.........................................................I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
[N.B.: Jeff Charis-Carlson, Opinion Editor, Iowa City Press-Citizen did respond to this blog in an email, informing me that the International Writing Program was not the same as the Writers' Workshop. Erroneously, I had thought it was and that was partly due to Merrill's drifting thoughts between the two. In any case, I admit having had that wrong thought and have altered a few statements, including the title of this blog (removing "cookie-cutter" and replacing it with "ESTABLISHED" since the IWP invites "established writers"). Charis-Carlson suggested an Iowa City resident write the counterpoint op-ed or that I truncate this blog to 500 words. I suggested, he publish the first 500 words and link it to this blog.]
A friend of mine from Iowa City informed me of an article written by University of Iowa International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill. The article concerned Merrill’s new title as “2008 Press-Citizen Person of the Year.” Press-Citizen was an Iowa City newspaper. Merrill had obtained that recognition by working to get the city named the “world's third City of Literature” by UNESCO. The first two such cities were Edinburgh and Melbourne. I read the article… and was inspired. "Just think, the first literary city in North America is little Iowa City," had said Merrill earlier in an interview. "Sure, there are still the New Yorks and San Franciscos of the country, but there's a way in which Iowa City has been quietly producing these great writers for years, and the world knows it."
Well, those "great writers" came out of the Writers' Workshop, not the International Writing Program (IWP). But what was a "great writer"? Far too many citizens—educated ones even!—were intellectually docile. They opened their mouths, said ahh or rather "great writer" or "established writer" or "poet laureate," then simply swallowed—no questioning and challenging at all!
According to Charis-Carlson: "Although the Writers’ Workshop continues to churn out MFAs, no one really graduates from the IWP. It’s an annual 10-week residency program for about 40 already established writers from around the globe. It’s a chance for them to meet with American counterparts, to give readings across the nation and hopefully gain some new material to write about."
But a thinking citizen would have to ask what "established" means and implies, and which established “American counterparts” the international “established writers” got to meet. Certainly, they would not get to meet me because I was not "established," at least not in the established-order sense. Indeed, "established" generally indicated that a writer did not overtly question and challenge the established order, which was why it tended to accord him/her prizes, invitations, and publication opportunities. The logic was clearly there.
When a college professor became anointed “person of the year,” as in the case of Merrill, a red flag ought to be raised immediately in the minds of thinking citizens because such a designation likely indicated the professor in question tended not to make waves, not to go against the established-order grain, not to buck the literary system, and not to question and challenge the hands of power that fed him security and money, including the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce. Now, what kind of college professor would that make? Well, in these trying times for democracy, it tended to make a rather common and poor one, though well remunerated.
Oddly, Merrill vaunted his modesty—half of the op-ed concerned that purported character trait: “I confess that when my name was put forth as a candidate for the Press-Citizen Person of the Year I was mortified. After all, I wrote a book about Christian monasticism, and if I learned anything from the monks on Mount Athos, in northern Greece, it is the virtue of humility. And if I am not unaccustomed to appearing on stage, I am by temperament more comfortable introducing and interviewing writers than being in the spotlight.”
Yet Merrill certainly could have rejected the honor and made a statement similar to the one made by Emerson above. Indeed, if he cherished modesty so much, as he underscored over and again, then why had he directed the push to adorn his city with such an immodest, vainglorious title? In fact, why would a truly modest man have adorned titles himself, as in full professor or program director or Dr.? What might his monk friends think of those titles?
“More than once he [a Scottish military monitor Merrill had met] said, ‘I have no wish to go down as anybody in history.’ My favorite writer is named Anonymous—and so it is a little disconcerting for me to stand before you now,” wrote Merrill. A questioning citizen would have had to wonder, however, why Merrill’s IWP likely invited anyone (i.e., "established") but Anonymous. Merrill himself enumerated in the op-ed the non-Anonymous writers issued from the Writers' Workshop, including Vonnegut and Graham. Besides, imagine all the politicking and turning of a blind eye it took for Merrill to rise in the dubious, though collegial, ranks of academe to become a Director of a state academic program?
“What is a writer anyway?” asked Merrill. He then answered the question in a fluffy, innocuous sort of academic way: “Someone who works in our common medium—the language—to reveal the contours, nuances and textures of our time here below; to find meaning in the tangled web of our experience; to delight and instruct, console and inspire [but not to expose and “speak the rude truth” about IWP and its writing instructors!]. And it is the writer's responsibility to name the world, as Adam named the animals in the Garden of Eden.”
Perhaps I stood at antipodes to Merrill. For me, a writer was someone who dared let his “life be a counterfriction to stop the machine” (Thoreau), who “goes upright and vital, and speaks the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson), and "who must never cease warring with it [the machine], for its sake and for his own” (James Baldwin). Part of the machine in question was of course the very academic/literary established order of which Merrill formed an integral component. Did the IWP offer the other side of the coin of what a writer ought? That was the question citizens of Iowa City should be posing, as opposed to what kind of signs and events the city and university ought to be erecting and sponsoring in a modest effort to vaunt the new vainglorious designation.
Merrill noted that “insight into the nature of the creative process” was “a core mission of the writing programs at the University of Iowa, which offer different ways of understanding the production of poems and plays, novels and nonfiction works. And what they have made is a community that fosters creativity.”
Well, that sounded fine and dandy, but one must wonder what ways might have been purposefully ignored if not suppressed and what forms of “creativity” not favored by the “community,” including and especially criticism of the “community” (e.g., University of Iowa).
“Exploration leads to expression, which leads to more exploration—a rich environment for everyone,” stated Merrill in quasi-religious exaltation regarding the writing programs at University of Iowa. Beware the leader, however, who states “everyone”! My “expression” was certainly not welcome by “everyone.” Certainly, it would not be welcome by the IWP, which would hardly consider it beneficial to the IWP’s “rich environment.” Ah, but I was not a graduate of one of the writing programs; I’d actually learned to question and challenge! Writers who exalted writing as something quasi-religious or godlike exalted themselves by doing so. Why the need for self-exaltation, especially for a self-professed modest Director?
What Merrill wrote under the section “Literature and Democracy” was distressing, to say the least. An honest academic would have simply avoided addressing the subject. UNESCO handed a cookie to Iowa City, so the professors of University of Iowa would now likely have to remain silent regarding the dark side of UNESCO. “I am grateful to have had the chance to point UNESCO toward the source of our vitality—the spring from which writers drink with the hope of creating works that will outlast them,” boasted Merrill. But The Guardian noted regarding UNESCO some time ago (see www.guardian.co.uk/world/1999/oct/18/jonhenley1) that “Such cronyism reaches into almost every corner of Unesco, according to young professionals who despair of salvaging the organisation they work for. Nepotism is also rife, they say, after watching well-paid jobs go to mistresses and family members.” One must wonder what kind of University of Iowa horse trading went on behind the scenes with UNESCO! Indeed, and when it comes to horse trading, how not to think of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich?
Perhaps it was high time we cleaned up our democratic act before bragging about it overseas. Hopefully, Merrill’s Syrian students of yesteryear were sufficiently intelligent to realize that America was ruled by wealthy elites, corrupted by powerful corporate lobbyists, and otherwise intellectually castrated by tenure in its universities. American democracy had indeed become quite limited. Few American universities today, if any, are following the model of Thoreau and Emerson. Today, they follow the model of AIG, Merrill Lynch, City Group, Enron, and Worldcom (i.e., growth, growth, growth and image, image, image).
“It is said that the genius of the workshop lies in its democratic vision of literature—that you need not be descended from great wealth or privilege to participate in the invention of life,” noted Merrill. “It is said,” but who the hell said it? Perhaps one need not be descended from wealth, but to participate, one had better adopt the bourgeois taste and aesthetics of IWP and Writers' Workshop professors and, above all, avoid—like the proverbial plague—questioning and challenging them.
“And that is the beauty of the model that Iowa City has bequeathed to the world. For wherever writers gather to discuss a new poem or story, from Denver to Damascus and beyond, they follow the model developed here,” vaunted Merrill. But what was wrong with a fellow like him to make such a pompous, self-serving statement? I for one did not even know what the hell that “model” was, let alone emulate it, or use it whenever discussing writing.
The truth was that many professors in America, Merrill and cronies likely included, had all but excluded vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, from their ivory-tower agora of ideas. What they were good at was formulating campus speech codes to help bolster them as campus power mongers and buffer them from criticism (see “Public Universities Overwhelmingly Violate First Amendment” at www.thefire.org/Fire_speech_codes_report_2009.pdf). Open questioning and challenging of professors was generally prohibited. Indeed, it was a certain death sentence to a career in academe, whose literary journals systematically rejected any writing of a highly critical nature, especially where they were concerned. Professors tended to work hand and foot with business leaders, not with citizens.
Would the Press-Citizen even permit me to write an editorial on the subject? When in Louisiana as a professor several years ago, I had to fight tooth and nail over the period of a whole month just to get one such letter published by the Monroe daily, News-Star, in response to the 52 published weekly columns written by one professor glorifying his university (see www.theamericandissident.org/Op-Ed-NewsStar.htm). As for The Chronicle of Higher Education, it wouldn't even run such a counterpoint op-ed. Far too many newspapers and journalists today had sold out to become merry organs of the local Chamber of Commerce.
A year and a half ago, the Academy of American Poets, sponsor of National Poetry Month, censored my comments off its website and banned me from participating in its online forums. That story interested not a single newspaper editor. Also, I’d mentioned it to about 130 academic and pseudo-academic publishers of literary journals. Not one of them proved interested in it, let alone concerned about it (see www.theamericandissident.org/AcademyAmericanPoets-LitSurvey.htm). All of the Academy chancellors were tenured or retired university professors. Not one of them agreed with me that censorship was bad, especially when effected in the academic/literary milieu, the very core of the nation’s intellect. Famous Beatnik turned Academy Chancellor and tenured professor Gary Schneider refused to even respond. Would “person of the year” Merrill give a damn about that incident of censorship? That would be highly unlikely. Would the IWP like to hear about and discuss the incident during its poesy brouhaha ineluctably spurred by National Poetry Month in April? That too would be highly unlikely.
Finally, if graduating writing students of the Writers' Workshop were incapable of perceiving the truths emanating from the cracks in Merrill’s op-ed, then clearly it had failed them. If some of those students were in fact capable of perceiving, but would never dare write an essay such as this one for it would evidently be career damaging, then clearly it had failed them too. In fact, in both cases, a clear failure regarding democracy would be manifest.