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Citations Needed

Sep 22, 2021

“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.

While they 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, and details, rather than on community, political theory, and large-scale political concepts.

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 long and well-documented 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 the collective.

On this episode, we 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 a 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.

Our guest is author Eric Bennett.