Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"The Story Problem"

Cathy Day has one of the best essays I've read on creative writing pedagogy in a very long time. She begins with the question of why so many students and writers are making short stories, and the insight that probably most of them didn't start out with that in mind. Though I don't know that she would endorse this language, what emerges is a catalog of the ways a confluence of habit, practical limitations of the workshop format, laziness, the best of intentions, and cowardice lead to the production of small stories within a narrow range of acceptable length, ambition, and style.

You should really just read the thing itself if you're interested in the subject but I thought I would highlight a few sections I find especially pertinent and comment a little. And so:
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. 
Yes. This has been especially frustrating for me in my MFA -- I like short stories, and I love specific stories and the exercise and art of creating my own, but generally I love novels. I love reading them, I love the fact of their existence, I love touching them, I love making them. And this is I think common among people generally: we talk about how difficult it is to make a living as a writer, but a genuinely surprising number of people can at least make real money as novelists. So why don't we teach people to write novels, which they and their audience love? Well, Day has listed some of the reasons. I might also point out that the academy has emerged as a sort of welfare system for writers of short fiction -- which is fine, but it also slants our pedagogy in unproductive ways. We end up mostly learning from people who teach quiet, academy-safe stories, and so we learn to produce those, and so there are eight thousand journals whose names end in Review and too-often fail to distinguish themselves.
If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you will learn to artificially inflate your story so that no one will think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you will learn to artificially deflate your story because don’t you know that more than 15 pages makes people cranky?
God yes, and I'm so glad I'll never have to put up with this again. As a writer, my default form is the novel. I'm way better at novels, and I like them better. (I'm currently starting my seventh.) I've found (for reasons to be explored in a moment) that bringing a chapter of a novel into a workshop is generally a mistake, and so I've tended to write short fiction. But even my short fiction has historically been rather long -- thirty pages or more. Unfortunately this makes publication pretty difficult, but ultimately that's a good challenge: it just means I have to make my work better. But for years students have been bitching about my stories' length, pretending they can't possibly find the time to read a thirty page story twice. (Which, well, most of them probably aren't reading even twice anyway, but that's another story.) I was somewhat sympathetic to this in undergrad, though not very, but in grad school every time somebody cries about having to read thirty pages I want to tell them to give up now: they don't love the work of writing enough and they almost certainly never will. Thankfully a lot of people in grad school have agreed with me on this point. Nobody in my class complained about my 400-page thesis, and they won't complain about reading the new, longer version either.

And, satirizing syllabi everywhere:
Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.
Yeah. Pretty much. When I talk about this subject I get pretty angry. We'll leave it at this: her description is accurate, and this attitude is more or less responsible for how shitty and boring most fiction is today.

When realism was invented, its writers were being ambitious and wild. They were trying to do something big and crazy. They weren't trying to "master the basics first," they were writing the most beautiful things they could possibly imagine. That we don't allow our students to do the same thing today is criminal.

And then there's a discussion of what it's like bringing chapters from a novel to workshop. The short version: It's so depressing, and so utterly useless, as to make most people who try it give up on their novels. I actually had a very nice undergrad experience in this regard. For most of my time there I brought in short fiction like everyone else, and then in the final semester of my senior year I brought in my novel. My teacher was Susan Neville. We did my first chapter and what I think was my seventh or eighth. She helped me frame these excerpts for the students, and she framed it for them herself, in such a way that the discussion was actually really productive: I came away with solid ideas of how to revise not only that chapter, but the book as a whole. If we can learn to treat chapters as chapters, rather than as short stories -- if we can learn to be more interested in growing the work and embracing its opportunities, and less focused on prescriptively instructing students in how to get things right, right now, we could actually help students to write the things they want to write.

I mean, really, if you're a teacher or a student of creative writing, or if you're interested in these issues, you should read the essay. But regardless I think we need to remember to be brave, open, and large-hearted -- and to remember these things are not exclusive with rigor and care.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Mike. I'm glad these ideas resonated with you.