when you can spend $0? The lead Columbia would have to have on the competition to maintain its reputation and justify its price-tag would have to be enormous. Just so, one reason Columbia brings in so many fiction-writers -- besides making money off them hand over fist -- is to stack lists like these, as they know (and we're proving it now, right here) that people will forget to adjust for program size.

Incidentally, the same is true with Iowa -- it's not as big as Columbia, but a good part of its lead here on, say, Cornell is simply program size. And in both instances (Iowa and Columbia) one must note selectivity -- if Columbia is something like 25 times easier to get into than Cornell (and it is) the average cohort quality at Columbia will never be able to compete with Cornell.


Nancy Rawlinson said...

Oh Christ. My bad. I hadn't checked the comments in the last mailbag in a while - wish I had.

For anyone who wants to know Seth Abramson's opinions and stats on this issue, please scroll down and check here:

Everyone else, leave a comment.

Seth, can I respectfully ask that, as your comments have been so fully explained in the mailbag, that you refrain here. Things tend to get into a slinging match when you post on this topic. I'm eager to avoid that here.

Or maybe I should just take this post down?

Nancy Rawlinson said...

We must have cross posted...

Seth Abramson said...

Hi Nancy,

Yes, we cross-posted. I've said what I wanted to say, I'll beg off the conversation now (in this thread, i.e.). Everyone should feel free to discuss this, I just hope there'll be some context and statistical rigor somewhere in the mix, too.


Seth Abramson said...

NB: Sorry, I do just need to correct something I said above, as I was posting hastily: CU graduated something like 325 fiction-writers over the past decade, plus some unknown number of fiction-writing creative nonfiction-track people, and Cornell graduated 40 fiction and 0 nonfiction people in the last decade, meaning Cornell's placement rate on this list, size-adjusted, would be much, much higher than Columbia's (1/40 versus somewhere between 4/325 and 4/400), not equal, as I erroneously wrote above. Cornell's "rate" would have them placing 4 people on this list for every 160 Cornell grads, versus Columbia's 4 for every 325-to-400 fiction-writing grads. --S.

Jamie said...

Here's an NPR show on the list, with guests Nell Freudenberger, Yiyun Li, and Joshua Ferris. I don't believe MFAs came up much, but there's some good discussion of literary fiction reading/writing, some typical NPR handwringing, and a few interesting points and quotes.

Jamie said...

Oh, and happy Bloomsday, y'all!

Nancy Rawlinson said...

Lit blog The Millions has just posted their alternate 20 under 40 list -- anyone care to break down the MFA load here?

(I somehow don't think their methodology was as rigorous as The New Yorker's, though, which New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman talks about here.)

Seth Abramson said...

(Because you asked; here are the size-adjusted, decade-pool rankings for the list on The Millions, with size-adjusted score, entries divided by decade-pool fiction-writing students, and number of entries in parentheses):

1. None (-.---, --/---, 6)
2. Johns Hopkins University (0.0200, 1/50, 1)
3t. Syracuse University (0.0167, 1/60, 1)
3t. University of Florida (0.0167, 1/60, 1)
5. Hollins University (0.0154, 1/65, 1)
6. University of California at Davis [M.A.] (0.0125, 1/80, 1)
7. Columbia University (0.0100, 1/400, 4) *
8. Warren Wilson College [low-res] (0.0080, 1/80, 1)
9. University of Arizona (0.0074, 1/135, 1)
10. Bennington College [low-res] (0.0071, 1/140, 1)
11. New York University (0.0053, 1/190, 1)
12. University of Iowa (0.0040, 1/250, 1)
13. 181 MFA programs (0.0000, 0/?, 0)

* I counted one novelist who received her second MFA at Columbia, usually a disqualifier (as it suggests at least the possibility that a program is trying to purchase reflected luster at a discount from another MFA, something several MFA programs, including the Iowa Writers' Workshop, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Columbia University and several others have been known to do). Without that follow-up MFA, Columbia would be slightly lower, at 0.0075, or #8 -- .0001 ahead of #9 University of Arizona.


Des said...

Nancy and Seth,

The Millions list is interesting,but I don't think we can really give it the same type of weight as The New Yorker list. To be perfectly frank, it's not even in the same league. The Millions is a website--albeit a popular website--but I don't think any of the writers they listed are going to be popping open bottles of champagne tonight because they made The Millions list. I don't think any of those writers will be listing this credential in their author bios from here on out in the same way The New yorker group will. And I don't think any will remember this list ten years from now in the way people still remember the New Yorker list from 1999.

The Millions have the distinction of being the first literary website to come up with the idea of posting an additional list, but I'd be surprised if they were the last. By the end of the summer, there will probably be twenty lists like this, so I don't think it's really productive to starting ranking MFA programs according to it.

Seth Abramson said...

Des, I agree -- quick note just to say that I didn't intend those as general rankings, but rankings of program placement on that one list. I think I'm contractually obligated re: my current freelance contract (in a way) to be clear that those were/are not intended as actual rankings. Real rankings require way, way more data. We'll see those soon enough. --S.

Seth Abramson said...

Crikey, I wish there was an "edit" function here -- I missed one entry for Columbia College (in Chicago) on the list above. --S.

Jamie said...

James Joyce is on my "1 over 100" list. I believe he got his MFA at Columbia.

Bloomsday streaming now:

WBAI broadcast:

WNYC broadcast (stream FM on lefthand bar):

Lincoln Michel said...

I think you absolutely have to consider program size when looking at a list like this. At the same time, a straight numbers adjustment surely distorts the picture (the difference between a university that places one person on one list versus another that places zero is impossible to measure, the first university may have just been lucky once.)

At the same time, there are other large programs in the country and the fact that Iowa and Columbia continue to place multiple people on lists like this while other large programs do not speaks highly of those programs I think.

But I agree you can't really compare a large program like Iowa or Columbia's showing to a tiny program like Cornell, even if you might make a tentative comparison to other large programs (I say tentative because one or two 20 person lists surely don't tell the full picture.)

I think the main thing this list shows is that MFA programs still produce a lot of great and stylistically diverse writers, despite the perpetually howl that MFA programs are destroying writing.

Lautreamont said...

Lord, I haven't commented on this blog since 2008 but I just had to pop in and say people, poets, seth, let us stop this filibustering and arguing; Columbia did well, they happen to have talented fiction writers. Let us be at least a little kind and just congratulate them and move on.

Seth Abramson said...


We're at an important crossroads in the history of the MFA degree. One feature of this crossroads is that unfunded programs do (and will continue to) attempt to justify their poor funding by saying that their graduates publish more books. This argument has three benefits for the unfunded programs: (A) it implicitly is an argument for not funding students, as funding students becomes (in this view) a degraded standard for measuring program quality; (B) it encourages these programs to stay large in size (and unfunded -- which has the double benefit of bringing in millions of dollars in tuition payments for the programs' host universities while allowing them to avoid layoffs) so that they can stack these "top writer" lists purely on the basis of program size; (C) it wrongly (that is to say falsely) makes the case for these programs having high average cohort quality relative to their better-funded peers.

It's not a small or insignificant fact -- however inconvenient it may be for some -- that all of the above arguments made by unfunded programs are false, as in factually wrong, and that in fact the unfunded programs place better on these lists only in absolute number of entrants and even then only because they're cash-cow operations so large in size that they artificially flood the market with graduates while earning millions for their universities. Pointing out that in fact the small, well-funded programs place better on these lists when placement is -- as it must be -- adjusted for size has zero to do with Columbia in particular and everything to do with protecting applicants. When programs that poorly serve the financial needs of applicants are permitted to systematically skew public understanding of how cohort quality must be construed -- i.e. in a size-adjusted fashion -- it hurts actual people. As in, actual applicants who will pay more for the MFA, perhaps so much they can never pay back the loans -- ever -- because certain misrepresentations or misimpressions were allowed to stand.

I never begrudge anyone the truth, however. Columbia places well on lists in its only strong genre, fiction -- and in an appropriate (size-adjusted) ranking, we'd probably say they're around 20th in placing graduates in major anthologies and "top" lists. In other words, almost exactly where the rankings have them (22nd in fiction). It would also be fair to say that these numbers are on the decline -- big-time -- since the 1990s. That's true for Columbia and for many other big-city unfunded programs as well.


Lautreamont said...


Why did you write any of that? I didn't read any of it. I wrote my comment so that we might stop arguing, so that we might be gracious for one moment and not always demand to have the last word. Seth, don't you have any shame? You are a total asshole and I've been trolling this blog a bit and almost everyone seems to think so too. Maybe I'll post in another two years--don't bother responding to this, I wont be back.

Seth Abramson said...


Yeah, actually I didn't really write that for you -- because honestly, I don't care about you whatsoever. I could give a flying what-not about your opinion -- on anything. What I care about is future applicants -- and I don't want the last thing they read in any thread to be the sort of ignorant pap you're now spewing and that you consistently spewed the entirety of the time you were on this blog. I could tell you what you can go do, but really, you know.

And fortunately, as a Columbia student you're already -- sorry to say -- doing it, sport.


Mick and Bashi said...

Several comments:

1. calling someone "sport" is awesome.

2. isn't this list about promoting good writing? I don't care where these people got their MFA degrees; I just care about their writing and if it is any good.

3. I think I had a third comment, but I'm suffering from profound knee pain and can't think straight.

4. Can anyone recommend a good MFA program for knee pain? Don't say Columbia -- I can't afford both that and my knee replacement surgery.

DisplayedName said...

An interesting comparison - here are the faculty reputation ranks from the 2003 US News & World Report grad rankings (gathered years earlier)

1. University of Iowa 4.5
2. John Hopkins University (MD) 4.2
3. University of Houston (TX) 4.2
4. Columbia University (NY) 4.1
5. University of Virginia 4.1
6. New York University 4.0
7. University of California, Irvine (CA) 4.0
8. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI) 4.0
9. University of Arizona 3.9
10. Boston University 3.8
11. Cornell University 3.8
12. University of Massachusetts, Amherst (MA) 3.8
13. University of Montana (MT) 3.8
14. University of Washington 3.8
15. Washington University (MO) 3.8
16. Brown University (RI) 3.7
17. Indiana University, Bloomington (IN) 3.7
18. University of Arkansas (AR) 3.7
19. University of Utah 3.7
20. Arizona State University

Not a perfect correlation, but for all its shortcomings, makes more sense than any other rankings

DisplayedName said...

For you conspiracy theorists:

(from the HTML Giant)


Nell Freudenberger (Harvard)
Z Z Packer (Yale)
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (Brown)
Jonathan Safran Foer (Princeton)
Daniel Alarcón (Columbia)
Philipp Meyer (Cornell)
Rivka Galchen (Princeton and Columbia)
Chris Adrian (Harvard)
Dinaw Mengestu (Columbia)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Yale and Princeton)
Karen Russell (Columbia)
C. E. Morgan (Harvard)
Wells Tower (Columbia)
Téa Obreht (Cornell)
David Bezmozgis (Cornell)
Gary Shteyngart (Currently teaches at Columbia and Princeton)


Nicole Krauss (But attended Stanford and Oxford -- and is married to Jonathan Safran Foer)
Yiyun Li (Iowa)
Salvatore Scibona (Iowa)
Joshua Ferris (Iowa)

Dale said...


I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I can't say that list surprises me. A lot of people on this blog (and elsewhere) tend to downplay the significance of "prestige" when it comes to an MFA degree or even an undergraduate degree, but I think this list (as well as the other one) confirms that a good degree from a good school, or program, can help. Just look at all of the Iowa grads who keep publishing books, winning awards, ending up on lists. I'm sure they have to be pretty darn good to get into Iowa in the first place, but it's hard to believe that the degree itself isn't helping them out. This is probably less true with poetry, but for fiction it certainly seems to be a factor. And it kind of makes sense. After all, publishers tend to market the writer as much as the book, and if you can say that an author has a B.A. from Harvard or Princeton or an MFA from Iowa, it's just one more way to get people's attention.

DisplayedName said...

The Ivy thing is more an index of preciosity than anything else, and since what we're looking at is a list of precocious authors, go figure they'd all be Ivy Plus...

Nancy Rawlinson said...

Honestly, I was very tempted to delete that little pissy exchange between commentators Lautremont and Seth, above. I'm really sick of the ridiculous slanging matches that people get into whenever the issue of Columbia is mentioned.

@Lautremont. Don't come here and post again, ever, if you are going to start name calling. There's no need for it.

@Seth. You should know better than to rise to the bait, and perhaps twig to the fact that people find your long and vehement responses oppressive, and want to kick against them -- even if they basically agree. It's an issue of tone.

orpheusmuse said...

Does this mean anyone who may be over 40 by the time they are admitted to an MFA program that they are out of luck?
I would like to hear from others like myself who are a bit late bloomers, perhaps the "Naturals" of writing, who are starting late in the game, but thus still should be recognized as worthy of note.

Anonymous said...

Seth likes to blast Columbia, but if you have the money to go there, it's clearly one of the most prestigious and it looks like its graduates are well-represented in the New Yorker!

Unknown said...

Cornell should have two alums on this list. Can anyone credibly explain to me how Junot Diaz was left out of this list?

Sandy Rose said...

To answer your question: yes! But I take the info with a very large rock of salt. As many have mentioned, it's statistically more likely that schools like Iowa and Columbia have more graduates picked - there are more of them in general! It's certainly more impressive that UCI's tiny program produced one of these people. Graduating class size aside, Iowa is still top dog.

Sandy Rose said...

To answer your question: yes! But I take the info with a very large rock of salt. As many have mentioned, it's statistically more likely that schools like Iowa and Columbia have more graduates picked - there are more of them in general! It's certainly more impressive that UCI's tiny program produced one of these people. Graduating class size aside, Iowa is still top dog.