Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Psssst. Have you heard? The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was a CIA front in the ’50s and ‘60s.
Oh, wait. No. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was funded by the CIA.
Sorry. No. Well, The Iowa Writers’ Workshop received a single grant from a foundation that really was a CIA front.
Or, not exactly. No. It was actually Paul Engle, the workshop’s second director, who “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.”
So says Eric Bennett, assistant professor of English (and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum) at Providence College. Prof. Bennett has created quite the firestorm with his provocative essay, “How Iowa Flattened Literature.” Above his byline is this addition: “With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.”
I began to salivate before I read one word of the piece. Bennett had me at “With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.”
Sadly, before you begin to salivate too, let me just establish now that the premise is not well-supported in the text, that the CIA help really was just the one laundered check, and that it only stands to reason that almost all American institutions were fighting the Cold War — during the Cold War. Bennett describes how Engle was pretty much a Commie himself back in the ‘30s but rapidly and rather urgently rehabilitated himself as the backlash got rolling, changing into a “do-it-yourself Cold Warrior.” Maybe it’s understandable that he got a bit ham-handed with his patriotic duties up through and including the Vietnam years.
I was hoping the CIA had a hand in manipulating the American post-war literary scene. It would be like learning now that the NSA is shadow-producing “2 Broke Girls.”
No such luck.
Unfortunately for him, Bennett gets his ass handed to him in this Iowa Public Radio interview from Feb. 12. He’s tag-teamed into hapless muttering by the end, unable to make his case — possibly because his case is un-makeable. But unfortunately for us, he’s also unable to make a more interesting argument about the history and effectiveness of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and other similar MFA programs around the country. I wish he could have pulled himself together for that one.
He does better in his own piece, which goes into how the teaching of creative writing since WWII has emphasized the detailed, the sensory, and the individual, how it has de-emphasized fiction of ideas, and how it has systematically directed students toward the preferred styles simply by disapproving of bad influences like Pynchon or Barth. Read about Bennett’s experience at Iowa. It’s worth the glimpse into how a director like Frank Conroy can intimidate his protegés into following “the right course.”
Sure, people go into MFA programs for different reasons, but I think they do it primarily to gain the prestige that can come of it, the connections, the mentorship, and the increased chances of succeeding in a difficult business. They do it for the teaching credential too, so they can write while teaching a few hours a week. A lot probably do it because that’s just what you do if you want to write. Doctors go to med school; writers go to Iowa.
Regrettably, there’s nothing to see here, folks. The CIA wasn’t inventive enough to turn our writing programs into propaganda mills. And the way MFA programs continually produce a certain type of writer is probably as much a market-based strategy as an aesthetic one.
So Bennett appears to be barking up the wrong tree with his theory about the CIA infiltrating a beloved institution of learning and pumping out generation after generation of willing stooges.
Maybe he should write a novel about it….