While many M.F.A. candidates are looking for their future editors through the traditional combo of query letters and blind luck, others might be on track to become those editors.
In 2009, Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum, two recent grads of Brooklyn College’s M.F.A. program, decided to found a new quarterly literary journal. They both worked on Brooklyn College’s M.F.A.-student-run publication, the Brooklyn Review, and were disappointed by institutional restrictions, which didn’t allow them to sell copies—the journal was essentially used to decorate student and faculty lounges. They called their new literary publication Electric Literature, and it has since become one of the most forward thinking literary publications, produced for digital-first consumption.
“The Brooklyn College M.F.A. program doesn’t have a lot of emphasis on how to get published the way that, say, Columbia does,” says Halimah Marcus, another Brooklyn College M.F.A. grad and current Electric Literature editor-in-chief. “We just weren’t focused on that kind of thing in class—we were focused on improving our writing, and less on making waves in publishing.” Electric Literature, which now publishes the popular digital magazine Recommended Reading, is financially stable enough to pay its writers, who have included Ben Marcus, A.M. Homes, and other notable names. Michael Cunningham, a professor in the Brooklyn College M.F.A. program, was published in the very first issue. “The M.F.A. was very much the environment that contributed to this publication being created,” says Marcus, whose former co-editor, Benjamin Samuel, also holds an M.F.A. from Brooklyn. Marcus began at Electric Literature as an intern—she found out about the open position via the Brooklyn College listserv soon after she was accepted, and started at the same time as she began her classes.
Barbara Jones, an editor at Henry Holt, also got her first editing job thanks largely to connections she forged as an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Columbia University in the ’80s. “I came out of my M.F.A. and immediately began working as an editor at the literary magazine Grand Street,” Jones says. “The M.F.A. program tossed me into the literary world.” The job at Grand Street was the start of Jones’s 20-year career as a magazine editor—she returned to book publishing in 2008. “In my editing I carry with me a sense of sympathy toward the writer’s life,” she says. “I remember editing work for class and afterward the writer would take me aside and thank me. In retrospect it was like, duh, yes, this is what I should be doing.” Jones no longer writes her own fiction, but a number of M.F.A.-carriers who work in publishing still straddle both sides of the desk.
Margaux Weisman, an assistant editor at Morrow, holds an M.F.A. in fiction from the New School and has no plans to give up writing for editing—or vice versa. “I see my goals as a writer and editor as connected,” she says. “The more I work as an editor, the better of a writer I become. I can’t imagine coming into this job and never having practiced writing and editing.” The idea that an M.F.A. is an education in the critiquing and editing of literature as much as the writing of it is commonly promoted in the workshop, and working editors agree. “You don’t get taught how to write an editorial note,” says Marcus. “Sometimes I steal from other editors when I have a chance, but there are definitely useful tools that you learn in an M.F.A. that can be applied to editing.”
Perhaps because of their proximity to big five publishing, New York City M.F.A. programs do seem to result in a formidable number of grads who go on to careers in the industry. The New School’s program has seen many students rise through the ranks in houses big and small; Kianoosh Hashemzadeh, editor at Atavist Books; Christopher Beha, deputy editor of Harper’s; Melanie Cecka, associate publishing director at Knopf; Elizabeth Koch, founder of Black Balloon Books; Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, assistant editor at Tin House; Justin Marks, a founder of the poetry press Birds L.L.C.: all of them earned New School M.F.A.s, and there are more. The New School M.F.A. grads also appear in high-level arts-administrative roles; Jen Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, received a New School M.F.A. in poetry.
Though publishing institutes are popping up everywhere, for a certain editorially inclined writing student a New York City M.F.A. program might be an even better choice—where else can you simultaneously rub elbows with a future publishing comrade and someone who might become the first author on your list? Or don’t bother with the city at all—alternative paths have worked for Kelly Link (Greensboro), who founded Small Beer Press in Baltimore in 2000; Noah Eli Gordon (University of Massachusetts–Amherst ’04), the brains behind Boulder, Colo.’s Subito Press; and Jeff Shotts (Washington University in St. Louis), executive editor at Graywolf. Editors with M.F.A.s are making their mark in publishing.