How Did Iowa City Become the First UNESCO City of Literature in the United States?

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I’ve lived in Iowa City for the last nine years. When people who don’t live in Iowa City find out I live in Iowa, they make a few assumptions. For example, they assume I live on a farm. They assume every house on the block has an enormous banner supporting 45. They also either say, “I’ve never been there!” or “I’ve driven through there!”

Then they inevitably ask me, “Do you…like it there?” Surely I couldn’t! Not me, who’s lived in Chicago, San Diego, and various other large cities that seemingly have nothing in common with Iowa City.

But then I blow their minds by throwing two facts at them. First, I live a mere 40 minutes from the World’s Largest Truckstop! And then I give them a fact that’s actually impressive: Iowa City was the third-ever UNESCO City of Literature and the first in the Americas.

If you have heard of Iowa City, it’s likely due to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It is indeed considered the most prestigious writing workshop in the country by some. You might assume this is what qualified it as a UNESCO City of Literature. While the Workshop is of course tied to everything literary in this city, it’s far from the only literary draw.

So hang on tight while I walk you through the literariness that is Iowa City and how it earned its designation as a City of Literature.

Qualifications as a UNESCO City of Literature

Any city can apply to be a City of Literature. They must show that they meet the criteria, which includes:

  • Quality, quantity, and diversity of publishing in the city
  • Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels
  • Literature, drama, and/or poetry playing an important role in the city
  • Hosting literary events and festivals, which promote domestic and foreign literature
  • Existence of libraries, bookstores, and public or private cultural centres, which preserve, promote, and disseminate domestic and foreign literature
  • Involvement by the publishing sector in translating literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature
  • Active involvement of traditional and new media in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products

A city that wants to be considered must submit a proposal. Ours was a “beautiful boxed volume of hand-made paper and original calligraphy, designed and created by the UI Center for the Book,” that was packaged up and sent off to Paris for consideration.

You can read all 79 pages of the Iowa City application or you can get the highlights below.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

While the Workshop is not the only reason we have earned this designation, it is a large part of it.

The Workshop is very hard to get into. How hard? According to one person’s calculations, it’s harder to get into the Workshop than it is to get into Harvard Law. Founded in 1936, it was the first degree-granting creative writing program in the country. For many years it was one of a few. As of 2021, there are more than 300 programs offering MFAs in Creative Writing but Iowa is still ranked at the top.

In the decades that followed its founding, the Workshop has continued to attract top talent, with faculty and graduates having won nearly 30 Pulitzer Prizes. Eight U.S. Poet Laureates have been graduates of the workshop.

Workshop alum includes:

  • Yaa Gyasi
  • T.C. Boyle
  • Tracy Kidder
  • Raymond Carver
  • Lan Samantha Chang
  • Alexander Chee
  • Sander Cisneros
  • John D’Agata
  • Andre Dubus
  • John Irving
  • Leslie Jamison
  • Denis Johnson
  • Carmen Maria Machado
  • Elizabeth McCracken
  • James Alan McPherson
  • Ann Patchett
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Robert Penn Warren

When I say that’s a partial list, I mean that it is an extremely partial list! Just like this is a partial list of well-known current or previous faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • James Alan McPherson
  • Marilynne Robinson
  • Z.Z. Packer
  • Jess Walter
  • John Berryman
  • John Cheever
  • Philip Roth
  • Meg Wolitzer
  • Richard Yates

Just look at a few years of publications by graduates of the Workshop and you’ll see for yourself – it’s a lot.

The International Writing Program

In addition to the Workshop, the University of Iowa is also home to the International Writing Program. Founded in 1967, more than 1,500 writers from more than 150 countries have been in residency here.

Unlike the Workshop, which is designed for writers at any stage in their writing career, the IWP is designed for well-established writers. The goal is to provide those writers with the time and space to work on their writing. They are also given the opportunity to present their work publicly, to take part in workshops, and to give interviews. However, they are free to spend their time as they like and do not have to complete courses.

Those welcomed to the IWP have included Bessie Head, Bei Dao, Luisa Valenzuela, John Banville and Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk.

Iowa City Publishing

There are 11 literary presses in Iowa City. One is devoted entirely to translation and two focus on language and literary materials.

In addition to these presses, we’re also home to the Center for the Book, which teaches bookmaking, papermaking, preservation, lettering arts, and a host of other nerdy/fantastic related courses to undergrad and graduate students.

Live From Prairie Lights

There are a few bookstores in Iowa City, but we’re most well known for Prairie Lights Books. Prior to COVID, they hosted at least three live readings every week. The ‘Live from Prairie Lights’ was long the only ongoing series of live-broadcast literary readings on the radio, though now it’s entered a new phase as a podcast.

Literary Events

Iowa City and its various literary institutions sponsor more than 180 literary events annually (or at least we did pre-pandemic), including the Iowa City Book Festival and the Mission Creek Festival, a “celebration of music and literature.”

Then there’s the Iowa Writing Festival, events put on by the Iowa Youth Writing Program…it goes on and on.

Literary Attractions

The Literary Tour of Iowa City includes stops at the house Kurt Vonnegut lived in while he was teaching at the Workshop and writing Slaughterhouse-Five, Dave’s Fox Head Tavern (a favorite of students at the Workshop), the English-Philosophy Building (better known here as EPB) the building that houses most English classes and was home to the Workshop from the mid-1960s to 1997, and the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk of Fame with brass plaques and quotes from authors like Flannery O’Connor and John Irving.

The tour will take you to the former homes of many of the folks who lived and worked/studied here, the haunts they haunted, and the historic lawns they lay on.

A City of Creatives

As of 2008, the year Iowa City was named a UNESCO City of Literature, 30% of people in the city worked within a creative field.

I did my best to be thorough, but a true summary of what makes Iowa City worthy of the UNESCO designation would require, well, 79 pages!

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