My MFA Reading List

               Every MFA may be different, but there is a reasonable enough assumption that all anyone in an MFA does is sit around reading the canon and espousing repetitive wisdom that “this is how it has been done and how we must do.” Well, maybe that’s how they did it in the 1800s, but this is the 21st century and the times they are a-changing. So, in the interest (as always) of transparency, I thought I’d share a list of the books I read during my writing-related courses for my MFA degree. This list doesn’t include the courses I had to take in pedagogy, linguistics, literature, or critical theory since a lot of those were “elective” or are more reflective of my unique program.

               The cool thing to note here is how many books were recent compared to classics and, even then, they weren’t always your usual classics. Additionally, for a student focusing in fiction, I also studied poetry (a requirement of the program [and vice versa for poets]). Every professor ran their workshop and reading list differently, but, in the end, the books and stories all taught us about writing in different ways. They all caused conversations and reactions. And, as far as required reading goes, they weren’t the worst of homework.

               Books marked with an asterisk* were ones I chose but was assigned to have. This list also doesn’t include individual readings such as essays, articles, poems, or short stories.


  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 edited by John Joseph Adams
  • The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
  • A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Nine edited by Ellen Datlow*
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
  • How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Midwestern Gothic Fall 2016 / Spring 2017 / Winter 2017*
  • There There by Tommy Orange
  • Granta 139: Best of Young American Novelists 3 edited by Sigrid Rausing


  • Jimmy & Rita by Kim Addonizio
  • 31 Letters and 13 Dreams by Richard Hugo
  • Exit, Pursued by Bear by Joseph Mills
  • Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith
  • The Mobius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone*


  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio
  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
  • The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo
  • The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  • Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century by Wayne Miller
  • Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms by Miller Williams


  • Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington*

               So, how can you create an MFA reading list? First, pick 10 books (we like a nice, even number). Two of those books can be your classic canonical books; maybe you haven’t gotten around to reading Pride and Prejudice or 1984. Two of those books can be poetry collections, new or old, but they should be by one author rather than a collection. Three of the books should be craft-related: genre, structure, character, publishing, etc. Two of the books can be contemporary novels, published in the last five years. The last book can be a short story collection—one of those Best Of’s works well but an anthology is great too. Alternatively, you can swap the stories for recent nonfiction of your choice; we all find inspiration in interesting places. In this way, you’ll get a small, rounded list that will create an experience roughly similar to my MFA, but you can cater it to your tastes.

               Being a writer isn’t just about putting words down on the page. It’s also about knowing what’s being published and being written today and being familiar enough with the traditions of the past that you can navigate just about anywhere. With that in mind, write and read away!

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