Summary from Goodreads:
A vibrant history of the renowned and often controversial Iowa Writers’ Workshop and its celebrated alumni and faculty
As the world’s preeminent creative writing program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has produced an astonishing number of distinguished writers and poets since its establishment in 1936. Its alumni and faculty include twenty-eight Pulitzer Prize winners, six U.S. poet laureates, and numerous National Book Award winners. This volume follows the program from its rise to prominence in the early 1940s under director Paul Engle, who promoted the “workshop” method of classroom peer criticism.
Meant to simulate the rigors of editorial and critical scrutiny in the publishing industry, this educational style created an environment of both competition and community, cooperation and rivalry. Focusing on some of the exceptional authors who have participated in the program—such as Flannery O’Connor, Dylan Thomas, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. C. Boyle, and Marilynne Robinson—David Dowling examines how the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has shaped professional authorship, publishing industries, and the course of American literature.
A Delicate Aggression is an interesting read, but a very slow one and one that I feel wasn’t terribly cohesive in the end. I appreciate that Dowling comes from outside the Workshop (I can throw a stone from my office – ok, fine, I would need a slingshot from the roof of my wing of the hospital – and hit Dey House across the river, so this is all very local to me) but the way he chose to spotlight particular individuals during different directors’ tenures didn’t give me a good picture of the Workshop over time, how it changed or stayed the same. My major takeaways were:
- the Workshop method is WOW, abusive and resistant to experimentation or change
- it was a hella boys club plus booze, which I think most of us already knew.
I think a reader would need to know about the history of the Workshop already to understand this book, so it isn’t a good entry point.
There were also some obvious people missing although I’m not sure if some authors declined to participate in the interviews or how many declined. Alexander Chee has written about his time at IWW a bit so should have been a good inclusion during the Conroy era and if we’re going to talk about IWW graduates who write successful popular novels with romantic elements, Elin Hilderbrand was suspiciously absent from this narrative, particularly when the last two chapters are about Anthony Swofford and Ayana Mathis.
Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.