The MFA Reading List

Elizabeth Donald
8 min readJun 13

One of the requirements for finishing an MFA is to compile a reading list. It’s basically just a list of titles, not a review of each (thank goodness), but it’s intended to show what influences you had and what pieces you studied over the course of your program. It’s paired with the author statement, in which you reflect on how your work has developed over the course of the MFA.

They’re supposed to be about 35–40 titles. I have 116 after I winnowed out the titles that didn’t really have a direct bearing on my work. Shush.

One thing you’ll note is that I tried to read as much literary or “reality-based” fiction as I did speculative fiction. I didn’t go into an MFA program just so I could keep writing the same things I’ve always written, and diversifying my reading was a big part in developing my craft. Also note that several are labeled “story cycles” — as I’ve mentioned before, a story cycle is a series of short stories with a continuing element tying them together in a progressive storyline. The Women of Brewster Place tied its stories together with a geographic location; Olive Kitteridge tied together around a single character — Olive herself — who appears to a greater or lesser degree in each story.

I suppose if I had to pick some favorites while setting aside the obvious classic rereads… The Awakening, Where the Crawdads Sing and The Women of Brewster Place topped the fiction list. Voices of Martyrs and Orders of Protection were the best of the anthologies/collections. The Final Girl Support Group was a pleasant surprise among the speculative fiction, and Poems From the Women’s Movement was a revelation for poetry. Finally, of the many many writing books I read over the course of this program, I strongly recommend Wordslut, Bird by Bird and Shooting Yourself in the Head for Fun and Profit.

These endorsements do not in any way denigrate the others, by the way. I wouldn’t have them on this list if I hadn’t enjoyed them and/or learned something from them. Some of these were books I sought out myself; others were required by my classes. Some I enjoyed more than others, but all helped inform my writer-brain and were worth my time and attention.

I hope you find something on this list that catches your eye, as a summer of reading lies before us. My TBR pile is waiting…

Elizabeth Donald

Journalist for more than 25 years, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author. Subscribe at or visit