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.
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.
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.