Fail Better: Literary Celebrity and Creative Nonfiction in the Program Era

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One of the more famous pronouncements of the consequences of fame for modern American authors came from one of modern America's most famous authors, Ernest Hemingway, in his nonfictional narrative experiment of 1935, Green Hills of Africa. In the opening pages of that text, Hemingway meets an Austrian named Kandinsky who, upon being introduced, claims, "Hemingway is a name I have heard," though it turns out his recognition derives from "some rather obscene poems" Hemingway had published in a German magazine prior to his American apotheosis.1 On the following day, Kandinsky asks, "who is the greatest writer in America?" And Hemingway (humbly) answers that, unlike Europe, the United States does "not have great writers. Something happens to our good writers at a certain age" (19). He then lists the "many ways" his country destroys its writers: "First, economically. They make money...Then our writers when they have made some money increase their standard of living and they are caught. They have to write to keep up their establishment, their wives, and so on, and they write slop...Then, once they have betrayed themselves, they justify it and you get more slop" (23). Hemingway's famous lament quickly became a canonical statement of the apparent paradox of literary success in the United States, a paradox with which he was intimately familiar: the economic benefits of mainstream literary celebrity undermine the ascetic lifestyle understood to enable literary quality. As Hemingway and many in his already legendary cohort experienced, economic success in the general field of cultural production can precipitate aesthetic failure in the restricted field of cultural production. Indeed, to many, Green Hills of Africa was itself a sloppy symptom of the decline it laments in its opening pages.

This pattern of declension was common enough to provide something of a template for representing the standard career arc of many modern American authors, both in kunstlerromans such as Jack London's Martin Eden (1909) and in real lives such as Jack Kerouac's (not to mention Hemingway's own slow-motion decline and symptomatic suicide). And it is not solely the burdens and distractions of sudden wealth that can paralyze the author, but the traumatic experience of celebrity itself, which is frequently imagined to have generated a phantasmatic public figure that haunts the private author like an evil doppelgänger. As Martin Eden famously laments: "Mart Eden the hoodlum, and Mart Eden the sailor, had been real, had been he; but Martin Eden, the famous writer, did not exist. Martin Eden, the famous writer, was a vapor that had arisen in the mob-mind, and by the mob-mind had been thrust into the corporeal being of Mart Eden the hoodlum and sailor."2 As I have argued elsewhere, Eden's decision to commit suicide at the end of the novel can be understood as London's attempt to exorcise this vaporous being from his own life.3 And the attempt would appear to have failed, insofar as London published little of quality after Martin Eden, and his early death from uremia at the age of 40 was rumored to be a suicide. Indeed suicide, either direct and immediate as with Hemingway's shotgun or indirect and gradual as with Kerouac's alcoholism, usually precipitated by writers' block, is a standard conclusion to the literary life story that begins with the ambitious and unknown American novelist striving for the very success that will destroy him (and it is usually, though not always, a him).

This pattern had become so prominent by the sixties that it prompted a junior editor at Houghton Mifflin to write a study of it. John Leggett, a WWII veteran and graduate of Philips Academy and Yale University who himself had literary aspirations, was intrigued by the sudden success and precipitous decline of two writers, both of whom had recently been published by Houghton Mifflin: Ross Lockridge, author of the magisterial quasi-modernist saga Raintree County (1948), who committed suicide shortly after its widely promoted publication, and Thomas Heggen, author of the enormously successful play, Mister Roberts (1946), who died soon after its release by drowning in his bathtuba rumored suicide. In his spare time, Leggett spent a decade researching their lives, looking for some common element, either in their personal histories or in the wider American culture, that could account for this dark side of literary success. The resulting study, Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies, was ultimately published in 1974 and is, somewhat ironically, Leggett's best-known book.

Ross and Tom is technically a dual biography, but Leggett opens by proclaiming, "I am a novelist and I believe that forceful biography employs all the techniques of the novel."4 Indeed, Leggett's frustrated ambitions as a novelist ultimately precipitated this biography of two novelists. As he explains in his preface, "sometime during World War II I decided to have my achievement as a writer. It took me five years and a fat swatch of rejection slips to find out how hard that was and, in frustration, to take a job with a book publisher" (11). It was in this fallback capacity that he learned of Houghton Mifflin's "mysterious double-doored legend of Ross Lockridge and Thomas Heggen" (23). By the time Ross and Tom was published, however, Leggett was no longer an editor with Houghton Mifflin; he was the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a position that he would occupy until 1987.

Leggett's career illustrates how the creative writing program provides the opportunity to leverage failure into a new kind of success. Another signal example is Frederick Exley, whom Leggett brought to Iowa as a visiting writer in the early seventies. Exley's precipitous success had come from the publication of his "fictional memoir," A Fan's Notes (1968), which meticulously documents its narrator's abject failure as an author (and a man), as well as his equally abject devotion to the New York Giants, and specifically their star running back Frank Gifford who, "more than any single person, sustained for me the illusion that fame was possible."5 As James Dickey, another Program-Era celebrity, notes on the novel's back cover, it "is the horrible and hilarious account of a long failure, but a failure which turns into a success: the success that this book is." The success of A Fan's Notes illustrates a sort of pre-emptive thematic appropriation of Hemingway's paradox; if success can cause failure, then failure, as a narrative trope, can result in success. Call it Beckett's law, which takes the writer's famous lines from Worstward Ho (1983) and makes them into a kind of slogan for the creative life.


It is a paradoxical slogan, and Beckett, who wouldn't have been caught dead in a creative writing classroom, is of course a paradoxical hero for the Program Era. Nevertheless, as Leo Bersani affirmed in his review of Martin Esslin's landmark collection of essays on the author in 1965, Beckett failed to fail quite spectacularly, receiving critical accolades over the course of the sixties culminating in that "great catastrophe" of winning the Nobel Prize.6 Beckett's perennial refusal to accept success thereafter became something of a model for maintaining an ascetic attitude toward all accolades, critical or commercial. Worstward Ho, his penultimate publication, confirmed the remarkable degree to which he'd managed to maintain this attitude throughout his life. Since then, "fail better" has, ironically, become something of a neoliberal mantra for success. According to Ned Beauman, it's a popular slogan "on T-shirts, mousepads, mugs, and posters" and is frequently cited in self-help tomes such as "What's Stopping You: Why Smart People Don't Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can, Innovation Leaders: How Senior Executives Stimulate, Steer and Sustain Innovation, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Great Customer Service, as well as providing the title for Fail Better!: The World's Worst Marketers and What We Can Learn from Them."7 And it has become a veritable philosophical principle in professional sports, with one prominent athlete, tennis player Stanislas Wawrinka, going so far as to have it tattooed on his left arm.


Stainslas Wawrinka's tattoo

It has also, as I've indicated, become an ambivalent motto for the creative class, and Exley's brief stint at Iowa indicates one way in which the creative writing program specifically enables writers to fail better. As he admits in his disappointing follow-up, Pages from a Cold Island (1975), which is called a "novel" on its back cover but which Exley calls "nonfiction" in his prefatory note, he had writer's block and was considering suicide when he got the offer from Leggett.8 And he concludes Pages with his visit to Iowa, most of which is taken up with drunken debauchery and lurid affairs with co-eds.

Leggett and Exley, in their contrasting but nevertheless complementary characters and careers, embody what I call the "visitors versus the home team" structure of the Program Era. Visiting professors to creative writing programs are generally more debauched, more predatory, more suicidal, and more famous than those who make it their permanent career. As such, they represent and perform a certain image of the literary life for the students lucky (or unlucky?) enough to be in the cohort contemporaneous with their usually brief tenures. Thus T.C. Boyle, writing about his time at Iowa in the seventies, remembers "Fred Exley swaggering in with two shining and beautiful students in tow [...] and a quart bottle of vodka, from which he was swigging as if it were a big cold translucent beer." Boyle says to himself: "here was a writer."9

The home team, on the other hand, represents the career that most MFA students will in fact pursue. These are the more sober, less celebrated, and less suicidal types. As Leggett affirms in the opening lines of Ross and Tom, "taking my life is inconceivable to me."10 But what was conceivable to him was taking a job as director of the Writers' Workshop, surely not a suicidal proposition but still a decision that subordinated his own literary productivity and acclaim to that of his students and colleagues, which is one reason it had been so hard to find a successor to George Starbuck, who had himself been deeply reluctant to replace Paul Engle, who had ignominiously departed the workshop in the mid-sixties (as I've argued elsewhere, succession can be a problem for writing-program directors).11 In the memoirs, both fictional and non-, which have emerged from the Workshop since then, we can see a new constellation of career arcs, and a corresponding literary mode to narrate them, for the contemporary American author.

Conveniently, two alumni of the Workshop during Leggett's tenure as director have taken the trouble to assemble an anthology of recollections and reflections from their cohort. Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer's We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop (2011) maps out this new literary environment, one in which failure is always an option but, as the relative obscurity of its editors indicates, an option that can blossom into an opportunity. Little known themselves in literary circles, Olsen and Schaeffer were nevertheless able to coax their more successful classmates and teachersincluding T.C. Boyle, John Irving, Sandra Cisneros, Marvin Bell, Jane Smiley, Allan Gurganus, Jayne Anne Phillips, Joy Harjo, and Leggett himselfto contribute, alongside many lesser known alums. Like Leggett, Olsen went into publishing, and Schaeffer was until 2009 the CEO of Fontainebleau Resorts, appropriately based in the city of Enterprise, NV. Far from a liability, this career swerve leverages Schaeffer's introduction, significantly entitled "The Creative Enterprise," in which he proclaims that "writers who can convince us of the real through the artifice of the story are similar to entrepreneurs," and boasts that his collaboration with Olsen resulted not only in the book we hold in our hands but also in "a new annex to the Workshop headquarters that bears" his name.12 Neither editor completed the novel he began at the Workshop, but as Schaeffer reminds us, "If there's one thing the MFA conferred, it's a lifetime Rolodex of authors" (12). He may not be a famous writer, but he can nevertheless leverage some success on the charisma of his cohort, which has become routinized as a signifier of the Workshop more generally.

This sort of reverse-routinization of workshop charisma, whereby the prestige of an institution rubs off on the individuals affiliated with it, in turn provides both the narrative structure and the consumer appeal of memoirs that emerge from and are centrally about the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I'm going to focus on two of these, both written by alumni who attended the Workshop during the tenure of Leggett's successor, Frank Conroy, a man who similarly managed to leverage his relative failure as a writer, having published little in the decade and a half after the celebrated release of his memoir Stop-Time (1967), into a successful stint as director of the Workshop. Both Leggett and Conroy, it should be noted, owe their claim to literary-historical renown to this role, as opposed to any of the books they published while they occupied it, none of which were terribly successful.

The first title I'd like to consider, Tom Grimes's Mentor: A Memoir (2010), can be seen as something of a template for this significant subgenre of creative nonfiction. Like his mentor Conroy, Grimes comes from a lower-middle-class background with success on his mind and a chip on his shoulder. His ambition is to write the Great American Novel about baseball. Somewhat awkwardly mashing up Fitzgerald and Melville, he opens by claiming he "wanted to rewrite The Great Gatsby" with baseball as his "great white whale."13 Initially, things look promising; not only is he unexpectedly accepted into the highly selective Iowa Writers' Workshop, but he is also awarded a prestigious Maytag scholarship. And Conroy, on their first meeting, tells him "if you want, you can have the best agent in America tomorrow" (23). The first half of Grimes' memoir ends with Roger Straus agreeing to publish his still-untitled baseball novel. He and Conroy jokingly, and revealingly, come up with possible titles such as The Great Batsby, The Fastball Also Rises, and The Mound and the Fury, before settling on Season's End (122).  But the novel fails, both critically and commercially.

Nevertheless, quoting Beckett, Grimes is grimly determined to "fail better." Indeed, his retrospective analysis of his novel's failure explains the genesis of the more successful memoir he has just written: "Selling the novel had been deceptively simple and effortless. But the novel no longer existed as a potential success. It was real and, by increments, it was becoming a failure...Over time it became clear to me that my confidence had all along been Frank's confidence. So deeply had I sought his approval that I never questioned his judgment. Which is why it's taken me twenty years to understand that our unexpected friendship, rather than my novel, was the real work of art" (131). Thus, quite literally, the failed workshop novel becomes the subject of the successful workshop memoir. As Grimes succinctly notes toward the end of his book, "Frank is the protagonist of my best novel, and my best novel is this memoir" (170).

And, like his mentor, Grimes was able to leverage his failure into a position as director of a creative writing program, in his case at Southwest Texas State University, where he became a successful administrator. As he boasts in his memoir's final section, "I was allowed to hire two well-published writers, and within a year secured an Endowed Chair in Creative Writing, which, to my astonishment, I began to fill with my literary idols...My bad luck as a writer had been transformed inexplicably to good luck as the program's director," a position he still holds (207).

The next title I'd like to examine, John McNally's novel After the Workshop (2010), provides a sort of satirical inversion of, as well as generic complement to, Grimes's memoir of the same year. Like Grimes, the protagonist Jack Sheahan enters the workshop as a golden boy, personally selected by director Gordon Grimes (a thinly veiled version of Conroy with an apparently deliberate reference to his favored student) for a fellowship. Then, when he gets a short story published in The New Yorker, it appears that he is destined for fame. But, as he laments in the opening pages, "my celebritysmall and dismal as it waswas short lived. Five short years after I had graduated, no one knew who I was."14 Like so many of his ilk, Sheahan remains in Iowa City, in his case as a media escort for the many famous writers who come to visit.

It is Sheahan's fate throughout the novel to suffer a series of humiliating encounters with writers more celebrated and successful than he is, which enables McNally to elaborate a sort of semi-satirical typology of Program-Era celebrity. Thus, Tate Rinehart, one of Sheahan's more obnoxious charges, is described as a representative type: "guys from New York in their early thirties, black plastic-framed glasses, black T-shirts, torn jeans. They were often finalists for, or winners of, National Book or National Book Circle Awards, frequent contributors to The New Yorker and Harper's, their bored expressions gracing the covers of Poets and Writers, their own writing often experimental and gratuitously gloomy but penetrable" (33). One of the key plot twists comes toward the middle of the novel, when Sheahan steals Rinehart's messenger bag, in which he finds concealed a coded set of notes wherein the successful writer contemplates writing a novel about the failed one. As Sheahan tells us, "The gist of it was that he saw ample fodder for fiction in my circumstancesnamely, someone who'd had great early success, but then spiraled into oblivion, working a shit job and living a shit life" (133-4). Tate's easily decipherable code is to write backwards, and his final sentence reads: "Himself killing from him keeps what?" which translates as: "What keeps him from killing himself?"(134). The simple code satirically indicates how easy it is to invert the question and leverage failure into success, which is how the novel concludes.

Sheahan confesses his crime and his discovery to another representative character, S.S. Pitzer, an older author who "taught in the University of California system for twenty years before his novel Winter's Ghosts hit the Times bestseller list, and then, like that, he simply disappeared" (101).  He mysteriously reappears in Iowa City, and when Sheahan tells him of Rinehart's plan, Pitzer immediately suggests the obvious, that Sheahan himself should write it as a memoir. Sheahan is dubious until Pitzer mentions the idea to a visiting publicist, who gushes: "He tells me you're working on a memoir...about your life as a media escort. About living on the margins. About writer's block. About the artist's life in the twenty-first century...You could sell that book for six figures. Easily" (204). The novel then returns to where it began, with Sheahan typing what will be his opening sentence: "I was a media escort" (257). The last section sports an epigraph from Winston Churchill: "Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts" (285): surely a fitting motto for a novelist hoping to leverage the latter into the former.

Program-Era celebrity, then, modulates Hemingway's paradoxwhere early success causes late-career failureinto Beckett's lawwhich renders failure into a sort of renewable resource for continued successand then institutionalizes it as both a career track and a narrative mode. Indeed, as these narratives attest, it is less the individual authors than the institution that has become famous. And this fact is interestingly engaged toward the end of both books. Mentor concludes with Frank Conroy traveling to Washington DC to accept a National Humanities Medal, not for himself but for the Writers' Workshop, the first university-based organization (and only the second institution) to be so awarded. After the Workshop also concludes with an event that comments on institutional celebrity, in a way that serviceably contrasts with the respectful treatment the Workshop receives from Grimes. McNally's novel winds up with a competitive poetry slam at The Mill (one of the traditional gathering places for Workshop students and faculty at the time), at which "someone from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics would read first, followed by someone from the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop, if there were any volunteers. The word famous, I realized, was going to be the night's recurring insult" (270).

Indeed, when it comes to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, fame is at least as frequently an insult as an accolade. Iowa's creative writing program has been maligned since its inception, and the more famous it gets, the more people, including many of those who went to it, seem to resent it. So if the workshop can make you fail better, it can also make you fail worse. Or, rather, it can fail you. Or, maybe, it can fail your pain? In any case, it's based in what I'm calling a structure of failing, and I mean this both in terms of the affective ambivalence that increasingly constitutes how its students and faculty feel about it and as a more properly socio-economic description of how it actually operates. The success of any creative writing program is in fact dependent on the failure of most of its graduates, and it is this unusual, even contradictory, structure that understandably generates the ambivalence many feel about it.

Olsen and Schaeffer suggest in their opening pages that this structure is Darwinian, not only in the sense that only the fittest can survive the highly competitive environment, but also in more explicitly sexual terms, insofar as "an ostentatious display of writing skills worked amazingly well as a mating ritual for an awful lot of visiting writers at Iowa."15 And the reminiscences from the women in their collection affirm the degree to which sexual and literary relations tend to become uncomfortably entangled in creative writing programs. Thus Joy Harjo claims, "I was told that some of the female students were picked on the basis of their photographs. Given the predatory atmosphere in the workshop between many of the professors and the female students, that didn't surprise me" (64).  And Sandra Cisneros reminisces, "I had a poetry teacher at Loyola who'd been a student of Donald Justice at Iowa. He told me I just had to study with Donald Justice at Iowa. I thought this guy, my teacher, was interested in me because he thought I was a good writer, but this guy sort of helped himself, too. We had an affair" (63). Like Harjo, Cisneros felt alienated and isolated in the Workshop, and it is not surprising when she concludes, "Iowa was an experience where I found out what I wasn't, where I discovered my otherness, and pulled myself away from who I was studying with and the kind of poetry I was reading to declare myself and what I was" (171).

It is to this dialectical reversal, this achievement of success despite of, but still ultimately due to, the Workshop that I would like to turn. It is a turn that takes us straight to Lena Dunham, who, not surprisingly, was a creative writing major at Oberlin, and whose first film, conveniently titled Creative Nonfiction (2009), was made during her senior year there. In this film we can see how writers who feel alienated or stifled (or harassed) in creative writing programs can nevertheless leverage their trauma and resentment in a narrative modecreative nonfictionthat reflects and refracts the pedagogical practices and philosophies, as well as the informing contradictions, of the Program Era.

Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham in Creative Nonfiction (2009)


Creative Nonfiction follows the efforts of a college senior named Ella (played by and based on Dunham) to write a screenplay about a high-school student who is pursued by her English teacher after she escapes from a cabin in which he has been holding her captive. We are shown clips from the planned film while Ella narrates it to various friends and classmates who are themselves entangled in social and sexual struggles that contrast in their authentic feel with the bizarre happenings of the screenplay (in which Dunham wears a variety of outré outfits and outlandish wigs). Nevertheless, the two narratives converge structurally as the screenplay moves towards its protagonist killing her pursuer while the film itself moves toward Ella (awkwardly) losing her virginity.16

In this short film Dunham deliberately appropriates the predatory practices and seduction fantasies associated with workshop culture and repurposes them in a narrative that confirms her own authorial agency. Thus it should not surprise us that, in her recent nonfiction bestseller Not That Kind of a Girl (2014), she is dismissive of creative writing programs. In high school, she tells us, "I wrote poems, sprawling epics with curse words and casual mentions of suicide that didn't get me sent to the school psychologist." And, upon entering Oberlin, she "was keen on becoming a creative writing all-star and had prepared a 'portfolio' of my poems and short stories for the head of the department." She instead becomes "the most combative girl in every writer's workshop." As she concludes: "I had begged my way in, and now I wanted out. But first I wanted everyone to realize what they were doing to us, these teachers. Draining us of our perspective, teaching us to write like the poets they admiredor, even worse, like them."17  It was in this critical mood that her first film was made.

So where does she go? Back to New York City, of course, where American writers used to go before Paul Engle decided an obscure college town in the middle of the country might suit them better. But Iowa City, not surprisingly, never fully replaced New York City, and the contemporary geographical dialectic between them has been conveniently illustrated in another recent collection, Chad Harbach's MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction (2014). In his introduction, Harbach asks us to read the collection "as a kind of jointly written novelone whose composite heroine is the fiction writer circa 2014."18 If such a heroine can be derived from the aspirations and anxieties expressed in the pieces that follow, then she is an over-intelligent and underemployed twenty-something narcissistic exhibitionist living in Brooklyn. She is, in other words, Hannah Horvath, and she's just been admitted to the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Girls (2012 - present), of course, is a successful TV show about a failed writer, and surely one notable aspect of Dunham's success (and in my opinion one factor in the backlash against her) is the way in which she appropriates traditionally masculine forms of abjection and humiliation not only from fiction but also from film, television, and stand-up comedy. Not surprisingly, the series is produced by the ubiquitous Judd Apatow, who has built an industry empire manufacturing real-world winners out of fictional losers. Like Apatow's many male leads, Dunham, leveraging success out of her alter ego's failures, continuously derives real-world pride from fictional shame. It was somewhat inevitable that Hannah Horvath, as a representative figure of the struggling writer during the Program Era, would end up at Iowa (especially since one of Dunham's co-writers is a Workshop grad). But, instead of saving her from suicide, it almost causes it as, after being humiliated both inside and outside the classroom, Hannah calls her parents to say she feels like killing herself.19

Clearly Lena Dunham is no fan of the Writers' Workshop; but then, few writers are. As George Saunders confirms in his contribution to MFA v. NYC, "there is something gross about a culture telling a bunch of people who are never going to be artists that they maybe are."20 David Foster Wallace, another representative Program-Era celebrity, exhibits a similar skepticism in a short piece excerpted from his longer 1988 article "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young." After conceding that creative writing programs, economically speaking, can be a "sweet deal" for both teacher and student (assuming the student receives a fellowship), Wallace quickly affirms that, pedagogically speaking, the "relation between fiction professor and fiction student has unhealthiness built right in."21 This is because fiction writers want to write fiction, not teach it, and therefore "pupils represent artistic time wasted" (76).  While fiction students also want to write fiction, this is not what they usually end up doing for a living, or even what they're being trained to do in MFA programs. As Wallace both glibly and gloomily concludes, "The only thing a Master of Fine Arts degree actually qualifies one to do is teach...Fine Arts" (78).  Originally published more than twenty-five years ago, Wallace's essay was intended to be cautionary, but given the nigh exponential multiplication of creative writing programs since then, it doesn't appear that anyone heeded his call. Rather, if this anthology is to be seen as representative, Wallace and Saunders's ambivalence has become internalized as the structure of feeling for writers across the country: a resigned acceptance of the creative writing program as a necessary evil, whereby an ever-expanding mass of mediocre writing subsidizes (while simultaneously threatening) a kernel of quality literature.

Thus it should not be surprising that Olsen and Schaeffer preface their last chapter on success and failure with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut: "Virtually everyone's going to fail. If you ran a school of pharmacy like that it would be a scandal."22 But if you run a creative writing program like that it's a success, and one of the things it's successful at is producing failures. So why does anyone apply? It is worth briefly returning to Grimes at this point, and his somewhat excruciating contribution to Frank Conroy's edited collection, The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers' Workshop (1999).

Tellingly titled "If I Could Be Like Mike" (the actual reference is to the protagonist of his novel, though obviously the reader is meant to think of the basketball legend who once famously claimed, "I've failed over and over in life, which is why I succeed"), the autobiographical essay opens with a symptomatic experience from the third grade. Repeatedly receiving "F"s on his handwriting assignments, he finally gets one back marked with what he revealingly calls an "identity-validating A," only to discover upon showing his mother that he has mistakenly been given another student's paper.23 He then claims that, "ever since, I've fixated on my sense of being a failure waiting to be unmasked" (58), a common feeling, if anecdotal evidence can be trusted, of those admitted to Iowa.  He hopes that "by putting a book with my name on it on a shelf I would arrive, I imagined, at a finished state of being. I'd be just like the writers I admired" (59).  Not surprisingly, it doesn't work. As he continues, "when the book arrives it goes, unread, directly on the bookshelf where I always thought I wanted it, staring at me from its snug spot amidst the spines of books authored by my literary idols whose work, whose names, always appear to me somehow more fixed, solid, more like they're attached to an identity than mine" (64).  In order to understand his failure better he turns to one of his idols, Philip Roth, who explains "the elusiveness of identity, how writing in the first person, conjuring up the illusion of an identity that is ostensibly 'me' might be the subtlest, most complicated illusion of all. Great. Not only have I picked the wrong profession, but I picked the one least likely to give me a clear, firm sense of self" (65). And surely Philip Roth can be seen as a representative Program-Era celebrity (of the visiting-professor type, of course), especially in the creation of his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, whose various failures have leveraged his creator's success over the course of his entire career. From writer's block to nervous breakdown to impotence (not to mention death), Nathan Zuckerman fails worse in each of his iterations, ultimately launching Philip Roth into a major phase that bucks the trend remarked upon by Ernest Hemingway.

The obsession with failure that permeates Program-Era narratives  call them kunstlerromans in reverse  reveals the degree to which the economic precarity engendered by contemporary neoliberalism informs the sensibilities and career paths of the creative class, if not the shrinking middle class more generally. At the same time, these narratives reveal the degree to which the creative class has generated a utopian fantasy for navigating the neoliberal economy. If the "American Dream" was the ideology buttressing the capitalism of the Fordist era, "creativity" has become the ideology of the neoliberal age, which explains why so many people seem willing to take a chance on an MFA.

"Creative Nonfiction" has emerged as a name for the genre in which this peculiar situation is most adequately narrated. It provides a convenient mechanism for linking fictional failure to actual success in a continuous dialectic, a sort of feedback loop produced by the difference engine that is the creative writing workshop and the careers it enables. And the dialectic is not only literary but also institutional, insofar as those who fail as writers can always teach writing. As Olsen and Schaeffer concede, "a teaching gig is about as good as it gets."24 On the one hand, the fact that "creative nonfiction" is emerging as the latest product of the Program Era simply affirms that the basic tenets of teaching creative writing"write what you know" and "find your voice"remain the fundamental dicta determining its pedagogical philosophy. On the other hand, one might speculate that it also represents the degree to which those dicta are congruent with the culture of contemporary celebrity as such. Insofar as celebrity can be understood as a fictional persona constitutively linked to a real person, creative nonfiction would appear to be the most appropriate term to designate the narratives that are generated by it.

Loren Glass is Professor in the department of English and the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. His most recent book is Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (Post*45 at Stanford University Press, 2016). 

  1. Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1935), 7. []
  2. Jack London, Martin Eden (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984), 453-54. []
  3. See Loren Glass, Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880 - 1980 (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 90-102. []
  4. John Leggett, Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies (New York: Penguin, 1974), 7. []
  5. Frederick Exley, A Fan's Notes (New York: Vintage, 1968), 131. []
  6. Leo Bersani, "No Exit for Beckett," Partisan Review 33 (1966): 262. []
  7. Ned Beauman, "Fail Worse," The New Inquiry, February 9, 2012. []
  8. Frederick Exley, Pages from a Cold Island (New York: Vintage, 1975). []
  9. Jessica Jenkins, "T.C. Boyle," The Writing University, April 26, 2011. []
  10. Leggett, Ross and Tom, 11. []
  11. See Loren Glass, "Middle Man: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop," Minnesota Review 71/72 (2009): 256 - 268. []
  12. Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer, We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011), 9, 11. []
  13. Tom Grimes, Mentor: A Memoir (New York: Tin House, 2010), 21. []
  14. John McNally, After the Workshop (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 11. []
  15. Olsen and Schaeffer, We Wanted to be Writers, 18. []
  16. See Lena Dunham, Creative Nonfiction (2009), YouTube video, posted by "N Nikalodeona," February 15, 2013. []
  17. Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of a Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" (New York: Random House, 2014), 169-171 []
  18. Chad Harbach, introduction to MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, ed. Chad Harbach, (New York: n+1, 2014), 4-5. []
  19. Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham, "Triggering," Girls, season 4, episode 2, directed by Lena Dunham, aired January 18, 2015 (New York: HBO Studios, 2015), m4v. []
  20. George Saunders, "A Mini-Manifesto," in MFA vs. NYC, 36. []
  21. David Foster Wallace, "The Fictional Future," in MFA vs. NYC, 73 []
  22. Quoted in Olsen and Schaeffer, We Wanted to be Writers, 248. []
  23. Tom Grimes, "If I Could Be Like Mike," in The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, ed. Frank Conroy (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), 57. []
  24. Olsen and Schaeffer, We Wanted to be Writers, 250. []