Episode 144: How the Cold War Shaped First-Person Journalism and Literary Conventions

Citations Needed | September 22, 2021 | Transcript

Citations Needed
46 min readSep 22, 2021
Iowa Writers’ Workshop staff David Pryce Jones, R. V. Cassill, Robert V. Williams, Richard Yates, Paul Engle, Mark Strand, Eugene K. Garber, George Starbuck, and Frederic Will at the University of Iowa in the 1960s. (Frederick W. Kent, via the University of Iowa)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. Adam, we are back for our new season, season five of Citations Needed. Can you believe it? This is episode two of season five, and I don’t know, I have to tell you, it’s September and I’m happy to be back.

Adam: Yeah, me too. We really appreciate all the support we have, and as always, you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast and check out our Patreon, and if you can subscribe there that helps to keep the episodes themselves free and keep the show sustainable.

Nima: “Write from experience.” “Show, don’t tell.” Self-knowledge. Self-discipline. Well-known conventions like these, whether delivered in classrooms, writing seminars or simply from one writer to another, often anchor traditional writing advice for literary authors and journalists alike in the United States.

Adam: While these conventions may seem benign and often useful, they also have a history of political utility. Thanks to a network of underwritten cultural projects and front groups, state organs like the CIA and State Department collaborated with creative-writing programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and publications like the Paris Review to cultivate and reinforce writing tenets like these. The aim: to focus literature and journalism on the individual, feelings, sensory details, rather than on community, political theory, and large-scale political concepts.

Nima: This, of course, isn’t to say subversive literature cannot be first-person and sensory, or that these modes of writing are per se conservative — but there is a well documented, long history of conservative, anti-left institutions pushing them because, on the whole, they veered, or at least were thought to have steered, writers away from the dot connecting, the structural, and of course the collective.

Adam: On this week’s episode, we’ll discuss the ways in which first-person journalism, solipsism and creative nonfiction, as taught and prized in the US, reinforce existing power structures, exploring how the Cold War-era history of state and state-adjacent funding of literary journals, educational programs, and other cultural projects taught writers to center themselves and inconsequential details at the expense of raising urgent political questions and notions of class solidarity.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Eric Bennett, author of Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War, as well as the novel, A Big Enough Lie.

[Begin Clip]

Eric Bennett: The creeds that culminated in World War II, fascism and communism, both deemphasize the individual and after the war, communism is in the ascendant and there’s programmatic Soviet arts emphasizing solidarity and collectivity, and there was a general feeling that the answer for the United States was to promulgate a kind of artistic expression on the individual level.

[End Clip]

Adam: So obligatory disclaimer before we begin, because this will obviously upset a lot of people who are in the creative writing world — that is not our goal — nor is our goal to say that every convention of creative writing is born from some sinister whiteboarding session in Langley.

Nima: Showing and not telling is actually good.

Adam: Sometimes. There are instances, of course, where good reporting can be first person, I mean, I could list a thousand examples myself, and of course, centering the self or one’s perspective is useful if one’s trying to get the position or the unique experience of a minority, if they’re doing reporting on medical neglect, police violence, homelessness, people with disabilities — we want to be clear that we are not trying to diminish the first-person narrative as such. We are, however, making an argument that during the Cold War in the 1950s and ’60s in particular, there was an effort to push first person narratives towards conservative or anti-left wing ends, and this is also a popular mode of journalism in contemporary settings as well, which we’ll also discuss. So with that qualification aside, I think we want to start by sort of talking about the cultural context and why the Iowa Writers Workshop kind of MFA-style of literature was promoted and funded by the State Department, CIA, and other soft power organs, specifically philanthropic foundations.

Nima: So the development of the genre of first person and quote-unquote “literary” journalism can quite clearly be traced back to the Cold War, as we’ve been saying, and more specifically actually, to the 1947 founding of the CIA itself, which was then largely populated by Ivy Leaguers. Now, according to author Francis Stonor Saunders, the United States sought to counter the appeal Communism had for many intellectuals and artists in the West at the time and cultivate its own reputation as a bastion of arts and culture. Writing in The Independent in 2013, Saunders wrote this, quote:

In 1947 the State Department organised and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled ‘Advancing American Art,’ with the aim of rebutting Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural desert. But the show caused outrage at home, prompting Truman to make his Hottentot remark and one bitter congressman to declare: ‘I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.’ The tour had to be cancelled.

The US government now faced a dilemma. This philistinism, combined with Joseph McCarthy’s hysterical denunciations of all that was avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing. It discredited the idea that America was a sophisticated, culturally rich democracy.

End quote.

Adam: Now, enter the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CCF, the ironically named Congress for Cultural Freedom, a 1950 CIA subgroup designed to sponsor anticommunist, left-leaning intellectuals in the United States, Western Europe, and eventually, throughout the world.

Nima: The CCF was the centerpiece of the CIA’s Cold War effort to effectively organize the work of anti-Communist artists and intellectuals, even very left-leaning ones, around the world. Headquartered in Paris, the CCF helped the CIA showcase anti-Communist voices that weren’t deemed conservative, right-wing or reactionary. Rather, most of the CCF’s members were liberals and self-described socialists. The CIA planted their personnel throughout the leadership of the CCF and its different projects, from funding lecture series and conferences to concerts and art galleries. In 1952, the CIA underwrote the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s European tour.

It was all part of the CIA’s anti-Soviet culture war. As former CIA officer Thomas W. Braden wrote in reflection in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1967, with the headline “I’m glad the CIA is ‘immoral,’” the US government was aghast that, in the early decades of the 20th Century, the Soviet Union and its Communist promise captured the support of many young Western intellectuals. Braden wrote:

First, they had stolen the great words. Years after I left the CIA, the late United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson told me how he had been outraged when delegates from under- developed countries, young men who had come to maturity during the cold war, assumed that anyone who was for “Peace” and “Freedom” and “Justice” must also be for Communism.

Second, by constant repetition of the twin promises of the Russian revolution-the promises of a classless society and of a transformed mankind-the fronts had thrown a peculiar spell over some of the world’s intellectuals, artists, writers, scientists, many of whom behaved like disciplined party-liners.

Thomas Braden (center). (Gerald Martineau / Washington Post/File)

In response, the CIA secretly financed many “civil society” groups, such as the National Student Association, along with bankrolling numerous socialist European unions in order to temper their radicalism and potential for going fully Red and guiding the Western intelligentsia away from Marxism and toward a more palatable, pro-American liberalism. “[I]n much of Europe in the 1950’s,” wrote Braden, “socialists, people who called themselves ‘left’ — the very people whom many Americans thought no better than Communists — were about the only people who gave a damn about fighting Communism.” At its peak, the CCF had offices in 35 countries.

Adam: Among many other projects, the CCF underwrote literary periodicals such as the famed Paris Review or the defunct journal Encounter. One of the founders of the Paris Review, Peter Matthiessen, had formerly worked for the CIA after being recruited by a professor at Yale. According to Joel Whitney, author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, Matthiessen admitted that, quote, “The Paris Review was originally set up and used as a cover for [Matthiessen’s] activities as an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Nima: The Paris Review, which has been lauded by Time magazine as the “biggest ‘little magazine’ in history,” launched in 1953 in the same European cultural metropolis where the CCF was headquartered. The same year, just in time to support the August 1953 CIA and Mi6 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, came the London-based Encounter magazine, initially edited by Irving Kristol, Bill Kristol’s father. While Encounter was the CIA’s flagship publication, it also produced the acclaimed The Kenyon Review in the United States, Preuves in France, Der Monat in Germany, Tempo Presente in Italy, Forum in Austria, Quadrant in Australia, Jiyu in Japan, and Cuadernos and Mundo Nuevo in Latin America, among many others. The CIA was essentially playing the role of an American Ministry of Culture, using literary magazines as a clandestine international propaganda network to bolster American intellectual and soft power.

Again, as former CIA officer Tom Braden wrote:

By 1953 we were operating or influencing international organizations in every field where Communist fronts had previously seized ground, and in some where they had not even begun to operate. The money we spent was very little by Soviet standards. But that was reflected in the first rule of our operational plan: ‘Limit the money to amounts private organizations can credibly spend.’ The other rules were equally obvious: ‘Use legitimate, existing organizations; disguise the extent of American interest: protect the integrity of the organization by not requiring it to support every aspect of official American policy.’ Such was the status of the organizational weapon when I left the CIA.

One of these so-called legitimate organizations was a CIA front “philanthropic organization” known as the Farfield Foundation, which subsidized much of the Encounter magazine’s budget.

But, the Farfield Foundation’s funding extended to academia, most prominently, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a creative writing program at the University of Iowa and one of the most famed incubators of literary fiction and journalism. The program, which was founded in the mid-1930s, continues to this day to be regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious creative-writing institutions. Its bourgeois bona fides are many: alumni include seven U.S. poets laureate and more than 40 Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as figures like Tom Brokaw, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and Phillip Roth.

Now, the Iowa program was extremely influential. After World War II, there was an explosion of creative-writing programs modeled, to some extent, after the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Cornell introduced their own in the late 1940s. Stanford’s creative writing program founder Wallace Stegner is reported to have written, quote:

I arrived at Stanford just as the GI students were flooding back. Many of them were gifted writers. They had so much to say and they had been bottled up for two or three or four years.

End quote.

Stegner was particularly inspired by a short story written by World War II veteran Eugene Burdick, who would in 1962 state, quote, “I’d rather be dead than Red.”

Adam: The relationship between the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the CIA began in earnest in the 1960s. The director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the time, Paul Engle — who we will talk more about later — feared that the Soviet Union would attract too many young intellectuals through its new international university in Moscow and indoctrinate them with communism. Believing the US needed to compete, Engle embarked on a trip throughout Asia and Europe, sponsored by the State Department and accompanied by Stegner of Stanford’s creative writing program, on a quest to recruit young writers.

Starting in the 1950s, this episode’s guest Eric Bennett has written, Engle raised funds from conservative businessmen and their philanthropic organizations, most prominently the Rockefeller Foundation. Engle promised that the workshop would instill a pro-US quote-unquote “democratic” and quote-unquote “free” anticommunist ethos in its writers. A 1960 issue of the Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa called Engle, quote, “a poet who ‘knows and loves’ America.” Unquote.

Nima: Aw. Now, accordingly, the Iowa program emphasized a sense of individualism and an emphasis on personal experiences and concerns rather than political theory and systemic critical analyses. It also established a set of stylistic standards that would further serve this purpose. According to Bennett, writers were taught to prioritize, quote, “sensations, not doctrines; ­experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies,” end quote. Similarly, Stegner thought a writer must be, quote, “an incorrigible lover of concrete things,” en quote, weaving stories from, quote, “such materials as the hard knotting of anger in the solar plexus, the hollowness of a night street, the sound of poplar leaves,” end quote. A novelist was to Stegner, quote, “a vendor of the sensuous particulars of life, a perceiver and handler of things,” end quote, an artist was, quote, “not ordinarily or ideally a generalizer, not a dealer in concepts,” end quote.

Adam: Yeah. Concepts are not what you want. You don’t want concepts, you want feelings. Bennett would also write, quote:

The publishing moguls Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles Jr. conceived of themselves as fighting a battle of ideas, as they contrasted the American way of life with the gray Soviet nightmare on the pages of their newspapers and glossy magazines. Luce published Time and Life, Cowles published Look and several Midwestern newspapers, and both loved to feature Iowa: its embodiment of literary individualism, its celebration of self-expression, its cornfields.


We later, of course, found out that Time magazine was, according to Rolling Stone in 1977, the Rockefeller Church Committees had several journalists on its payroll, but that’s a different episode.

Nima: Or not, right? I mean.

Adam: Well, yeah, we can do an episode on the revelations from Operation Mockingbird, but that’s, we won’t go down that rabbit hole, not unless we have cigarettes and Adderall.

Nima: I think this is such a critical point to make, and we’ll talk more about it with Eric Bennett later, he’s our guest on today’s episode, but this idea of recentering the cultural beating heart of America in Iowa, in its cornfields, in this field of dreams, really is in itself a very specific kind of ideological project, and I think it gets to, you know, we’ve discussed on this show before, Adam, what the “heartland” means, right? What the idea of “Middle America” means, and it’s this, ‘Let’s not be so beholden to the cultural products of our coasts,’ right?

Adam: Of the elites. Of the degenerates on the east and west coasts.

Nima: Of the Jewish communists or the, you know, Black jazz musicians.

Adam: Yeah. When you read some of the contemporary headlines, which we’ll get into in a second, there’s definitely a subtext of the, you know, the “heartland,” they don’t use that term, they use “Middle America,” that there’s this idea that the government and foundational and kind of conservative, foundational, philanthropic support, needs to make sure there’s cultural products emerging outside of the coastal elites, that kind of has this stench of anti-Semitism, certainly a stench of anti communism, which to be clear, not much of a difference in their perspective, especially at that time, right? To them there really wasn’t much of a distinction there, and that we needed to kind of cultivate, which makes sense, you know, to some extent, you sort of say, okay, well, the idea that the government would fund cultural products to propagandize in a war is not a, you know, it wasn’t really until the ’60s where that became considered gauche, or became considered the stuff of conspiracy. I mean, look at World War I, World War II, Hollywood from Wings all the way to the Frank Capra propaganda films of the ’40s against the Nazi Germany.

Nima: Sure, there’s why we fight but also his Hollywood output, of course.

Adam: Yeah, look at Casablanca, I mean, it’s a pro-war, anti-Nazi movie, which is great, because when it’s Nazis nobody cares, right? It sounds good, the government should fund that, that sounds swell.

Nima: Right.

Adam: So this was not an unprecedented thing, this was sort of taken for granted, and it wasn’t really until what they needed to do was start picking off the left, that the left didn’t want to be viewed, and they needed to distinguish themselves from the kind of 1984 model of sort of top down propaganda, that they then began to realize that it’s more effective if you do start to launder it through philanthropic foundations and be a little more sophisticated with how you hide it. It of course wasn’t till the 1970s and ’80s that we even realized that these things were front groups. In fact, the people who work for these organizations, as we’ll discuss, didn’t know, they were front groups, and they were promoting a certain cultural outlook, which was something that, again, had happened for decades, and it’s an extremely blurry line, you know, where do you cross the line from funding the arts to curating which arts emerge as being funded? I mean, it’s a very fine line, because once you start picking winners and losers, there is a certain ideological curation that happens.

Nima: There probably is no small coincidence between the Harlem Renaissance from the 1910s through the late ’30s, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerging in 1936, and having this refocusing on the American cultural product as coming out of our heartland, of our cornfields.

Adam: Yeah, you know, they have a problem. You have Langston Hughes writing love poems to Vladimir Lenin, that’s a problem, and you have to combat a Cold War with cultural products, and they did that very aggressively.

Nima: Now, Paul Engle, again, the head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when it really became very powerful, continued to advocate for the recruitment of foreign writers into the Iowa program and continued to raise funds from American businessmen. By 1967, Engle had co-founded the International Writing Program, known as IWP, at Iowa, complete with money from CIA front organization, again, the Farfield Foundation, and eventually, the State Department itself still a major source of funding. Other funders included the Asia Foundation, another CIA offshoot masquerading as a, quote, “international development nonprofit,” end quote. Engle’s co-founder and eventual wife, Nieh Hualing, was a Chinese novelist who’d fled to Taiwan following the 1949 revolution, later moving to Iowa.

Now, the press, particularly the local Iowa press, gave the Iowa Writers’ Workshop glowing press coverage, in which Paul Engle presented the IWP as totally nonpolitical, despite the fact that it effectively served as PR for the American project, especially a State Department curated anticommunist project. So for instance, on February 15, 1970, The Des Moines Register, out of Des Moines, Iowa, had this headline: “30 Writers ‘Find Reality’ In Program.” The article is by Michael Sorkin, and it says this, quote:

When Israeli authors Alexander and Yonath Jemed first came to Iowa, they knew almost nothing about the state. ‘I thought all Iowans were tall, that you had lots of corn here, and I knew Khrushchev has visited,’ recalls Alexander Jemed.

Four months at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City have changed their minds considerably. ‘For one thing,’ says Alexander, ‘the image of the United States as a spoiled country is not true. Iowa City is not New York or Chicago.’

The article would go on, quote:

‘There is good reason,’ says Engle, ‘to establish an international writers program in a non-political atmosphere like Iowa City. Only here can all of us talk easily and without prejudice.’

Adam: Paris Review had a similar kind of line, “we are not political,” you were not really supposed to have overt politics, that literary output must supersede politics. But of course, as we often argue, in the show, not being overtly political is itself a form of politics, which I know can seem a little dreary for some people, so what everything should just be like left-wing propaganda? To which I’d say not everything, but probably most things yeah, I mean, because that’s because if I’m going to fund art that I want to be kind of insipid and navel gazing, and not really challenge me, because I’m, again, I’m one of the billionaire philanthropic organs of the State Department, CIA, naturally, I don’t want to strip writing of politics, that would be something, one of the first things I’d want to do, which is, of course, not to say that politics or overt political writing is the alpha and omega of the human condition. It’s not, of course, but it’s certainly a mode of writing I would want to promote, which of course, makes total sense, especially when you want to provide an alternative, a cultural alternative, especially in Europe, because you got to look at the context, right, 1968, the government in France barely survives. There had been other challenges to the republic, there had been, obviously communist takeover in various parts of Europe, that the stakes were very high, and it had to sort of provide an alternative cultural output, otherwise, people would be drawn to the more kind of overtly left-wing doings that were happening in Russia and elsewhere. One of the things that all these kind of Iowa clippings is that they’re sort of, ‘They’re not pretentious, they’re not fancy, they’re not a bunch of eggheads, they’re homespun, corn fed from the heartland,’ which is sort of again, as we discussed in our episode on the heartland is kind of a retcon indigeneity, that it’s actually more American, that Iowa is somehow more American. Read: less Jewish, more white, less Black, et cetera.

Nima: So the Miami Herald did a lot of this kind of boosterism on February 14, 1973 in an article and had the headline, “Literary Breakthrough Foreseen,” with the subhead, “Russian Poets, Writers to Visit U.S.?” And in the article it says that, quote:

While Engle, as a distinguished poet in his own right, can approach poets and writers of other countries on a personal level to invite them to write and study in the U.S. under the Iowa program, such an approach is impossible in Russia, he said.

Although there are many details to be arranged, Engle said he hoped to have the first Russian installed in ‘The Mayflower,’ the international residence on the Iowa campus, by Oct. 1 this year.

First, he said, the Russian cultural representative — ‘a man of education, information and sympathy’ — might visit Iowa ‘to see our international writers’ program at work and see we are not a propaganda-making body.’

End quote.

Adam: ‘We don’t do propaganda here. We’re not like the Russians.’

Nima: Right.

Adam: ‘We don’t do propaganda. We’re all about the human individualistic experience.’

Nima: Which obviously somehow devoid of any ideological context.

Adam: Ideological choice.

Nima: Right. Now, an excerpt of Engle’s work was actually published in The Des Moines Register in 1980, and when I read this excerpt, note its reliance again on personal experience, which isn’t necessarily always bad, of course, the use of first person, but what it is trying to convey and, of course, this difference between the individual and the collective. Here’s the excerpt, quote:

Every Christmas should begin with the sound of bells, and when I was a child, mine always did. But they were sleigh bells, not church bells, for we lived in a part of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where there were no churches. My bells were on my father’s team of horses as he drove up to our horse-headed hitching post with the bobsled that would take us to celebrate Christmas on the family farm 10 miles out in the country, near Marion.

My father would bring the team down Fifth Avenue at a smart trot, flicking his whip over the horses’ rumps and making the bells double their light, thin jangling over the snow, whose radiance threw back a brilliance like the sound of bells.

Whose father now drives up on Christmas morning in such exciting style as mine did when I was a child?

Hualing Nieh Engle and Paul Engle, circa 1970. (Via The Gazette)

Adam: You see a lot of focus on nostalgia, and nostalgia, as we’ve discussed in the show, specifically in our country music episode, nostalgia as a mode of writing is very tied to sort of sentimentality, patriotism, cultural, again, nostalgia is very much part of the human condition. We are not saying it’s contrived, again, in a blackboard session at Langley, but there’s a reason why nostalgia gets hyper focused in the context of the creative writing programs in the United States because nostalgia lends itself to a kind of conservative ideology. I mean, almost by definition.

Nima: You mean the “Make America Great Again” ideology?

Adam: Well, yeah, I mean, or, you know, it’s not as if nostalgia as a literary mode is inherently conservative, but almost all conservative media, literature, film relies heavily on nostalgia. So again, the issue is not, are they making it up, the issue is emphasis. They are emphasizing a kind of literary mode that lends itself to conservatism.

Nima: Now, the approaches of Engle, Stegner and their contemporaries were majorly successful. Creative writing MFA programs were ballooning at the time. By 1975, there were 15 in the country. By 1994, there were 64. And as of 2014, there were 229.

Adam: Yeah, and, you know, at the risk of upsetting listeners who graduated from MFA programs, specifically those in Iowa, again, we want to be very clear that we’re not all calling you stooges, we understand that there are lots of nuances in this. In fact, our guest graduated from the MFA program in Iowa, which is why he wrote the piece, because he thought he saw some ideological holdovers from the Cold War that he thought were limiting the scope of creative writing, and wrote it as an intervention for other people in the MFA world to talk about what those kind of holdovers and writing tropes are and can be, and how they can maybe kind of limit how we view literature in an ideological way. He wrote several essays in a book on this subject. So I’m very excited to talk to him today.

Nima: We are now going to be speaking with Eric Bennett, author of Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War, as well as the novel A Big Enough Lie. Eric will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Eric Bennett. Eric, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Eric Bennett: Great to be here, Nima. Thank you for having me.

Adam: So yeah, as we typically do on the show, we want to start by kind of setting the stage to give some context to our listeners who may be unfamiliar with, for want of a better term, the Cold War cultural proxy wars. I think when one touches on the subject of CIA or US government influence and cultural production, a lot of people sort of become automatically dismissive, or kind of dismiss it as paranoia, conspiracy theory, etcetera, no matter how sober and how documented one presents the case. In an effort to kind of disarm people who may respond that way, we think it’s useful to kind of lay the context of the 1950s, 1960s United States and how artists working with the government in war times was not a new concept. It was fairly standard in previous wars, World War I, World War II, especially World War II, everyone knows, you know, Frank Capra made his World War II films, everyone in Hollywood sort of did their part, and in many ways, the Cold War for a lot of people wasn’t really any different — I mean, why would it be? — but it wasn’t really, I think it’s fair to say, until it kind of became unhip, or kind of seen as illiberal, or anti-left, or put the US on par with these totalitarian regimes in a kind of Orwell framework, that it had to take on more indirect or sort of clandestine methods, which is, I think, sort of where this cultural production that you write about comes in. So, I want to sort of set the stage if you would, and talk about the kind of war mentality in the ’50s and ’60s, and how some people viewed the sort of thought of Marxism and specifically Leninism as a kind of cultural war that needed to be fought in order to save Europe from, and to a lesser extent North America, from the grip of communism.

Eric Bennett

Eric Bennett: With the exception of a few very elderly people, almost everybody with a intellectual life these days is a product of the ’60s or ’70s or later, and the period that we’re talking about to begin the 1950s and the early 1960s just really culturally alien in certain ways, along the lines of what you just asked. So at that time, patriotic engagement with the arts was not a bizarre thing, it was actually a fairly standard thing, and it had precedent both in The WPA and the Federal Writers Project, creating the sense that the federal government could sponsor the arts, and also present in the Office of War Information during World War Two, when a figure like Archibald MacLeish, who was one minor modernist poet, could become a spokesperson for the federal government and overseer of American propaganda. So in the ’50s and ’60s, there was a whole lot of either federally subsidized artistic activity funded by establishment philanthropic organizations, they were just very different from the iconic classic sense of Reuters that emerges much more in the ’60s and ’70s. So thinking about the 1950s, there were a few things that were true then that just aren’t true now. People really did believe that liberal democratic capitalism might be the only possible solution to a globe torn by fascism and communism, and there are people who still believe that but they tend not to be writers and intellectuals on the left.

Yeah, so one way in which the ’50s were different was this affirmation by intellectuals across the spectrum of the United States as the people who are doing the right thing. So, a crucial text for that is Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center, which presents the American way as this thin isthmus of liberalism between these threatening oceans of fascism to the right and communism on the left, and only the liberals in the center will keep human beings from murdering each other en masse. Another way in which the 1950s were very different from the present, is there was a real revolving door between arts patronage, philanthropic foundations like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, the State Department, and covertly the CIA and also Ivy League English departments. So the OSS, which was the predecessor to the CIA during World War Two, was largely staffed by Ivy League WASPs with degrees in English and Norman Holmes Pearson, a professor in the English department at Yale, became a main recruiter for kind of spy activity and the sort of literary subterfuge in the ’50s. So when I say revolving door, I feel like the Rockefeller family and the Rockefeller Foundation is a good example. The Rockefellers were instrumental in the creation of the Museum of Modern Art, they also put their business money into a philanthropic foundation that heavily subsidized the arts that affirmed a certain view of America, and the foundation guys who staffed the Rockefeller Foundation either had left desk jobs at the State Department or returned to the State Department after working for the Rockefeller Foundation. So, there was an American elite and that was white Anglo Saxon Protestant centered on the Ivy League and centered on certain rich powerful interests who, somewhat in a capitalistic spirit and somewhat in a patriotic spirit, put forward a certain vision on the arts. So that’s the second way in which the ’50s is different. And the third, there were just opportunistic artists who took advantage of the new American prosperity and the expanding American Empire. So the modernist vibe of the ’20s and ’30s, which was very much an outsider thing, migrated into the universities and into these philanthropic foundations that were supporting artistic activity and humanistic activity. The scholar Evan Kindley has a great book on modernist poets who acted as kind of village explainers and their familiarity with manifestos, which are a way of, the reason you have to have a manifesto as a poet is because your poetry is otherwise incomprehensible, that means you’re an explainer at the same time that you’re a poet, these explainers who are adept, somebody like T.S. Eliot, who is adept at explaining what his own poetry means, offers a model for somebody who could make the pitch to bureaucrats instead of just reading audiences. And so —

Nima: They became grant writers.

Eric Bennett: They became grant writers, poets as grant writers, and they had practice in the form of a kind of manifesto, and so this migration of formerly avant-garde kind of outsider voices into a network of grant recipients and faculty members, precisely because they were good at explaining their own artistic projects. So that has stayed with us, that’s not culturally foreign to us. The first two things I mentioned were. And then the fourth thing, and I’ll make this brief, there was a real self-policing, there were people who had had strong Marxist views in the 1930s and given them up because of the horrific turn that communism had taken under Stalin, and so we think of the ’50s as the era of McCarthyism when reactionary congressmen were giving a hard time to alleged communists, many of those alleged communists were giving a hard time to themselves. They had repudiated these beliefs, they were on board for the liberal, capitalistic, democratic American project, and it was easy enough for them to go along with the kind of, I mean, they weren’t as extreme as McCarthy, but they did a kind of McCarthyism on themselves, a sort of purging of their former communist affiliations or inclinations.

Nima: So that actually is really fascinating to me, this idea that I think a lot of people hearing this when I first kind of learned about this, it’s like, ‘Oh, well, hey, if you’re gonna write this anyway, in this way, why not get paid for it?’ You know, is the government really influencing your work or are you just getting paid to do the stuff that you would already do? And I think we still hear this in terms of like, ‘Oh, well, journalists who work for Voice of America,’ or that sort of thing, this, you know, which way does the ideology go? So can you unpack for us how this actually manifested in the work of say, a Paul Engle or a Wallace Stegner? What are those, you know, conventions that now are just kind of part of a creative writing 101 course? You know, self-discipline, self-knowledge. How were these shaped by the kind of ideology of their benefactors?

Eric Bennett: Yeah, so this is one of the most important questions and it’s actually one of the most contentious questions. In the interpretation, in the kind of historical take on arts and letters during the Cold War, there are scholars who are more inclined to feel a really sinister hand in the presence of both covert and overt government funding for the arts. So the sense that because the government is paying for it, it shapes and informs the actual creative output of the person benefiting from that largesse. So I’m exaggerating a little bit, but somebody like Frances Stonor Saunders, who published one of the earliest accounts of CIA funding of arts and letters, strikes a more conspiratorial tone in talking about the money and its effects, I mean, it’s not a conspiracy theory text, it’s excellent work of scholarship, but that book, The Cultural Cold War, really sees something sinister afoot, whereas other scholars, and I’m thinking here of someone like Greg Barnhisel, who has a book called Cold War Modernists, is a little more agnostic about just how pernicious the influence was, and basically said, ‘Well, the money was there, these people were writing what they would have written anyway, and so it’s sustained their activity.’ The way I tend to think of it is maybe closer to Barnhisel in the sense that the government was betting on winners or promoting a certain number of voices within a wider range of voices, but I find Saunders’ point of view compelling in so far as there were projects or avenues or ways of thinking that just were never beneficiaries of the great money that was floating around in the ’50s and ’60s sponsoring certain kinds of art.

Adam: I mean, I think that’s the question that a lot of people have when they hear these kinds of things, which is sort of how does influence work? Which is probably the most difficult question we grapple with on this show. You know, I think when we talk about official enemy states, let’s say Russia, China, whoever, we don’t make any distinction, we say, ‘Well, if that writer or comedian is funded by Russia, regardless of what mechanism it is, they’re somehow corrupted,’ and I think that’s probably reasonable. But within the US, we make all kinds of finite distinctions largely because, you know, I went to the University of Texas, which is a state funded university — does that make me on the? — you know, how do you distinguish between that and an arts grant versus CIA, and especially in the ’60s, I think it was very, very, very muddied, but I think your point about picking winners is kind of the right way to look at it. It’s kind of the Chomsky model. It’s a model that we plagiarize all the time on the show, which is it’s not so much that the people don’t believe what they say, it is that there’s a hundred people who believe a hundred different things, and the ones who sincerely and very earnestly with the deepest convictions of their heart, believe X, Y, and Z, which aligns with those with checkbooks, those people get the fellowships and the grants, and they kind of rise to the top, which makes sense, right? And so, from their perspective, they think, ‘Well, I’m just the luckiest son of a bitch in the world,’ or ‘I’m the most talented son of a bitch in the world,’ to put it more precisely, and I think that’s kind of the way of looking at it, because it’s not really about necessarily, although I suppose this may have happened sometimes, it’s not about meeting in parking garages in Foggy Bottom and exchanging, you know, manila envelopes and cash, right?

Eric Bennett: Right. So, part of it is going to be ideological, you’re staffing a humanities division of a philanthropic organization in the 1950s, you’re not going to champion communist poets. I mean, that’s a no-brainer.

Adam: Yeah, that’s what I tell people all the time. It’s like, well, I’ll criticize Vox for being, you know, whatever, on the show, they do 10 different puff pieces with Steven Pinker, we say they have a very kind of overwhelmingly strident neoliberal ideology, and then it’s like, well, look, I mean, Comcast is not going to give a $200 million investment to a Trotskyist newspaper, it’s just not, this is not a controversial position, right?

Eric Bennett: That’s right. So that’s one piece of it, but the other thing that happened is that these philanthropic foundations, the Rockefeller Foundation in particular, they also don’t want to throw their money away on talented deadbeats or dissolute geniuses, they have to find polite, well mannered, the good boys who are going both to perform culturally as they’re supposed to, and also not drink away their grant money, and so, somebody like Wallace Stegner, who founded the writing seminars at Stanford, was just a dream for them, because he was good at writing, and he was smart, and he had a PhD, and he knew a lot about American literary history, but he wasn’t too brainiac, he had a little whiskey in the evening, but he was monogamous, he was afraid of writing about sex, he was really good at nostalgia and regionalism, and so you just bet on that horse, and if that horse is the horse that is heading up a stable of lots of other horses —

Adam: All the better.

Wallace Stegner. (Via the Montgomery Fellows Program at Dartmouth)

Eric Bennett: Yeah. And you have around the seminar table 12 students who are greatly influenced by this one teacher, and they’re writing to impress him, and if his jam is a certain kind of individual self responsibility or self reliance or discipline, that’s what you’re going to perform for the teacher. That can really have a long lasting effect on generations of students under a kind of certain culture of teaching.

Adam: I want to talk about what those kinds of, what those first principles are, what the kind of basic premises writing rules that you talk about in your essays, and in your book, about hyper-individualism, solipsism, I think it’s probably fair to say, a focus on the kind of the sort of non theoretical, the observation, I want to talk about how those kinds of modes of writing, again, with a very heavy caveat that it is not inherently anti-left to engage in those modes of writing, because I don’t want to be totalitarian here, I actually am a bit of a squeamish liberal when it comes to creative expression, I do sort of think some of those things are good, but it makes sense in the aggregate that promoting certain modes of writing would promote a certain ideology. I want to go from sort of soup to nuts on that if you wouldn’t mind. How do certain rules reflect a kind of ideology, a sort of ideological aim in the Cold War, and what’s the kind of ROI in pushing those rules?

Eric Bennett: My general argument in Workshops of Empire, is that the early creative writing programs encouraged students of writing to concentrate on private sensory experience, the things that you taste, hear, smell, feel, touch this evidence of the senses, the lived experience, this, of course, is the stuff of modern fiction going back to Daniel Defoe, it’s not like it was a brand new thing, but to concentrate on individual experience and domestic experience at the expense of kind of larger social panorama, and that was the aesthetic preference in the early creative writing programs because the creeds that culminated in World War II, fascism and communism, both deemphasize the individual, and after the war, communism is in the ascendant, and there’s programmatic Soviet arts emphasizing solidarity and collectivity, and there’s a general feeling that the answer for the United States was to promulgate a kind of artistic expression on the individual level. So, what that means in the creative writing classroom is there’s just much greater reward for nailing atmospheric description of a particular moment, in a particular place in one person’s life, and if that can be made to resonate more largely, then that’s good, I mean, there’s a kind of universalism that might be expressed by the single person’s experience. But for a writer interested in social panorama, or complexity of ideas as they intersect distinct lives, or even the effect of large impersonal forces on groups of people, there was just much less in terms of aesthetic training or intellectual training in that way of writing, and that’s a real thing that novels can do. I mean, Charles Dickens does it, and he’s more liberal than any of us squeamish liberals here right now. So.

Nima: Yeah, no, I think it’s such an amazing thing to kind of think of these conventions that you hear — write what you know, show, don’t tell — and that they do have these kind of ideological foundations to them, right? They promote the self, the individual as distinct from the collective, as you said. You talked a little bit about Wallace Stegner, can you also talk about Paul Engle, the longtime director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and co-founder of the International Writing Program. Now, if one were to look up Paul Engle on Wikipedia, you would not find even a single reference to his being funded by the CIA, and it’s not in any other official bio, yet this CIA funding was central to the growth and influence of many of his creative projects. Can you tell us about the rise of Paul Engle’s prominence, those that he influenced, you know, some really literary giants in the American cultural landscape, and of course, what forces helped to shape that prominence?

Eric Bennett: So, I will say that the amount of money that he indirectly received from the CIA was not great, and the CIA money, for me, really captures his larger dedication to a certain kind of establishment vibe for these writing programs. I can say a little bit more about that in a minute. So, he is definitely ideologically complicit in the Pax Americana, and the same Pax Americana that the CIA was very committed to in its various cultural initiatives. But really, the amount of money he got for international writing at the University of Iowa in the 1960s, seemed to have been maybe a high four figures, although I only got that number from Christopher Merrill, who directs the International Writing Program at Iowa, he had access to papers that I haven’t seen, and so I don’t know what else those papers might contain, but I’m fairly convinced that that small amount is all that was at play.

Nima: Not quite the same funding that say, like a Paris Review would get.

Eric Bennett: Yes, that’s right. So, it was some money thrown in his direction, and he was really good at begging people for money. But another one of his funders was the Asia Foundation, which definitely was a beneficiary of CIA money, and so indirectly, some of the foundations that sponsored, especially international writing initiatives at Iowa, also could have been CIA money, and by the late 1960s, he was a kind of darling of the State Department and that State Department funding for international writing at Iowa began in the ’60s and continued through to the 21st century, and so that close relationship between Iowa and the federal government that Engle initiated long outlived him. His biography is just fascinating, and I’ll sketch it quickly because it really informs where he ends up as an administrator. He began his career as a poet, seemingly of promise and certainly a poet of ambition, and in the early 1930s, he got momentarily famous for a patriotic collection of kind of Whitmanesque verses about America called American Song, and he was on the front cover the New York Times Book Review, he was brawny-jawed and good looking young man, and became America’s darling for a season, and never really managed to follow it up. Was entrepreneurial and enthusiastic, but he didn’t really seem to be that deep intellectually or poetically.

Nima: Perfect for the State Department.

Eric Bennett: Yes. So after American Song, he published a book of communist poetry, or very kind of pro-Soviet poetry, in the mid-1930s, and it wasn’t that unusual for a poet then to do that. Many, many American intellectuals veered left at that time, and then after that book from 1936, which is called Break the Heart’s Anger, he came back to Iowa, tried to continue his poetic career, and just was never as famous again as he had been that one season in 1934 for his first published collection. And it seems in all the hagiography about Engle, he’s a go-getter from the beginning as the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he took over in 1941. It predates him by a few years, but he really made it what it would become. I saw in the archives evidence that for a couple of years, I think he just sulked that he couldn’t get his poetic career back, and then I think he decided to commit to the administration of this program rather than the poetry. But what’s common between his early administration of Iowa and the poetry is just the sense that poetry shouldn’t matter to the globe. I mean, he wrote in a very public minded spirit in the early ’30s, and then he decides to make the institutions of writing, the means of making literature relevant to the world, since the poems themselves don’t seem to have the punch that he wanted them to, at least his poems didn’t. So he starts promoting Iowa as a bastion of free expression in the late ’40s, into the ’50s, and something he does from the very beginning is he invites writers from other parts of the world to come to Iowa to train there. And his idea was they would return to their home nations very pro-American, and some of his earliest students were a couple from the Philippines, Edith and Edilberto Tiempo, and they actually returned to the Philippines and founded a writing program there based on the Iowa model that still exists today, and seems to have had an even more stultifying effect on the culture of arts and letters in the Philippines than Iowa, under my description of it, had in the United States. So it really was a kind of exporting of this model of individual expression. So through the ’50s, Engle attracts more and more international writers, but he also trains many domestic writers, all of them in this kind of sensibility. I don’t want to overstate the homogeneity of the program, there were very excellent poets teaching there, and people did what they wanted, I mean, there’s a big range of experiments going on, even within the kind of orthodoxy, but by the mid ’60s, Engle is so committed to the international stuff, and at odds with the domestic workshop. So he was ousted and he formalizes the international dimension of Iowa in the International Writing Program and makes that his final career stage from the ’60s into the ’70s and early ’80s when he passes away — I think he dies in the early ’90s. Anyway, the end of his career is much more with an international focus.

Nima: So is it okay though, to still like Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor, even if they studied under him? How does that work?

Adam: It’s okay, Nima. It’s okay. You’re allowed to like them.

Nima: I’m okay with that, right? That’s okay?

Adam: There’s a lot of Soviet films I like, it’s totally normal to like things with ideological output. Don’t worry.

Eric Bennett: Yeah. Vonnegut has a great quotation about Paul Engle, probably the best description anybody’s ever given the guy. Kurt Vonnegut initially called Engle, quote, “a hayseed clown, a foxy grandpa, a terrific promoter, who, if you listen closely, talks like a man with a paper asshole.” Vonnegut then comes around and really likes Engle, and I don’t know Engle isn’t sinister, he’s too earnest, he just wants everybody in the world to come together and write poems together.

Adam: Yeah, that’s kind of seems to be a general theme too, which is you don’t really want to have anyone who ruffles too many feathers, or says what he thinks, you can sort of be, we don’t have time to quite get into all the sort of anti-communist left publications that were funded around the same time in the ’60s, but it seems like there’s a similar ethos where you’re allowed to play in the sandbox as long as you don’t say anything overtly pro-Soviet, because those are the guys with guns. There’s not an anarchist, libertarian, socialist military with a bunch of nukes pointed at us, so you’re sort of permitted to kind of indulge those kinds of left currents.

Eric Bennett: Vonnegut, in his time at Iowa, just saw these Polish guys, like Eastern Bloc writers were just so happy to be at Iowa, and understandably, and I think he was very moved by the testimony of people who got out of really repressive atmospheres, and got to chill for a couple of years, and he didn’t see anything wrong with that.

Adam: You do write that there’s a certain downside to this, and you say that to some extent, a captured creative writing, creative writing programs. What is the negative downside of these hardened rules? And like you said, people do subvert them, it’s not enforced by some kind of police force with a bayonet, but like there’s a broad repetition of modes and I want you to talk about what you think some of those downsides can be, and then I want you to comment on the extent to which they influenced, you touched on this earlier, but I want you to expand, also how they influenced for writers in other countries, many of which were subject to State Department NCI funding.

Eric Bennett: Yeah. So my main concern in Workshops of Empire was the narrowing of the aesthetic spectrum for domestic American writers, and there are many interesting stories to tell beyond that, but I feel like my deepest research went in that direction. For me, it came out of my own experience as a student of creative writing at Iowa. I just didn’t see how the atmosphere there would help anybody cultivate fictional projects other than Alice Munro or Raymond Carver-esque short story writing, and there will be Iowa alums who will jump up and say, ‘No, no, no, anything went, you could do anything you wanted,’ and that’s true, you’re not gonna get kicked out for writing anything in particular, but the overall collective affirmation tended to be in kind of a limited direction, and so my own reading, before arriving at Iowa, just included so many kinds of fictional projects that didn’t seem like they could be nurtured in that kind of atmosphere. So one example that’s germane to the history that we’re telling is simply John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy, which goes all sorts of places and gives a national panorama and is a fascinating left-wing document of the 1930s, aesthetically really ambitious, with no single character that emerges as the person you’re supposed to care about, or mope with, or lament for, really just a riveting kind of writing, and the discipline and atmosphere of a creative writing workshop just didn’t seem like something that would know how to hivemind such a thing into existence.

Adam: Well, yeah, because recently, you know, they had the Field of Dreams baseball game in Iowa a few weeks ago, and I rewatched the film, because I was trying to sort of convey its kind of schmaltzy romance about baseball, I’m a huge baseball fan, and I was like, I was watching it, it’s like, this movie is so aggressively, it’s based on a book by W.P. Kinsella, it is so aggressively nostalgic, so aggressively anti-left, I mean, they’re constantly making snarky comments about the radicals of the ’60s, and it’s sort of classic Boomer hippie-turned-Reagan-voter movie.

Eric Bennett: Yeah, yeah.

Adam: And I looked it up, and I’m like, oh, it was written from the Iowa Workshop, not to say that that was, you know, it couldn’t have been, or that was deterministic, but you see, at the very least, this sort of atmospheric nostalgia has a sort of political currency.

Nima: Well, and the whole dulling of radicalism, right? So in the book, there’s a character that is actually J.D. Salinger, but they changed it, so in the movie, it’s the James Earl Jones character, Terence Mann.

Eric Bennett: The thing that complicates my thesis is there does seem to have been a real kind of countercultural ferment in Iowa in the 1970s, as there was in many places, but I just think your comment in terms of the hippie-turned-Reagan-voter, I feel like even the terms of protest and alternative consciousness in the 1960s, I mean, this is a new left, old left thing.

Adam: Yeah, exactly.

Eric Bennett: It was really individualistic.

Adam: It was shaped by anti-communism first and foremost, for better, for worse.

Eric Bennett: Yeah, and it just feels good, and you’re rewarded for being a freak, instead of being rewarded for being an Eagle Scout, but you’re still rewarded for being, yes, somebody whose priority above all is affirmation of a certain kind of distinct liberal self. And maybe creative writing programs won’t ever be anything other than that. I don’t want to get too far ahead of the historical moment, but one of the promising developments in recent decades, is the real diversification of institutions of creative writing, and more still needs to happen, I mean, they very much belong to the straight white guys in mid-century as events most powerfully by the testimonials of the non straight, non-white, non-guy participants, I mean, who just felt like they were Norman Mailer’d to death in their workshops. So in recent decades, there’s been much more concern about the kind of default whiteness and default maleness of institutions of creative writing, and that’s great. If I give two cheers for it rather than three, it still seems like it’s largely ensnared in what we’d now call neoliberal individualism, and if I have to choose between neoliberal individualism for everybody, or neoliberal individualism for war veterans emulating Hemingway and Mailer, I choose it for everybody.

Adam: Well, that’s exactly right because while there is an increased diversity, again, this is a very generalized statement, but the broad tropes of atmosphere and solipsism, I think, are still pretty prominent, and obviously, there’s a lot of reasons for that, because that’s true in pretty much all cultural products, right, whether it’s Hollywood or, you know what I mean, that I think that’s sort of just sort of standard fare for a variety of reasons, but I think a lot of it does have to do with these kind of conventions that were cemented around this time, you know, sort of Maoist Black Panthers and, and Young Lords and Attica are not going to be referring to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a sort of cultural reference point, for better or for worse. There’s just a different mode of politics there at that time, whereas I do think, yeah, more kind of conventional liberal or even hippie-ism that emerges kind of plays well into that, without hippie bashing, because we do that on the show too much and I don’t want to get a reputation. Hippies do a lot of good, a lot of hippie listeners.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: But I think you’re right, as the kind of hippie inwardness turned into the ’70s self-help culture, I do think they’re kind of branches from the same tree, but that’s my own personal editorializing.

Nima: So, Eric, before we let you go, would love to hear about what you are currently working on, how folks can follow your work, and also, you know, anything that you want to let us know about how either to obey the Iowa principles or to shirk them completely?

Eric Bennett: Well, I feel like I’m repenting of the shortcomings of Workshops of Empire, I feel like it’s archivally a sound piece of work, I dug up stuff that hadn’t been seen before, and give a biographical sketch of Engle in a way that I think was useful, but I’ve read so much more since it was published just on the kind of overall shape of intellectual culture then and since then, so I am trying to write something longer that’s more in the register of ideas and kind of intellectual history doing justice to this moment. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, been thinking about conceptions of universal subject hood right after World War II that were subscribed to, not just by white guys, but by Jewish writers and queer writers and Black writers, and thinking about the best version of mid-century liberalism. I’m not convinced it has anything to offer us because I’m so compelled by so many critiques of it, but in the face of rising illiberalism now maybe returning to the parts of the mid-century humanism that are least deserving of cynicism and seeing if there’s any kind of resource for recuperating liberal tenants in the 21st century. But that’s, yeah, I like the word squeamish. I’m also writing fiction, dystopian futuristic novel about 12 sovereign city-states with secular progressive sensibility in a kind of vast red zone of agrarian religious sensibility, a United States that’s been divided into two sovereign entities, these kind of isolated metropolises surrounded by reactionary hinterlands.

Nima: You said that’s futuristic science fiction?

Eric Bennett: Oh, yeah. It’s given me occasion to read the Gnostic scriptures, which are crazy, and I’m trying to do a mashup of the Gnostic dimensions of early Christianity and QAnon stuff, and we’ll see if I can make that happen.

Nima: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, definitely, we will stay posted on that, can’t wait to see that. Hopefully, all of these books feature Eleanor Roosevelt prominently.

Eric Bennett: (Laughs.)

Nima: But I think that’s a great place to leave it. We, of course, have been speaking with Eric Bennett, author of Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War, as well as the novel A Big Enough Lie. Eric, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Eric Bennett: It was great to be here. Thanks for having me.


Adam: Yeah, so the lesson here is if you ever write in first person, you’re a spook?

Nima: (Laughing.) Yeah, exactly.

Adam: No, I think, I think, you know —

Nima: Even if it’s just in a diary or your journal, right?

Adam: That’s right. That’s right. If it’s a love letter to your wife: spook. No, you know, I’m fascinated by some of these literary, you know, because one of the things we didn’t really touch on that we could have is that anyone who’s worked in the “take” industry, whether you write for BuzzFeed, The Nation, TNR, whatever it is, editors put a huge premium on first person narratives. Now, I believe some of that is an artifact of those conventions that were created in the ’50s and ’60s, I also think that they just think, what you’re really pressed to do early on as a writer, and unfortunately, a lot of writers end up doing it, is you’re kind of pressed into this kind of confessional, you know, ‘I believe this and now I believe that,’ ‘I was a Bernie Sanders fan, now I’m — ’

Nima: Right.

Adam: ‘I suffered this traumatic experience, I had this really personal thing,’ and it’s all kind of tawdry, right? It’s sort of based on these first-person accounts that are very harrowing. There’s obviously a mode of journalism that’s very popular today that sort of centers the writer at the center of the story.

Nima: Well, and because the anecdotal is supposed to kind of fill in for the systemic, you’re supposed to believe it as part of the whole.

Adam: It’s color and it’s designed to frankly be more interesting, which is fine if one is sort of making cogent political or theoretical points, but I, you definitely see there’s an incentive to do it. Whether or not that stems from an organic click or rating based necessity, because that’s sort of what people want, or whether or not that has its its cultural pedigree in these conventions we can debate, but to this day, these kind of first person, you know, so-called sort of gonzo journalist is very, ‘I threw myself, I did this, here’s some color,’ is very much with us today, and I think it does lend itself to, it lends itself, it is not categorically, but I do believe it lends itself to a more liberalish, more conservative analysis of politics, and again, I think there are places where it works specifically with historically oppressed communities, their first-person perspective is political, and I have no problem with it in that context. I just think it’s severely abused, but that may be a personal aesthetic preference, not an ideological intervention, but I think it is very much overused, and I think it’s a combination of it probably traffics better, and also, I do think it is a bit of a residual holdover from these literary conventions.

Nima: Well, yeah, and I think that as a whole, it’s just really important to understand that literary journals, very prestigious literary journals, that are still referred to, right, I mean, Paris Review, Kenyon Review

Adam: I mean, we didn’t spend a lot of time on the Paris Review, the Paris Review was a straight up CIA operation. I mean —

Nima: That’s what I mean, these were literally funded by the CIA as part of not only Cold War propaganda, but this cultural Cold War that was being fought, having this kind of writing coming out of Europe, coming out of the United States, coming out of the heartland of the United States as well, and so it is just important to realize where these things come from, how they originated, that, again, doesn’t mean that you can’t read the Paris Review, or that everyone who writes for the Paris Review is getting a check from the CIA, I think at this point, no one’s getting a check from the CIA — although I don’t know that for sure — but it’s kind of why these things were created, why they were funded, why they continue to be funded, because they were part of a cultural output. That was part of an ideological project.

Adam: Yeah, and it’s not even necessarily as sinister as the CIA. I mean, there’s a lot of, you know, we don’t have time to get into that totally. But there’s, of course, there’s a lot of filtering, the sort of Chomsky filtering bias about why certain art would get funded versus other art, you know, you’re not really going to get art funded in the Soviet Union that doesn’t promote a general ideology, you’re not going to get art funded in the United States that doesn’t promote a certain ideology to an extent, you can sneak in things here and there, but the cultural products that exist, do not exist in a vacuum, they’re not evidence of some kind of Randian individualistic accomplishment. There are lots of bourgeois filters, foundation funding, awards — I mean god awards are to a great extent aggressively bourgeois — that are going to promote a certain ideological output. Again, you can kind of sneak in things here and there, and other other journalists and other writers have done this. There’s obviously been subversive work that’s been published, but it’s certainly the exception, not the rule. And I think that the intervention in the ’40s and ’50s of the more direct government production, I think had a lot to do with the fact that they didn’t quite have the stranglehold over Hollywood and the literary world as they wanted, because there were so many fucking lefties and pinkos, and you had Hollywood celebrities funding the Black Panthers, there wasn’t the ideological conformity output they really needed. Especially, you know, Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s, when this was emerging, there were a shitload of communists in Hollywood. So they needed to counter that, and they sure as shit weren’t going to be able to counter it in California, so they had to come to the Midwest.

Nima: Precisely, and they had to kind of use that as this quote-unquote “non political” draw. ‘We’re not trying to do anything specific. We’re just trying to teach people how to write from the heart.’

Adam: And when people tell you 20 times in a row that they’re totally not political, that’s usually a red flag.

Nima: Right. Well, I think that’s a good place to leave it. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course we are so thrilled to be back for Season Five of Citations Needed. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast if you have not already done that, and you are able to do it we would greatly appreciate it. We are 100 percent listener funded, and never run commercials. The way we are able to do that is because of amazing listeners like you that do support the show. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, September 22, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.