Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 29, 2009
Do UI and Iowa City appreciate nonfiction writers?
By Jeff Charis-Carlson
"This is not an easy town to be a nonfiction writer in," University of Iowa professor John D'Agata told me.
D'Agata's observation was a small part of a meandering but still intriguing answer (what else would one expect from an essayist?) to a straightforward question about why the UI Nonfiction Writing Program decided to invite Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee and longtime radio host Michael Silverblatt to come to The Englert Theatre tonight.
"The university doesn't celebrate the genre like we do poetry and fiction," D'Agata said. "Yet I don't have a single student who doesn't believe that they aren't creating literature."
With the nonfiction program separated from the Writers' Workshop, D'Agata said his students sometimes feel cut off from their fellow creative writers. And our local UNESCO-recognized City of Literature likewise downplays the accomplishments of the many creative nonfiction writers with Iowa City ties.
That's why the Nonfiction Writing Program has developed a new lecture series and invited a number of writers to help assure students -- as well as persuade the city at large -- that nonfiction writing is a creative process. Beholden neither to a journalist's commitment to veracity nor to the strictures of academic argument, the creative nonfiction writer is free to produce essays that allow readers to experience the world -- essays that strive to "enact the world."
"If the critic fails to prove his case, then his essay is a failure," D'Agata said. "For us, it's quite the opposite. There are no promises made. No guarantees that answers will be found or that problems will be solved."
Yet these writers still have something to say about topics that go beyond their personal experiences. That's why McPhee -- author of more than 30 books of nonfiction -- is an ideal big-name author to help kick off a lecture series about the craft of creative nonfiction writing.
"Most of the writers in this field who try to integrate a certain kind of research probably do use McPhee as a model," D'Agata said. "He was writing something different than the literary journalists, the gonzo journalists, the Hunter S. Thompsons. ... The style of his long-form narrative, which he models after fiction, proceeds less journalistically than processionally."
Because tonight's event will combine McPhee, as a pioneer of the genre, and Siverblatt, as an expert literary interviewer, it's sure to provide some good literary conversation. But we'll have to wait and see if the event does anything to help the residents of our City of Literature -- not to mention the university -- to better appreciate the full range of the writers in their midst.
Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-887-5435.