The University of Iowa holds a privileged place in the imagination of the writing program community. Its Writers' Workshop is the oldest and most esteemed graduate writing program in the country. Dozens of famous, and hundreds of esteemed, writers of fiction and poetry have apprenticed there. Even if you're not tuned into such insider history, you may have encountered the workshop thanks to Lena Dunham, whose character Hannah on her show "Girls" attended last season.
In another building on the Iowa City campus, another group of talented, developing writers gathers. These are the creative nonfiction writers attending the Nonfiction Writing Program. Creative nonfiction has been thriving with university approval for at least a couple of decades (and before that pretty much since writing began). Nevertheless, the history of second-class status is recorded in such institutions.
All this introduction is to appreciate the context from which "I'll Tell You Mine" arises. Because it hasn't been fully embraced, creative nonfiction sometimes adopts a defensive tone. The Iowa Nonfiction Program is, as Hope Edelman and Robin Hemley write in their introduction, "the oldest freestanding program devoted exclusively to the study and craft of nonfiction." It, too, is highly esteemed. But it's not where Lena Dunham goes.
In the book's prologue, Robert Atwan explains what creative nonfiction is and how to read it. (This has been a theme of Atwan's Best American Essays since its inception.) It's interesting stuff if you haven't read it before. But it seems to be past time for creative nonfiction writers to stop insisting on their claim to literature and just get on with turning out good work.
Readers know what to do with good books. If "I'll Tell You Mine" is going to be read for more than literary genealogy it has to be worth it. And I'm happy to report that parts of it are. Which parts? I'll mention a few, but the variety of essays means most readers are sure to like some and dislike others.
The vanguard moves in several directions. Besides essay standards such as Jo Ann Beard's "Cousins" and John D'Agata's "Round Trip," special recognition from this reader for Michele Morano's "Grammar Lesson: The Subjunctive Mood," John T. Price's "High Maintenance" and Edelman's own "Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us," which I found to be the highlight of the book.
Writing of the caliber of these examples is worth reading regardless of where it comes from. If the Nonfiction Writing Program can continue to produce it, more fanfare to them. As for those who ignore creative nonfiction, it's their loss.
Scott F. Parker is an author and book critic. He lives in Montana.