A quick roundup of recent best-of novels finds the workshop represented by the likes of former students Garth Greenwell and Alexander Chee.
More established former students include novelist Jane Smiley and masters of the short story Denis Johnson and Joy Williams.
Six years ago, author Chad Harbach wrote an essay about the two cultures producing the glut of literary fiction writers today: that of New York City media and publishing, and that of the university MFA program.
New York City has long been the hotbed of American cosmopolitan culture, and many of the country’s great writers from the very beginning, like Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Edith Wharton helped ossify New York as the closest thing the nation would have to a literary epicenter.
The only thing that could give the impressive student list of Iowa Writers’ Workshop a run for its money is its roll call of current and former faculty.
One of the program’s eminent teachers is novelist Marilynne Robinson, as well as poet Mary Ruefle.Its best-known faculty member currently is Nicholas Delbanco, a prolific novelist and essayist, as well as editor of works by the famous novelists Bernard Malamud and John Gardner.The Program is also the sponsor of the Zell Visiting Writers series, which brings distinguished visitors to the campus from around the country and the world.When President Obama met Robinson for a lengthy interview in 2015, the pair met not in Washington but in Iowa, perhaps signaling the veritable cultural pull such programs can have.Past writers include career-long teachers like Robert Coover, long-serving mentors like Kurt Vonnegut and Ann Patchett, as well as immensely talented writers who only dared to dabble in academia, but when they did set foot on the quad’s green grass, they choose the prestige and talent-draw of Iowa.Promising and talented young writers have a superb resource now that the masterful and accomplished writers of the day are more accessible than ever as mentors in the classroom.And it pays to note that in the last few decades, all fields have grown more accommodating to hypereducation, in everything from finance to medicine to wine-making.“We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country,” the program states, “in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.”Whichever side of this debate one drifts toward, an avid reader of 20th century American fiction will be hard-pressed not to find one of their favorite authors on the long roster of Iowa’s faculty and alumni.Flannery O’Connor, who graduated in 1947, was perhaps the program’s first breakout star, publishing her masterwork, , just five years later.Yet in the past few decades, a new titan has emerged, coming from the halls of higher education and graduate creative writing programs across the country.And of all of these, perhaps the most significant has been the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.