Doug Glover, for example

Novelist Doug Glover

I got an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1981, which is to me hardly more than a union card making it possible to get a teaching job in a university if a writer needs to do that to survive. There were 25 of us, fiction writers, in the group I went through with, and most of us started in 1980. It’s supposed to take about two years, four semesters, to get the MFA, which includes the time it takes to write the silly thesis that is required. I graduated one semester earlier because I got credit for the MA I already had, and I wanted to get that experience over with as quickly as possible. Of our 25, a few became published novelists, but I am only aware of five of us for sure. None of us are anybody you would know. The last one from Iowa who became somebody you would know would probably be John Irving, who finished just before we arrived, but was still hanging around.

The best writer in our bunch was doubtlessly Doug Glover. I have said this often enough that it won’t surprise him if he sees me write it here. In a literary sense, he is still the best of us. You ought to find out about him and more importantly you ought to read his books. You can find out about him here and also on his sort of teaching blog here. If you are inclined in the literary, especially the academic literary, manner, then you will find the latter blog to be especially interesting reading, even though it is more or less intended for Doug’s most fortunate students.

But actually, this isn’t really about Doug, per se. I have been thinking about different kinds of writers, and have sifted them down, only those who are still alive and actually publishing, to a handful of kinds, and then started wondering about our differences, and if those differences mean anything.

Doug Glover is a literary writer. He is a philosopher, a thinker, and a scholar. Thankfully those last three attributes did not handicap him as a writer. He, like me, has an undergraduate degree in philosophy. If you look at the blog he maintains for his students you will see what I mean. He thinks about these things and he thinks it is important. That makes him him a literary thinker as well as a literary writer.

Ken Kuhlken, mystery writer

I have another friend who also attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, but a couple of years before Doug and me — Ken Kuhlken. He was there when John Irving was teaching. Ken and I did not meet at Iowa, we met in southern California a couple of years after I finished at Iowa and had moved there to live aboard a sailboat and edit my second novel. Ken has a web page and blog, which you can find here.  We became fast and good friends in those days, and spent a lot of time together, much of it in the Princess of Wales Pub or in the little bungalow I moved into with my new wife because the boat was too small for us. A lot of commiserating about being writers, placated with a lot of whisky.

Ken and I had both at that time published one novel each. His was called Midheaven, and it is still my favorite of all his subsequent books. He had an idea for a mystery novel about a guy named Hickey, and this would become for Ken the core of every novel he would write over the years since; they are mystery novels, really good mystery novels, award-winning novels.

Ken and I lived nearby (more or less, for I lived in Coronado and he in La Mesa, on the other side of San Diego county, where he continues to live) for about ten years, and saw one another frequently. Then my wife and I took up vagabonding ways and have not since (1991) spent much time in the United States, and for many years I had no contact with Ken. After a while I happened upon the first of his Hickey mystery novels, The Loud Adios. It is quite a fine read, set in a period that interests me — the WW II years along the border between San Diego and Tijuana. A couple of years later, The Venus Deal appeared and continued the Hickey stories, now on-going with The Do-Re-Mi, which came out in 2006, about the time I had come back to seeing my novels published with Possessed by Shadows.

These are good mystery novels. But reading them I was surprised to find a strong Christian message underpinning the plot. I am pretty much opposed to religion, all forms of it, on general intellectual principles, and it surprised me to find so much religion in Ken’s work. We still argue this from time to time, to no result or purpose, really. We have agreed to disagree and not let it impact our friendship more significantly than great distance already does.

There were two women in our MFA workshop who published novels, the only two I am aware of, although there could easily be others. I know almost nothing about them or what happened to them, although I read both their first novels. I also don’t know if there were other novels. I wish I could find out.

Fenton Johnson, novelist

The third example I offer here is Fenton Johnson, who was in the group with Doug and me. I did not know Fenton nearly as well as I did Doug, and Fenton and I did not stay in touch, as Doug and I did, after leaving Iowa. I have read both his novels and one of his memoirs. Fenton is in Wikipedia. I think of Fenton’s work as that of a southern writer, in the spirit of Willie Morris, Robert Penn Warren, and certainly as expansive as Truman Capote. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona, at least he did the last time we had contact.

Fenton wrote the finest example of “the death of a friend” literature in contemporary times. It is a memoir called Geography of the Heart, published in 1996. In this book, Fenton describes the death from HIV of his lover, Larry Rose.

There are probably others from that group, and Doug or Fenton might have kept track and know who they are. I did not keep track. I followed the ones I thought were the best of us.

The point of this is my wondering about the various ways in which clearly literary writers by instinct go about their work and if that means anything? Doug is an academic, not only because it’s how he earns his keep, but it’s how he thinks, how he reads, how he evaluates, how he expresses what he knows; he is a scholar as well as a novelist, and I am often intimidated by the breath of what he knows and understands.  Ken, who possesses a fine, inquisitive mind, who also spent many of his lean years teaching creative writing, writes genre fiction (and damn well, of course), also fiction intending to illustrate what is to him an important set of beliefs. Fenton, even in his novels, is a memoirist, a writer of place and culture (Kentucky in his case), who also wants to say something about the character of human relationships.

I wrote a trilogy of war-adventure novels, in spite of the fact that while in my mind I was doing Conrad, what came out might be more like Rambo. My first novel was a psychological thriller, the second a polemic against fundamentalist religion (hardly disguised by the incest plot). Only after the books published since 2000, when I abandoned the pseudo teaching of philosophy and returned to book writing, do I think of my work in “literary” terms.

We four writers came out of the same academic environment and went our various ways. This is to be utterly expected, of course, and is hardly a profound pronouncement. These reflections began when I started reading entries on Doug’s teaching blog. Began when I noticed my surprising lack of interest in an academic or scholastic discussion of fiction and writing. I used to have that interest. I don’t know when it left or why it went. Maybe it’s because I have spent the decades since my student days far removed from the academy, and thus have lost the feel for it, or the taste of it.

And then, purely personal, I began to wonder how this might impact my work, good or bad? Am I a better writer (I think I am certainly a different writer) for my isolation from the higher forms of literary endeavor, or worse? Are there new things I should be aware of that I have been ignoring or of which I am ignorant?

This cannot matter to anyone but me.


14 replies »

  1. Thanks, Don. You’re a generous critic.

    Just to add to your list: three of my colleagues at the Vermont College of Fine Arts were with us at Iowa. Robin Hemley, Laurie Alberts (she was a year ahead of us) and the poet Claire Rossini. How we all ended up in one place is a bit of a mystery to me.

    Doug Glover

    • Actually, Laurie Alberts was one of the unnamed female novelists I mentioned — I read her Alaska fisheries novel. The other was Margie Erhard, or Erhart, her lesbian coming of age novel. I remember Laurie being in our workshop sessions. Did everybody but me end up in some university? I feel left out.

  2. I found your remembrance and interchange with old friends just fascinating. I am new to blogs and blogging and your conversation just lit it up for me. Thanks.

    • I think I am also new to blogging, in fact, I am still trying to figure out just what it is and if if is a valuable way to spend one’s time.

      I live somewhat isolated in Buenos Aires, the place of the moment, but it could easily be some other place and will be some other place in a year or so, so the only practical way I can keep connected to the world my friends and acquaintances live in is this way. If there is any real lasting value in the Internet, this is it, staying in touch with people you want to touch,

      That is why I would rather this be a conversation than a monologue, and the same deal applies to all … send me a post of our own conversation and I will put it up as a post. I would rather exchange than monologue.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment here.

  3. I’ll look into these writers. Thanks for the recommendations.

    On your old blog you inveighed rather strongly against MFA programs, if I recall correctly. Iowa being the most prestigious of these, if you are correct that only five out of twenty-five became published novelists, then just in practical terms, it doesn’t seem that an MFA does much for you. Would this strike you as correct?

    I majored in philosophy and often considered going on to graduate study, but my taste for visceral experience overwhelmed my desire to read very difficult and abstruse books. It has always seemed to me that the philosophy exists so it can be taught; that is almost its whole purpose. The same cannot be said of writing.

    I never had much desire to look into the higher forms of literary endeavor. The same drive that kept me from the (if you will) professional study of philosophy has kept me from the professional study of literature. It seemed that the study of philosophy in grad school devolved to the study of commentaries upon canonical texts, and attempted oneupmanship of said commentaries. Likewise the formal study of literature. Meanwhile the point of reading the great books in the first place (enlightenment, on the one hand, and aesthetic experience, on the other) was lost.

    I have never much wanted to stray from the books themselves. The endless convolutions of the commentaries just never seemed that attractive. It’s why the Gospels are better than the Catholic catechism. It’s why climbing a rock is better than watching a DVD about climbing a rock. Even in 3D. Why kissing a girl is better than watching porn in an Imax theater.

    Of course I’m biased because I’m also isolated from these higher forms of literary endeavor; but I like to think you’re not missing much, and neither am I.

    • With a background in academic philosophy, you may enjoy reading through the posts of Doug Glover’s school blog.

      I agree that I would rather tackle the original than some commentary about the original. I usually think I have the attitude of a tired old man and it has nothing to do with the world everyone else lives in.

      I think the gospels are mostly silly and pretentious and masturbatory. Catholics being some steps removed from the silly originals are sillier still.

      But definitely climbing a rock is better than watching it. And real kisses in the heat of passion knock the living socks off any substitute.

      I am isolated. Sometimes I tire of it, but most of the time I believe my isolation is the very fuel of my work.

      You will like Doug Glover’s books.

      • Oh, then there was Bob Shacochis–aren’t we up to maybe 10 or 11. And I know there are more. And another Canadian, a year behind us, Mark Anthony Jarman (a very good short story writer).


        • I thought Bob was a year ahead of us, and Mark you mention is a year behind. I am referring to our workshop class of 25. Who has published a novel besides you and me, Fenton, Margie and Laurie? There could well be others, but I don’t know who they are.

          And how many from our 25 have published more than one novel? I have seven. You have four or five. Fenton has two and two memoirs. Far as I know, Laurie and Margie have one apiece.

          This doesn’t matter particularly, but a lot of people write to me about what writers workshops actually do for you, and further, I am going to be participating in a panel discussion on writers workshops at the upcoming Buenos Aires International Book Fair (you should come, it’s the largest and longest book fair in the Spanish speaking world). I think Iowa offers a union card for teaching, and workshops are best avoided.

          If you know who else among our 25 starting in 1980 have published a novel, I’d like to know. I’ll find it and read it.

          • yeah, I was spreading the statistical core a bit. Well, Robin Hemley–books of stories, a couple of strong memoirs. There also was that tiny Jewish woman from New York whose name escapes me now. But I ran into her somewhere along the way and she had published a book about her family and the Holocaust. (I will remember her name eventually.) I am blanking on the rest. What about the guy who wrote The White Palace–was he in our class? Or a year ahead or behind?

            • Robin’s work surely counts, so there are six from our 25? I only vaguely remember the “tiny Jewish woman,” and only because you now mention her. I also cannot remember who wrote White Palace (from which the Sarandon movie was made?), but I am pretty sure he wasn’t in our group or I would have noted that when the book came out — I remember reading it back when.

              Other than stoking the fading embers of memory, I am not sure what value this speculation has, although I have gotten the question from time time … how many Iowa MFA students go on to write novels. I’ll bet such a statistic exists somewhere.

              • I guess it probably doesn’t mean much. I was just trying to remember who was around then. I hardly ever think about it. As for whether an MFA is a good thing or not, I don’t get exercised about it. There is always more than one path to the beach.

                • Yes, this thing I flitted through 30 years ago doesn’t consume very many of my memory nerve endings. But I am unusually often asked about it by people who are thinking of going to one or who wonder if it’s worth the time and expense.

                  The MFA is worth whatever you think it’s worth; for me, being there got me an agent, and that was more than enough.

                  What about that trip to Argentina?