5 responses to “How Iowa Flattened Lit—Not!”

  1. Works_and_Days

    I just retired from Washington. I grew up in Iowa City surrounded by the Workshop. I’ve slept in Conroy’s house.

    Bennett knows nothing about Washington, the intelligence community, the State Dept’s efforts to provide sanctuary for a few lonely victims of totalitarian states, or, apparently, literature. (Conroy would say: fewer commas, I know.)

    The guy will probably get tenure because the Academy loves a good CIA conspiracy tale. Iowa is publishing his stupid book. All of you guys and gals who think you think critically: shouldn’t someone get tenure for something more substantial, such as a good novel or a good interpretation of a few novels? This dude Bennett couldn’t get through the front door of Langley, but somehow he has explained 20th century American literature?

    He has earned a job ferrying real writers from CID to the Iowa House. He’s butthurt because nobody in his little seminars liked his bad fiction.

    But the real reason to be concerned is that he has a market for this bullshit. That market includes the entity he libels in his screed. Pussies should not make history, but I suppose he is.

  2. Eric

    Thanks for your comments. For more on this little brouhaha, check out a recent interview with Bennett and Christopher Merrill, head of the International writing program at Iowa:


    Merrill takes Bennett to school.

  3. Dick Cummins class of '70

    Dear Professor Bennett:

    “What do you need to be a writer in America? An audience.” Kurt Vonnegut, instructions in our first Fiction Workshop class, Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 1965 (from Love As Always, Kurt, Loree Rackstraw.) KV also said the most important thing to remember when writing a story is “the reader.”

    Okay –— let’s forget your delusional bloviating about CIA money and Engle, as if it had any influence on what got written at Iowa by instructors or students. It didn’t.

    But let’s do ask what kind of “postmodern” fiction you want to avoid in the novel you either want to write, are writing, or perhaps have given up writing.

    You say: “In Prairie Lights I found myself overwhelmed by the literature of the senses and the literature of the quirky sensing voice. I wanted heavy books from a bunch of different disciplines: on hermeneutics, on monetary policy, on string theory, on psychoanalysis, on the Gospels, on the strange war between analytic and Continental philosophers, on sexual pathology. I was 23. I knew I wanted to write a novel of ideas, a novel of systems, but one also with characters, and also heart-—a novel comprising everything…”

    Dear god, is that all? So you ginned up some worksheet chapters of what? Working title: “Why Won’t the Dogs Eat It? A Fictional Monologue Highlighting the History of Every Idea There Ever Was?”

    Why do I suspect your classmates at Iowa were under-appreciative?

    And I bet there were no “…literature of the senses…of the quirky sensing voice(s) in it either,” just a straight forward novel “of ideas…of systems.”

    So I guess your conceit is that if fiction just tells a fascinating story and engages the reader in human emotions with descriptive and figurative language, it is not to be taken seriously? Too accessible probably——but fiction penned as a complex disquisition on ideas and systems, that’s material for serious fiction, grist for Dr. Eric Bennett?

    But where’s your audience for a book like that? Maybe some Mensa Plus crowd or a pseudo intellectual book club or two?

    I think the real audience for your “novel of ideas” is probably just your dissertation committee.

    One of my interesting reads last year was The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler. Chandler speaks of writing critical essays vs. writing fiction. “…I think most critical writing is drivel…(and my)…thinking in terms of ideas destroys my power to think in terms of emotions and sensations…intellectualism bores me. (Because)…you have to use the language of intellectualism to explain it. The business of a fiction writer is to recreate the illusion of life. How he does it, if he can at all, it does not in the least help him to know.”

    Perhaps your peers at Iowa didn’t think your worksheet chapters recreated an “illusion of life,” although your dead characters may have been received as triumphs of the imaginative mind, who knows?

    It’s a free country Professor Bennett, so write away, finish your book, and as they say in pet food advertising, “…see if the dogs will eat it”.

    I’ve always been one to enjoy literary controversy as with two of the biggest dogs in the writing business of the mid-twentieth century, Faulkner and Hemingway.

    Faulkner about Hemingway:

    “He has never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary.”

    Hemingway on Faulkner:

    “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

    So good luck finding an audience Professor Bennett, because I think you are going to need it.

    And if you do finish that novel of ideas and systems, probably best not to send me a review copy as I have a small knack for imaginative book reviewing. Especially if the material is something I feel the reading public needs to be warned about.

  4. Dan Guenther

    Eric and Dick,

    Thanks you for addressing Eric Bennett’s claims.

    I recall first meeting Paul Engle in 1964 during one of his visits to Coe College.
    Like Paul Engle, I am a Coe College alum. The occasion had something to do
    with a reading given by Truman Capote and Paul had driven up from Iowa City
    to attend. In 1966, while in graduate school at the U. of Iowa I had the opportunity
    to get to know him better so it was with great interest that I read Eric’s excellent

    After listening to the interview, I have a few observations.

    1. Eric Bennett identifies one isolated data point which he offers up as “proof”
    of a IIW/CIA connection, and based upon the supposed link, he makes his claims.

    What apparently exists is a sheet of paper in the archives
    indicating a CIA funded foundation once gave money to Paul Engle,
    a one-time thing.

    I don’t consider that a “smoking gun” since Paul sought money from a number of sources.

    2. I listened to the radio interview and Chris Merrill was spot on with his response to Bennett during the radio interview, pointing out the ennuendo and speculation which has resulted, much of which apparently has brought unnecessary pain to some.

    3. That said, the Paul Engle I knew may have been a bit of an opportunist when it came to getting money and donations. But by my definition he was not a cold warrior spook sneaking around some dark alley in Paris. Nor was he the kind of person, based upon my experience in Southeast Asia, that the CIA would draw upon.

  5. Eric

    Dick and Dan,

    Thanks for your comments. I thought much of Bennett’s Chronicle of Higher Ed article was gibberish, as were most of his comments on Iowa Public Radio, but he’s an academic, so he has license to write and speak in gibberish, I guess. I do find myself admiring the chutzpah of a guy who wants to jam everything into a “novel of ideas,” a “novel of systems,” a “novel comprising everything”! No doubt it would be much praised by the critical theorists who still lurk in academia, where gibberish rules. Alas, I find myself still trying to write stories that make sense. You’d think I’d learn….

    By the way, I was just reading in the latest New York Review of Books a review of The Double Life of Paul de Man, about the Belgian pomo lit crit who, during WWII, collaborated with the Nazis and wrote anti-Semitic screeds, then later, comfortably ensconced in the States, taught at Bard, Cornell, and finally, naturellemant, at Yale, helping bring critical theory to our shores. The reviewer tells us that the author of the book, Evelyn Barish, “professes that her lengthy biography, long in preparation, was undertaken out of a fascination with its subject, accompanied, though, by the admission that she doesn’t understand de Man’s thought. She was briefly a colleague of de Man’s at Cornell, where, she tells us, ‘his occasional lectures were impenetrable.’” Bennett’s operating within a long and hallowed tradition of gibberish.