It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but bear with us as we break down this incredibly informative video from author Sim Kern about how the CIA “shaped a global literary aesthetic.”

@simkern How the CIA shaped a global literary aesthetic #historytok #ciahistory #ushistory #publishing #booktokfyp #historybooks #leftwingpolitics #leftisttiktok #historyfyp ♬ original sound - sim booktoks badly

Kern’s video starts during the Cold War, when the CIA wanted to ensure that leftist thought wasn’t proliferating throughout American society, particularly after having seen the impact of literature on popular opinion and its influence on the public consciousness in the Soviet Union. Enter Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a program that to this day continues to nurture some of America’s best literary talent. Engle was “deeply concerned” about the spread of communism, so much so that he began working with the CIA to build his program by traveling around the world and recruiting writers to visit the U.S., and in Kern’s words, “instill in them a literary aesthetic that’s basically capitalist indoctrination.”

Engle himself described this aesthetic as “sensations not doctrines, experiences not dogmas, memories not philosophies.” In Kern’s words, Engle wanted personal writing, not stories that criticized the U.S. government, capitalism or the broader social order.

Kern explains that this aesthetic can be seen in the large number of American books from the latter half of the 20th century that focus on individuals (think Holden Caulfield) rather than communities — an occasional romantic relationship or familial relationship, sure, but on the whole, books that take a far more individualistic approach. Philosophically speaking, these books might engage with existentialism or mortality, but shy away from exploring social or political ills.

In addition to its work with Engle, the CIA also established literary magazines around the world in the 1960s through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, including publications in the U.K., Japan and Australia that still survive today. Most shockingly, The Paris Review, one of the world’s most respected literary magazines, was founded by Peter Matthiessen, a CIA agent, as a cover for his work with the agency. As Kern explains, the Review managed to turn the French literary aesthetic away from a strong tradition of socially engaged writers like Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.

Kern has hope for the future, though. They think that thanks to online spaces like TikTok, there has been a surge in interest in leftist thought, and thus, leftist literature.  

Books — a psy-op no more.