A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Here are some excerpts from this new book:

* Engle, the son of a horse trainer who regarded teaching as another form of athletic coaching, transformed the peer criticism component of Schramm’s method into a blood sport.

* When authorship became a sustainable occupation, certain commercially successful writers found themselves isolated from the literary community. Stephen King succumbed to this truth in his emotional acceptance of the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters award from the National Book Award Foundation in 2003. King saw this lifetime achievement award as a token recognition of his decades-long dominance of the genre fiction market and an unmistakable sign that none of his works were worthy of the highly esteemed National Book Award itself, regardless of his various attempts to write literary fiction of that caliber. Authentic acceptance among the ranks of the elite literati permanently eluded him, he realized. The stigma of genre fiction writing that prevented him from joining the ranks of great American authors “was still hurtful[;] it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning,” he confessed. King has long held a grudge against the establishment occupied by figures like Martin Amis and Michael Chabon, leaving him “bitterly angry at writers who were considered ‘literary.’ ” Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is a graduate of the prestigious creative writing MFA program at the University of California, Irvine, and Amis is the son of the literary lion Kingsley Amis, whom Time named one of the greatest British writers since 1945. King, without a degree like Chabon’s or a legacy like Amis’s, complained that these writers “seemed to have an inside track.”38 He is not mistaken that Norman Mailer and John Cheever, among others whom King revered and emulated throughout his career, all coursed through Iowa City and joined forces with the Workshop during their careers, the former in various visits and conference presentations, and the latter as a faculty member. Had he been armed with an Iowa MFA, King (the King of Shawshank Redemption and Dolores Claiborne rather than Cujo) might have been a force to be reckoned with in the literary world.

American culture has been so disinclined to canonize popular writers because it deems that commercial success should follow rather than precede artistic greatness, mainly because of the persistent myth of the starving artist. To starve for one’s vision and then attain wealth is acceptable, whereas the reverse is an execrable taboo. Most master narratives of literary history, especially those produced by the webmasters and memoirists of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, obscure the commercial concerns for promotion and publicity in order to highlight a mystified portrait of the literary artist’s creativity, a vision of authorship ironically at odds with Engle’s. But creative writing programs came of age when literature itself became show business, and Iowa was attentive to this shift. Resistance to or renunciation of that shift crippled fledgling programs such as Columbia’s, which until recently offered limited financial support for its MFA creative writing students on the smug assumption that writing was the bastion of the independently wealthy.39 Iowa, on the other hand, responded to the cultivation of consumer taste and the popularization of literature visible not only in the standard bearers of the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Atlantic, but in increasingly sophisticated popular postwar venues such as Look and Flair.

* The coupling of literature with commercial culture received similar flack from the Workshop students in 1972 who rebelled against their director’s mandate for professional publications, a decree they said was as American as apple pie and Vietnam. But complete renunciations of commercial measures of authorial success had their own liabilities, as seen in Melville’s illustration of the idealistic young author’s role in derailing his own career. Without a market to check and balance the creative writer’s ego, the Workshop student risked falling into Melville’s trap (figured through the fictional Pierre), in which he “imagined himself as high priest charged by god to bring forth Truth.”42

Workshop students subscribing to such a conception of authorship rooted in the myth of the solitary genius passively waited to be “discovered” at their own peril…

Formal guidance on publishing would be useful, perhaps in the form of a class dedicated to it, she argued, since eventually “many excellent writers are forced to learn” how to write for a mass audience, and “probably with no detriment to their career hopes.”43 Although no such courses would ever appear on the curriculum, the workshop method served in tandem with the program’s well-connected faculty as vehicles of professionalization within the institution’s larger culture, whose privileged inner circle Spargo had clearly not circulated in. An insider like T. C. Boyle would never ask that class time be dedicated to instruction on how to publish; such information was exchanged in the social networks between rather than in classes.

Creative writing program administrators have long faced the dilemma of whether and how to train students to pursue truth at the expense of professionalism and vice-versa. Truth seeking and professionalization, as Michigan professor Irving King claimed in 1908, do not need to be mutually opposed goals. “The truth seeker,” he argued, “is really the person who chooses, definitely and habitually to abandon the careless attitude in the sphere of activity in which he is engaged.”44 Aesthetic truth, King contended, could be transformed into a deliberate undertaking rather than a “careless” one reliant on a purely intuitive process of conjuring insight. Interestingly, creative writing programs originally distinguished themselves from basic writing associated with introductory English composition courses and standardized vocational training of journalists. Both were considered too rigid and formulaic to accommodate the more wide-ranging experimentation and modes of expression of creative writing.

* Resistance to the forces that mediate writing proved quite marketable, ironically, in several notable instances throughout literary history. The increasingly commercial condition of literary publishing is the subject of a contemptuous satirical novel called The Literary Guillotine by William Wallace Whitelock. In it, editors take over control of contemporary literature. “Writers may be relatively important, but it’s the editors, in the last analysis, upon whom literature depends,” a well-reputed publisher proclaims.46 In the nineteenth century, the publishing house of Roberts Brothers expressed the same sentiment with their No Name Series, which represented a backlash against the myriad editors, publishers, and agents creating and conditioning the reception and thus the reputations of authors.47 The purpose was to separate the text from the industry and to cleanse it of any distorting filter or spin of intermediaries. The stated intention was to restore the pure, unsullied relation between author and reader, liberating literature from a reception dictated by marketing campaigns on behalf of authorial name brands. The literature, and not its promotion and meta-commentary by blurbers and publicists, they insisted, should carry the day. But such pretensions were a thinly veiled scheme by which to entice readers into guessing which of the well-known writers, such as Louisa May Alcott, recruited for the series had penned each title. Emphasis inevitably gravitated directly toward authorial identity as the fetishized literary commodity.

* It thus came as a shock to her instructor Paul Engle when the bespectacled, nunlike O’Connor regaled the room with the erotic encounter of Hazel Motes, later to become Wise Blood’s protagonist, and the oversized African-American prostitute, Leora Watts. Engle promptly called his star pupil into his office for a one-on-one conference, where she immediately froze.3 The private confines of his car, he suggested, might provide a more comfortable setting for her to speak openly about her sexual experiences.

Engle and his protégée, the strongest of the first generation of writers to enter the Workshop in the 1940s, walked in awkward silence down the hall, crossing the parking lot flanking the Quonset huts that housed the program. It was with trepidation that O’Connor climbed onto the wide bench seat of Engle’s car for an intimate discussion with her mentor about what constituted an effective sex scene. “There, I explained to her that sexual seduction didn’t take place quite the way she had written it—I suspect from a lovely lack of knowledge,” Engle recalled. Despite his efforts to transform his car into the functional equivalent of a confessional booth, a private place for the budding writer to fully disclose her sexual experiences to him, she refused to comply.4 Her confession in this case was that there was nothing to confess. She had committed no personal sin, nor—in her humble estimation—had she committed a literary one in her fiction. Politely holding her ground, she swung the door open and stepped out of the car, bringing Engle’s tutorial in literary erotica to an abrupt end.

* But like many creative apprenticeships, O’Connor’s aesthetic development would not reach full fruition until she had figuratively killed off her mentor.

* Snodgrass’s self-possession is extraordinary in light of the Workshop’s active suppression of subjectivity. The program according to Engle derided introspective writing as a narcissistic form of talking to one’s self, or worse, an indiscreet public method of resolving psychological problems that should otherwise remain private. Many graduates from Snodgrass’s era simply stopped writing after enduring two years of the doctrine of depersonalized authorship.

* During his expensive therapy sessions his doctor ironically steered him away from questions “about those things where I could sound impressive.” His powers of poetic expression were stymied; “more often he asked me how I was planning to pay my rent.”

* Snodgrass’s greatest creative achievement came at his most vulnerable personal and professional moment. He was at the nadir of his precipitous fall from family man to divorcé, from precocious prodigy to failed writer facing the prospect of dropping out of the Workshop, given Engle’s withdrawal of financial support.

* MFA John Gilgun observed that Iowa Workshop alumni, unlike graduates of Grinnell and Columbia, remain in close contact in the manner of former students of the English public school system, except “We don’t meet in the House of Commons or in The Foreign Service; we meet in the foyers of publishing houses.”

* In an interview published in Look magazine in June 1965, Paul Engle blithely bragged that “out of the nearly 2,300 men and women who have labored in his workshops, only one ever committed suicide on the scene in Iowa City.” He claimed this was remarkable since “Beautifully balanced people do not become artists.” In portraying himself as the “bill-paying daddy to more poets than any man in the history of letters,” Engle carefully suppressed details about the deceased and their circumstances.

* Medical research “is confirming the long-held suspicion that there is a clinical link with important psychosocial implications between creativity and mental illness.” In particular, eighty percent of a sample of thirty Iowa Writers’ Workshop members studied by Nancy Andreasen “suffered from affective disorder compared to thirty percent of a matched control sample whose occupations ranged from lawyers to hospital administrators and social workers.” Shelley was not in a small minority, as Engle liked to suggest. Among the thirty Workshop members of Andreasen’s study, “Forty-three percent of writers had suffered from bipolar disorder in comparison with 10 percent of the controls.” Two of them committed suicide, totaling six percent of the sample.

* Jane Smiley: She distilled Melville’s technique of maintaining reader interest into a two-pronged strategy focused on “the inherent strangeness of whaling, and the author’s quest (expressed in his varieties of style) to exhaust the spiritual meanings

(((Luke Ford)))
meanings of obsession (or ‘monomania,’ as it was called then).” The length of the novel, she argues convincingly, is due to the time it takes to (re)train his audience. His novel “must be long,” she explains, because “it takes a while for the author to impart to the reader enough information to enable the reader to make sense of everything the author wishes to communicate,” much like Bach retraining his “listener’s ear and listener’s mind to his musical ideas.” She urges that the novel is worth the time and effort to relish “the double strangeness of Melville’s vision—the exotic locale and visionary ideas—above every other joy that novel can afford.” But in a “Note added later,” Smiley recants. She claims that despite its status according to many as “the greatest American novel . . . it clearly didn’t make enough of an impression on me” because she had “internal arguments with the author all the way through.” She wondered why she felt a duty to appreciate Moby-Dick despite not enjoying it, asking whether this was “because the concerns of the novel are extremely masculine and I really don’t care about them.” Revisiting the novel in an attempt to grasp it at a deeper level seemed out of the question. Such a rereading would be “like going out on another date with someone who was okay but not compelling the first time.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.