N.B.: The URL for this blog entry was sent to over 65 English faculty members at the University of Iowa. It was also sent to the university's student newspaper. Will any of them respond... in the name of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy? See below for names.
A friend sent me an editorial from the Press Citizen, “Our View—Big Editorial Shoes to Fill at The Iowa Review,” which immediately grabbed my attention right from the beginning where the editorial seemed to praise the retiring literary editor, David Hamilton, for his rhyming of the names of contributors “arranged into four couplets and a tercet” on the back cover of the latest issue. Wow, I thought, could high-brow writing have really gotten that low? If that literary stunt were any indication of Hamilton’s purported “vision, energy and personality,” which helped create the “magazine's national reputation as a premier literary journal,” then we were indeed in trouble. On another note, journalists—as so many tend to be today—should not be in the business of hackneyed hagiography. They should rather be in the business of caustic questioning and challenging of the powers that be, both grand (e.g., Obama) and small (e.g., Hamilton).
The in-coming editor of The Iowa Review, Russell Valentino, chairman of the University of Iowa Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature (Hamilton will be continuing in that department as tenured professor), noted the journal had "a quiet quality […], contemplative as well as playful.” Could it get any more mind numbing? When big university literature becomes “quiet” and “playful” and praised for it, the nation may very well be in trouble… democracy may very well be in trouble! Imagine the likes of Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Emerson and Thoreau admiring those purported qualities! Literature needs to holler—it needs to be serious in these times of war all the time, corrupt corporate CEOs all the time, and PC censorship all the time.
If The Iowa Review is indeed “such a success,” perhaps we need to rethink what “success” has really come to mean. And if indeed the contributors and collaborators of the journal include an “impressive number of smart, creative, committed folks,” then we also need to rethink what “smart, creative, and committed” have come to mean. Indeed, apparently those glowing epithets must be reflected by the following sentences cited in the editorial taken from Hamilton’s story published in the latest issue: "The fish tasted fine, by the way, grilled, with chemicals infusing the olive oil and lemon. Maybe an occasional fish from the Iowa River is like shots I used to take as a kid, little bits of many things making my allergies manageable. But I wouldn't want to count on that."
What Hamilton writes (and likely teaches) is as banal and safely disengaged as it gets. Indeed, it couldn’t possibly offend in any manner whatsoever the proverbial old ladies amongst us. Perhaps we need to feel badly for the students studying in that English department. In fact, as a little experiment, I will send this to the University of Iowa student newspaper just to see if the student editors have been fully indoctrinated in the mores of the academic happy face.
“The magazine is an expression of his personal connections," noted Valentino regarding Hamilton. But since when did inbred result in quality? What “personal connections” end up giving us is less than best writing. Examine any given anthology of David Lehman’s yearly The Best American Poetry to see what I mean. In any case, with the likes of Hamilton and Valentino at the helm, we can be assured that the University of Iowa Writing University taskforce will not be recommending: 1. more risk-taking in writing, as in encouraging student writers to be critical of their immediate surroundings (e.g., the university and professors); 2. inviting dissident writers critical of the academic/literary established order; 3. writing against the “playful” happy-face grain and 4. real vigorous debate on the issue of writing itself.
According to the editorial, Valentino will be trying to balance the journal’s supposed “inclusiveness and high standards, humor and sophistication.” Yet how has inclusive come to mean excluding dissidence? And doesn’t “high standards, humor and sophistication” sound a lot like euphemisms for business-as-usual bourgeois good taste and established-order friendliness? Indeed, Hamilton will be reading at the Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber in an evident manifestation that writing and writers have become so castrated today that they are quite welcome by the nation’s politicians and chamber-of-commerce business FOLK.
Finally, that “very welcoming magazine” (i.e., The Iowa Review), as the editorial refers to it, would certainly not be very welcoming to those like me who do actually dare, now and then, “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson). In our wildest dreams, could we imagine The Iowa Review publishing this short essay? Of course not… and that, dear thinking citizens of Iowa City, is precisely what renders such magazines less than successful… at least in the eyes of democracy.
NB: Surprise! The student editors never responded.
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