Claire Vaye Watkins

Tin House: vulnerability & risk

As its celebrated literary journal shuts down, the Portland publishing house's summer writing workshops at Reed College continue to thrive.


Midsummer has arrived in Oregon, and every surface at Reed College seems ripe with books. The campus is hosting the sixteenth annual Tin House Summer Workshop, as a few minutes walking the grounds makes plain. Signs for lecture destinations and attendee housing point in every direction. Above Cerf Amphitheatre, tables are stacked high with various issues of Tin House’s quarterly journal. 

The journal’s final issue – printed in July, and marking the end of a 20-year run for one of Portland’s most esteemed and far-reaching literary magazines – stands out from its predecessors, a robust volume with a pitch-black cover on which is etched a gilded rendition of the press’s logo.

Tin House has come a long way since it was founded in 1999 as a literary journal and nothing more. It was established by Holly MacArthur and Win McCormack (MacArthur remains a founding editor and deputy publisher; McCormack, who is also editor in chief of The New Republic since buying the magazine in 2016, is Tin House’s publisher and editor in chief), but it was not until 2003 that the publishing house held its first writing workshop at Reed. Another five years went by before Tin House also became a press, publishing novels, nonfiction, and poetry.

This was my first year attending the conference. Its lectures, panels, and readings have always been open to the public, although the workshops themselves are strictly for accepted applicants. In most cases, those accepted are also required to pay a substantial fee to cover the cost of working closely with some of the United States’ literary superstars.


Poet D.A. Howell, “The Godfather” of Tin House’s writing workshops.

THE 2019 WORKSHOP, which ran July 7-14, included many big-name authors, among them R.O Kwon, Garth Greenwell, Natalie Diaz, Camille T. Dungy, Kaveh Akbar, and Mitchell S. Jackson. Also in attendance was poet D.A. Powell, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, who has earned the affectionate nickname “The Godfather” for having attended every Tin House summer workshop since 2003.



It’s been a rough few years for Wordstock by the sounds of it. There’s been trouble with management, trouble with venues and a history of financial woe that led to the Portland festival taking 2014 off. But if the 2015 festival, which took place in and around the Portland Art Museum last Saturday, was anything to go by, it looks like the dark times are over.

Part of the reason this year’s festival was so massively enjoyable was that unlike previous years, this time the event was packed into one very full day, with three main stages offering nine consecutive hours of high-quality literary chat. And consecutive they surely were. To be fair, the events were kept diligently on time, but if your next chosen event was on a different stage, that left only a couple of minutes to push through the crowds and duck between buildings to catch it from the start. It did give the day a real momentum, but combined with the art museum’s handful of restrooms it also meant that anyone determined not to miss a thing had to choose between punctuality and their bladder. But it’s a small complaint, and nothing a few Honey Buckets won’t remedy next year.

Editor’s Note: Angie Jabine was also on hand for Wordstock and caught an entirely different lineup of authors. Read her report here.

So who was there? Simon Winchester for a start, resplendent in a tan sports coat and jeans, talking to OPB’s Geoff Norcross about his new non-fiction book, Pacific. The Wall Street Journal hates it apparently, but Mr Winchester didn’t seem too put out.

“Now all I want is for Bill O’Reilly to hate it,” he said, and to judge by the giggles from the audience there’s no major overlap between the Fox crowd and the book crowd. Winchester, it seems, knows something about everything and spoke engagingly on plate tectonics, weather systems, the militarization of the Pacific, the origins of surfing, nuclear testing in the Bikini Islands, deep sea mining and more besides. And it was remarkably bright and breezy for a talk with such key points as the inevitable decline of the United States and the possibility of total human extinction in the next 500 years.