Novelists 'R' Us

Salon Magazine for April 1, 1997: Novelists 'R' Us by Laura Miller

Published April 1, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

between the moment when an individual decides to become a fiction writer and the day he or she sells that first book lie some terrible years -- a wasteland of self-doubt, false starts, flagging discipline and humiliating obscurity. Sometime in the 1960s, university creative writing programs stepped in to fill those years with structure, support and training. At least, that's their stated intention. The literary world has been arguing for years over whether or not they succeed.

University fiction workshops, in which a group of students, led by a teacher, offer each other detailed critiques of their manuscripts, are usually, but not always, part of a two-year master of fine art degree-granting program. A number of highly regarded writers, including David Foster Wallace, Ethan Canin and Lorrie Moore, have graduated from such programs, and many ambitious young writers regard them as a necessary career steppingstone. But the programs have also been criticized for more than a decade. Critic John Aldridge best distilled the complaints in his 1994 book "Talents and Technicians: The New Assembly-Line Fiction." One of Aldridge's charges is that fiction workshops lead to a "cookie cutter" effect, prose "so bland, so competently but unexcitingly written, so interchangeable in style and substance that it very seldom stimulates a distinct response."

In a recent issue of the Paris Review, several leading editors, including Grove-Atlantic's Morgan Entrekin and TriQuarterly's Reginald Gibbons, blasted workshops for producing work marked by what Gibbons called "the conventionality of its artistic choices." Karl Wenclas, editor of the New Philistine, denounces workshop writing as "constipated, homogenized products ... a putrid disease."

the granddaddy of all gripes about workshops, however, is that they fostered the dominance of minimalism -- or "Kmart Realism," as novelist Tom Wolfe snidely called it -- in American fiction. The arch-practitioner of the style, the late Raymond Carver, inspired a generation of writers whose work Aldridge condemns as "technically conservative ... and often extremely modest in scope." This is fiction full of lower-middle-class characters who light cigarettes, lean silently against their kitchen counters, and contemplate the anomie of their stifled lives and relationships. When critics and editors decry "workshop stories," it's this type of writing they're referring to. (In its upper-class mode, this is what Entrekin calls "the 'divorce and cancer in Connecticut' school of fiction.")

"Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1997," a new annual series edited by John Kulka and Natalie Danford (with novelist Alice Hoffman as guest editor on this particular volume), may not contain much minimalism, but it's unlikely to convince these critics. The editors culled these stories from "nearly 100 prestigious writing programs around the United States and Canada," including the supposedly more adventurous and avant-garde programs at Johns Hopkins and Brown. Very few read like the stoic, spare prose of Raymond Carver or Ann Beattie. It seems that everyone knows better than that by now. But, with few exceptions, this isn't remarkably inspired or memorable writing, certainly not "strikingly fresh" or "astoundingly diverse," as Hoffman claims.

Frederick Busch, a seasoned novelist ("Girls") who has taught at the University of Iowa's famous Writers' Workshop and at Columbia and who served as a judge for Granta magazine's 20 Best American Novelists Under 40 competition, dismisses the quintessential "workshop story" as possessing "a laconic voice that says, 'I'm not complaining, but I really am.' There's a searing moment or a memory of a searing moment. Then there's an epiphany where they realize something about their entire life. The cellos come up, and we go out on a quiet, pensive note." Ben Yalom, a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, describes it as "psychological and small in scope." Its focus is nearly always domestic.

If the Scribner's anthology allows for a bit of stylistic variation -- including the staccato stream-of-consciousness technique employed by Helen McGowan in "Chemistry" -- it certainly toes the line when it comes to subject matter. Twelve of the 22 stories included here are about parent-child or sibling bonds (many with child protagonists); six center on marriage or primary romantic relationships. Only Adam Schroeder's witty "The Distance Between Prague and New Orleans," about a spoiled movie star's efforts to claim his "heritage" in Czechoslovakia, feels like it was written from a more expansive perspective. Not coincidentally, it's also the only genuinely funny story in the book.

This myopia plagues a lot of American fiction, but how much of the responsibility lies with writing programs? Yalom observes that Iowa "does have an ethos" that insists on "close attention to the words on the page, making sure they're clear, comprehensible and unambiguous. The result, which is unintentional, can be that young people tend to become cautious in content as well as style." And, as Glasgow Phillips, author of the novel "Tuscaloosa" and a veteran of Stanford's creative writing program, points out, "To workshop a story, you need a common set of terms, and American realism is the most common and discussable style. You can ask, 'Is the dialogue believable? Does the narrative arc resolve in a satisfying way?'"

Critiquing fiction containing elements of the fantastic often baffles many workshop participants. Yalom says he was perplexed that "the writers held up as models at Iowa -- Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford -- didn't include some postmodern, international or magic realist writers who are some of the major novelists working today: Milan Kundera, Paul Auster, the Latin Americans. While I was there, I encountered only one person who was writing a historical novel, and a small handful who were doing research to bring into their work." This despite the fact that readers, who have put even the sometimes difficult historical novels of Umberto Eco on bestseller lists, obviously love the stuff.

But even students at schools with more adventurous reputations complain of the rarefied environment at university writing programs. Alvin Lu earned his MFA at Brown, which "prides itself on not making everyone sound the same. But it has an ideology, the ideology of the avant-garde. I knew people there who wrote more conventional fiction, and they felt they couldn't get an honest critique. Someone would suggest they cut their story up in seven pieces and rearrange it randomly." If schools like Iowa concentrate on teaching students "craft," which will help them write "publishable" work, at Brown the goal was "writing breakthrough, genius-level prose. You could learn craft there, but Brown was much more about how much of a genius you were." Ultimately, Lu felt that he was "writing for about six people ... I lost sense of a larger audience."

Nevertheless, few graduates of writing programs consider the experience worthless. Perhaps perversely, most, like Yalom and Lu, found workshopping a honing process, one that taught them to take good criticism and to understand that most criticism isn't worth taking. Phillips dropped out of the Stanford program after his first year "because who is anyone to tell me what they think about what I do? It's just not for me."

Even purportedly "homogenizing" programs like Iowa's produce highly original writers like Denis Johnson, whose brooding, almost biblical fiction can hardly be called Kmart realism. Johnson, who has also taught at Iowa, thinks that the "sameness" in the work of some workshop graduates is "just temporary; the talented ones get over it." What good programs do offer is an accelerated learning of the nuts and bolts of building fiction. "You have to put in an apprenticeship, as with any art," says Busch. "A workshop can help them shorten their apprenticeship, which is a pretty good thing." "It takes a lot of manipulation of language to make a story," Johnson concurs. "You have to practice a lot. I didn't get anywhere with prose until I'd written a couple of books worth of stuff."

Everyone seems to agree that grant-making programs like Stanford's Wallace Stegner fellowship are commendable. "It keeps people afloat for two years when, if the funding wasn't there, they'd have to go out and get a job," says Phillips. In a culture that strikes many as hostile to literary values, writing programs, as Johnson puts it, give beginning writers "some endorsement of the effort they're making and of the idea of putting everything else aside to learn this hard thing. It offers a sense of community and camaraderie that we imagine existed in Paris in the '20s, and which you don't always find." "It's sad that things like literary community, which should happen in the real world," Lu sighs, "only seem to happen in artificial academic environments."

But if writing programs can make life easier for writers, they often infuriate "gatekeepers," like editors, critics and award judges. Kate Moses, a reviewer, former editor at North Point Press and literary advisor to the grant-making Lannan Foundation, has done all three, and read hundreds of manuscripts and published novels over the years. "Writing programs are a bunch of crap," she declares. "Almost anyone can be taught how to craft a musical sentence, but passion and something to say, these you can't teach. There are only so many people who can soar above the multitudes. Writing programs make more people think they can and determined to try to do it publicly, whereas once people indulged that sort of thing privately." The increased volume of "facile but mediocre" manuscripts and novels, she fears, makes it much harder for editors and critics to discover the "gems."

Of course what constitutes a "gem" remains highly debatable. Alice Hoffman considers the stories in "Scribner's Best of the Fiction Writing Workshops 1997" to be "exciting," the "debuts of important careers," while the same work struck me as tepid. But if what Moses calls a "write what you know" ethos has led to "an age of waning imagination" in American fiction, it's still possible to be riveted by a book whose premise sounds tired (like Frank McCourt's memoir, "Angela's Ashes"), provided the writer brings the sorcery of great storytelling to the table.

McCourt, however, has had nearly 60 years to polish his yarn-spinning skills. Johnson notes that writing programs can push fledgling writers into a premature professionalism. "They're not themselves yet," he observes of the twentysomethings who emerge with MFA in hand, fully expecting to publish immediately. Publishers look for young (and preferably good-looking) first novelists, because they make for
good press. Often enough, these writers, in Moses' words, "haven't found their voice yet, or, most of all, something to say." Readers fascinated by young novelists often relish a romantic notion of fiction writing in the Jack Kerouac mode -- the miraculous gushing of passionate genius fleetingly captured on paper between cross-country jaunts, sexual adventures and drinking binges, all the mediagenic pursuits of youth. In reality, as Johnson relates, novels are usually the result of years of practice, discipline and a certain amount of outright calculation.

Perhaps the biggest and most unsung benefit of writing programs is the fact that they offer a reliable income to older writers like Johnson and Busch, artists in their prime who don't always attract the attention lavished on the Next Big Thing. In that case, there's still cause for concern: Johnson says that while he was teaching at Iowa, the volume of problem-ridden manuscripts he read left him "confused" and unable to write more than a sentence. He even speculates that some novelists go into covert "retirement" by becoming instructors. "They've published their books, done what they wanted to do, and now they just want to teach, collect a paycheck and hang out with young people."

In my opinion, one Denis Johnson story is worth more than the entire contents of "Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1997," so it's heartening to hear he keeps his teaching gigs to a minimum. "If you're at a teachable stage, writing programs can be helpful," he says, "but mostly you should just go someplace where it doesn't cost much to live. That's the secret: Quit your job."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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