Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dylan Cooley on the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction

This week’s news that the U.S. has withdrawn from UNESCO has created a lot of uncertainty in Iowa City, IA. As North America’s only UNESCO City of Literature and home to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, the Nonfiction Writing Program, and the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City has a storied history of contribution to the literary world. In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Iowa City’s UNSECO team insisted the nation’s withdrawal from the UN’s cultural program won’t affect this town’s City of Literature status, but an air of anxiety remains. Political maneuvers like the US’s withdrawal itself are largely symbolic, as is, as some might argue, a city’s UNESCO credentials.

Whether or not that’s true, one hardly needs to point out that symbolism matters to a town with five writers for every traffic light.

Regardless, the announcement’s timing adds a little gravitas —the Iowa City Book Festival, an annual UNESCO City of Literature event, started October 8. Although residents, writers, publishers, and readers wonder what political repercussions loom, they have also seen and participated in palpable reminders that the city will maintain its devotion to the arts. Not only is the Book Festival underway, but on the far edge of the University’s campus, at the Kuhl House — a small stone building that is among the oldest in the state — the UI Press is welcoming the start of a new round of its newest book contest. In total, the UI Press offers four such prizes, each of which have garnered critical acclaim and strengthened its role as one of the few university presses devoted to creative work.

The University of Iowa Press was founded in 1969, and in conjunction with the Workshop they launched the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the John Simmons Short Fiction Award shortly thereafter. Given the success of both endeavors, the Press eventually founded the Iowa Poetry Prize in 1987, and just last year, in 2016, the Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction – a contest for book-length manuscripts whose third annual screening period began October 15th and runs until December 10, 2017.

The Prize is a collaborative pedagogical and artistic effort shared by the UI Press and the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. “The Nonfiction Writing Program has a long tradition of trying to embrace as broad an understanding of nonfiction as possible, while also holding firmly to its deepest historical roots,” says John D’Agata, NWP Director, and editor of Graywolf’s acclaimed History of the Essay anthology series. “The Press and I thought it was time for a contest like this that was open to all interpretation of nonfiction, screened by some of the genre's smartest and most voracious readers, and judged by some of the country's best nonfiction writers.” The NWP’s Bedell Distinguished Visiting Professor, a position that’s been filled previously by esteemed writers including Geoff Dyer, Vivian Gornick, and Terry Tempest Williams, leads students through the contest’s screening process in a graduate seminar and also serves as the contest’s judge. While screening manuscript submissions for the contest, the NWP’s MFA students attempt to define what makes for “good” nonfiction, or what can count as nonfiction at all — a daunting task in a genre for which slipperiness of definition isn’t so much a bug as it is a feature. "Literary nonfiction,” says UI Press director Jim McCoy, “no matter how you try to define it, is one of the most exciting genres. It pushes new boundaries." And so, the NWP grad students and the contest judge ultimately offer up a single manuscript for the prize: publication by the UI Press, and a place on their bookshelves alongside Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, Tom Lutz, Anne Carson, Eliot Weinberger, and other boundary-defying titans of contemporary American literature.

The winner of the 2017 Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction, judged by Meghan Daum, will no doubt find itself at home there. For Single Mothers Working As Train Conductors, by Laura Esther Wolfson, is an exciting example of the hybrid capacity of nonfiction in general, and of the essay in particular. As Daum writes in her praise for Wolfson’s manuscript, For Single Mothers is a book that explores “the subtle, perennial tensions between the lives we think we want and the lives we actually make” in a way that is “poignant, sophisticated, and as soulful as it is brainy.” Wolfson, a translator of Russian, French, and Spanish into English, has written a book-length essay about that love of language — and the ways that language barriers can in turn create barriers to love. Wolfson navigates a marriage, a divorce, chronic lung disease, and life at work as a literary translator with the grace and nimble-mindedness of one accustomed to traversing rocky artistic and intellectual borders. And yet, we never forget that such movement has not been easy: “It’s easy now to see what bothered Aleksandr: garbage is musor is garbage, all of it vile and evil-smelling. I shamed him, inadvertently, foolishly, blindly, in a way that transcended language.” To read For Single Mothers is to watch that grace develop as Wolfson watches the Soviet Union dissolve around her and narrowly misses out on translating Nobel-winning literature.

Given the shifting landscape of creative nonfiction, the Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction is sure to yield a wide range of books with approaches to research, language, and truth that are as singular as the voices of each year’s judge: While Meghan Daum was pulled to Wolfson’s memoiristic exploration of fact and feeling, the Prize’s inaugural judge, Richard Preston, best-selling author of The Hot Zone and writer for The New Yorker, selected Barret Baumgart’s China Lake, whose narrative leads readers into the apocalyptic near future of a world in the grips of pseudoscience and climate catastrophe.

The 2018 Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction will be judged by Kiese Laymon, the prolific novelist and essayist and author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and Long Division. Laymon’s writing on race, gender, and America’s myriad institutions of violence has already established him as one of the most compelling stylists and moral voices of twenty-first century American literature. In his role as contest judge, Laymon’s potential to develop our notion not only of what is possible, but what is necessary in nonfiction, is as thrilling as the elastic potential of the genre itself.

The Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction is accepting submissions now. Manuscripts must be postmarked between October 15 and December 10, 2017, and should be accompanied by a $10 administrative fee. Further submission and eligibility guidelines are available at the UI Press’s website.


Dylan Cooley lives in Iowa City. He's currently writing a memoir about long-distance running and his strained relationship with Iowa. Follow him on Twitter: @TheGrandCooley

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