How Iowa Flattened Literature
With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.
Illustration by Scott Seymour, original image from Istock
By Eric Bennett
Did the CIA fund creative writing in America? The idea seems like the invention of a creative writer. Yet 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. The Farfield Foundation was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
Seven years earlier, Engle had approached the Rockefeller Foundation with big fears and grand plans. "I trust you have seen the recent announcement that the Soviet Union is founding a University at Moscow for students coming from outside the country," he wrote. This could mean only that "thousands of young people of intelligence, many of whom could never get University training in their own countries, will receive education … along with the expected ideological indoctrination." Engle denounced rounding up students in "one easily supervised place" as a "typical Soviet tactic." He believed that the United States must "compete with that, hard and by long time planning"—by, well, rounding up foreign students in an easily supervised place called Iowa City. Through the University of Iowa, Engle received $10,000 to travel in Asia and Europe to recruit young writers—left-leaning intellectuals—to send to the United States on fellowship.
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.
But it’s also an accepted part of the story that creative-writing programs arose spontaneously: Creative writing was an idea whose time had come. Writers wanted jobs, and students wanted fun classes. In the 1960s, with Soviet satellites orbiting, American baby boomers matriculating, and federal dollars flooding into higher education, colleges and universities marveled at Iowa’s success and followed its lead. To judge by the bellwether, creative-writing programs worked. Iowa looked great: Famous writers taught there, graduated from there, gave readings there, and drank, philandered, and enriched themselves and others there.
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.
So where did the money and the hype come from?
Much of the answer lies in the remarkable career of Paul Engle, the workshop’s second director, a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior whose accomplishments remain mostly covered in archival dust. 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 workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.
As for the hype, it followed the money and attracted more of it. The publishing moguls Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles Jr. conceived of themselves as fighting a battle of ideas, as they contrasted the American way of life with the gray Soviet nightmare on the pages of their newspapers and glossy magazines. Luce published Time and Life, Cowles published Look and several Midwestern newspapers, and both loved to feature Iowa: its embodiment of literary individualism, its celebration of self-expression, its cornfields.
Knowing he could count on such publicity, Engle staged spectacles in Iowa City for audiences far beyond Iowa City. He read memorial sonnets for the Iowa war dead at a dedication ceremony for the new student union. He convened a celebration of Baudelaire with an eye toward the non-Communist left in Paris. He organized a festival of the sciences and arts. Life and Time and Look transformed these events into impressive press clippings, and the clippings, via Engle’s tireless hands, arrived in the mailboxes of possible donors.
In 1954, Engle became the editor of the O. Henry Prize collection, and so it became his task to select the year’s best short stories and introduce them to a mass readership. Lo and behold, writers affiliated with Iowa began to be featured with great prominence in the collection. Engle marveled at this, the impartial fruits of his judging, in fund-raising pitches.
The Iowa Workshop, then, attained national eminence by capitalizing on the fears and hopes of the Cold War. But the creative-writing programs founded in Iowa’s image did not, in this respect, resemble it. No other program would be so celebrated on the glossy pages of Look and Life. No other program would receive an initial burst of underwriting from Maytag and U.S. Steel and Quaker Oats and Reader’s Digest. No other program would attract such interest from the Asia Foundation, the State Department, and the CIA. And the anticlimax of the creative-writing enterprise must derive at least in part from this difference.
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. You’ll read books about soft diplomacy during the Cold War, learn about the Farfield Foundation, and search for its name, on an abject hunch, in the 40 boxes of the Papers of Paul Engle at the Special Collections Library at the University of Iowa. You’ll exhaust those archives and also the ones at Palo Alto (where Wallace Stegner founded the Stanford program) and Tarrytown (home of the Rockefeller archives), tracing the relationship between creative writing and the Cold War. But even as you do, you’ll wonder about your motives.
Because you yourself attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before deciding to enter a Ph.D. program. At Iowa, you were disappointed by the reduced form of intellectual engagement you found there and the narrow definition of what counted as "literary." 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. You really believe this. But you can also see yourself clearly enough: unpublished, ambitious, obscure, ponderous. In short, the kind of person who writes a dissertation.
Were you right to be frustrated by the ethos of Iowa City, or are you merely a frustrated novelist? Were there objective grounds for your sense of creative stultification, or did the workshop simply not love you enough? Was the whole idea of your dissertation a guerrilla raid on the kind of recognition you couldn’t attain by legitimate means? And did the CIA really have much to do with it?
At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop between 1998 and 2000, I had the option of writing fiction in one of four ways.
First, I could carve, polish, compress, and simplify; banish myself from my writing as T.S. Eliot advised and strive to enter the gray, crystalline tradition of modernist fiction as it runs from Flaubert through early Joyce and Hemingway to Raymond Carver (alumnus) and Alice Munro. Marilynne Robinson (teacher) did this in her 1980 novel Housekeeping. Denis Johnson (alumnus) played devil to Robinson’s angel in Jesus’ Son. Frank Conroy (director, 1987-2005) had this style down cold—and it is cold. Conroy must have sought it in applications, longing with some kind of spiritual masochism to shiver again and again at the iciness of early Joyce. Such lapidary simplicity becomes psychedelic if you polish it enough. Justin Tussing (class ahead of me) mastered it in his prismatic novel, The Best People in the World. I myself, feeling the influence, revised sentences into pea gravel.
Second, and also much approved, I could work in a warmer vein—the genuinely and winningly loquacious. Ethan Canin (my favorite teacher) set the example here, writing charismatically chatty prose that, like the man himself, exhibited the gross health of the fortunate and tenderhearted. Your influences, if you tended this way, were F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, or anybody else whose sentences unwind with glowing ease. Cheever loomed as an undisputed great. Curtis Sittenfeld, in the class below mine, displayed this style and charm and unassuming grace in Prepand American Wife. Marilynne Robinson’s recent novels, Gilead and Home, turn toward this manner from the adamantine beauty of Housekeeping.
Third, you could write what’s often called "magical realism." Joy Williams (alumna, teacher) and Stuart Dybek (alumnus, teacher) helped to shape a strain of fable-making passed down to my classmates from Kafka and Bruno Schulz and Calvino or their Latin American heirs. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum was writing Madeleine Is Sleeping; Sarah Braunstein was developing the sensibility she’d weave into The Sweet Relief of Missing Children; Paul Harding was laying the groundwork for the enchanting weirdness of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers.
These first three categories were the acceptable ones. But Category 4 involved writing things that in the eyes of the workshop appeared weird and unsuccessful—that fell outside the community of norms, that tried too hard. The prevailing term for ambitious pieces that didn’t fit was "postmodernism." The term was a kind of smackdown. Submitting a "postmodern" story was like belching in class.
But what is a postmodern story? In those years, Robinson was already in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction, as were Jayne Anne Phillips (alumna) and Bobbie Ann Mason, model citizens of the M.F.A. nation. Joy Williams and Stuart Dybek were certainly not Victorians nor modernists nor best sellers. What was it that you weren’t supposed to do?
At the time I considered Freud and Rabelais my favorite novelists. Later I understood that I was being annoying. But I thought then, and still think now, that the three-headed Iowa canon frustrated as much as satisfied a hunger for literature that got you thinking. Iowa fiction, published and unpublished, got you feeling—it got you seeing and tasting and touching and smelling and hearing. It was like going to an arboretum with a child. You want exactly that from life, and also more.
People at Iowa love to love Prairie Lights, the local independent bookstore. 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, not just how icicles broken from church eaves on winter afternoons taste of asphalt (but that, too). James Wood did not yet loom over everything, but I wanted to make James Wood barf. At Prairie Lights, I would have felt much better buying the work of Nathan Englander (alum) if it had been next to that of Friedrich Engels. I felt there how I feel in bars that serve only wine and beer.
This aversion to novels and stories of full-throttle experience, erudition, and cognition—the unspoken proscription against attempting to write them—was the narrowness I sensed and hated. The question I wanted to answer, as I faced down my dissertation, was whether this aversion was an accidental feature of Iowa during my time, or if it reflected something more.
In July 2007 I returned to Iowa City for the first time since graduating. It’s one of my favorite places in the United States, and I’d always envied both those classmates who published quickly, earning a right to linger around the workshop after their time, and those who felt no shame about lingering despite failing to publish.
I sublet an apartment above a pizza restaurant I used to love and spent quiet nights at bars I had rowdy memories of. But the main business was research. Each day from 9 to 5, I visited the papers of Paul Engle in the university library, and in four weeks watched Engle’s life pass three times: once in the letters he sent, once in the letters he received, and once in newspaper and magazine clippings. Three separate times, as the decades slipped by, I watched a broad, supple mind in tune with its era harden into a tedious one, trying to attach old phrases and concepts to a world that no longer existed.
I was haunted and smitten. As only an ambitious and frustrated person can fall in love with an ambitious and frustrated person, I fell in love with Engle. His career was a long slow slide from full-throated poetic aspiration into monochromatic administrative greatness—a modern story if there ever was one.
At the beginning of the month I didn’t know what I was looking for, exactly. At the end I had a list of unlikely names, a file of ideological quotations, and the smoking gun of the CIA connection. Later, after gathering secondary sources and digesting the primary ones, I would have my thesis: The Cold War not only underwrote the discipline but also gave it its intellectual shape. This was the linchpin of the story, and it would take a long time to develop. That summer I was mostly just mesmerized by a biography.
Engle’s life, at least for a while, exuded pure romance and adventure: a boyhood in a Midwestern city still redolent of the frontier; a father who trained horses; an adolescence during the heady years of American modernism; a coming-of-age at the beginning of the Depression; the receipt of laurels for his poetry by his early 20s; travels in Europe as a Rhodes scholar; the witnessing of Nazi rallies in Munich; celebrity back home for American Song, a collection of brawny, patriotic blank verse published in 1934 and touted on the front page of The New York Times Book Review by a conservative reviewer; his undignified, typically American, and only half-successful attempts to befriend Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and W.H. Auden at Oxford in the 1930s, when those poets were striking poses as exciting young Communists; his conversion to Communism; his adoption of the role of the strapping American vernacular savant in the face of English reticence and snobbery; passionate letters to his future wife back home; a honeymoon in Russia; a homecoming so much less exciting than the voyage out; an American lecture tour; a job teaching at his alma mater, the University of Iowa; the strangely anticlimactic war years, including an unsuccessful bid to serve in the Office of War Intelligence; the panicked recantation of his Communist sympathies in the dawning days of the House Un-American Activities Committee; a marriage not long in its happiness; two daughters; the gradual assumption of the helm of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; the inexorable diminishment of his prospects as a poet; and the birth, in the iciest years of the Cold War, of an institutional vision that would transform American literature.
Engle longed, above all, for poets to move nations. His poems say it, and his papers do. I doubt he had a happier moment in his life than when he addressed Americans from NBC in London in 1934. "We stand on the thin and moving edge of our history," he crackled distantly to his countrymen, "where it bends down on one side to the irretrievable past and, on the other, swings outward to the flat plain of the future."
What was he talking about? He probably didn’t know exactly. Soon Engle would make the Communist conversion; soon after, he would convert back. His youthful exuberance could fit itself to the ideology nearest at hand. Sway, image, ethos, and glory attracted him: the raw power of words. In American Song, in 1934, when he was still a darling of the conservatives, he envisioned the American poet launching poetry into the sky like a weapon:
America, great glowing open hearth,
In you we will heat the cold steel of our speech,
Rolling it molten out into a mold,
Polish it to a shining length, and straddling
The continent, with hands that have been fashioned,
One from the prairie, one from the ocean, winds,
Draw back a brawny arm with a shout and hurl
The fiery spear-shaft of American song
Against the dark destruction of our doom
To burn the long, black wind of the years with flame.
What did this even mean? It meant that the poetic and the public, the personal and the national, could still fuse in the right words. It was a dream that, after 1939, would vanish almost as quickly as Communism in America.
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.
When Engle got back from England, the figure of T.S. Eliot—his hard poems, his oblique criticism, his antagonism to dialectical materialism—had long since embarked on its path to ascendancy on American campuses. The United States, the last power standing, would need some high culture of its own, and Eliot set the tone. The New Critics, his handmaidens, were waiting to infiltrate the old English faculties.
Within 10 years, modernism would win an unadulterated victory, and difficult free verse would sit alongside epics and sonnets on the syllabi. The day would belong to Robert Lowell, writing as a latter-day metaphysical. Engle—in his commitment to soaring iambic lines, to the legacy of Stephen Vincent Benét, to the open idiom that had so recently remained viable—would look like a has-been.
But it was not in Engle’s character to stand still or look back. His gut told him something that most educated citizens would have to learn from sociologists: that the postwar era belonged to institutions. The unit of power was no longer the great man but the vast bureaucracy. Eliot’s "The Waste Land" had satirized the bold lyrical speaker; that voice now sounded hushed, tiny, tragically diminished, none of which appealed to a mind as brawny and sunny as Engle’s. The unit of power was no longer the poem.
But it could be the poet as a concept, a figure, a living symbol—and therefore, implicitly, the institution that handled and housed the poet. Engle began working long hours at Iowa. His new poems, when he wrote them, merely burnished his credentials as an administrator, patriot, and family man. Many were sonnets, earnestly passé, and his audience included political patrons, present or prospective. (The politician W. Averell Harriman received flattering sonnets; after Kennedy was assassinated, and despite the advice of candid, unimpressed first readers, Jackie Kennedy received memorial verses.) Between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s, Engle transformed the Writers’ Workshop from a regional curiosity into a national landmark. The fiery spear-shaft of American song would take the form of an academic discipline. The fund-raising began.
Engle constantly invoked the need to bring foreign writers to Iowa so they could learn to love America. That was the key to raising money. If intellectuals from Seoul and Manila and Bangladesh could write and be read and live well-housed with full stomachs amid beautiful cornfields and unrivaled civil liberties, they would return home fighting for our side. This was what Engle told Midwestern businessmen, and Midwestern businessmen wrote big checks.
Engle borrowed tactics from the CIA long before their check arrived in 1967. At the time, the agency sponsored literature and fine arts abroad through the Congress for Cultural Freedom to convince the non-Communist left in Britain and Europe that America was about more than Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola. The CCF underwrote Encounter magazine and subsidized subscriptions to American literary journals for intellectuals in the Eastern bloc. Some of the CIA guys were old Iowa graduates from the early 1950s—including the novelists John Hunt and Robie Macauley—and Engle probably first connected with the CIA through Hunt.
By the mid-1960s, Engle had grown remote from the domestic workshop, and so lost control of it. He let it go its own way and founded the International Writing Program with the help of the Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh, who would become his second wife. In retrospective accounts, Engle presented this founding as a sudden idea, a spontaneously good one. But it marked the culmination of the logic of 20 years of dreaming.
When I was at Iowa, Frank Conroy, Engle’s longest-running successor, did not name the acceptable categories. Instead, he shot down projects by shooting down their influences. He loathed Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barthelme. He had a thing against J.D. Salinger that was hard to explain. To go anywhere near Melville or Nabokov was to ingest the fatal microbes of the obnoxious. Of David Foster Wallace he growled, with a wave of his hand, "He has his thing that he does."
Conroy hated what he called "cute stuff," unless it worked, but it tended never to work. Trying to get cute stuff to work before a sneering audience is like trying to get an erection to work before a sneering audience. Conroy’s arsenal of pejoratives was his one indulgence in lavish style. "Cockamamie," he’d snarl. "Poppycock." Or "bunk," "bunkum," "balderdash." He could deliver these quaint execrations in tones that made H.L. Mencken sound like Regis Philbin.
Conroy would launch his arsenal from his seat at the head of the table. His eyebrows were hedges out from which his eyes glowered like a badger’s. He would have hated that metaphor. His eyelashes remained handsomely dark in contrast to his white hair and sallow complexion. He loved one particular metaphor that likened the crying of a baby to the squeaking of a rusty hinge.
His force of personality exceeded his sweep of talent—and not because he wasn’t talented. By the time I met him, he had entered the King Lear stage of his career. He was swatting at realities and phantoms in a medley of awesome magnificence and embarrassing feebleness. His rage and tenderness were moving. I adored him. He was a thunderstorm on the heath of his classroom, and you stepped into his classroom to have your emotions buffeted for two hours. Nothing much was at stake, but it sure seemed like it. He was notoriously bad at remembering the names of students. If he called you by your name, it was like seeing your accomplishments praised in the newspaper. "Should we sit where we sat last week," I asked during the second week of class, "so you can remember our names?" "Sit down, Eric," he said.
What did Conroy assault us in service of? He wanted literary craft to be a pyramid. He drew a pyramid on the blackboard and divided it with horizontal lines. The long stratum at the base was grammar and syntax, which he called "Meaning, Sense, Clarity." The next layer, shorter and higher, comprised the senses that prose evoked: what you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and saw. Then came character, then metaphor. This is from memory: I can’t remember the pyramid exactly, and maybe Conroy changed it each time. What I remember for sure is that everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as "the fancy stuff." At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarefied and abstract.
Although you could build a pyramid without an apex, it was anathema to leave an apex hovering and foundationless. I’ll switch metaphors, slightly, since Conroy did too. The last thing you wanted was a castle in the air. A castle in the air was a bad story. There was a ground, the realm of the body, and up from it rose the fiction that worked. Conroy presented these ideas as timeless wisdom.
His delivery was one of a kind, but his ideas were not. They were and are the prevailing wisdom. Within today’s M.F.A. culture, the worst thing an aspiring writer can do is bring to the table a certain ambitiousness of preconception. All the handbooks say so. "If your central motive as a writer is to put across ideas," the writer Steve Almond says, "write an essay." The novelist and critic Stephen Koch warns that writers should not be too intellectual. "The intellect can understand a story—but only the imagination can tell it. Always prefer the concrete to the abstract. At this stage it is better to see the story, to hear and to feel it, than to think it."
Since the 1980s, the textbook most widely assigned in American creative-writing classes has been Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. Early editions (there are now eight) dared students to go ahead and try to write a story based on intellectual content—a political, religious, scientific, or moral idea—rather than the senses and contingent experience. Such a project "is likely to produce a bad story. If it produces a bad story, it will be invaluably instructive to you, and you will be relieved of the onus of ever doing it again. If it produces a good story, then you have done something else, something more, and something more original than the assignment asks for." The logic is impeccably circular: If you proceed from an idea, you’ll write a bad story; if the story’s good, you weren’t proceeding from an idea, even if you thought you were.
Creative-writing pedagogues in the aftermath of World War II, without exception, read Partisan Review, The Kenyon Review, The Hudson Review,and The Sewanee Review. They breathed the intellectual air of New Critics, on the one hand, and New York intellectuals on the other. These camps, formerly enemy camps—Southern reactionaries and Northern socialists at each other’s throats in the 1930s—had by the 50s merged into a liberal consensus that published highly intellectual, but at the time only newly "academic," essays in those four journals, all of which, like Iowa, were subsidized by the Rockefeller Foundation. John Crowe Ransom, who believed in growing cotton and declined to apologize for slavery, found common ground with Lionel Trilling, who believed in Trotsky—but how?
The consensus centered on a critique of instrumental reason as it came down to us from the Enlightenment—a reaction against the scientific rationality that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bureaucratic efficiency that made the death camps in Poland possible, and the materialism behind the increasingly sinister Soviet regime.
Ransom and his fellow Southerners had developed their ideas in the 1920s as agrarian men of letters resentful of the specter of Northern industrialism. Meanwhile, Trilling and his fellow socialists were reeling from all that had discredited the Popular Front: the purge of the old Bolsheviks in the late 1930s, the Soviet conduct of the Spanish Civil War, the nonaggression pact that the Soviets signed with the Nazis in 1939, and so on. These were chastened radicals who believed in the avant-garde and saw in totalitarianism the consequences of pure ideas unchecked by the irrational prerogatives of culture.
So the prewar left merged with the prewar right. Both circles thought that the way to avoid the likes of Nazism or Stalinism in the United States was to venerate and fortify the particular, the individual, the situated, the embedded, the irreducible. The argument took its purest form in Hannah Arendt’s essays about the concentration camps in Partisan Review.
You probably can see where this is going: One can easily trace the genealogy from the critical writings of Trilling and Ransom at the beginning of the Cold War to creative-writing handbooks and methods then and since. The discipline of creative writing was effectively born in the 1950s. Imperial prosperity gave rise to it, postwar anxieties shaped it. "Science," Ransom argued in The World’s Body, "gratifies a rational or practical impulse and exhibits the minimum of perception. Art gratifies a perceptual impulse and exhibits the minimum of reason." In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling celebrated Hemingway and Faulkner for being "intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life." Life was recalcitrant because it resisted our best efforts to reduce it to intellectual abstractions, to ideas, to ideologies.
Engle versified Ransom’s notions in the 1950s, and no doubt taught them. It was daily facts that would make the literature that fortified the free world: nuts and bolts, bread and butter, washing machines sold by Maytag executives who wrote checks to Iowa.
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."
From Trilling, Ransom, and Arendt to Engle and Stegner, and from them to Conroy, Almond, Koch, and Burroway, the path is not long. And yet that path was erased quickly. Raymond Carver, trained by writers steeped in anti-Communist formulations, probably didn’t realize that his short stories were doing ideological combat with a dead Soviet dictator.
Why has the approach endured and thrived? Of course, it’s more than brute inertia; when institutions outlive their animating ideologies, they get converted to new purposes. 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.
Specialization is also crucial, both for credibility’s sake and to avoid invading neighboring fiefdoms, and today’s creative-writing department specializes in sensory and biographical memory. The safest material is that which the philosophers and economists and sociologists have no claim on, such as how icicles broken from church eaves on winter afternoons taste of asphalt.
And it’s easier to teach "Meaning, Sense, Clarity" than old literature and intellectual history. Pyramid building fosters the hope that we can arrive at the powerful symbol of a white whale, not by thinking it up ahead of time, but by mastering the sensory details of whaling. "Don’t allegorize Calvinism," Conroy could have barked at me, "describe a harpoon and a dinghy!"
The thing to lament is not only that we have a bunch of novels about harpoons and dinghies (or suburbs or bad marriages or road trips or offices in New York). The thing to lament is also the dead end of isolation that comes from describing the dead end of isolation—and from using vibrant literary communities to foster this phenomenon. In our workshops, we simply accept it as true that larger structures of common interest have been destroyed by the atomizing forces of economy and ideology, and what’s left to do is be faithful to the needs of the sentence.
To have read enough to feel the oceanic movement of events and ideas in history; to have experienced enough to escape the confines of a personal provincialism; to have distanced yourself enough from your hang-ups and pettiness to create words reflecting the emotional complexity of minds beyond your own; to have worked with language long enough to be able to wield it beautifully; and 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. And people who attend creative-writing programs for the most part wish to write great things. It’s sick to ask them to aspire but not to aspire too much. An air of self-doubt permeates the discipline, showing up again and again as the question, "Can writing be taught?"
Faced with this question, teachers of creative writing might consider adopting (as a few, of course, already do) a defiant rather than resigned attitude, doing more than supervising the building of the bases of pyramids. They might try to get beyond the senses. Texts worth reading—worth reading now, and worth reading 200 years from now—coordinate the personal with the national or international; they embed the instant in the instant’s full context and long history. It’s what the Odyssey does and what Middlemarch does and what Invisible Man does and what Jonathan Franzen’s and Marilynne Robinson’s recent novels try to do. But to write like this, you’re going to have to spend some time thinking.
Eric Bennett is an assistant professor of English at Providence College. His book on creative writing and the Cold War, Workshops of Empire, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press. This essay is adapted from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach and published this month by Faber and Faber and n+1.