Workshop Woes & Reading K. M. Peyton’s Flambards

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

In Bleak House, a satire of the judicial system, Dickens warns us to be wary of time-and-soul-wasting cases and complaints.

Although it is not quite Dickens, I was fascinated by an article in the Iowa City Press Citizen about a rejected writer.   Sixty-eight-year-old Dan Thomson has filed a federal complaint accusing the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop of age discrimination.

Although there are hundreds of MFA programs, Thomson applied only to Iowa, where  800 to 1,000 people apply for the 25 slots every year.  Graduates of the program include award-winning writers T. C. Boyle,  Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, Denis Johnson, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Eleanor Catton, Donald Justice, and A. M. Homes.  Thomson believes he should have been accepted.

The university says age is not a factor: the applications  go directly to the Graduate School, while the Workshop receives only the writing samples.

But the statistics do favor the young: most of the graduate students are in their twenties (but then that is always true). Between 2013 and 2017,  approximately half of those accepted  were between the ages of 18 and 25.  In the last five years, no applicants age 51 or older were accepted. The  median age for all applicants was 36, and the median age for accepted applicants was 34½.  (Read The Iowa City Press Citizen article for more information.)

Well, I thought: perhaps there is age discrimination. But the real question is:  does Thomson have talent?

I checked out the Amazon sample of Thomson’s self-published novel, The Candidate. Uh oh.  He is writing genre fiction, which is not a good fit for the very literary Iowa.

And the book could use some work.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Chapter 2:

The beautiful young blond with a face like Ingrid Bergman was a two thousand dollar a day call girl. She was flown to Norman Telos’ yacht anchored in Mobile bay by helicopter.  At 4 in the afternoon Norman and Jane Gray were lying relaxed and naked in Norman’s king size bed sipping Martinis.  Jane asked, “So what is next for you, Norman?”

Norman, “Two hours of latency recovery and then either my 65 year old penis will rise on its own for more loving, or I will give it more chemical inducements.”

The writing is clunky and cliche-ridden.  I am not saying nobody would read it, but I would not.   Phrases like “a face like Ingrid Bergman” must go.  A few hyphens would not be amiss.

Iowa is not for everybody. So why not pursue another program?  Studying al fresco is by far the most fun:  Thomson could  pick up as much at a  summer writers’ conference as in two years of critiques by Millennial students.   Writers of literary and genre fiction of all ages are treated with equal respect at these conferences.

Let me add here that I took a couple of great fiction writing classes as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa.  Anybody could sign up!

Great Bedtime Reading:  Flambards

So what’s on my bedstand?  K. M. Peyton’s award-winning Flambards trilogy.  I decided to reread it after watching the stunning TV series on DVD.

The trilogy is set in the early 20th century, before, during, and after World War I.   In Flambards, the first book, the  heroine, Christina Parsons, an orphaned heiress, goes to Flambards to live with her equine-obsessed uncle. He is crippled and lives vicariously through his oldest son, Mark, a keen horseman.  He hopes Christina will marry Mark, so the money will go into the estate, but she shrewdly realizes Mark is a womanizer and a bully

But she prefers his witty, kind, aviation-mad second son, Will, who  falls off his horse and breaks his leg and then deliberately walks on it before it heals to avoid the hated riding (he fears horses) so he can become a pilot. Ironically, he becomes (slightly) crippled like his cruel father,  though not as badly, and his stiff leg does interfere with flying.  But Will adjusts.

Christina and Will

In the second novel, The Edge of the Cloud, Christina and Will move to London and marry.  Christina works as a receptionist at a hotel, and Will is a  mechanic, engineer, and stunt-flier.  Then World War I breaks out and Will, a pilot, crashes.

The third novel, Flambards in Summer, describes Christina’s return as a widow to Flambards, where she is determined to succeed as a farmer.  Christina is self-reliant but devastated by the loss of Will, irritated by the class snobbery at Flambards,  and determined to succeed though the men are at war and she has trouble finding farm laborers. When she finds out she is pregnant, she is more determined than ever to renovate the estate. And she loves horses, so one of the first things she does is buy a horse no one else will take a chance on.

And then at a farm sale, the past fuses with the present.  She sees a car for sale, and vividly flashes back to driving with Will.

Someday I shall drive to sales in my own motor-car,” Christina said to the smart Ford. It would not be for preference, only to show status, and her success with wheat. Will had taught her to drive a motor-car. A picture of Will, leaning out of Sandy’s Model-T with his arm stretched out to pull her up, his dark eyes laughing, cap on back to front, came into her mind very suddenly, very vividly. For a brief instant Will was as near and as real as he once had been in fact. Christina gripped the horse’s halter and shut her eyes, but the dream was past almost before it had come. Her mind reached to recall the vision, but it was irrevocable, dissolved like thistledown.

I love all three of these books.  A fourth, Flambards Divided, was published in 1981 after the TV series was filmed.  I will have to find my copy.

7 thoughts on “Workshop Woes & Reading K. M. Peyton’s Flambards

  1. I remember watching the series and reading the Flambards books back when the series aired in the US, probably in the early-mid 70s. I was so very young then, I think i still have my copy of the books, would be fun to revisit now. I am going to have a big sort out of books this fall, I will look for them!

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  2. I have the Flambards series on DVD and the books. My sister and I loved the series, and she named her old Volkswagen Emma, after Will’s plane. I read the first three books again a few years ago and thought they were excellent. I once saw a comment about the infamous fourth, comparing it to the Godfather Part III and suggesting that Peyton should have left well enough alone. I can’t say because I haven’t read it. To me, the first three were perfection and needed no sequel. But of course I’d be curious to know what you think if you do read it!

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    • Liz, I love the trilogy, too! It’s been years since I read the fourth, and I did enjoy it, but Christina’s life does go in an unexpected direction, and that’s probably what upsets fans. The DVD is so good: loved the actress who plays Christina.

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