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Repositories of "Numbing Verisimilitude"

BY SAM SACKS
12.06.2005 | BOOKS

In R.K. Narayan's novel The Vendor of Sweets, a young entrepreneur pushes his father to invest in what seems like a dubious venture: a short-story machine. How the machine works exactly is never made clear, and the hapless man squanders the family savings.

Still, if Narayan floated the idea ironically 40 years ago, today a short-story machine is probably within technology's grasp. Given a set of common parameters--say, a 5,000-word story with three scenes for introduction, development and climax and a finite field of predetermined variables (character names, settings, activities, dialogue tropes and so on)--a literate engineer could surely create a serviceable program.

This is but fancy; however, I was reminded of Narayan's machine recently while reading the Best New American Voices 2006, an anthology edited by Jane Smiley. The book gives such a desultory vision of the future of American letters that one can only hope its title is wrong. Without ignoring the occasional flashes of verve, the stories included are so monotonous that they seem to have been written by a single person of middling talent. All but one of them are written in the first person; a similar percentage hinge upon the narrator's difficulties with dysfunctional or deceased members of his or her family, or with ex-lovers. The tone is always confessional and saturated with self-pity. The plot and action are always negligible: one story takes place on a road trip to a presidential birthplace, another while moving apartments, another at a wedding, another while opening presents in front of the Christmas tree. None of this much matters anyway, because the things the characters do are always mundane and largely incidental to their psychological conflicts. From time to time a structural innovation appears to offer an interesting novelty, but under the packaging the same old formula is always to be found.

Even the style of writing displays a numbing verisimilitude. The first-person voice is always a lazily generalized vernacular, jazzed up at significant moments with consciously poetic frills in the exposition.

Finally, most of these stories end with a symbolic "moment of clarity" in which nothing happens, but a change has been imperceptibly arrived at. The apogee of immobility at the end of Jamie Keene's "Alice's House" should suffice to make the point: "It's a little after midnight when the phone rings again. It seems as if it's ringing forever, but finally it stops, abruptly and absolutely. And it's quiet again, and I'm alone."

It should be no surprise that every one of the writers in this anthology have one more thing in common: They have attended writers' workshops, either in graduate programs or in similarly organized writing conferences.

Writing workshops, for their ubiquity, are currently the most significant phenomenon influencing American literature. Enrollment into them has become de rigueur for people with a calling to write, and is assumed by increasing numbers (including publishers) to be as necessary a first step toward a writing life as college would be toward a professional life. But because the self-styled "best" of these workshops comprise such a poor lot of dull, mechanical stories, it becomes necessary to ask: What goes on in these programs, and how do they influence today's writers, for ill or for good?

I attended the University of Arizona's creative-writing program between 2002 and 2004, from which I received an MFA. This was almost entirely a good experience: I had great friends amongst my peers, and I came to love the odd and beautiful city of Tucson; and, because I held a teaching assistantship, I received a generous stipend for work that still left me huge spaces of free time in which to write, a luxury of which I've thought wistfully ever since. If I find fault, it's not as an alumnus, but as an avid reader who has had the advantage of seeing firsthand how these programs work.

My experience, though, wasn't necessarily definitive--I would only be entitled to that claim if I had attended what is roundly agreed to be the sine qua non of writing programs, the Ur-Workshop at the University of Iowa.

The creative-writing degree program began there in 1897, and the Workshop (with breezily unconscious arrogance, the capital "W" is still used) started in 1937. The early decades were remarkably distinguished, both for the student body and the professors--Flannery O'Connor, Wallace Stegner, Philip Roth, John Cheever and Raymond Carver are still spoken of reverentially as leading figures in an era when Iowa City was almost what Paris and the Village had been to literature before it. The Workshop prided itself on being an elite corps--as a teacher in the '60s, Roth wrote that "Part of our function is to discourage those without enough talent"--and for however much this made for snobbery (like Paris and the Village, it must have been a rather snobbish place), the ultimate aim was not just elitism but great writing.

This was many years ago. In the passing generations Iowa's rich bloodline has become increasingly anemic, and the truth is that, with the possible exception of Marilynne Robinson, who teaches there, no major writer has come out of the Workshop in decades. Yet today, when workshops (with a lowercase "w") are found in nearly every university across the country, these glory days are perpetually referenced, perhaps to serve an involuntary need by workshop participants to justify themselves. A professor of mine once regaled our class with stories about the famous friendship between Ernest Hemingway and his mentor Gertrude Stein (of which Hemingway renders an ungratefully one-sided picture in A Moveable Feast). "That," my professor said, spreading his hands toward us in an expansive gesture, "was a workshop." By implication, what we were doing in that classroom followed directly in the footsteps of the masters.

Wine and discussion of writing in Stein's Parisian parlor room may or may not be rightly called a workshop. Nevertheless, it bears no resemblance to the workshops at present. And it is not so hard to strip away the nostalgia, defensiveness and self-sustaining bias to see, with pretty fair objectivity, just what today's writing programs are.

First of all, the writers' workshop is an academic institution. Creative-writing students don't think of themselves as having any kinship with medical or business students, and this difference is to some extent confirmed by the total academic leniency they enjoy. Even so, every year ten to 20 new students will arrive, and the same number will shuffle away with diplomas. Most programs are two years in length and usually the size of every individual workshop is proportional to class size. A dozen people is about average.

Immediately we have nullified perhaps the most crucial aspect of the "workshops" of lore. The tête-à-tête mentorship, as between Stein and Hemingway, Flaubert and de Maupassant, Tolstoy and Chekhov or even John Fante and Charles Bukowski, is impossible in this setting. Twelve is a small class for other studies, especially those based on lectures, but it is unwieldy for the cultivation of something as personal as writing. Even the most remarkable professor could not be expected to strike up an intimate and meaningful rapport with an aspiring artist--and all great mentors must also be friends--when a score of new bodies is plopping down before him every twelve months in search of a guide.

More on these professors. The only prerequisite to teaching in an MFA program for writing is that you have published a book--or, if not a book, enough stories to buff up a résumé. Of course, it's not easy to publish a book, but of all the ways in which to claim instant legitimacy and mastery in a field, publishing a novel or book of stories is one of the easiest, as it circumvents the years and years of understudy research academicians must put in before they may don the title of professor.

Due to the huge proliferation of workshops, you need not be (or write anything that exists in the same galaxy as) Flaubert or Tolstoy to assume the honored mantle of respected "expert" on the art of writing. Consider the fiction professors at the University of Houston and Johns Hopkins University, which I have chosen for no reason except that the schools were tied for second (behind Iowa) in a U.S. News & World Report ranking for creative-writing programs: Robert Boswell, Chitra Divakaruni, Antonya Nelson, Robert Phillips, Daniel Stern; Mark Farrington, William Loizeaux, and Paul Maliszewki. These men and women may in fact be exceptionally devoted teachers and fine writers to boot. But as a sample cross-section, they are certainly not names that cry out "literary mastery."

Which brings us to the second key fact of the workshop: Professors teach primarily as a means of supporting themselves as writers.

This was in fact one of the founding intentions of the writing program--a way to give writers time and money to write; a form of patronage--and it was a noble intention indeed until writers began to make halfhearted careers out of what was meant as a short term sinecure. The plan began to go awry once writers became so accustomed to the relatively cushy role of "professor" that they took for granted (and they universally take it for granted) that they were qualified to teach writing without having arrived as great writers themselves. An enfeebling paradox has resulted: Professors with little calling to teach give only part of their attention to their classes, yet devoutly cling to their positions, sometimes for the rest of their lives, vacillating in a vocational purgatory, neither wholly writing nor wholly teaching.

Let us briefly recapitulate. Large, impersonal, ever-shuffling workshops are led by writers of, on average, mediocre ability who throw only part of their energy into helping their students. The result of all this is as predictable as it was inevitable: Writing is taught by rote. Limited in time and care and needing to satisfy at once a wide range of very different would-be writers, professors must rely on the crutches of formula.

This means rules and doctrine.

It might be thought that every professor would teach differently--and it is true that one of the challenges of being a workshop student is sussing out the varying tastes of your professors in order to qualify their criticism. The far larger trouble is the extent to which the rules that are taught agree. As in psychology and law (and franchise coffee shops) a workshop-specific lexicon has been born, and its terminology is common, with minor variations, to every writing program in the country. And thanks to the noisome cottage industry of books on writing--invariably authored by people who have never written anything of significance--the buzzwords are standard usage to the reading public, too.

A Story, as it progresses, is counterbalanced by a Backstory, which informs the reader what of importance happened beforehand. Both Story and Backstory must have a pronounceable Why Now, a meaningful reason that they are being told--something must be At Stake. Regarding meaning and significance, the writer should Show Not Tell through recurring Central Metaphor rather than through dry explanation of what is being felt. Furthermore, a good story has an apt and memorable Voice and conveys a strong Sense of Place.

I'll stop there, though I could continue. These rules of Craft--every workshop conveniently maintains that while you can't teach writing, you can teach Craft--of course have a lot of validity. Certainly there's much to be applauded in the art of evoking a character's anger without writing, "He was angry." (Though sometimes "He was angry" suits just right.)

If the term Show Don't Tell were one tool out of many that a perspicuous teacher used to aid a specific student in a particular situation, then it would be all to the good. But recall that except in exceptional cases professors need a common denominator with which to teach a group of students of all degrees of talent and taste. Consequently, Show Don't Tell becomes one of the rules in a standardized how-to checklist.

Rules of this sort, I think, come to resemble the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which is used to boil down matters of deep complexity for easy consumption by the masses of the laity. A few objections to the rules may have already crossed the reader's mind: books such as War and Peace, Moby Dick and Ulysses shatter all notion of common law rules of fiction; what is great about the stories of Chekhov, Isaac Babel, and Eudora Welty can't remotely be explained in the way they embody a structural law. Every story in Best New American Voices 2006 is infallibly faithful to workshop formula, and none are noticeably good. All of these objections should be immediately fatal to the premise of teaching Craft, yet they are all routinely shrugged off as caveats (Moby Dick as a caveat!), explained away by the one all-obliterating fallback rule that I've heard in every workshop I've ever attended: You Can Do It If You Can Get Away With It. Tolstoy, Melville and Joyce "Got Away With It," but you probably can't, and shouldn't try.

These are some of the rules for graduate students. The rules for undergraduates are even more invasive. Here the discrepancy between class size and professorial involvement is stretched even further--workshops are taught by graduate students, and the only whiff a young aspiring writer will get of a writing instructor is in a packed lecture hall. The class I taught was assigned a course packet and there, on the first page, were more rules: Never begin a story with a character waking up in bed. Never write a scene where a character looks at himself in a mirror. Never use the word "stuff."

These rules aren't exactly arbitrary. Having a character gaze into a mirror is evidently an involuntary reflex for amateurs and writers without talent. But the rule makes no allowances for the possibilities of a mirror scene in the hands of a writer with talent. (See Katherine Manfield's "Prelude.") This gets to the crux of the danger of the workshop: Doctrine is imposed with the working assumption that everyone is a mediocrity. If obeyed, it grades down the spiky brilliance of the talented and leads to the limited elevation and refinement of apprentice hacks.

Students are generally complicit in the dilution of literature through formula--the second-hand experience of a catechism instead of an immediate connection to God to, perhaps, strain my comparison--because it spares them the possibility of being unceremoniously told that they're not good enough. The prevailing atmosphere of study, then, can hardly be called rigorous. Most of the assigned books are contemporary works; things written before 1920 are largely ignored; ancient classics (which often times universities relegate to a classics department, separate from the literature program for some unaccountable reason) are even more difficult to synthesize into the workshop model and are generally left untouched. Given the choice between studying great books and learning rules, students tend toward the latter, which is why more read John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and E.M. Forster's Aspects of a Novel than actually study the fiction of these writers. (Does this not have a striking resemblance to the old Church policy of having an exclusive synod explain what the Bible says while discouraging followers from reading the thing themselves?) As for grammar and mechanics, the only aspects of writing actually governed by rules, they are considered beneath the contempt of creative minds and are omitted from study.

Such diminishing standards are made possible by the final fact about writers' workshops: Success as a student is gauged by the act of publication.

On one hand, publication--the approbation of a certain editor--is a good thing and a real watermark in many writers' growths. But with such a vast number of obscure small presses--the ratio of literary journals to writing programs is almost one to one--the importance of having a story picked up is greatly diminished. Or it should be, but is not because of the tangible benefits a few minor publications can afford a writer, regardless of the actual quality of the stories: Publication, which is often aided by the commendation of a professor, can lead to a teaching position. (Remember that literary journals are normally run out of universities.) And so as each generation perpetuates itself with a system of high rewards for low returns and grows progressively weaker through inbreeding, the formulaic doctrine of Craft is ever more cemented into the consciousness of writers. Completely lost in this self-fulfilling rigmarole is any notion of writing something great, something for the ages.

A popular anecdote that sheds light on an earlier epoch of American literature has F. Scott Fitzgerald, fresh out of Princeton, saying to his fellow alumnus Edmund Wilson, "I want to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived, don't you?" There is naiveté in the statement and there is hubris, but the boast also expresses a serious pursuit of greatness that is beautiful and quite spine tingling to any young writer who feels within him the powerful welling of undeveloped talent. But today, such a statement would most likely be met with muffled embarrassment in a workshop, which values the practical ends of publication and employment over this sort of dreaming.

I have no doubt, similarly, that some readers have found the peppering of names like Tolstoy and Flaubert throughout this essay to be mildly grasping and pretentious, irrelevant to the contemporary state of things. But isn't it discreditable, even insulting, not to hold today's writers to the very highest standards existent?

Possibly no writers who are indeed appointed for greatness will be much affected by the dangers listed here. But the evidence from books like Best New American Voices volubly suggests otherwise. And as workshops grow in number, expanding to inculcate more and more impressionable minds, we can only wonder what is being lost amidst an institution that, unintentionally but inexorably, conspires to discourage daring greatly as both irregular and impractical.

This article first appeared in New York Press.

About the Author
Sam Sacks is a freelance writer living in New York City.
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