Biting the Hand

This post was written by Friday blogger Annie Reid.

Maud has convinced me to read David Lodge’s Consciousness and the Novel after yesterday’s post about Lodge, Graham Greene and sweaty thighs.

As both a product of, and teacher of writing workshops, I love to complain about them. I agree with Laila (as quoted by Maud yesterday) that writing workshops seem to drum in a sort of “Find and Replace” instinct for substituting physical gesture for felt emotion, or abstractions, on the page. In general I think this is a good thing, as tangible sensory detail is usually more engaging than abstraction. Usually. And many new writers are unable to express abstract emotions in a way that’s unique and interesting. As a teacher of tentative, new writers, I find myself encouraging them to break out of simple abstractions (“David felt sad about what happened to Sarah.”) to describe complex emotions. Often, externalizing the emotion into action or dialogue is a good way to do that. But increasingly I’m feeling the sort of overkill that Laila and Maud describe as well. At maudnewton.com, we call it the “tea-towel” school of literature.

However, I couldn’t disagree more with Henry James (I feel like such an incredible ass even writing that) as quoted by Lodge, that “the machinery of the traditional plot may be seen as a distraction from the true business of the literary novelist, to create the sense of ‘felt life.'” When I want “felt life”, I just get on the city bus for a few hours. The thing that fiction affords us that felt life doesn’t, as it is happening, is meaning, is directed inquiry, an answer to the question “so what?” The causality and movement of plot is a way of organizing and creating meaning, or at least pointing a reader towards a specific line of inquiry.

(Most people do this all the time. We can’t make sense of things when they happen. Events happen to us that are mystifying, painful, wonderful, inexplicable. But years later, we tell those same episodes as stories — about what those episodes meant in the narrative of our lives, how they made us.)

Unfortunately, I’ve read a lot of stories that combine the worst of both worlds: the plotless exploration of the mundane, combined with an overreliance on externalized gesture to stand in for meaningful internal states of mind.

This is why Rick Moody’s comment back a few weeks in the NYTBR that, “comics are currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is,” so utterly mystifying. It seems to me that much contemporary short fiction is a fetishizing of intimate gesture, detached from story.

If I have to read another story of the slow, quiet dissolution of a dysfunctional relationship of two live-in lovers in their late-twenties — punctuated by seemingly-banal-but-metaphorically-laden conversations with shopclerks — as manifested by how they use too much conditioner in the shower or walk hesitantly through a wintry landscape in uncomfortable sweaters, or find themselves suddenly screaming about the asparagus, I’ll commit an act of truly heinous violence. It’s like Polanski’s “Revulsion”, without the beautiful women, murder, psychosis, plot or depth.

So sometimes when I teach, I feel a bit schizophrenic. Am I encouraging writers to become more complex and tangible by lingering on sensory detail to express meaning, or am I reinforcing a kind of limited writing style? How thin can a plot be and still provide some glue? What’s the difference between an interesting situation and a story? How to encompass all the possibilities of fiction, while still providing some kind of direction?

Sometimes I ditch this problem (as I do now) by giving my students Francine Prose‘s essay, “Learning from Chekhov”*, as it is a marvelous reminder of how any pronouncements about “story” should be listened to, but taken with a grain of salt.

The basic idea is that Prose taught fiction writing at a college far away from her home, far enough that two solid hours on a bus allowed a good solid read in either direction. What better to read than the collected stories of Chekhov? But she discovered a pattern: she’d tell her beginning writers that they shouldn’t do something: write a story in which the POV character dies, etc, and then she’d get on the bus and read a story by Chekhov in which he’d done, quite beautifully, precisely what she’d just told students they ought not to do.

This essay has become a staple of my fiction workshops. I like to give it to my beginning fiction students at the end of the craft section of class, before we start workshopping their stories, to remind them that there may be principles but there aren’t rules, and to remind them that teachers may have some good ideas, but they’re not always right, and are frequently wrong. (Although it’s always best if this little lesson doesn’t really take until they get out of my class and into someone else’s. That’s why we always end with “don’t believe the teacher” instead of starting with it.)

*I can’t find a link to any book that contains this essay, although I know it was in at least two books that are now, seemingly, out of print: Writers on Writing: A Breadloaf Anthology and one of the Pushcart Prize anthologies of the early nineties.


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