Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How Iowa Flattened Literature

I'm so tired I can't even remember if I've read the entire article, but I did reflect a bit on the following two quotations from it:

"If your central motive as a writer is to put across ideas," the writer Steve Almond says, "write an essay."

I found this interesting because one reason I enjoyed Almond's excellent lead-off story from the Richard Russo 2010 Best of American Short Stories is that it does have ideas we can play with. They relate to the analyst v. analyzed, caution v. risk, card games and gambling, and fathers and sons among other things. I also appreciated the ideas in Almond's intro to the story, about the link between autobiography and fiction. Of course, "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched" has many other things going for it, such as strong flow, timing, and characterization. Anyway, I do like novels with ideas, if not precisely of ideas, and for me that's partly what I get out of Voltaire, Nabokov, Pynchon, Dostoyevsky, and others.

And then "How Iowa Flattened Literature," in a quotation taken out of context, makes Frank Conroy sound like the kind of teacher I hope I never become. Similar to John Gardner, Conroy is a man intent on validating realism at the expense of the experimental, postmodern, or other unusually good stuff, and it sounds like he would steer his students away from emulating some of the greatest American fiction.

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."

I've never felt a lasting need to uphold one kind of literature at the expense of another, but I hope if I'm ever accused of having "a thing" that I do, it means I've sold some books and not that I've done the unconscionable "thing" of 2014, namely criticizing another writer on my blog. Ugh!

Literature, that almost dead cult from which there's never any escape, while we're all stuck in sentence fragments, desperately waiting for James Patterson to send cash to keep us afloat.

(By the way, DFW is the only writer mentioned in the second quotation that I've never read although I've never finished anything by Gaddis. I love at least one novel or story by all the others.)

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