By Eric Olsen
If you’re an Iowa person, if you went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or at least have an interest in the Workshop or its influence—good or bad—on American letters, or if you went to another writers’ workshop somewhere else that was probably designed on the so-called “Iowa model” and perhaps even sported an Iowa grad or two on the faculty, or you went to a program that was deliberately designed to not follow the “Iowa model,” or if you’re a fan of that sub-sub-genre known as “Iowa bashing,” then you might be interested in an article in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education titled “How Iowa Flattened Literature” by Eric Bennett.
And in particular, note the article’s subtitle: “With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.”
I can’t recall coming across a sexier subtitle in a good long time. The only subtitle I can imagine that might pander even more effectively to current market trends in publishing would be to change “CIA” to “vampires.” Certainly I don’t think there’s any less data to support the theory of vampire influence than Bennett’s CIA notion.
Bennett apparently attended the Workshop before leaving to get a PhD and become an academic. The article is adapted from his forthcoming book about creative writing and the Cold War, Workshops of Empire, from the University of Iowa Press.
Bennett’s argument, to the degree I understand it, and I won’t pretend that I do, is that “…once upon a time (1967, to be exact), Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, received money from the Farfield Foundation to support international writing at the University of Iowa.” And the Farfield Foundation, Bennett tells us, “was a CIA front….”
There are a couple problems with this, seems to me. First, Engle had stepped down as director of the Workshop in 1966, during one of those vicious academic spats in which absolutely nothing of any importance but a lot of fragile egos is at stake. In 1967, Engle founded the International Writing Program with his second wife, Hualing Nieh. His international program had absolutely nothing to do with the Workshop, given all the hard feelings that would linger for years after. It’s hard to imagine that Engle would have been raising funds from the CIA or from anyone else to benefit the department he’d just left, and in such a big huff.
But what if—and a big “if” it is—Engle was raising money from the CIA, whether for his international program or for the Workshop itself? So what? Good for Engle, I say. That CIA money? It was taxpayer dollars, after all, plus a little cash raised by running drugs, apparently; better to spend it on literature here at home than on undermining this democratically elected Latin American or Middle Eastern leader or that one and replacing him with a murderous pro-American thug, or trying to poison Fidel’s cigars.
Bennett does go on to tell us that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop “powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed,” suggesting without coming right out and saying it that if the Workshop were funded and thus influenced by the CIA, so were all the other programs, by association, that followed. Just how the CIA might have influenced the Workshop or anyone else? Bennett never explains.
What really threw me was this statement by Bennett: “Yet what drew writers to Iowa was not the innate splendor of a spontaneously good idea. What drew writers to Iowa is what draws writers anywhere: money and hype, which tend to be less spontaneous than ideas.” Bennett seems to be suggesting that CIA money lured us to Iowa, where we were… well, I dunno. Brainwashed?
I do wish I’d gotten some of that CIA money Bennett’s talking about. But in fact, I think most of us were lured to Iowa because it was a good idea, as it had been luring young writers for 30 years before Engle supposedly glommed onto all that CIA cash—the Workshop started operations officially in 1936, though its origins at the University of Iowa go back at least to 1897. And for most of Iowa’s history, until fairly recently, most incoming Workshoppers didn’t get a damned cent their first year, but for a very few anointed stars. Now, and perhaps even when Bennett was at the Workshop, all incoming students get a little money, but that’s a recent development. Maybe that’s a lure now, but during most of the Workshop’s history, most of us wannabe writers were lured there perhaps unrealistically, perhaps by a bit of hype, but more substantively, I’d argue, by the desire to have a couple years to do little else but write, and hang out with other writers, and maybe even learn to write (though the Workshop has long disavowed any responsibility for actually teaching anything, or for that matter conceding that writing can be taught at all—check out their website if you think I’m making this up, and our post addressing the issue), and then in the evenings to drink at The Mill, and maybe if all went well, get laid once in a while.
Some of us did get money our second year at Iowa (maybe even some of it CIA money!) to be teaching assistants or office help, and a very few of us got the coveted Teaching/Writing Fellowships. But there were never any guarantees that any money would be forthcoming, and none of that cash that did trickle our way came with any particular strings attached, and certainly not any obligation to write propaganda for the CIA or whatever it is Bennett thinks that money bought. Whether our writing got “flattened,” as Bennett’s title suggests, I’ve no idea. But I do have a hard time buying the notion that my classmates such as Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo, Jane Smiley, TC Boyle, and Allan Gurganus have ever written anything that anyone could say is “flat.” I can’t speak for Bennett’s class.
I can’t help but wonder if maybe Bennett’s having us on a bit, and if so, good for him; one does like a good send-up now and then. He writes at one point in his essay, “The Iowa Workshop, then attained national eminence by capitalizing on the fears and hopes of the Cold War.” And then:
There, in the paragraphs above, is blood squeezed from the stone of a dissertation. If, in 2006, as a no-longer-quite-plausibly aspiring novelist beached on the shores of academe, you’re struggling against the bleakness of the dissertation as a genre, you’ll do your best to work the CIA into yours. You’ll want to write a heroic dissertation—or at least a novelistic one.”
There’re a couple a lessons here for any of us who want to write. First, if you don’t feel like writing anything that makes much sense, forget that novel and become an academic. And if you want to sell a whole lot of books, stick in some vampires, and if not vampires, then at least the CIA.
“Workshop fiction”: Good? Bad? No such thing?