"No ideas but in things" is an idea not a thing
January 26, 2023 1:31 PM   Subscribe

No the CIA Didn't Invent "Show Don't Tell". Or maybe they did? Perhaps the effects of CIA money on the Iowa Writer's Workshop are overblown, but this piece in Current Affairs makes a strong case how the CIA has influenced "literature" in America. (previously)
posted by slogger (48 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, this has always been absolutely idiotic and a prime example of how shitty Internet discourse is. It’s been very disappointing seeing it repeated now and then on MetaFilter.
posted by star gentle uterus at 1:37 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]

This seems like pretty important history -- and a kind of history that is regrettably to be found all over the "liberal arts" in the US:
While divorcing the craft of writing from the content of writing is not explicitly anticommunist or pro-capitalist, it is notable that teaching writing in this way grew to popularity during the Cold War and was popularized by vocal anticommunists. Paul Engle, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop director from 1941 to 1964, fundraised for the program using explicitly anticommunist rhetoric: he communicated with private and public donors that Iowa was in the business of bringing writers together in one place to train them to compete against their ideologically-driven counterparts in the Soviet Union. In his essay “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” Eric Bennett writes that Engle was explicit in his political motivations in his fundraising for the program. “Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism,” Bennett writes.
posted by Not A Thing at 1:45 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

He doesn't warrant a mention in the piece, but he deserves one: James Jesus Angleton, one of the founder-officers of the CIA after serving as part of the OSS, has some utterly fascinating literary origins. From his Wikipedia page:

"Angleton's boyhood was spent in Milan, Italy, where his family moved after his father bought NCR's Italian subsidiary. He then studied as a boarder at Malvern College in England before attending Yale University. The young Angleton was a poet and, as a Yale undergraduate, editor, with Reed Whittemore, of the Yale literary magazine Furioso, which published many of the best-known poets of the inter-war period, including William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings and Ezra Pound. He carried on an extensive correspondence with Pound, Cummings and T. S. Eliot, among others, and was particularly influenced by William Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity.[4] Angleton was trained in the New Criticism at Yale by Maynard Mack and others, chiefly Norman Holmes Pearson, a founder of American Studies, and briefly studied law at Harvard, but did not graduate.[5]"

Angleton's shadow looms large over a number of post-War CIA operations, and I can't help think it fell over Iowa City, too.
posted by ShawnW at 2:03 PM on January 26 [12 favorites]

The idea that conservatives would foster literary culture in any way is deeply ironic here in 2023.
posted by jscalzi at 2:23 PM on January 26 [39 favorites]

I remember not that long ago, a similar story that the CIA was the major proponent for Abstract-Expressionist art. It was promoted at a number of gallery shows in Europe to show how creative we Americans were compared to those godless, social realist hacks in the Soviet realm. So who knows…
posted by njohnson23 at 2:26 PM on January 26 [5 favorites]

njohnson23, you may be thinking of the USIA, whose mission was 'public diplomacy'. They organized exhibitions, artist travel to the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, etc. There's also the Art in Embassies program, which I think still exists, that places art by important ("important") American artists in embassies around the world.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 2:33 PM on January 26 [6 favorites]

the idea that literary culture can even be heard through the constant noise of social media is laughable - don't ask me to define the situationist singularity but we got swallowed by it a few years ago
posted by pyramid termite at 2:37 PM on January 26 [4 favorites]

(Michel is taken to task about this in the one comment to the article, but I’d just like to say that his assertion that Chekhov said “show don’t tell” is just total nonsense).

On some level, that the CIA or the State Department were involved in funding the University of Iowa’s literary programs is kinda secondary. The effect that particular programmatic approach to literature has had is to push any kind of ideological content out of the kind of literature that is considered serious, which is deeply weird when considered in the wider international and historical context of literature, where ideological engagement is the norm.

That said, I do think that creative writing programs set up a system that mimics intelligence work. When you take ideology out of fiction, the only thing writers are left with is their personhood. So writers of minority backgrounds get pushed to write about their backgrounds. These stories are then repurposed and remixed by writers belonging to the dominant group, so they can flesh out their own books, like intelligence analysts synthesizing their sources into a report.

This isn’t new, authors have been filching lives and stories since before writing was invented, but the effect of the Iowa writing program’s prescriptions is to give writers in the dominant social group the freedom to write about all subjects, but writers from minority groups are pushed to explain their culture and community to the people of the dominant group.

To use Freitas’ example of the rent strike, that kind of ideological story is not centered in personhood, and allows for a different kind of storytelling. To go to Levin’s story about the analysis of the bar scene, you can’t really ignore the ideology of a rent strike story, because the whole plot is built out of blocks of ideology.

Which is why, I think, that whether the CIA created the precepts of Iowa writing culture, the outcome has been a literature that goes with the grain of society, not challenging the larger social structures that constrain those who aren’t part of the dominant social group. I think the CIA agent who drove one crisp fall day to Iowa City and told the writing instructors what to teach, fictional as that agent might be, would be happy with the result of that day’s work.
posted by Kattullus at 2:46 PM on January 26 [24 favorites]

I would have preferred that the NEA gets their own Delta Force like squad rather than bothering the CIA. Can you imagine the patches ?
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 2:54 PM on January 26 [5 favorites]

see also Comic Book Imperialism

Pulp Empire traces the dynamic relationship between the industry and state and federal governments, a connection that influenced comic books’ development throughout the twentieth century. Hirsch characterizes the emergence of comic books in the 1930s as products that exploited the creative energies of marginalized men and women. Writers and artists were stingily compensated for their work while publishers began profiting handsomely as the pamphlet’s popularity rose. American entry into World War II led the industry in a new direction as the US government sought to use comic books as propaganda to generate support for the war effort and promote racial stereotypes about the nation’s adversaries.
posted by chavenet at 2:57 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]

Didn't the CIA have a hand in promoting the Partisan Review?
posted by AJaffe at 3:12 PM on January 26

The CIA helped finance NYC's MOMA's international exhibitions via the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), a CIA created agency. Thomas Braden, the executive secretary at MOMA, joined the CIA in 1950 to handle cultural activities. Nelson A. Rockefeller, another MOMA trustee and president (his mother founded MOMA,) was quite active in Cold War politics, as well as other things. Here's one article on the doings in the 50's.
posted by njohnson23 at 3:22 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]

The Partisan Review was paid for by the CIA. See article linked above in my other comment.
posted by njohnson23 at 3:25 PM on January 26

I have a half-baked theory that the ennui of Dostoyevsky's "Notes from Underground" was praised in Western literature while the book it was a satire of - Chernyshevsky's action-oriented "What Is To Be Done?" - was ridiculed in part because Chernyshevsky's book inspired Lenin.

Now I can blame the CIA for this.
posted by clawsoon at 3:39 PM on January 26 [4 favorites]

When I was first studying literature in college, I started putting a dividing line between literary novels written before and after World War II. It seemed like the books from the before times were good at doing lots of things. They could world build and philosophize. They could be love story, adventure novel, and satire all in one.

Books written after the war, however, could only do one thing at a time. Mostly that one thing was soul-searching or introspection. Serious postwar fiction, whether it was what I was being fed in school or read in the pages of The New Yorker, was about sad white people with relationship problems.
Nicely put.
posted by clawsoon at 3:46 PM on January 26 [19 favorites]

Here's Orwell on the move toward navel-gazing:
Dickens ... was also a popular novelist and able to write about ordinary people. So were all the characteristic English novelists of the nineteenth century. They felt at home in the world they lived in, whereas a writer nowadays is so hopelessly isolated that the typical modern novel is a novel about a novelist.
Written in 1940. The CIA was ruining literature even before it was formed!
posted by zompist at 4:09 PM on January 26 [16 favorites]

Just hearsay, but I was told that the CIA owned one-time dominant (if plebeian) paperback publisher Fawcett Publications back in the 50s-60s. They co-opted/corrupted Cap'n Billie's Whiz Bang!
posted by Chitownfats at 4:16 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Written in 1940. The CIA was ruining literature even before it was formed!

To me it doesn't sound like the CIA and conservative funders were acting as inventors, but as amplifiers. You've got an interesting literary style developing that probably would've had some success on its own; American Cold War interests decide that it's anti-Communist; it gets a bunch of money and moral support from those interests.

Sort of similar to the story of Evangelicalism - it's got an effective emotional appeal that was having success on its own; American Cold War interests decide that it's anti-Communist, so it gets a bunch of money and moral support from them, and pretty soon Billy Graham is praying in the White House.
posted by clawsoon at 4:23 PM on January 26 [10 favorites]

The idea that conservatives would foster literary culture in any way is deeply ironic here in 2023.

Or any kind of culture at all.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 4:31 PM on January 26

The creative writing business makes over $200 million a year in revenue. There are more MFAs and other businesses that grew out of the Iowa workshop model, and more people willing to spend real money to go to MFA programs and attend conferences and workshops where authors, agents, and editors dole out advice on how to get that book deal. The literary world once looked to readers of (relatively inexpensive) books for its sustenance. Now, it relies upon costly creative writing education products, and hopeful writer-consumers willing to buy them.
The writer-consumer thing sounds suspiciously like a multi-level-marketing model. The Amway of cultural production.
posted by clawsoon at 5:53 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

The whole "____ is a CIA psyop" meme gets fairly ridiculous. People too often confuse the CIA being interested in some cultural thing with the CIA inventing it.
posted by Liquidwolf at 5:57 PM on January 26 [8 favorites]

This feels like the second time that something was off-handedly mentioned on Behind the Bastards and was almost immediately made into a post.
posted by charred husk at 6:51 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

"If America is the world’s living myth, then the CIA is America’s myth."

-Don DeLillo

I'd love to see Reed Whittemore' file. (Angletons roommate, co-editor and author of a major biography of William Carlos Williams, twice poet laurate to the library of Congress.)

Whittemore on writing: “When I look at history, literary and social, I find that I side pretty steadily with history’s eccentrics. I don’t mean all the mad astrologists and mystics […] but simply the mundane eccentrics who have stood on the sidelines with the game in progress, and made frosty remarks instead of cheering"

"At the memorial service for James Jesus Angleton, the cruel father of American counterintelligence who died in May 1987, the poet Reed Whittemore recited T. S. Eliot's "Gerontion," in which the mind of a blind old man becomes lost in "a wilderness of mirrors."

Love this.
"It had a level of Intellectual and political competence that was sub‐zero,” Mr. Galbraith recalled in an interview. “It would make you yearn for the political sophistication of The National Enquirer.”

"One of the alternative press’s most significant scoops of the 1960s was Sol Stern’s February 1967 Ramparts magazine’s exposé revealing that the Central Intelligence Agency had long secretly funded and controlled the National Student Association (NSA). "

"The truly terrible Cold War poetry hidden in the CIA’s archives"

"More on the CIA School of Creative Writing"

"Deception is a state of mind and the mind of the State."

-James Angleton.
posted by clavdivs at 7:01 PM on January 26 [8 favorites]

You mean, the CIA didn’t write “Wind of Change”?
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:31 PM on January 26 [5 favorites]

This was in the back of my mind. This testing program which makes up the "right" answers. I remember seeing the Iowa standard achievement tests. Yes, the right inferences and answers.
posted by Oyéah at 8:51 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Juh? software for computer-based testing, and technical support and scoring for local standards-based assessments in Iowa
and the nation.

posted by clavdivs at 9:38 PM on January 26

Great post.

Follow the money and the connections. Don't tell me all this didn't have real effects and influence.

"The CCF also funded dozens of literary journals and other publications... Not until 1966 was the CCF revealed as a CIA project. Over fifty years later, the CIA’s website boasts that “the Congress for Cultural Freedom is widely considered one of the CIA’s more daring and effective Cold War covert operations.”

Vaguely unhappy in Connecticut indeed - usually privileged middle aged white males who try to deal with their unhappinesses through sex, often with younger women. How sad and disgusting to go from eg. Steinbeck to nothing but this.
posted by blue shadows at 11:10 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

So the CIA didn't give me very good writing advice?
posted by pelvicsorcery at 1:07 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]

"The CIA invented show don't tell" is the sensationalized version vs the more strictly accurate "The director of the Iowa writers workshop used the promise of depoliticizing literature to fundraise, including from the CIA."

With money you can amplify / popularize all kinds of things, money buys influence, but it's also possible that there was a general social trend toward atomization and the CIA had extra budget to throw around, making it a tempting target to hit up for money for arts programs.

The modern day equivalent to this is the right relationship between the Marvel movies and the department of defense?
posted by subdee at 3:46 AM on January 27 [6 favorites]

So who are the modern novelists writing with the sweep of pre-WWII novelists? Margaret Atwood comes to mind, anybody else?
posted by clawsoon at 3:51 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]

The writer-consumer thing sounds suspiciously like a multi-level-marketing model. The Amway of cultural production.

That's because it is. You get an MFA to go teach at an MFA program and the reverse funnel grows.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 4:10 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]

It's wild that people are still incredulous at the thought of the CIA meddling in domestic cultural affairs. (Indeed, the endnotes in the second link are chock full of great sources regarding the agency's involvement in MoMa, the Paris Review and Kenyon Review many other arts orgs.) No, the CIA didn't have rooms full of theorist-spies hashing out the dictates of modernist literary theory and criticism. But they did (and do!) have money and access to the highest echelons of American society with the intention of broadly influencing our cultural institutions towards pro-capitalist, anti-worker ideologies. The vigilant focus on form over content in American literature is merely incidental, a convenient vehicle that facilitates the depoliticizing and defining of literary content. The influence is deliberate and real, but not so tightly controlled or specifically directed. Nor is it new. To me it's yet another example of how the CIA (and more broadly the US intelligence community) is not an international-facing organization with the task of monitoring kings spying on other kings, but an active arm of the corporate-capitalist-industrial class dictating downward What It Means To Be American, however harmful that may be to the rest of us.
posted by slogger at 6:30 AM on January 27 [6 favorites]

And you're right, charred husk (at least in this case). I'd never heard of this before it was mentioned in a recent episode of BtB, so I started a-googling and here we are.
posted by slogger at 7:05 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]

Also, while digging through the links and reading up on this, I couldn't help but think how academic creative fiction (and by extension, the impact of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the proliferation of MFA programs) somewhat delegitimized genre-based fiction. I understand that academic programs are much more accepting of different forms now, but *old man voice* back in my day, fantasy/sci-fi was not but for hoi polloi. Maybe this is why we can't have gay space communism.
posted by slogger at 7:38 AM on January 27

The US government directly helped to fund a generation of late Modernist composers after WWII, American and European (and beyond), so had massive influence in the post-war concert music scene by funding the Darmstadt School (emphasis added):
These International Summer Courses for New Music (Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik) were founded by Wolfgang Steinecke (1910–61), a music critic, and Wolfgang Fortner (1907–87), a composer, first with the permission, later with the active financial backing of the United States military government as channeled through Everett Helm (1913–99), an American composer and musicologist who held the position of chief music officer with the Theater and Music Branch of the American Military Government. [...]The courses had two main goals: first, to propagate American political and cultural values as part of the general Allied effort to reeducate the German population in preparation for the establishment of democratic institutions; and second, to provide a meeting place where musicians from the former fascist or fascist-occupied areas of Europe — chiefly Germany/Austria, France, and Italy — might further their musical reeducation through exposure to (and instruction in) styles and techniques that had been prohibited or otherwise silenced during the fascist years. The first of these aims was mainly that of the American backers.
If you're a fan of mid-20th century avant-garde music, thank the US government. Composers who were at some point very involved with this summer program include:
Core members:
Pierre Boulez
Karel Goeyvaerts
Bruno Maderna
Luigi Nono
Henri Pousseur
Karlheinz Stockhausen

Associated composers in Europe:
Luciano Berio
Franco Evangelisti
Hans Werner Henze
Mauricio Kagel
Gottfried Michael Koenig
Gyorgy Ligeti
Iannis Xenakis

Associated composers in U.S.:
Milton Babbitt
Elliott Carter
John Cage
Morton Feldman
Earle Brown
Christian Wolff
While their ideas are the composers' own, the specific ethos that was fostered and spread from there--that became a suffocating dogma in the compositional world for decades--would likely have not gained such critical mass and compliance within the composer community if it were not for that summer program, and the dominant personalities in those gatherings (and thus, whose ideas were most persuasive and subsequently artistically "acceptable"). So I have very little skepticism about the idea that the US government was also able to massively influence literature creation and culture in those decades.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:43 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]

CIA aside, the whole structure of an MFA program is to sequester 20-somethings away from the rest of the world (Iowa City, for heavens' sake!) and subject them to a fairly intensive training in a particular kind of mid-century close reading. Of course it's going to reward the solipsistic! Not to mention the cost of attendance; so-called fully funded programs are doing so by having their students teach freshman comp at sub-adjunct rates, and that's not exactly welcoming to anyone without family money to support them.

I think those aspects have gotten better in some ways with the rise of the low-residency or fully online programs, which do allow people to maintain some semblance of engagement with the world and also draw on a more diverse group of writers. Since the pandemic, I've been taking night classes in creative writing (the classes I wanted to take in college but never felt comfortable enough doing) and I LOVE the range of ages, professions, and writing preferences we bring to the table.

I sometimes think about getting an MFA myself -- there's no question that the workshop model has improved my own writing, though it may not work for everyone -- but then I think about how I would be giving up not only my day job (which I mostly like, except when I don't) but also the ability to get feedback from the types of people I actually want to read my book, and it just feels so ... narrow. No thanks.
posted by basalganglia at 8:55 AM on January 27

the whole structure of an MFA program is to sequester 20-somethings away from the rest of the world (Iowa City, for heavens' sake!)

oh, i'm sure they'll get electricity one of these days and the poor writers of iowa city will no longer have to study by candlelight
posted by pyramid termite at 9:33 AM on January 27 [5 favorites]

So who are the modern novelists writing with the sweep of pre-WWII novelists? Margaret Atwood comes to mind, anybody else?

I mean, just immediately off the top of my head (and the very tiniest tip of the iceberg):

Viet Thanh Nguyen
Colson Whitehead
Louise Erdrich
James McBride
Percival Everett
Richard Powers

It's worth pointing out that all of these are Pulitzer/National Book Award/ Booker Prize nominees and short-listers. Literary fiction in the US's navel gazing, "alcoholic middle aged Connecticut writing professor has affair with student to feel something again" problem has been so widely known among writers and readers that we are now at satires of satires of satires of it because the whole thing is so profoundly cliche. It's certainly real, but CIA or not, it should be noted that there is a whole lot of other stuff out there--weird, political, perverse, talky, digressive, ideological, all that good stuff, and at this point the reason why you're not encountering it might be because it's not making BookTok or the featured shelves at the library, but it's also maybe because paper is stupid expensive right now and publishers are increasingly unwilling to take a risk on a thing that probably won't immediately get greenlit for a three movie deal/prestige miniseries/Netflix series (and given the state of networks/studios/streaming right, there are probably going to be less of those too), which means the big arm is pushing the stuff they know is broadly and widely marketable.And I mean this with zero disrespect, but if it comes down to a choice, today's John Steinbeck, will be jettisoned in favor of the next Colleen Hoover.

MFA programs are a mess. Unless you are the sliver of the sliver that manages to come out with a book deal, the best often function as assembly lines to produce more adjunct writing faculty and the worst are essentially unfunded, wildly expensive two year art camps for adults (there is fundamentally nothing wrong with wildly expensive two year art camps, but one should know what exactly they're not getting out of it before taking on non-dischargeble life-altering debt). I can get pretty mad about the limitations of New Criticism and the cult of Minimalism and why it is we're still assigning "A&P" to students (if we even still are), but I'd argue far and away the biggest threat to literary fiction right now is the fact that we've made "Becoming a Writer" a profitable product and stubbornly refused to reconsider all the gatekeeping* that keeps new voices from being heard by the very people that actually want to hear them.

*Apologies for the Derail, but one example: Literary Fiction particularly antagonistic to self-publishing. It is not just less-than-ideal, but an actively bad idea, especially if you're a first time writer. For one thing, success in literary fiction is built around awards culture, which you are effectively shut out of entirely if you self-publish, and it doesn't matter how the good the book is or how well it sells, you are permanently second-classed out the culture, even, the if, in the rare occasion you get picked up by a publisher down the line. Which means a lot of writers competing for a very small number of spaces among an ever decreasing number of small and increasingly monopolistic consortium of large publishers. It is very, very hard to break through. It's not just the old bullshit bootstraps "you have to be rejected a million times." It is that you have know the right people and go to the right schools and do the right internships to get a name out before you can even start getting rejected a million times.
posted by thivaia at 9:48 AM on January 27 [5 favorites]

Intelligence analysts write fiction, recent historical fiction or near-term future fiction, but still fiction.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:42 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]

Iowa City, for heavens' sake!

Hey now, Iowa City is actually kind of hip. Beat authors would make a stop in IC when travelling between coasts. It's also the blue-est county in Iowa.
posted by porpoise at 3:05 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]

Iowa City, for heavens' sake!

fun fact: there actually are real, human MeFites from the American Midwest!
posted by augustimagination at 11:29 PM on January 27 [6 favorites]

Dang, Iowans, I don't hate you. But you live in a land of cornfields and cows; that's not representative of America let alone the world. I'd rather read (and try to write) novels closer to the works mentioned by thivaia upthread, than anything I encountered in my brief interactions with the IWW. I'm used to being a visible minority, but geez that place was as homogenized as a gallon of milk.

Apparently it's gotten better since Lan Samantha Chang took over as director, but I still prefer the down-market night classes at my local bookstore/public library/online, thanks.
posted by basalganglia at 10:50 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]

that's not representative of America let alone the world

Iowa is a place, which makes it exactly as representative of places as any other place. There are people there, who are exactly as representative of people as any other people.

There are a lot of excellent criticisms of this weird institution (starting with the one in the OP), but I don't think "it's in Iowa" is one of them.
posted by Not A Thing at 11:54 AM on January 28 [5 favorites]

Uh, "Iowa/the MFA model is representative of the rest of the world" is ... a take, for sure. Demographically implausible, but you do you. Me, I'm going to bow out and get back to Craft in the Real World.
posted by basalganglia at 12:22 PM on January 28

Dang, Iowans, I don't hate you.

why, i can't even see you from this jet airliner way up here

But you live in a land of cornfields and cows;

well, it's not like they have a monopoly on bullshit, is it?

i'm not real concerned about mfa's anyway - i got a mother fucking attitude a long time ago - you need one to become an artist these days
posted by pyramid termite at 12:53 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]

We're really gonna do this flyover country shit? How tired.

Like Not A Thing said, there are plenty of actual criticisms of IWW that don't revolve around "this entire section of the US doesn't count".
posted by augustimagination at 1:04 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]

The AA batteries in Las Vegas are now equipped Wayne Newton stickers that self-attach at 30,000 ft.
posted by clavdivs at 4:07 PM on January 28

Radio Free Europe played bebop, funded by all sorts of Cold War pots of money. Does that mean Jazz is a capitalist imperialist plot?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:51 AM on January 30

« Older “...being accused of being a gamer, solve the...   |   the posh and parentally blessed Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments