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Write stuff: The workshop that shapes American literature

The Iowa Writers' Workshop, on its 75th anniversary, offers a window into the state of American letters.

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Not everyone thinks they have. "Are MFA programs ruining American fiction?" reads the headline in one Salon.com article outlining a recent vitriolic debate between supporters and critics.

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Jeter (now Naslund) and Tate have done well. They aren't as famous as the big celebrity from our class, John ("The World According to Garp") Irving. But in 1992 Tate won a Pulitzer. Seven years later, Naslund achieved a kind of literary trifecta: critical acclaim, a variety of awards, and genuine bestseller status for her novel "Ahab's Wife."

Beyond that, they are serious, thoughtful, and candid. I want to talk to them and others from our class, like National Book Award winner John Casey ("Spartina"), as well as people here now. Who better to help us look at the state of writing in America?

* * *

"It's strong," says Lan Samantha Chang, the Iowa workshop's sixth director and, as the first woman, Asian American, and graduate of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, superficially different from the others. But really Ms. Chang is very much in the Iowa tradition: a gifted writer herself, passionate about writing and the worth of writing programs.

I ask her about the latest antiwriting program broadside, a scathing London Review of Books piece by critic Elif Batuman with a title that tells you what's ahead: "Get a Real Degree."

Dr. Batuman argues that workshops encourage craft, not excellence, tolerate students ignorant of literary tradition, and encourage "cookie cutter" stories. Of the typical workshop story, Batuman says, "I probably wouldn't read it for fun."

Sitting in her office, at a wooden conference table, Chang sweeps an arm toward student manuscripts stacked neatly on each chair. "I have a student writing about a zombie. A postapocalypse novel. Stories set on an urban tennis court. Quietly observed stories. [They're] erudite and fun to read."

Chang doesn't want a reunion larded with self-praise – there will be some. She and her staff have planned two days of substance: a keynote speech, then two solid days of back-to-back panel discussions on thorny and traditional questions (The Writer as Outsider. The Future of the Short Story. Resistance to Poetry.)

They've included another tradition. For more than 50 years, writers and poets have met most Sundays, when snow isn't on the nascent cornfields, to wage war over slow-pitch softball.

"One time poets won nine years in a row," says Ethan Canin, the short-story writer and novelist. Mr. Canin actually went to medical school after the workshop but gave up medicine and now teaches at Iowa. "It's crazy," he says. "People dress like leprechauns.... I'll pitch for both sides."

Canin despises the cookie-cutter argument, using a term I can't quote. Yet Batuman isn't wrong about everything. Of course some students need to know more. She may even have a point when she says writing-program stories are not "fun."

The number of people reading serious stories and poems is tiny. "It's declining. Serious readership of fiction and poetry is 8.5 percent," says Chard deNiord, who came out of the poetry workshop in 1985, has published three books of poetry, and teaches at Providence College in Rhode Island.

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