The panelists had to work to decode this one. "Do you mean a student who writes things that are troubling? Violent, or pornographic?"
"No," the asker said. "Just work that makes the other students feel odd and uncomfortable."
"So, work that deals with uncomfortable subjects? Sex? Drug use?"
"No," said the asker. "Just weird." He may have clarified a little more, "Off balance."
The panelists did their best, but what the asker seemed to be wanting help with was dealing with a particular student who behaved and wrote things that were just plain weird--this was a student who talked somewhat too much and offered advice that surprised and sometimes offended others; this was a student who responded to workshop with puzzling explanations of what he was attempting and seemed unreceptive to suggestions that would bring his work more down to earth. The biggest problem seemed to be that this was a student whose work produced feelings of disquiet and discomfort in the professor and in other students, and that these feelings made them nervous to discuss the story and uncertain of what to suggest for its improvement.
|Weirdness Quotient: 0|
So naturally, I thought it was a pretty stupid question--a question that revealed him as someone unable to fathom work that discomfited as work that could produce legitimate reader responses and literary benefit. I still think he pretty much was, remembering the utter confusion of the panelists--who patiently tried to explain ways to conference with students who were behaving inappropriately, only to meet with his eventual withdrawing of the question, as the student was not inappropriate, crude, unstable, or cruel, just weird. He was forced to sit with his question unanswered--there's no good answer to his question, really, except to say that there's lots of people in the world, sir, and as long as they're not hurting anybody it's probably not worth your worry.
|Weirdness Quotient: 2|
But many times these kinds of legitimate critiques of weirdness in fiction are buried beneath the simple reaction--the gut feeling that something is off and therefore is wrong. It can be really difficult in these situations to examine the weirdness present in a story for its utility instead of for the effects it was intended to produce--confusion, disgust, shock, alienation. These are valid effects for fiction, but like any other writing decision, they must be made to do work on the level of story and not just the level of reader reaction. Saying "I wanted the reader to feel confused," as most of us probably learned from our early flirtations with subtlety, does not in itself justify confusion. Separating the gut reaction from the story machinery is essential for both the critic and the writer of weird fiction.
|Weirdness Quotient: 8.5|
And in conducting these workshops, I realize how difficult it is after all to be a good teacher to the writer of weird fiction, particularly in the workshop setting. While I can usually provide pretty analytical feedback in notes, withdrawing myself completely from whether the weirdness works and instead examining how it could work, has worked in other examples, et cetera, in the workshop itself I am limited in my ability to direct other students toward the analytical. When I suggest that we take a look at what's striking us as weird and consider how that could have importance for the overall story arc, my students rarely make it past the first part. And it's often difficult to get writers of all stripes to talk really analytically in a workshop conversation--to work analytically, you usually have to speak for longer (a workshop no-no) and, to some degree, you have to set the terms for the discussion. You have to lay out an argument in the expectation that others will continue to tease out and articulate thoughts within that framework, and you have to be confident that others will find aspects of your argument interesting or important enough to discuss. Typically the point of workshop is not to lay out an argument beforehand--because it's partly based on reader response, on enacting for the writer the experience of several smart and savvy readers--and in an undergrad workshop, I think laying out an agenda is directly counterproductive, as students need the practice with identifying and explicating general issues in writing (contradictions, cliches, characterization) as much as they need to analyze and weigh elements of another student's story as elements to examine and experiment with in their own writing.
|Weirdness Quotient: 9|
Is this enough? How can we as teachers better make space for weird fiction in the workshop, and how can we establish a framework within which to analyze it critically--as a product amenable to change within its terms, and not as something we can't understand and thus must either shrug off, as an author's weird whim, or deny, as an author's weird mistake?