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Iowa Writers' Workshop

Hunting the Snark, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story

programmes american robert fiction

the first (its origins go back as far as 1922) and most prominent of the large number of American university graduate programmes in creative writing, in Iowa City. These degrees, especially the Masters programmes, have had an enormous, yet hard to define, influence on contemporary American writing, especially poetry and fiction.

According to one estimate more than a quarter of the best-known writers in America have studied at Iowa at some point in their career. These former students include Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, John Gardner, James Tate, Robert Bly, Donald Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, William Stafford, Mark Strand, W. D. Kinsella, Sandra Cisneros, and T. Coraghessan Boyle. Teachers have included Paul Engle, Frank Conroy, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Philip Roth, Robert Stone, William Kennedy, and Grace Paley.

As this list might suggest, there is no Iowa School or movement, although the workshop is associated, rightly or wrongly, with the first-person lyric narrating an event. Fiction produced by workshop graduates might be categorized as an almost documentary realism narrated in a highly transparent style that eschews any foregrounding of language or narrative convention. Critics like Robert Peters (Hunting the Snark, 1989) claim that the preferred poetic style has tended to be bland, semi-autobiographical, cute pastoral (‘poets seem to boast perpetually of farm origins’). Yet the allegation of uniformity is misleading, since writers now associated with radical schools of poetry and fiction have also attended Iowa.

Iowa Writers' Workshop is recognized as the most salient location of the appropriation of literary apprenticeship by the educational establishments. The distinctive feature of programmes like Iowa is that they focus almost exclusively on the act of composition (hence the term ‘workshop’). For further discussion see Andrew Levy, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (1993) and Stephen Wilbers, The Iowa Writers' Workshop (1980).

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