What influenced postwar American Literature?

Walk into a bookstore and pick up a highly acclaimed book. Look at the cover. Some of them have accolades like “National Book Award Winner” or “Pulitzer Prize winner.” That’s a mark of favor by the literary establishment, which includes authors, critics, literary agents, and publishers. It’s a signal that aspiring writers would do well to write like these authors. That the book magically met some Platonic ideal, separate from culture and politics.

That’s the lie. It isn’t separate from politics at all. The feminist movement has known that for a very long time, that “the personal is political.”

We just didn’t know, until last week,  that the anti-political stance, and the unwritten politics in work favored by the literary establishment was intentionally influenced by the CIA.

And not just the CIA. The CIA and other governmental funding is the sensational, headline-grabbing aspect — ooooh, Big Brother, scary government — but all the other funding, the funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and other private entities, probably left a much greater mark.

(If you’re wondering why, then the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is for you.)

I’ve spent a lot of time researching the ways foundation funding are warping public education. Here’s a little primer on that: The Lines of Influence in Education Reform by Dora Taylor and Sue Peters. That’s why it came as a surprise, but shouldn’t have, that the same thing would be going on with creative writing.

I’m quite sure somebody could do the same kind of analysis with literary fiction that Dora and Sue did with public education. They could look at how foundation funding encouraged some kinds of outstanding authors and not others. At how some writing programs, given foundation funding, were able to draw in literary agents to help some authors, and not others, get published. At how some authors, and not others, got teaching posts and inspired second and third generations of outstanding authors. It would be a fascinating read.

I’ll close with a quote from The New Yorker, one of the three or four flagship literary magazines, about the Iowa Writers Workshop, which received so much cash in the 1960s to promote its brand of writing.

And this, from the New Yorker: “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught” by Louis Menand

The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the most renowned creative-writing program in the world. Sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners and three recent Poet Laureates are graduates of the program. But the school’s official position is that the school had nothing to do with it. “The fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us,” the Iowa Web site explains. Iowa merely admits people who are really good at writing; it puts them up for two years; and then, like the Wizard of Oz, it gives them a diploma. “We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country,” the school says, “in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.”

That’s right: writers can be encouraged. And those who have the money can influence which ones will be encouraged and where they will go to school.

It’s time to drop the platonic ideal and realize that our views on art, like everything else in capitalism, are touched by cold, hard cash.

One response to “What influenced postwar American Literature?

  1. Pingback: The creative writing workshop from hell | Kristin King

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