You'd think that the only way you could get a literary agent's attention would be to go back to school and acquire a master's degree in fine arts to prove that you can write a coherent paragraph.
Somewhat new authors are making their debut soon, with deals inked by agents who are no doubt aware of who is winning what writing award or writing fellowship. It's almost a shorthand, a way to separate the trained writers from the rest without having to spend time reading manuscripts. Agents don't have a great deal of time to spare, and if you can put something in a query letter that signals your abilities, why wouldn't they be more likely to ask for your manuscript as opposed to someone who just has raw talent?
Katherine Heiny earned her MFA from Columbia University, which has a stellar reputation among New York's literati. It's a known commodity, located in the city where all the publishers hang their shingles. Then there are her short stories that have appeared in various literary journals, along with the Henfield/Transatlantic award she added to her roster. It wouldn't be a surprise to find that Kim Witherspoon of Inkwell Management approached Ms. Heiny, rather than the other way around.
It's easier to sell a manuscript when the agent can show the author's platform, constructed of solid credentials.
Whether the public will agree with the assessment of literary scholars who teach creative writing and grant prizes is part of the gamble that is publishing. All the editors can know for certain is that the manuscript is highly polished and ready to go. The best they can do to hedge their bet is to regulate the size of the advance, with more paid up front for a manuscript that seems highly marketable. Based, again, on the publishers' best guess as to what people will pay money to read.
Not to be outdone, P.J. Mark at Janklow and Nesbit worked a nice publishing deal for Valerie Brelinski, whose MFA was granted by the University of Virginia. Here again is a writer who is assumed to have the ability to write a complete novel that doesn're require a great deal of expensive editing, just as someone with a degree in accounting could be trusted to write up a profit and loss statement. It's what was taught in school, studied and practiced and tested.
Ms. Brelinski won a fellowship, an indication to Mr. Mark that she knows a thing or two about creative writing, above and beyond the MFA. The fellowship is another plank in the platform, one that separates the average MFA holder apart from the rest of the herd.
You, too, could get more attention from literary agents if you had a graduate degree to flesh out your weak biography. It would cost a small fortune, and in the end, there are no guarantees that you could land a nice publishing deal. In which case you'd have spent a lot of money with no return on the investment.
The publishers are taking a gamble on these two writers. The reading public may not be craving a novel about jealousy in marriage or the effect of extreme religious beliefs on two sisters who break away from the overly-faithful family. You'd be gambling as well, if you went back to school for more education in the writing arts.
Life is one big gamble, isn't it?