7 Books to Read before Faking an MFA in Creative Writing

by Isla McKetta on June 22, 2012


Your first question should be, “Why would anyone fake a Master of Fine Arts degree?” But there are times (mostly at parties) when you want that external measure of proof that you are both creative and educated. Read these seven books and spare yourself the student loans.

Homework: MFA Reading List

These seven books make the fiction reading list in any major MFA program.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Marco Polo meets Genghis Khan in a dreamy world of cities with women’s names. People have written dissertations on this book’s mathematical structure.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Proving Woolf was a master of narration, this book dips into the minds of character after character without being confusing. Then Woolf focuses entirely on the house as a character. It’s astounding.

The Odyssey by Homer

The quintessential example of the hero’s journey, Odysseus gets lost on the way home from the Trojan War and encounters all kinds of creatures from myth including Medusa and the Sirens. An intertextual wonder—so many books refer to this epic by Homer.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski

This is a Holocaust book like no other you’ve read. Borowski’s spare descriptions of prisoner life at Auschwitz will make you rethink adjectives. Bonus points if you can pronounce his name: ta-DAY-oosh boh-ROHV-skee.

The Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien

Lists are used a lot in contemporary literature, but rarely this well. O’Brien uses lists of items soldiers carry to show the individual devastation of war.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

You read it in school, but read it again. Fitzgerald’s characterization is amazing and Jay Gatsby is the most American character ever. It’s short. Read it more than once if you have time. And no one calls the author F. Scott—it’s Scott.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

This book will give you the vocabulary to intelligently discuss the others. And yes, that is her real name.

Extra Credit: 5 Books No One Reads

Vladimir Nabokov once went on for an entire evening about a fictional Russian author without being questioned. If bluffing is your game, drop one of the books below into your party chatter. You don’t even have to read them; no one else has.

Dissemination by Jacques Derrida

Ah, semiotics. Derrida will make you rethink the way everything is signified. But does he mean what he says? This seminal book of contemporary literary theory is nearly unintelligible. I think he spent over 100 pages deconstructing Plato, or that could have been a nightmare I had.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Wallace was a tragic genius who robbed the world of his talents. So everyone says. At over 1,000 pages, this will sit on my Goodreads to-read shelf forever. Google his commencement speech instead.

Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner

A story about a Southern family (okay that’s pretty generically Faulkner) told in flashback. Your key discussion point is the circular narrative and the spell it weaves.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Be careful with this one—some haters denigrate anyone who claims to have actually read this book.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

This one is also iffy because nowadays most people will admit to not being able to finish Proust. He writes beautiful sentences. Lots and lots and lots of beautiful sentences.

What books have you read (or pretended to read) to impress? Share your story in the comments.

Isla McKetta, MFA is a novelist and book reviewer. Read her reviews at A Geography of Reading or connect with her on Google+.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Paullette Gaudet June 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm

You forgot any-and-every-thing by Lorrie Moore! And, there’s always at least one guy in workshop who *loves* Chekhov, & gets points with the prof for that.

Isla McKetta June 25, 2012 at 9:44 am

True on both counts, Paullette! I totally wanted to write about Chekhov but there was too much goodness for one or two sentences. Do you have a favorite Chekhov?

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