Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Life imitates art: notes on the week's reading

One of this week's four novels is Jincy Willett's The Writing Class, a book about a middle-aged woman who's written a few books and is making a precarious living doing various things including teaching Creative Writing. She has a blog*, and a malicious anonymous troll/stalker to go with it.

At this point I found myself peering out through the bathroom curtains, fearfully looking out for lurkers in the back yard. God knows I've had one or two of those before today, too, not to mention Creative Writing students who were (a) monumentally pissed off with me for not admiring them enough, and/or (b) clearly mad.

However, the heroine is afraid of the dark, which means she can't possibly be me. (Never underestimate the power of the general reader's desire to map real people, places and events neatly onto those in fiction, thereby demonstrating that they regard a novel as a kind of Rubik's Cube.) She has one dog that doesn't like her much, not two smoochy cats. She's American, which I am not, and her name, unlike mine, is Amy.

And it's just as well she is not me, because she has a much nastier psycho in her life even than her troll: one member of her (otherwise variously interesting, nice and/or talented) fiction-writing class is leaving horrid, ugly anonymous letters, notes, calls, drawings and other psychologically damaging calling-cards with all of his/her classmates, and with Amy, and two members of the group end up dead before their stalker and murderer is finally caught.

Like all those driven by malice, the murderer turns out to have a grudge that she/he is projecting onto individual members of the group: she/he can't get his/her own fiction published. This, she/he decides, is the fault of rivals and of the people who teach and encourage them. The final showdown contains a conversation that I will, if I ever teach a fiction-writing class again, make copies of and hand around in the introductory class:

'I've read your story,' said Amy, trying to remember its particulars. "The Good Woman".'
'You said it didn't work.'
'I said it needed revision. It was about an old woman obsessed by the immoral conduct of her neighbour.'
'And from that you surmise what? ...'
'That you're observant,' said Amy. 'That you've always been a watcher, which is a great asset for a writer. That at some point you started keeping score, which is not. ... You took your eye off the page, where it belonged, and trained it on all those s.o.b.s who didn't love what you'd written.' ...

'Why don't they publish me?' [Murderer's] voice cracked, [his/her] face was drained of colour, and for the first time Amy saw that [she/he] was unwell. ... 'They give two-book contracts to MFA whores** with their MFA sentences and their MFA networking and they give me sorry, thanks, try again. I'm better than them. You know it. I've got something to say. I have a mind.'
'Yes, but you don't know how to tell a story.'
[Murderer] looked at her with loathing.
'You can do scenes, and character, and you write a mean sentence ... and you've got good ideas, but you don't know what a story is. "The Good Woman" started out great and then just ended because it had to. It wasn't a story at all -- it was a polemic.'

* I have now in the course of my novel-reading job read at least four or five novels in which blogs feature prominently, usually as part of the plot. They may yet become as central and as useful a narrative device as letters were to fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries.*** The possibilities are endless.

** The US Master of Fine Arts in writing now seems to be the gold standard for formal qualifications in writing.

*** More free Creative Writing advice: The Writing Class is a bloody good novel, in its genre, and part of the reason for that is that Willett has made excellent use of the 'house-party' sub-genre of crime fiction (of which she has clearly read at least 20 or 30 examples), and of the newly emergent 'reading group' sub-genre ditto. I would also be willing to bet a great deal of money that she had read and learned from Dorothy L. Sayers' best Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night, which this book recalls without ever actually imitating.

The point: writing will always be enriched if it demonstrates some sense of where it fits overall in the history of literature. There are no decent writers who don't read. There's an utterly bizarre notion held by some writing students that they don't want to be 'influenced', as though their writing were some sort of virgin entity that must not be defiled. The truth is that if you don't read, then your writing will be, of necessity and even at its very best, a thin and intellectually impoverished re-invention of the wheel.


Anonymous said...

On the strength of your recommendation, and its resemblance to "Gaudy Night", I'll have to read this.

I've just recently re-read "Gaudy Night" (having been on a Sayers binge), and enjoyed it even more than the first time, some 40 years ago.


ThirdCat said...

On not reading if you want to write,
I think sometimes people become afraid to read, because they know that they are not great writers and they think that if they read, they will end up copying what they've read, because they are not good enough to not copy.

Pavlov's Cat said...

David -- I think Gaudy Night is a really excellent novel even with all Sayers' jolly-hockey-sticks verbal mannerisms. I also really love, for different reasons, Strong Poison and The Nine Tailors, and to a lesser extent the slightly dippy one about the murdered gigolo who thinks he's a Russian prince.

3C -- I think you're right, at least about a certain kind of non-reader (there are, as you imply, different sub-groups). And the logical conclusion to the case you make is that they should just stop, which is presumably something they don't even want to contemplate.

ocky said...

I agree... you've got to read as much as you can if you are even half-way serious about writing. Every good writer has always read everything.

I know there are people who fear 'influence' but whenever I feel stuck or flat or just plain ornery, I pick up a book of Alice Munro's or Flannery O'Connor's stories and I'm quickly revived. "That's what writing can do! Well, let's get cracking!"

No copying (I think) but lots of inspiration. Books talk to each other -- isn't that the saying?

I like the point about some writing being more about polemic or style than about story.

Good post, Pav. I'll check out the book.

Anonymous said...

>>The truth is that if you don't read, then your writing will be, of necessity and even at its very best, a thin and intellectually impoverished re-invention of the wheel.

How can I get a friend of mine to read your blog entry without him concluding that I'm doing so on account of it describing him to a T (he fancies himself as an august scribe)?

Mindy said...

I'll remember the Head Mistress saying she was so hungry her tummy was flapping against her spine forever. Great imagery. I shall break the book buying drought with Jincy's novel I think.

word verific: ediht

Pavlov's Cat said...

How can I get a friend of mine to read your blog entry without him concluding that I'm doing so on account of it describing him to a T (he fancies himself as an august scribe)?

My experience of this kind of person, which is more extensive than I would like, is that they are not convertible. Nothing will convince them.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

I was not aware of the sub-genre of reading group crime fiction. From Mean Streets to Clean Feets.

The Writing Class sounds like a good read.

On the other matter -I'm always happy to read a good copy of something if dome well - the emphasis on "originalty" in writing and music is misplaced.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

as is the emphasis on "originality" - not to mention the over emphasis on pointing out typos on blog comments

Pavlov's Cat said...

Ah yes, I see I misspoke* there. I meant that 'reading group novel' was becoming a sub-genre all its own, not one of crime fiction. Bad, misleading syntax.

Agreed absolutely about the obsession with originality -- mainly because people so often obsess about it at the expense of competence, much less talent. You get a lot of this in arts grants policy -- 'innovation' constructed as some kind of requirement, with no attention paid to how well the artist is performing as a player of Beethoven, a classical dancer in classic ballets, a crime novelist, or whatever.


Anonymous said...

I really like your various blogs but this post made me feel paranoid and upset and, therefore, defensive. So, here I am. As a struggling writer, I totally relate to the murderer. To me, Amy's criticism ('That you're observant ... That you've always been a watcher, which is a great asset for a writer. That at some point you started keeping score, which is not') is itself a kind of point scoring. Measuring the talent and skill of writers in terms of 'writerly qualities' is kind of territorialising and pointless (even though I still do it compulsively and probably always will). Maybe it's more accurate to say that good writing exhibits certain qualities? I've taught creative writing and I think the kinds of people you're talking about (and I know they can be maddening - and worse) might benefit from a less punitive approach to their shortcomings. *scuttles away*

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh dear, I was afraid this might happen.

Fiona, I'm not sure whom you are calling 'punitive' -- me or Amy? Amy is a fictional character negotiating with someone she thinks is about to kill her, as befits the denoument of a murder mystery; I am someone with no current students, writing a post on my personal blog. Who is being punished here, exactly?

Most of the writing students I've had over the years have been lovely, but a small minority have been shamefully unread, resistant to all teaching, and outraged with me for behaving in the classroom as though it were a classroom and refusing to tell them that they are genuises. If you think it's wrong to be exasperated with student writers who think they have nothing left to learn but still persist in enrolling for courses, and who then blame everyone but themselves for the fact that they can't get their stuff published, then I can only conclude that you haven't encountered enough of them yet.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Um, dénouement.


genevieve said...

What a great excerpt from Willett - and right on the money, that is exactly what happens when your writing goes all pear-shaped, and it's time to tear it up and READ SOME BETTER STUFF.

I should be embarrassed to admit to it, but it is exactly that, polemic in that pristine state of you and one (that's right, only ONE, thank you) lonesome piece of paper having a chat, with no one else within coo-ee.

Great post, PC. As always.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I hoped that by signalling my comment as paranoid and defensive, I might grant myself a few liberties.

Muriel Spark's The Finishing School offers an elegantly chilling rendition of a writing class gone wrong.


Francis Xavier Holden said...

I said: I was not aware of the sub-genre of reading group crime fiction.

Then you said: I meant that 'reading group novel' was becoming a sub-genre all its own, not one of crime fiction.

Oh I really thought there might be a few reading group murders around and was hoping for recommended books.

Pavlov's Cat said...

FXH, if my experience of reading groups is anything to go by then I am sure there are many, many reading group murders around, if only (as yet) in the members' minds. It's only a matter of time.

fifi said...

"The truth is that if you don't read, then your writing will be, of necessity and even at its very best, a thin and intellectually impoverished re-invention of the wheel."

I could equally apply this to painting students. Though the reverse is also true: a cobbled pastiche of style is just as unsatisfying.

I will try to read that book.

Pavlov's Cat said...

"I could equally apply this to painting students."

Oh yes, and I frequently do, and music as well. They're good analogies in a number of ways for helping make writing students see that literature is more than just self-expression. It's hard with writing, because if a student can't carry a tune or draw a straight line then that is objectively demonstrable, but if a student can't write for toffee then s/he can and frequently will simply say 'Oh, but your judgement is just subjective.' Strangely, no one ever responds this way to admiration or praise.

"Though the reverse is also true: a cobbled pastiche of style is just as unsatisfying."

True again with writing, but I'd still rather have the cobbled pastiche. At least it means they've understood what other writers have done over the years, and where their own place in that tradition will have to be carved out.

Helen said...

Funny. In the olden days, when I hadn't yet marked myself out musically as a journeyperson and not suited to songwriting, I'd nut out some quite nice thing in my head but I'd always abandon it in the paranoid horror that I'd heard it somewhere and it was an earworm, not my own invention.

Of course, one hears stuff constantly which refers obliquely or not-so obliquely to stuff recorded long ago and you wonder how much is "homage" and how much is unwitting rip-off (or perhaps not unwitting at all.)

Of course, if you really do have talent as a songwriter, you shouldn't stop listening to music in fear of picking up a musical virus, because if you're any good, that won't be a problem. Just as you described with prose writing.

ocky said...

I'd weigh in with the opinion that measuring the skill of writers in terms of 'writerly qualities' is exactly what we need to do. Just as we measure the skill of architects or beekeepers (or whatever) by how good they are at what they do.

Good writing has certain definable qualities, and all good writers show them in some degree and in some shape. In my experience, many of the L-plate writers who are resistant to influence don't think they are working in a tradition. They seem to think they are making their own tradition.

They are probably good at journalling or diary-keeping, but not so hot at making literature. Like you said, Pav, some people think writing is self-expression. They don't want to create, they just want to emote. It's a kind of therapy.

Kate H said...

I think part of the problem is that everyone, on some level, believes he or she can write. Unlike, say, playing a musical instrument or being a super-fast runner or whatever, writing of any sort appears to most people as taking no more skill than being able to grip a pencil or aim one's fingers at a keyboard.

I'm not saying writing is rocket surgery (as we call complex tasks in my household) but so many people think just because they can hold a pencil they can write a novel (or in my life, be a journalist).

lucy tartan said...

I was with the excerpt up until the murderer's voice cracked etc. My impression is that the barriers to publishing are lower now than they have ever been thanks to and the like, and also the little presses on the next rung up.

Nabakov said...

"Gaudy Night" is good but my favourite in the Sayers canon has always been "Murder Must Advertise" , not least because she draws on her own copywriter career to take the piss out of the trade with much style and wit.

"...sub-genre of reading group crime fiction."

And what about the sub-sub-genre of reading group crime fiction blog threads?

On a completely unrelated note, I trust y'all will notice the timestamp on this comment. Not that it prove in any way significant later on.

"I think part of the problem is that everyone, on some level, believes he or she can write. "

Yup. Definitely yup. Stephen Fry makes an excellent point about this in "The Hippopotamus" where his poet protoganist rants on about how any bloody idiot who can write out a shopping list or an Xmas family update letter ("..and young David has taken to cricket like a duck to water, ha, ha!") thinks they have mastered the written word. Well I can hammer in a nail straight without hitting my thumb but it doesn't make me a master carpenter.

But writing in such a way as to keep people both reading and comprehending while also shedding some light on the subject at hand requires hard won craft as well as passion. Of course there are the odd exceptions but they are very odd and most exceptional.

And anyone in any medium who can display talent and craft is always influenced by others. Or as I once said "Good artists borrow, great artists steal it and file the serial numbers off."

And the captcha for this comment is:
which sounds like the State authourised trade union for Czech poets circa 1965.

Anonymous said...