Reviews — From the August 2015 issue

First-Person Shooters

What’s missing in contemporary war fiction

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This, at least, is the suggestion that Eric Bennett makes in his new novel A Big Enough Lie, the first satirical treatment of contemporary war fiction and the classroom politics that produce it. Bennett is himself a graduate of the oldest and most revered of these programs, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he earned a Ph.D. studying the history of writing programs after World War II. His articles and the forthcoming monograph built from them, Workshops of Empire, make for a fascinating complement to his novel. As with most polemics against M.F.A. culture, they carry a whiff of personal grievance that helps animate the critique.

Bennett’s account goes like this. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop began in 1936, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that it and a few other programs rose to prominence. The G.I. Bill flooded universities with repatriated soldiers, and many of the earliest workshop enrollees were veterans. Several programs had a distinctly military feel. Iowa’s classes were held in Quonset huts along the Iowa River. Wallace Stegner, who founded Stanford’s writing program in 1946, sought to replicate the camaraderie of an Army squadron, and he hoped to apply his students’ military discipline to the craft of writing.

But what did this craft entail? Bennett contends that the guiding force behind the “workshop method” that we know today was Paul Engle, the Cold Warrior poet and administrator who directed Iowa’s writing program between 1941 and 1965. Engle had a keen business sense — he attracted the support of wealthy donors like the Rockefeller Foundation by convincing them that the writers’ workshop was a significant staging ground in the culture wars against fascism and Communism. The program, he argued, would foster literature that opposed demagoguery and collectivism and celebrated individuality and self-expression — “the singular, the personal, the anomalous, and the particular,” as Bennett puts it.

Ernest Hemingway was Engle’s paradigm. Bennett cites a 1929 letter by the poet Allen Tate that, in praising Hemingway, extolled precisely the qualities that Engle hoped would define the discipline of creative writing:

Whether or not you like the kind of people he has had to observe, the very fact that he sticks to concrete experience, to a sense of the pure present, is of immense significance to us. Hemingway, in fact, has that sense of a stable world, of a total sufficiency of character, which we miss in modern life.

Hemingway’s fiction was grounded in the immediate perceptions of his characters. It was anti-institutional, and subordinated broad ideas to finely described moments. Engle’s workshop pedagogy therefore elevated small, glistening gems of subjective experience over sprawling, panoptic structures such as John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. As Bennett writes, “Universities privileged the particular over the universal, the sensory over the ideational, the concrete over the abstract.”

Whatever the political origins of the modern writing program — Bennett traces funding from the State Department and the CIA — the aesthetic he describes is spot-on. Engle’s preferred style found confirmation in Writing Fiction (1962), an influential student handbook by R. V. Cassill, a onetime Iowa professor and the founder of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. The self, Cassill said, remained the first and best source for a writer’s material:

As soon as we have learned something about our craft we are tempted to turn from concentration on our own experience to the public world of great events — to write about spies and congressmen. But the first commandment is to go back stubbornly to our own fields.

From such an ethos emerge the well-worn axioms of the creative-writing program: “Find your voice.” “Write what you know.” This pluralism remains foundational to the workshop philosophy, which produces writers dedicated to exploring their own personal stories. These tend to be rooted in identity — social class, ethnicity, a defining childhood crisis, or anything else from an author’s background that seems to set them apart. For veterans, military service unquestionably constitutes that distinguishing characteristic.

Tim O’Brien is by far the most important of the type. His debut novel, Northern Lights, from 1975, is a pastiche of The Sun Also Rises, but in later work O’Brien applied Hemingway’s precision and concreteness to the psyche, making explicit the thoughts and emotions that Hemingway had left implied. Along with the physical objects enumerated in “The Things They Carried,” the best-known story to come from the Vietnam War, O’Brien’s soldiers shoulder their hopes, their fears, their guilt, and their remorse. This expanded sense of interiority was partly a response to the abstract nature of combat in Vietnam. O’Brien has said that he encountered the Vietcong only once during his tour of duty: “All I saw were flashes from the foliage and the results, the bodies.” With the forms of battle now faceless and remote — sniper fire, booby traps, air strikes — and the intentions of the war either forgotten or discredited, O’Brien burrowed inward to locate the bedrock of the real. His descriptions of the Vietnamese jungle frequently blend together with his soldiers’ dreams and fantasies, and he seems less interested in the specifics of the fighting than in the catharsis of the telling. His much-anthologized “How to Tell a True War Story” is regarded as both a sensitive and self-aware classic of war fiction and a useful tool for writing instruction.

In developing his technique, O’Brien also carved out a niche. In The Program Era (2009), a shrewd and acerbic study of postwar fiction, Mark McGurl suggests that war writers had become a distinct “minority culture” by the time of Vietnam. O’Brien, he writes, is a “Veteran-American writer, in the sense that the psychic wounds inflicted on him in his year of combat have become foundational to a career in the same way that [Philip] Roth’s Jewishness has.” The demotion of war writing to a discrete subgenre reflected the increasingly remote role the military had come to play in most people’s lives. But McGurl suggests that the tendency to define writers by their identities had another ironic and insidious effect — it prompted greater homogenization. Although the subjects of program writing were superficially diverse, the narratives became ever more uniform. Story after story concerned an individual’s attempts to overcome adversity, to pass through the pain and isolation of his circumstances and arrive at some universal understanding. For a time, focusing on “biographical singularity” was a way to rebel against institutions like the military or the middle class, Bennett writes. “But what happens to the rebel if everyone follows him?”

Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie is a disgruntled send-up of exactly this kind of identity politics. It focuses, of course, on a would-be writer, John Townley, whose artistic and romantic ambitions lead him into a bizarre masquerade. As a student in a fictionalized version of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he pretends to be a disabled Iraq War veteran. To fill out this persona he purloins the stories of a childhood friend who fought in the army. More audaciously, he borrows details from the life of an American soldier who is presumed dead after a nationally reported kidnapping in Babylon. The shocking memoir Townley fabricates — its chapters intersperse Bennett’s narrative — is championed by an Oprah-like talk-show host, who transforms him into a celebrity and makes it all the more probable that he’ll be exposed as a fraud.

There’s a clever two-way game going on here. On the one hand, Bennett gets to smuggle his own first-person war narrative into publication, despite his lack of military credentials. On the other, he is able to assail the fetishization of authenticity among publishers and readers, and the patronizing celebration of books that conform to our preconceived expectations about suffering and heroism. Throughout the novel, Townley expresses a frustrated yearning for a literature that offers more than a confirmation of lived experience — he wants conceptual or philosophical or visionary fictions that can access something other than received opinions. “What if there are truths we can absorb only through hypothesis and imagination?” he thinks. “What if there are powers of sympathy exercised only by exposure to the untrue?”

“A novelist is an artist, and an artist is somebody with a certain relationship to the world, an imaginative one, a subversive one. A clever one,” says another of Bennett’s characters. “He plays hypothetical pranks and has all the freedom in the world to do so.” Bubbling throughout A Big Enough Lie is an exhortation to reconsider the qualities we have been trained to value in literature. What if invention and exploration were more esteemed than testimonies of personal struggle? What might the novel be capable of — aesthetically and politically — if it broke out of its obsessively curated pigeonholes of first-person experience?

Yet Bennett, too, struggles to escape the hall of mirrors that turns every novel into a study of itself — this is, after all, a book about someone frustrated with M.F.A. programs written by someone frustrated with M.F.A. programs. The workshop doctrine of self-expression is hard to shake off.

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is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal.

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