The first recent pop cultural nod was the news that the FOX TV show “24” features the character Ethan Kanin, named after Ethan Canin, a Workshop professor and author of “America, America” (“Canin finds place on '24' show,” Jan. 19) . The second came when “The Simpsons” offered a short shout out to the Workshop in an episode in which Lisa and her newest best friend wrote a “Chronicles of Narnia” spoof called “Equalia.” Lisa’s co-author described the novel as, “An ambitious first novel by the two brightest young writers this side of the Iowa Writers' Workshop” (“Iowa Writers’ Workshop gets mention on ‘The Simpsons,’” Jan. 26).
Neither reference is particularly surprising. Canin, who has a memorable name, is friends with some of the producers and writers for “24.” About the only deeper question to ask was why they decided to change the first letter of his last name from a C to a K. The “24” connection, in fact, is far less impressive than how Canin already has had several of his novels and stories adapted for either the silver or the small screen, including: “The Year of Getting to Know Us” (2008), “Beautiful Ohio” (2006), “The Emperor's Club” (2002), “Emperor of the Air” (1996) and “Blue River” (1995).
And “The Simpsons” … well … it’s surprising that the Workshop hadn’t yet been mentioned in swirl of low-, middle- and high-brow cultural references tossed out scatter-shot over the past two decades. I can’t imagine anyone would be surprised to learn that some of the show’s writers had applied – and been turned down – for the Workshop. It wouldn’t even be surprising to learn that the writers were Workshop graduates who haven’t been able to find other work.
No, neither a character’s homonymic relationship to a creative writing professor nor a throwaway line on a comedy show convey much information about the Workshop and its host city. All such references prove is that, when comedy writers need to think of bright and ambitious writing, they think that everyone will think of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Readers looking for more substantial – and highly critical – fictional descriptions of
*Workshop grad Steven Rineheart’s “Built in a Day” (2003), which Rineheart originally wanted to set in New Paltz, N.Y., but figured that would give his anti-hero too much access to a major metropolitan area;
* former Iowa City Councilor Larry Baker’s “Athens, America” (2005), a must-read for anyone everyone interested in Iowa City politics;
* former Press-Citizen staffer Mary Ann Madden’s “A Campus Death” (2008), which tries very hard but ultimately fails to recapture
* Workshop grad Steven Lovely’s “Irreplaceable” (2009), a heart transplant novel that alternates between
After arriving in
The sentiments help define the character of Jack, one of the many less-than-perfect men who become involved with Emily over the course of this short novel. He describes one colleague as, “okay, I guess. He wrote some good stuff twenty years ago, but he’s washed up now.” But such a description ends up falling back on Jack, whose fourth book is every bit as bad as it fears it is.
Yet the criticism of the Midwest doesn’t just come from Jack; it also comes from Emily and the omniscient narrator himself. The chapter begins, “
And the petty bickering that Jack both disdains and participates in doesn’t seem too far off the mark from the drunken, real life teacher-student exchanges Blake Bailey describes in his biography, “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” (2003).
Yates’ bitterness over his experience in shadowy Iowa City thus becomes a necessary part of an amazingly condensed novel in which he narrates 30 years of Emily Grimes’ life in a mere 220 pages – and manages to do so without skimping on any of the important details. The result is a very un-Workshop-like novel – one that tells a story as simply and as quickly as possible.
As a cultural event, the Iowa City chapters in Yates novel are not quite on par with, say, “24” naming a character Richard Yatezz or with Lisa Simpson working in clever paraphrase of Esther Grimes’ final line, “And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.” But in just a few pages, Yates simultaneously invokes the obviousness and the preposterousness of