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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Of course, readers of any book sometimes seem hard to come by. Forty-two percent of college graduates will never read another book, cover to cover, once they walk across the stage and pick up their diploma.Skip to next paragraph
Still, if you include novels or poetry of all kinds, the situation might not seem dire. Publishers still put out about 5,000 novels a year. In 2005, more than 2 million people bought Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" each month.
As for poetry? "There's hip-hop," says Jane Shore, grudgingly, also a workshop grad who now teaches at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and whose seventh collection of poetry is at the printers.
But Mr. Brown and rapper Rick Ross aren't the kind of writers the people here care about most.
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"One of the great novels of the age!" Chang says to the crowd, describing a book by the reunion's keynote speaker.
Marilynne Robinson climbs up some stairs, walks to the podium in front of a black curtain and into the bright glare of a spotlight. Ms. Robinson is the kind of writer they care about. They don't just cheer. They whoop for the longtime teacher and – yes – Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Gilead."
"There will always be skeptics," Robinson says of the workshop. "I'd be interested to see the evidence." She mentions a major magazine writer who quizzed her on something she seemed certain about: the decline of American literary tradition.
"She was British," Robinson says.
She gets her laugh. But not every pessimist is someone you can dismiss. What about author Philip Roth's recent gloomy assertion that in 25 years or so people won't read novels? Mr. Roth, who taught at Iowa from 1960 to 1962 and set part of a novel here, says, "It's going to be cultic ... a small group of people – maybe more than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range."
Mr. Casey is not that pessimistic. A third-year law student in the early '60s, he was writing stories under the tutelage of then-famous short-story writer Peter Taylor, who liked his work. One day, in 1965, Taylor told Casey to forget law – and go to Iowa.
"I'd heard of it," says Casey, sitting in the Charlottesville, Va., house where he's lived for the 38 years he's taught at the University of Virginia. Casey is balding, bearded, and, as someone who rows two hours a day, skinny. He remembers his reaction. "Why Iowa? Oh – Flannery O'Connor went there! That was that."
Full disclosure. I roomed with Casey for a year. I remember how quickly he established his brilliance at Iowa. He stuttered. The class, whether led by the virtually unknown Kurt Vonnegut or by the idolized Richard Yates, would wait patiently for him to unblock. It was worth the wait.
But Casey struggled for decades without the success we all expected. It was 10 years and two rejected novels before he published his first book. He suffered from depression, the devastating suicide of his talented student Breece D'J Pancake, and years of writer's block. In 1982 we might have counted him out.