Many agents and editors use M.F.A. programs as resources for finding new talent. “Like all agents, I probably put Iowa at #1, although given how much commercial fiction I represent, that does not necessarily fit my list,” says Alexandra Machinist of ICM Partners. “I then have positive views of Michigan, Virginia, and Notre Dame. My last one would have to be a tie between Irvine and Johns Hopkins. I have seen amazing material from both, and I see great fiction out of Columbia, but it is inconsistent.”
Ethan Nosowsky, editorial director of Graywolf Press, agrees with Machinist on Iowa, Johns Hopkins, and Michigan. He’s also a fan of Columbia and UT Austin, and notes, “In no particular order, these places catch my eye, but really, great writers emerge from all sorts of programs, or they emerge without a program.” Jeffrey Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf, echoes this sentiment: “As an M.F.A. graduate myself, from Washington University in Saint Louis, I have to say that in one way those programs mean everything, and in another way, the larger way, all that matters is the writing, regardless of how it came to be. I am intrigued to see how specific teachers are influencing and mentoring new writers, especially in poetry.” His top five, some of which include a few Graywolf authors as teachers, consist of Washington University in St. Louis, University of Iowa, University of Michigan, Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program, and University of Houston—in no particular order.
Different factors contribute to what makes an M.F.A. program stand out. Sam Hiyate of the Rights Factory says his favorite is the New School, from which he once repped five M.F.A. grads. Great talent certainly endears an agent to a school. “Hunter College is by far my favorite M.F.A. program, because not only has it given me brilliantly talented authors like Scott Cheshire (High as the Horses’ Bridles, Holt), Kaitlyn Greenidge (We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Algonquin), and Carmiel Banasky (The Suicide of Claire Bishop, Dzanc), but it continues to foster bright new literary talent,” says Carrie Howland of Donadio & Olson. “Columbia’s M.F.A. program not only boasts a brilliant faculty, but it does an excellent job engaging agents. Between the thesis anthology, which is mailed to agencies each year, and the annual agent/author mixer, they really help bridge that gap between agent and writer.”
There are also less obvious programs seen as hidden literary gems. Rob McQuilkin of Lippincott Massie McQuilkin says, “I first became acquainted with the M.F.A. program at the University of New Orleans through my client Amanda Boyden, who attended the program along with her husband, Giller Prize–winner Joseph Boyden, and eventually taught there. Our agency has gone on to work with several of her students, including young adult novelists Jen Violi and Lish McBride, a finalist for the Morris Prize in Young Adult Fiction.”
There are other M.F.A. programs flourishing below the Mason-Dixon line. Barbara Epler, publisher of New Directions, says, “I very much like the University of Florida in Gainesville, with the great Michael Hofmann, and the one at Brown University, long under Forrest Gander’s sharp eye and warm heart. I have also had very good experiences visiting the excellent Wyatt Prunty’s program down in Sewanee, Tenn., at the University of the South, and I’ve heard very good things about Iowa and Michigan.” Epler adds, “The most important thing to me is that programs don’t get fledgling writers into terrible amounts of debt: I admire most the fully funded programs.”
Of course, it’s not all about the degree. As Molly Friedrich, of the Friedrich Literary Agency, notes, “I can’t remember a time when [an M.F.A.] truly influenced my decision to pursue an author. If the query letter is eloquent and enticing, I ask to see more, and then it’s all about the writing.”