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.
David O. Dowling is associate professor at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His previous books include Literary Partnerships and the Marketplace and Emerson’s Protégés. He lives in Iowa City, IA.
“[A] history of America’s most famous creative-writing program . . . [that] opens with the boozing, brawling John Berryman—he of the ‘blow-torch approach’ to teaching—receiving a punch from a student.”—Hermione Hoby, New Yorker
“[An] ambitiously scaled narrative . . . focusing on the tricky balancing act of turning out writers equipped for both commercial and literary success.”—Publishers Weekly
“This is a delightful and accessible overview of the workshop, its history, and its impact on American letters.”—C. E. O’Neill, Choice
“I read this in two or three days because I just couldn’t stop. It’s densely packed with information and well researched . . . disturbing and compelling. . . . If you’ve ever been interested in MFA programs or even just Iowa’s infamous workshop, this is a must-read.”—Jaime Herndon, Book Riot
“[Dowling] conveys both the brilliance of the writers and faculty as well as the often contentious workshop methods . . . His insights are unsparing and honest, his criticisms are founded on documented events, and his praise is appropriate and measured.”—Dennis Healy, Telegraph Herald
“This book provides readers with a rich history of how the nation’s most important writing program has had an outsized impact on American literary and commercial culture.”—David Haven Blake, College of New Jersey
“David Dowling’s A Delicate Aggression is irresistible reading. It is a fascinating window into the intimate workings of evolving talent and cross-hatching of competition and support in literary communities.”—Shirley Goek-Lin Lim, University of California, Santa Barbara
“A fascinating look at the way writers are taught how to teach themselves how to write. I spent six years in a similar workshop and can still hear their voices in my head.”—Steve Berry, author of The Malta Exchange
“Here lie the Workshop’s secrets, its lore, its pride and exclusions, its intimacies and competitions, its ‘innovations of the business of letters,’ its unapologetic and promising talents.”—Annie Liontas, author of Let Me Explain You
“David Dowling’s A Delicate Aggression isn’t just a meticulously researched and elegantly wrought history of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It is also an essential and acute portrait of American literature since World War I. And beyond that it is a compelling portrait gallery of some of this country’s most interesting literary personalities, an insider’s travel guide to Iowa City, and a compelling and propulsive read.”—Nickolas Butler, author of Shotgun Lovesongs
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