How Iowa Flattened Literature
February 10, 2014 6:53 PM   Subscribe

How Iowa Flattened Literature
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since. So the conventional wisdom that Iowa kicked off the boom in M.F.A. programs is true enough. [...] Over the past 40 years, creative writing’s small-is-beautiful approach has served it well, as measured by the discipline’s explosive growth while most of its humanities counterparts shrink and cower. The reasons for this could fill many essays. For one thing, creative writing has successfully embedded itself in the university by imitating other disciplines without treading on their ground. A pyramid resembles a pedagogy—it’s fungible, and easy to draw on the board. Introductory math and physics professors like to draw diagrams too, a welcome analogy for a discipline wishing both to establish itself as teachable and to lengthen its reach into the undergraduate curriculum, where a claim of pure writerly exceptionalism won’t cut it.

posted by deathpanels (35 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Oh. This looks good. I do agree with the thesis you've quoted here.
posted by Miko at 7:14 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a CW degree from the University of Victoria, and one of the founders of the program, WD Valgardson, has an MFA from Iowa.

The UVic CW program at the time I got in (1989) had an excellent reputation across Canada; it was the only one of its kind until the 3rd-wave programs at places like UBC started up.

The interesting thing about the program were the earnest attempts by some of the faculty (notably Valgardson, but also Jack Hodgins, who had an MEd and was a former teacher himself) to teach writing as a discipline.

Jack Hodgins' A Passion For Narrative is an excellent example of this approach, with diagrams and flow charts and writing exercises.

When I attended the program, there were four streams: fiction, drama, poetry, and non-fiction (journalism). Fiction was the star attraction at the time, but the downside was that we all pretty much learned to write Raymond Carver-esque short stories.

These days "creative non-fiction" is the main draw in the UVic Writing program.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:14 PM on February 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

This story is astounding. The FPP pulls a couple punches - definitely one to RTFA.
posted by Miko at 7:17 PM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

The history about the founding of the IWW and the CIA was fascinating, but the author's self absorption is a bit off putting. I really don't think two years in an MFA program could destroy his ability to be a writer, if it was truly in him. I guess I doubt his protean greatness, and would like to see those muffins he so disparages.
posted by Malla at 7:24 PM on February 10, 2014

I worked in a cushy work-study library with Eric Bennett for a year about five years ago. He was a good workplace citizen, and I remember him telling me when his novel didn't end up finding a place to be published, and how relieved he was to find a job in a good English department. I thought this piece was very good, although I think there are more ideas in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead than his "there are three ways of writing and none of them creates novels of ideas" structure gives her credit for.

Another flavor I pick up here is the influence of Louis Menand in arguments with the structure "the Cold War explains the form of 20c American arts and letters," of which this is a classic example.
posted by sy at 7:37 PM on February 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's really surprising to see a piece like this published without so much as a name-check for Mark McGurl's The Program Era, and I say that even though I suspect that Bennett and I probably agree that some important stuff was omitted and downplayed in McGurl's history of the rise of the workshop/MFA model.
posted by RogerB at 7:47 PM on February 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a similar story in the visual arts. There's also a role the GI Bill plays in making money for education available to thousands of people.
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I really don't think two years in an MFA program could destroy his ability to be a writer

It certainly didn't help.
posted by empath at 7:58 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

That was super interesting and articulates something I didn't understand about why I dislike so many popular and in all obvious respects, "well written" novels - despite loving fiction.

There's an ideology to writing style. I'd like to read more about that part of it, if anyone has suggestions...
posted by latkes at 7:58 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

The great thing about the UVic Creative Writing program (styled in part on the IWW) was that it was practical. There were no expectations about proceeding onward and upward to an academic career. There were no assumptions that getting a CW degree would qualify you for a job of some kind post-graduation.

The message was simple: writing is hard work. You will likely never earn a living off of your writing. Study something else like chemistry or whatever so you can get a job to pay the bills while writing, and to find something to write about.

The CW program, like almost all university programs in Canada, including humanities, do these days, offered a co-op program. So many CW grads ended up working in government and even in software, which was a rapidly growing field back in the early 90's.

UVic CW produced some great writers, including many who have won international awards, but the vast majority of graduates, like the author of this piece, never go on to publish.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:14 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, he is publishing, just not a novel.
posted by Miko at 8:22 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

It took me a minute to not read IWW as the International Workers of the World.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:23 PM on February 10, 2014 [21 favorites]

This piece gets a thumbs up from me for namechecking Sarah Bynum's amazing Madeleine is Sleeping, a good thing to stick in the face of people who say "Iowa and MFAs in general are all about boring middle-aged white people and their sexual anxiety and their lawns." Bennett, to his credit, doesn't fall into that lazy trap (well, how could he? He actually went there and saw what goes on) but makes the more interesting claim that, while "MFA books" aren't all the same, there's a certain class of fiction they tend to be hostile to.

The thing is, the view he ascribes to Frank Conroy, and which he clearly considers too limiting -- that for prose fiction to engage with ideas it needs to base that engagement on a foundation of physical observation, character, and incident -- seems pretty right to me. And old, too -- at least as old as W C Williams "no ideas but in things" and probably much older. I love David Foster Wallace more than just about anybody but I think he became a better fiction writer as his idea work got more grounded in his thing work -- and he thought so too.
posted by escabeche at 8:42 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can't speak to Canada, but US MFA programs are a tribute to nothing other than the easy availability of grad school loans and writers who will staff the workshop rooms inexpensively. A mid size creative writing MFA can NET its host college a couple million a year.
posted by MattD at 9:03 PM on February 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

This makes me happy (thanks for posting!) even if I am not convinced by all his arguments because:

a) I've never thought about how much creative writing classes (even English classes at the high school level) insist on sensory detail. Show, Not Tell.
To Wallace Stegner, who directed the influential Stanford creative-writing program throughout the 1950s, a true writer was "an incorrigible lover of concrete things," weaving stories from "such materials as the hard knotting of anger in the solar plexus, the hollowness of a night street, the sound of poplar leaves." A novelist was "a vendor of the sensuous particulars of life, a perceiver and handler of things," an artist "not ordinarily or ideally a generalizer, not a dealer in concepts."
b) The role of foundation funding (whether they were pass-thru foundations for panic money from Cold War war chests or funded from robber baron riches) is something that is under-studied.

c) His dissertation research is getting an airing somewhere beyond a monograph (forthcoming) or a journal article. I always get sad when I think about all those dissertations that have only been read by the faculty committee (if the student was lucky) or contain ideas that really ought to circulate outside academia.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:16 PM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I really don't think two years in an MFA program could destroy his ability to be a writer

Not so much about ability, I think, as about will. I don't see how a purely voluntary program could flatten a talent that wasn't quite willing to be flattened in the pursuit of tenure somewhere.

If Mr. Bennett had drawn a plausible connection between CIA machinations in academia and a similar prejudicial interference in the world of publishing, I guess I'd be more interested. As it is, what's he saying? "Everyone who has had any talent in the last two generations has been co-opted by the CIA creative writing programs." Really?
posted by bricoleur at 9:17 PM on February 10, 2014

There's definitely a certain type of literary fiction that has "first book after graduating from a workshop" written all over it, but that might be partly confirmation bias if I'm not noticing all the books that don't fit that pattern.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:21 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Everyone who has had any talent in the last two generations has been co-opted by the CIA creative writing programs."

I think the accusation is a bit more pernicious. "Everyone who has any talent" was hothoused by the CIA through their plausibly deniable cultural pipeline, and anything of value they created is now suspect of being, unconsciously or circumstantially, just Cold War cultural propaganda on some level. If you're the product of these programs, you can't even deny it, because it's not an accusation but a structural critique of what produced you.
posted by fatbird at 10:38 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular," Engdahl decreed. "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."

I'm guessing Engdahl will add a few more reasons to that statement if he reads this. Although giving Munro the prize for mastering the short story form seemed a bit of a turnaround from praising political involvement, descriptions of clash of cultures and civilisation dissection. So there's hope for the Iowa school.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 1:30 AM on February 11, 2014

There doesn't seem to be any clear link between the CIA funding and the alleged insistence on asphalt flavoured icicles as the required basis of well-founded pyramids. The latter seems more like something that just came out of the predispositions of the workshoppers; possibly even something related to the persistent underlying pragmatism (epicureanism?) of American culture, if I dare say that.

Weirdly the CIA actually seem to have behaved like ideal patrons: providing funding to support diversity and quality, and to help the results get an audience, without making any demands or imposing any particular rules. It's almost as if they were the good guys.

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth is in this territory (spooky funding, not Iowa workshops).
posted by Segundus at 2:29 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

writers who will staff the workshop rooms inexpensively.

Also provides people to teach undergrad English 101 type classes for free, so they have even fewer classes they can underpay adjuncts for.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:58 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another essay from the same anthology was published in N+1 last week, MFA vs NYC.

I think what the accusation is in Bennett's article, if I read it correctly, is that the Iowa program cut away any politcal content from the fiction written by its students. And this it did at the expense of all intellectual content. It steered its students away from political ideas by steering them from all ideas and priviliging sensory information. That is, don't write about the condition of the working class, but write about the way a factory smells.
posted by Kattullus at 4:00 AM on February 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

I don't think his thesis is wrong so much as it begs the question: if you want your writing to challenge institutions, why submit it to the criticism and approval process of one? Even in my early twenties, when I was working through my creative impulses in writing classes in my second-tier state university, I knew better. This simile is telling:
The workshop was like a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into. You entered with something undefined and tantalizingly protean and left with muffins.
No, you entered with batter, the ingredients of which were entirely your choice.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:52 AM on February 11, 2014

To explain what I said a little further... you can't tell a writing student: "Don't write communist literature." But you can tell a writing student: "A story that focuses on an idea is bad fiction. You should write about the real world." That served to strip communism out of modern American fiction, which suited the CIA just fine. Most other ideologies seem to have followed suit. When you strip ideology out of fiction, the risk you run is that you end up with fiction that's bereft of ideas.
posted by Kattullus at 4:53 AM on February 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

Doesn't writing school by definition make for a conservative, no-adventure style? When I wrote college papers and did anything that deviated from formula I was always harshly criticized. One guy told me something about how Picasso had to have perfect classical technique first, then modest experimentation, then he could go wild. Like after he was a tenured portrait painter or something.

I liked this part:

For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism.

The university I attended had 10 000 undergrads, 20 000 graduate students, and thousands of professors, adjuncts, postdocs, and researchers. Way more than half the funds for all of that came from the American taxpayers' representatives' fight against the Commies. I would be interested in reading a good dense history text on this subject. Does anybody have a favorite?
posted by bukvich at 6:29 AM on February 11, 2014

Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr write a blogpost responding to the article in Jacket2 and mention a few books that might be what you're looking for, bukvich:
Further, as Bennett is noticing, the US government also provides significant funds for the arts covertly. And has for some time. Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War documents in exhausting detail the numerous conferences, exhibitions, concerts, and readings that were organized by the CIA, often through philanthropic organizations that were basically fronts for the CIA, during the Cold War. Nicholas Cull in The Cold War and the United States Information Agency picks up where Saunders left off and tells the story of US Information Services/US Information Agency, in the 1950s. Andrew Rubin in Archives of Authority looks at the impact the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom had on the careers of writers such as George Orwell, Thomas Mann, W. H. Auden, Richard Wright, Mary McCarthy, and Albert Camus.
posted by Kattullus at 7:34 AM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

One interesting thing brought up in the blogpost on Jacket2 is that Univeristy of Iowa Press is putting out Bennett's book on this subject. Either this is an act of stringent self-criticism or the University of Iowa doesn't quite understand how shocking it is that they're seen to be spliced at the root with the ideological programs of the CIA. I think this comes from the way that the Iowa program, and MFA-programs more widely, think of themselves as teaching the "craft of writing" as if the tools are somehow completely neutral and universal.
posted by Kattullus at 7:47 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the link, Kattullus.

I don't understand the dismissiveness above. I found the article well-written and thought-provoking. I hadn't really thought about the focus on the concrete as being ideological but, of course, when you consider it as a reaction to writing that is abstract and political, it looks very ideological indeed.
posted by enn at 7:56 AM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, it's weirdly dismissive. They also completely ignore Bennett's central thesis. It might have something to do with the fact that the blogpost is a part of a series, but it's a very strange response outside that context, at least.
posted by Kattullus at 8:03 AM on February 11, 2014

To explain what I said a little further... you can't tell a writing student: "Don't write communist literature." But you can tell a writing student: "A story that focuses on an idea is bad fiction. You should write about the real world." That served to strip communism out of modern American fiction, which suited the CIA just fine.

Most actual, communist literary criticism has tended to have a strong preference for novels "about the real world." Look at someone like Lukacs, for example.
posted by yoink at 9:21 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was a great read; thanks for posting.

I may be insensitive to it, but I didn't pick up on any self-importance or indulgence. The only part that seemed a bit blinkered was:
to have genius enough to find dramatic situations that embody all that you have lived and read, is rare. It’s not something that every student of creative writing—in the hundreds of programs up and running these days—is going to pull off. Maybe one person a decade will pull it off. Maybe one person every half century will really pull it off.

Of course, we live in an age that cringes at words like "greatness"—and also at the notion that we’re not all great. But ages that didn’t cringe at greatness produced great writing without creative-writing programs
Which strikes me as edging towards that complaint: "where are the great writers of today?", which you can usually reduce to: "why aren't any writers of today given the status of Human Colossi Astride our Culture like they were back in nineteen dickity six?"

Which in turn stood out because the rest of the essay suggests the answer is not, or at least not only, that books are just no longer the primary channel for mass culture, but that specific institutional decisions maybe played a role too.

But yeah, really interesting.
posted by postcommunism at 9:44 AM on February 11, 2014

where are the great writers of today?

A question which has been asked, of course, in every era of which records remain: including, say, Virgil's, Ovid's, Dante's, Petrarch's, Chaucer's, Spenser's, Shakespeare's, Moliere's, Cervantes's, Voltaire's, Goethe's, Jane Austen's, Wordsworth's, Balzac's, Hugo's, Baudelaire's, Ibsen's, Tolstoy's, Dostoevsky's etc. etc. etc., down to the present. In every age you'd find some highly qualified person to declare that the literature of today is corrupt and decadent and incapable of withstanding comparison with the truly great literature of the past (and, of course, qualified people who would argue the converse).

Sweeping judgments about the stature of contemporary writing are really just set-up lines for the bemused wits of the future.
posted by yoink at 9:55 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Won't argue there, but I was thinking specifically of the complaint which focuses first on Modernist authors and then on people like Bellow, Wolfe or (oi) Mailer as examples of Great Authors whose shoes go unfilled -- that is, a complaint about where and from what America gets its pop culture which pretends/believes it's a complaint about how modern writers aren't up to snuff.
posted by postcommunism at 11:18 AM on February 11, 2014

As an aside to the general thesis, I would think of Kurt Vonnegut's weird writing as an exception to the general ethos of the workshop - and he taught there. Here he is with his more classic IWW (but in my opinion, also very good, or at least, once good) student John Irving.
posted by latkes at 3:36 PM on February 11, 2014

Writers write. Workshop writers workshop. Writers's Workshop writers write Workshop. Writer's Workshop writers worship Writer's Workshop. Write, writer, write!
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:24 PM on February 11, 2014

« Older Dear Fake Geeks, Go Away?   |   Apparently, Geraldo Rivera is immortal. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments