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P&W: Top 50 creative writing programs, and a conversation with Jonathan Karp

2009novdec_webThe numbers are in…and the top 50 creative writing MFA programs are ranked in the new issue of Poets & Writers. Here’s an excerpt from the accompanying article by Seth Abramson, who compiled the list based on extensive research. (Note: The full article is available only in the print edition.) Abramson admits the difficulties of quantifying and comparing MFA program experiences:

[T]he evils of educational rankings are indeed legion and do urge caution on the part of any prospective analyst of MFA programs. At base it is impossible to quantify or predict the experience any one MFA candidate will have at any one program. By and large, students find that their experiences are circumscribed by entirely unforeseeable circumstances: They befriend a fellow writer; they unexpectedly discover a mentor; they come to live in a town or city that, previously foreign, becomes as dear to them as home. No ranking ought to pretend to establish the absolute truth about program quality, and in keeping with that maxim the rankings that follow have no such pretensions. When I first began compiling data for comprehensive MFA rankings, nearly three years ago, I regularly told the many MFA applicants I corresponded with that educational rankings should only constitute a minor part of their application and matriculation decisions; that’s a piece of advice I still routinely give.

If you’re currently researching grad schools, P&W also offers this list of literary journals affiliated with MFA programs.

Also in this issue of P&W: Jofie Ferrari-Adler brings us the final installment from his wonderful Agents and Editors series, an in-depth interview with Jonathan Karp, the editor-in-chief of Twelve (an imprint of Hachette). In an accompanying video component, Karp gives a rather convincing argument for telling (rather than merely showing) in novels, and he talks about working with Ted Kennedy on his memoir. Here are just two of his great stories:

(1) On acquiring Seabiscuit:

Tina Bennett and I were at lunch at the Four Seasons—not the fancy Four Seasons, the Four Seasons Hotel—and she said, “Have you ever heard of Seabiscuit?” I said, “No.” She said, “Well, Seabiscuit was a horse.” I said, “I’m not interested.” She said, “Well, there was actually more written about Seabiscuit in the 1930s than Hitler, Mussolini, and FDR combined.” I said, “Really?” and she said, “Yeah.” I said, “All right, send me the proposal.”

(2) On becoming Mario Puzo’s editor:

I loved The Fourth K. I still remember sitting at home on my couch all weekend reading it. I wrote a ten-page memo about it—what was good about it, what I thought needed to be improved, etcetera. Joni showed it to Puzo and we all agreed that the manuscript still needed work. This was during a time when publishers sometimes traveled to be with their authors. I still can’t get over this, but Joni, Julie Grau, and I flew to Las Vegas, where we edited Mario Puzo in person because Mario felt that he did his best work in Vegas. He liked to gamble. So Mario’s walking around Vegas in his sweatpants. During the day we worked around the table and edited, and then at night he took us gambling. I had never gambled in my life, and he decided that he wanted to introduce me to the game of baccarat. He gave me a hundred dollars and said, “Have some fun.” I proceeded to lose the hundred dollars. I felt horrible about this. You know, I’ve come to work with him and I’ve lost his money. But he gave me another hundred dollars and something remarkable happened: I began to win. I think I won about five hands in a row. I paid back the two hundred dollars, which was good, but what was really good was that Mario had been gambling along with me while I won my five hands, and he’d made about seven thousand dollars on it. So he felt very good about it.

Anyway, we finished up the editing and the book came out and did fine. But then Joni and Julie Grau left the company. There were no other people at Random House who Mario knew well, and a lot of more senior editors wanted to work with him. But Mario told the CEO, Alberto Vitale, that he wanted to work with me, not because of my editorial work but because he thought I was good luck. He’d made seven thousand dollars gambling with me. And that is how I became Mario Puzo’s editor.

Read the whole thing here.

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