IowaLit 2: Fighting Ideology With the Singularly Unique, Jamming, 17/02/2014

Continued from previous. Yet there is more to the Iowa school’s rejection of erudite writing styles than the simple distrust of ambition and the humiliation that comes with failure to reach lofty goals. Because literary ambition is never employed for the sake of ambition alone, but to make a statement about human nature itself, which would employ literature as an ideological tool.

Eric Bennett’s article describes how the Iowa style of short story writing emerged from an ideological battle. Ideology, as it was originally used in the works of Marx, referred to a framework of thought that distorted one’s view of reality. There was reality according to ideology, and opposed to this was reality itself. But contemporary investigations of ideological phenomena have discovered that all thinking and practical action occurs within a framework of ideas about how the world is that helps constitute our partisan place as political and social actors.

According to teachers at University of Iowa’s creative writing program, and the programs across North America that followed its model, their style is about leaving beside abstraction. The pyramidal schema that Bennett discusses leads most students of the program to focus on evocative imagery and simple character development. It’s easy to achieve your ambitions when you set those ambitions low. If you try to write another Invisible Man, or Ulysses, or Lolita, you’ll probably fail, so don’t try.

But the culture that developed in the wake of Iowa wasn’t just tainted by that sad attitude of academics phoning in their work, curving their evaluations to their low expectations. Bennett also describes a disdainful and dismissive attitude in the Iowa program regarding stylistically, formally, and philosophically ambitious authors: William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace, all treated with derision. What strikes me about this is not so much that students were discouraged from emulating these challenging writers, but that the writers themselves were denigrated.

Your Iowa man sneers at books and stories that aim for the strange, ambitious, philosophical, and symbolic, while loving and fostering depictions of particular, contingent, specific places. There is a veneration of the microscopic over the macroscopic. I think, and Bennett suggests, that the foundation of this attitude lies in the  ideological aspects of the Iowa program’s development. Paul Engle, its founder, developed Iowa’s creative writing program as a means to defeat the Soviet Union, a political battle that was defined by its opposition to Marxism.

In a very simple sense, Marxism constitutes an ideology itself, a universal framework for understanding the world that can comprehend any phenomenon according to its terms. No matter what kind of activity under discussion, a dedicated Marxist interlocutor (at least one of Cold War vintage, little brighter than a human parrot) will interpret it as an expression of the class struggle against capitalist exploitation. Now, you might think that the best way to fight a universalizing ideology like this is to create one of your own, about the inherent superiority of market forces. That’s one way the old American Cold Warriors fought the Soviets, and you can see this ideology kicking into overdrive whenever you talk to a fairly doctrinaire young libertarian. 

But ultimately, fighting one theory with another theory doesn’t work. You’ll end up with a stalemate of opposed rationalizations, neither ever able to throw up a scenario that another can’t explain. No, the real way to oppose a universalizing ideology is to find exceptions: an exception to a universal ideology invalidates the ideology. You’ve found a place where an idea that supposedly applies everywhere doesn’t apply.

Alice Munro is a skilled author of some of the most
beautiful fiction works in literature. Yet she also includes
some of the most tired stereotypes of Canadiana: rural life,
the conflict of generations, characters who live event-less
So we now have, at least in a philosophical reconstruction, a goal for why creative writing programs in the style of University of Iowa’s focus so much on intensely detailed descriptions of contingent, specific images, places, times, and characters. These stories constitute moments and objects that can’t be generalized. Any attempt to interpret them according to a universalizing ideological world-narrative or philosophy always leaves some remainder, showing the inadequacy of the ideology to the real world. This is a brilliant idea.

Yet the idea still encounters the problem of triteness. Yes, you have a singular moment where the uniqueness of a place, moment, or character (or sometimes a combination of several or all of these) is so vividly rendered that it strikes a reader dumb. I found this structure almost inevitably in the works of Alice Munro. She is able to depict powerful moments, revelations of twisted pasts, and characters about whom I found my mouth dropping in shock. But beyond these portraits, there is little else. They’re stories of great beauty, but they have no majesty.

The conundrum speaks to where I find myself as a writer in Canada today, thinking about the relationship of my own work with that tired old concept of Canadiana. To be continued . . . 

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