Tom Grimes' The Workshop reviewed
The Workshop:Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers' Workshop: 43 Stories, Recollections, and Essays on Iowa's Place in Twentieth-Century American Literature edited by Tom Grimes
Hyperion, $30 hard
The attempt to issue one encompassing, conclusive statement about The Workshop seems pointless. The book defies tame categorization. If there is a common element to the cacophony of voices in these 43 stories, it's their vibrancy, as if behind all the measured and meaningful prose their authors are exclaiming, in unison, "Hello! I'm here! Read me!" Some stories, like Stuart Dybek's "Paper Lantern," make that too familiar, too oracular opening move ("We were working late on the time machine in the little makeshift lab upstairs") that is meant to intrigue but just serves to obfuscate. All of the stories, in their own way, harness characterization to plot in a memorable way; they open up a world by presenting a protagonist whose story is fiercely his or her own, but other people's, too.
The Workshop is dotted with Grimes' piercing essays and historical insights, but it's clear that the stories are on display here. They "attest to the perpetual summer, abundance, and variety of Iowa's achievement, proof of its lush resonance in American culture," Grimes writes in his introductory essay, "Workshop and the Writing Life." Readers who refuse to trust what a writer has to say about his or her own writing may choose to avoid the brief recollections that accompany each of the stories by authors who are still living, but, surprisingly, the recollections do not tend to stultify the stories or place them on a pedestal. The Workshop can be read from page one to page 766 as history's most engaging historical work, one that reflects the changing trends in American literature throughout most of the 20th century. Or, more likely, a reader can dart in and out of stories, hunting down a particularly resonant voice.