Stephen Elliott: answering all the questions raised in workshops results in weak fiction

Stephen Elliott, author of Happy Baby, enjoyed Jimmy Beck’s open letter to New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman, mentioned in a prior post, but takes issue with a peripheral concern: whether fiction should answer questions raised in MFA workshops. Says Elliott:

I really liked the piece about the New Yorker fiction though I didn’t at all agree with the advice of Beck’s MFA program…. I think the “questions for the author” approach is a major failing of MFA programs (I didn’t do an MFA, but I have nothing against them, some of my favorite writers have them). When I was a fellow at Stanford I was in my first workshops and I was the only person without an MFA. I learned a lot, I mean a huge amount, from the other fellows. But there was also this tendency to ask too many questions. “How did this person get here” “How long have they been in this relationship”. It seemed to me that people were asking questions just because they were expected to and that led to fiction that tried to answer every question, which is almost always a mistake. When you explain everything you almost always end up with too much back story, and you lose the power that lurks beneath the skin of the narrative. I would actually go so far as to recommend the opposite, to answer the minimum, to ask the author only if it is absolutely essential, since everything else slows the story down.

I also know that I’m only talking about a small piece of the statement, and this is not the only thing the MFA professors were talking about. But I do think it’s an aesthetic that filters out of many MFA programs fueled by the necessity of having something to say in a workshop and it inhibits modern fiction and it’s something I thought about obsessively when I was writing my last book. I was lucky to have an editor that understood that.


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