Hemingway, inspiring the next generation of CIA-backed greats. Image: Wikimedia
According to Wikipedia, a content farm is an organization that employs large numbers of "writers to generate large amounts of textual content which is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines." So, in a way, the American MFA system, spearheaded by the infamous Iowa Writer's Workshop, is a content farm, too. It was initially designed to satisfy a much less complicated algorithm: one that was sculpted by the CIA to maximize the spread of anti-Communist propaganda through highbrow literature.
In a lengthy piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, writing professor Eric Bennett makes a case that the Iowa program, arguably the most influential force in modern American literature, was profoundly shaped by a CIA-backed effort to promote a brand of literature that trumpeted American individualism and materialism over airy socialistic ideals. Read: More Hemingway, less Dos Passos.
"The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed," Bennet writes. "More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since. So the conventional wisdom that Iowa kicked off the boom in MFA programs is true enough."
It is. If you've ever found yourself joining the chorus of critics who've lamented the surfeit of granular domestic fiction that's dominated the American postwar literary tradition, you've lamented IWW. (Raymond Carver and Marilynne Robinson are great, but enough is enough). And that's because, as Bennett describes, the institution's purview was meted out mostly by a frustrated patriotic poet who'd settled into late-life conservatism, and who went to relentless lengths to promote the Iowa Writer's Workshop, which he'd come to take charge of. From the 40s to the 70s, that meant, appealing to the hard anti-Communistist paranoia that gripped not just American popular culture, but its government institutions.
Bennett argues that "Paul Engle, the workshop’s second director, a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior" is mostly responsible for molding Iowa's literary legacy. And he did by soliciting funds from the Farfield Foundation, which "was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom." That was just the beginning.
For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.
As such, Engle curated IWW's culture so that it reflected said values; Bennett describes being stifled by them even into the 00s. Gritty realism, F. Scott Fitzgeraldism, or magical realism were the only "acceptable" modes of literature. In fact, there was an actual metric. Frank Conroy, Engle's longest-serving successor, who taught Bennett, "wanted literary craft to be a pyramid." At the base was syntax and grammar, or "Meaning, Sense, Clarity," and the higher levels tapered off into abstraction. "Then came character, then metaphor ... everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as 'the fancy stuff.' At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarefied and abstract."
So modern SEO-optimized content farms and modern American literature content farms aren't so totally different after all. The first rule of writing good SEO is to organize your pertinent keywords and put them up front, to convey as much "meaning, sense, and clarity" to Google's search algorithm as possible. After you've done that you can bother with cleverness and abstraction for the real live readers—or, as Conroy would say, the "fancy stuff."
It's a funny comparison, sure. But there is some ideological linkage too, maybe even a cautionary tale lurking about. There's no shortage of criticism for either of these entities, after all, as both stand accused of breeding conformity and stifling a medium that most of us agree should encourage boundless creativity. Both also speak to the extremely human inclination to "game" a system by optimizing it, be it for monetary or reputational gain.
Maybe it's just a reminder that we need to be wary of the sandboxes we're building our castles in, of the institutions that define our creative thought so wholly that we often forget (or never bother to ask) how and why they were established in the first place. The MFA factory first farmed out postwar American lit according to a specific ideological rubric, it turns out. Maybe that helps explains why critics feel it's a bit too much like Demand Media now; efficient, profitable, often good, maybe, but gumming up the works and getting on everybody's nerves, too.