Like we did last year, we’re going to have a little fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Rooster contenders. Book cover design is a strange exercise in which one attempts to distill iconic imagery from hundreds of pages of text. Engaging the audience is the name of the game here. and it’s interesting to see how the different audiences and sensibilities on either side of the Atlantic can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
A new edition of Voltaire’s Candide with a cover by Chris Ware came out a few months ago. At the time, it was announced that there would other books in this series with covers by other famous artists, and I’ve been waiting to see them ever since. The other other day Penguin’s Summer 2006 catalog arrived, and I was excited to see that the covers are in there. I was going to wait until the pictures were up online somewhere before posting them, but it was taking too long, so I scanned them. Candide is already out, the rest are out on March 28:Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Cover by Anders NilsenThe New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, Cover by Art Spiegelman Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Cover by Roz ChastThe Portable Dorothy Parker, Cover by Seth The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Cover by Charles BurnsCandide by Voltaire, Cover by Chris WareSee the full-size pictures hereUpdate: See Part Two
After once being a hot topic, prompting many in publishing to vocally take sides, the dispute between Google and the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers simmered quietly in lawyers’ offices for more than two years. But this week Google’s book scanning effort was back in the news with the announcement of a $125 million settlement. What may have been lost in this news is that Google is suddenly poised to drive a massive change in the publishing marketplace, multiply by many times the number of books available at the fingertips of readers, and supercharge the market for online delivery of books.The original Google Book Search controversy erupted almost immediately after Google first launched the feature, then called Google Print. To many, it seemed like an almost impossible effort but somehow Google had the will and resources to deliver on an incredible promise: all of the world’s books – and therefore, some would say, all of the world’s knowledge – digitized, searchable, and preserved for future generations. But some publishers, many of them divisions of media conglomerates and made vigilant by the piracy that had ravaged the music industry, were wary of Google’s intentions and feared a frenzy of unfettered book-swapping.In part, the controversy stemmed from confusion about what Google was up to and the knee-jerk notion that digitized books would quickly be coursing across the internet, freely available to anyone who wanted them. Essentially, the search giant was dividing books into three categories. Google would work with publishers on in-print, copyrighted books via its “Partner Program,” which makes previews of the books available, provides “buy this book” links, and includes a revenue share for the ads displayed next to those books’ pages. Out-of-print, public domain books, meanwhile, were freely scanned and made fully available by Google. But it was the third category, out-of-print books that are still under copyright, that caused the most angst.This angst was compounded by Google’s methods; the search engine had gone around the copyright holders and brokered deals with universities to scan the contents of libraries containing millions of volumes. Google assured publishers that, by default, only snippets of these books would be displayed and that the snippets were protected by fair use, but this promise – and its legal justification – were not enough to soothe the publishers and the Authors Guild, so they sued. Publishers’ pique, however, seemed to go beyond the issue of fair use and instead seemed to be rooted in a desire to push back against what was viewed as Google’s arrogance and to exercise control, as absolutely as was possible, over their copyrighted works.This notion of control was a common thread through many of the responses of publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing’s Nigel Newton said “Publishers also have the responsibility to make sure that when it comes to hosting electronic content in future, it is their own websites that host the downloads and the scans of text and audio. There is no reason to hand this content to third-party websites.” This was echoed at the Association of American Publishers: “‘If Google can make…copies, then anyone can,’ Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said in a phone interview. ‘Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything,’ she said.” And HarperCollins and others pushed their own digitizing efforts, resulting in widgets and beefed up publisher websites. These anti-Google voices were offset by a cacophony of authors and publishers who dissented and were open to Google’s experiment, including Richard Nash of Soft Skull and several others.But now, after after more than two years of negotiating, a resolution has emerged that, if approved by a US district court to resolve still pending lawsuits, could mark a major change in the availability of books.The big change comes in that nettlesome category: out-of-print, copyrighted books. Here’s how Google describes its proposed plan for those books:Until now, we’ve only been able to show a few snippets of text for most of the in-copyright books we’ve scanned through our Library Project. Since the vast majority of these books are out of print, to actually read them you’d have to hunt them down at a library or a used bookstore. This agreement will allow us to make many of these out-of-print books available for preview, reading and purchase in the U.S.And what’s key is how Google plans to make these books available: “Once this agreement has been approved, you’ll be able to purchase full online access to millions of books. This means you can read an entire book from any Internet-connected computer, simply by logging in to your Book Search account, and it will remain on your electronic bookshelf, so you can come back and access it whenever you want in the future.” With those two sentences, the number of books available to readers – Google has estimated that 80% of the books in libraries are out of print – will increase substantially. In addition, by making these books available for sale, a new revenue stream will be opened for publishers (the books will also be available via institutional subscriptions offered to libraries and the like). There are no estimates on how big this number might be but it represents new money both for publishers and for writers whose books are out of print. Perhaps dislocated by this, meanwhile, are thousands of booksellers (not to mention Amazon), whose used book businesses are often times the easiest way for a person to get their hands on many out-of-print books. If a reader doesn’t need to own the physical book, Google will be an enticing option, particularly since it seems very likely that books offered through Google Book Search would be cheaper.The Association of American Publishers FAQ on the deal notes one of the ways the books will be priced: “Google will automatically set and adjust prices through an algorithm designed to maximize revenues for the book. This algorithm will be based on multiple factors.” So, as Google brings its algorithm magic to pricing out-of-print books, it seems sure to impact the pricing across the whole market. In addition, publishers and authors have long bemoaned that they are cut out of the revenue in a used book market that has only grown larger thanks to the internet. It would seem that the Google deal will now give them a way to reach out to at least a slice of those used book buyers.But perhaps more important than the new revenue for publishers will be the huge increase in access to a large new subset of books, in one stroke bringing back millions of out-of-print books from oblivion. While this may not excite the casual reader, it represents a great expansion of the amount of knowledge that is fully searchable and at our fingertips and it has the potential to be a great boon to scholars.Over the last decade, the internet has wrecked many old media business models. Despite my frustration at their initial recalcitrance, the publishers were right to protect their business model, and both Google and the publishers should be lauded if this agreement results in the creation of a new one.
How did you develop a love for reading?
Ask George Saunders, Barry Hannah, or Andrea Barrett. For each of these writers, their love for reading was realized in a K-12 classroom. For Maya Angelou, it’s thanks in part to Miss Kirwin, a “brilliant teacher” at the George Washington High School in San Francisco. For John McPhee, it’s thanks in part to Olive McKee, an English teacher he had for three years. Of course, you don’t have to look to lauded authors. Most readers, writers, and book-lovers can point you to a moment in their educational journeys where a love for reading was inspired in them by a passionate K-12 teacher.
However, the ability of schools and teachers to foster a love for reading in students is under assault in today’s educational climate. We live in a time of high-stakes accountability, where quantifiable metrics, namely standardized test scores, are used to judge students, teachers, and schools. Now, we are faced with the Common Core, new standards in Math and English Language Arts that are sweeping the nation. Incentivized by billions in federal grant dollars, 45 states are adopting the Common Core, with some states rolling out their implementations over the last two school years and other states waiting until next school year.
With these new standards come new tests, namely the Smarter Balanced assessment and PARCC, which are expected to take up to 10 hours for students to complete every year, starting in third grade. These tests will dominate students and teachers’ lives and turn many engaging classrooms into test prep zones. This myopic focus on testing places an extraordinary burden on students and teachers — such an extreme focus detracts from students’ educational experiences and greatly impedes schools and teachers’ ability to foster a love for reading in all students.
This should matter not only to students, parents, and teachers, but to publishers, writers, readers, and booksellers across America. If we want reading to flourish as a pastime and a serious pursuit, schools must be able to devote the necessary time and resources toward reading for pleasure.
You can probably think back to a time in school when you were introduced to something new. Maybe it was a concept in science class or a way of solving problems in math. With this new knowledge came a mix of recognition and surprise, the delight of learning. For many readers, a book passed along by a kind English teacher or eccentric history teacher carried with it this delight. In this sense, K-12 teachers are agents of intellectual excitement. A vibrant teacher can ignite students’ curiosity and enthusiasm in immeasurable ways. Especially for students who don’t have access to many literary resources at home, the classroom is the place where the world of books is brought to life. Educators can pass along their love for reading by introducing students to great books and by being sources of passion, creativity, and spunk.
In her Paris Review interview, novelist Andrea Barrett talks about her difficulties in high school, how she used to skip class and was a “horrible student.” Yet there was one person who stood out, a 10th-grade English teacher named Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams gave students “an extensive list of really good books to read” and then asked them to journal about their reading experiences. Soon, Barrett was reading more than she ever had before. “Mrs. Williams,” Barrett says, looking back, “was important to me in ways I didn’t understand for years.”
This is a relatable feeling. The lasting ramifications and reverberations that result from the guidance of our teachers — these people who, at the time, may have seemed silly, ridiculously strict, overly enthusiastic, and unbearably old — are hard to quantify. Yet many of us have been shaped in tremendous ways by these teachers who took the time and extended themselves, these teachers, like Mrs. Williams, Miss Kirwin, and Mrs. McKee, who went above and beyond and brought reading into our lives. Booksellers everywhere should be sending these teachers thank-you cards. These are the people who are inspiring the next generation of readers and book-buyers in America.
It’s worth thinking about what a young Andrea Barrett would have made of an English classroom that was strictly aligned with the Common Core and geared solely toward preparing students to get high scores on standardized tests. Instead of reading novels hand selected by her teacher, Barrett would read the same informational texts as every other student. Instead of being able to journal about her own ideas, Barrett would complete multiple-choice questions, each of which related directly to a Common Core standard. This is not the kind of environment that can foster a love for much of anything.
While we do not know what the full effects of these new efforts to standardize education will be, it’s clear that success on these Common Core-aligned tests will shape learning and teaching in many districts, because these tests will be a primary metric by which districts are judged. This will greatly influence what’s happening in our classrooms. Simply put, the more instructional time K-12 teachers have to spend preparing students for high-stakes tests, the less time teachers have to foster a love for reading in students.
This is not only a question of classroom time, but also of students’ perspectives. When books are seen through the lens of test prep, they lose value. Texts are turned into word searches, where students’ singular goal is to find the correct answer. If reading is treated merely as a way to extract the necessary information — rather then as an activity worthy in and of itself — our literary culture will be greatly diminished. “The most significant kind of learning in virtually any field,” writes visual arts teacher and Stanford professor Elliot Eisner, “creates a desire to pursue learning in that field when one doesn’t have to.” This definition of learning — of learning that is transformative, of learning that galvanizes our minds for a lifetime — is what should be driving our discussions, instead of the current focus on more and more high-stakes tests, where standards are geared toward establishing uniformity of thought among students and where creativity and individuality are neither valued nor encouraged.
If this current trajectory continues, the next generation of Americans will spend more time in school prepping for high-stakes tests than they will reading books or engaging in lab work or doing much of anything else. It seems likely that this, in turn, will have an impact on the number of active readers in America, a number that is already in noticeable decline. If we want our schools to be transformative places, if we want students to develop a deep love for reading, then we must understand that the most fundamental parts of an education are those that cannot be easily quantified through standardized tests.
At a time when so many external groups and special interest forces are involved in education, it’s important that the voices of book-lovers echo in our classrooms. Publishing houses should provide more free resources to students and schools. Local writers should find ways to collaborate with K-12 teachers. We should all advocate for a public education that engenders a love for reading in students.
Thinking of writers — George Saunders, Maya Angelou, and Andrea Barrett, just to name a famous few — who have been influenced by their K-12 teachers, it’s worthwhile to contemplate how they would have experienced today’s high-stakes testing climate. Would they still have developed a rich love of literature? Can such a love flourish in an environment where student achievement is reduced to standardized test scores? What is at stake, in this debate over education, are the lives and minds of the next generation of readers, writers, thinkers, activists, and academics in America. At some point, we have to ask how many students have already been turned off by today’s educational priorities? We have to wonder how many stories have already been lost.
Bonus Link: The Problem With Summer Reading
Image Credit: Flickr/albertogp123
1. A Writer-Teacher Consults Her Magic 8-Ball
Why did I spend twenty years of my life writing short stories as opposed to novels?
Reply hazy, try again.
Because I know without a doubt that when I was growing up, I absolutely loved to read novels and rarely read short stories unless they were assigned in a class.
All signs point to yes.
Is it my nature to write short stories, or is it nurture?
Concentrate and ask again.
Have I really just spent two decades writing short stories for no other reason than because it’s the only prose form for which I’ve received explicit instruction?
Without a doubt.
And what about my students, the next generation? Have I passed this short story inclination to them?
It is decidedly so.
2. We are Not Experiencing a Short Story Renaissance
Today, most writers are raised in the creative writing classroom, where the fundamental texts are stand-alone poems and stories. As you progress from the introductory class to intermediate and advanced-level courses in your genre, you concentrate on aspects of fictional craft within these short forms, becoming more proficient in their creation and execution. At both the graduate and undergraduate level, most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers. In his new book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”
So. This is me. Paying attention.
Don’t get me wrong. I love stories, yes I do. I love teaching them and writing them. Some of my favorite writers work almost solely in the form. Stories have been very good to me. They are not easier to write than novels, they are not in any way inferior to the novel. So let’s get that straight. I am not dissing the short story nor its many practitioners.
But I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.
3. A Story is Not a Paper
Inevitably, students falsely equate the short story with another form with which they are intimately familiar: the paper. I know this is true because my undergraduates say odd things to me like, “I need to meet with you about my paper.”
I say, “What paper? Do you mean your story, that art you’re creating?”
The required studio art and dance classes I took in college didn’t transform me into a painter or a ballerina, but they certainly taught me to appreciate other forms of artistic expression. I was evaluated by things I made (a clay pot, a watercolor) or performed (a dance routine), and I never confused those products with the papers I submitted to my sociology and philosophy professors for evaluation. Students confuse writing stories with writing papers because of the same-seeming word itself—writing—and because the final results are indistinguishable from each other: a Word file, paragraphs of text on the screen or on 8½ x 11 sheets of paper. Another reason students confuse the two forms is that they probably create stories the same way they write papers—clock ticking, one or two intense sessions of writing, a euphoric, semi-magical flowing of words. Save. Print. Done.
4. Origin Story
I was in my second year of graduate school and taking a workshop with John Keeble. I knew I wanted to write something akin to Winesburg, Ohio, but instead of emerging one by one, the stories came out hopelessly fused. Imagine if Sherwood Anderson had sat down and written the title, “New Willard House” and proceeded to describe the characters in his fictional boarding house. The end. That’s a pretty good approximation of the story I’d submitted to Keeble for discussion, a big, messy failure of a story. I knew it, and everyone sitting around that table knew it.
And then the most amazing thing happened. Keeble opened the discussion by saying, “Some of you are working on stories, on the small thing, but I think this piece wants to be a big thing. Rather than talk about whether or not this works as a story, let’s talk about it as material toward a larger project.” Just like that, Keeble shifted the default setting of the workshop from dissection to enlargement, from what’s wrong to what could be. My peers weren’t allowed to say, “This story is muddled and digressive. There’s no main character and no dramatic arc.” (Which would have been absolutely true.) Instead, they said this:
Cathy, here’s a story.
And here is a story.
Over there, that is a story, too.
Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.
I was lucky.
Typically, workshops prescribe. Here’s what’s not working. Here’s what I had a problem with. Somebody—if not John Keeble, somebody—has to step up and change the default setting, to frame the conversation so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.
But how to you do that?
5. This is Not How You Do It
I know some people who took a novel workshop in college. This is how it went down.
First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.
Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.
Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.
And then the semester was over.
6. This is Not How You Do It Either
Syllabus: Fiction Workshop
This course is an intensive study of fiction. You will write, read, and critique fiction. Everything you write, read, and critique will be 8-15 pages long, or approximately 5,000 words. In other words, you will write, read, and critique short stories. In other words, this course is really a short story workshop. We hope that is why you are here—to learn to write a story that is 8-15 pages long. If not…well, could you just do it anyway? Thanks.
If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you will learn to artificially inflate your story so that no one will think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you will learn to artificially deflate your story because don’t you know that more than 15 pages makes people cranky?
A few years ago, we had a very contentious meeting of the Curriculum Committee to discuss enrollment caps in this course. Because it is a 300-level class, some of our esteemed colleagues from Literature felt the cap should be 30, which is how many students they have in their 300-level seminars. We argued that this was impossible, that the difference between a Fiction Workshop and a Seminar on the 19th Century Novel is that in the workshop, student work is the primary text. We said, “For us, the difference between 20 and 30 is not a matter of 10 more papers to grade. It’s a matter of 10 more manuscripts that must be discussed by the entire class. It would be like us telling you that rather than teaching six doorstopper novels, you must cover eleven.”
This argument proved to be quite persuasive.
The question then turned to page-output requirements. How many papers would students write in a fiction workshop? Because the accepted standard in 300-level literature seminars are two papers of 5-7 pages and one final research paper of 25 pages, for a total of 35-40 pages.
We said, “Our students don’t write papers, per se. They journal…”
This raised eyebrows, so we moved on.
“They write critiques of each other’s work.”
Some satisfied nods. Critique. Critical. Impersonal. Okay, this is working…
“They write responses to the assigned stories.”
Papers? they asked excitedly.
“Well, sort of. They don’t interpret. They don’t write about what something means but rather how it means. They analyze craft. They imitate. They steal.”
“No, not exactly.” Sigh. “And they write fiction.”
Our esteemed colleagues said, Yes, yes, yes, but how looooooong are these fictions?
And we said, “They are as long as they need to be,” which we admit sounded a bit flakey and was not persuasive. So we assured the Curriculum Committee that you would write fictions of substance and gravity of approximately 8-15 pages. Remember: we are artists striving for institutional respect within a sometimes inhospitable academic bureaucracy. Please help us prove that creative writing is a valid discipline. Please write stories that are as long as academic papers.
Methods of Evaluating Student Performance:
Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.
This Short Story Anthology, That Short Story Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and one novel by the successful writer who is visiting campus.
7. A Metaphor: Running Sprints vs. Running a Marathon
In his essay from Further Fridays, “It’s a Short Story,” John Barth says that while some fiction writers move back and forth between long and short modes, congenital short-story writers and congenital novelists do exist.
There is a temperamental, even a metabolic, difference between devout practitioners of the two modes, as between sprinters and marathoners. To such dispositions as Poe’s, Maupassant’s, Chekhov’s, or Donald Barthelme’s, the prospect of addressing a single, discrete narrative project for three, four, five years…would be appalling…Conversely, to many of us the prospect of inventing every few weeks a whole new ground-conceit, situation, cast of characters, plot, perhaps even voice, is as dismaying as would be the prospect of improvising at that same interval a whole new identity.
Perhaps the reason why so few fiction workshops provide explicit instruction on writing novels is because there’s no clear rubric. How-to-write-a-novel books run the gamut from the extraordinarily regimented (such as Robert McKee’s screenwriting tome, Story) to the queasily motivational (such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) to the intellectually impractical (such as E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). A few years ago, I announced in a class that fiction writer Walter Mosley was coming to town. “He’s the author of the Easy Rawlins books. Oh, and he just published a book called This Year You Write Your Novel.” One of my students guffawed. “Sounds like a self-help book.”
Inspiration, encouragement, support: these aren’t accepted pedagogical stances in academia. In order to be taken seriously within one’s institution, a writer-teacher must approach teaching with intellectual rigor, not inspirational vigor. This is college, not a rah-rah writing group. But to return to Barth’s analogy, writers of big things, like marathon runners in training, need to go on long runs regularly —alone or in small groups. They need water. They need good running shoes. And every once in awhile, they need someone driving by to beep their horn and give them a thumbs up. What they don’t need is for someone to stop them after the first mile and say, “You know what? Your first step out of the block wasn’t that great. Let’s work on your stride for awhile.”
8. Another Metaphor: Building a Writing Studio vs. Building a House
You decide to build yourself a writing studio in your backyard, a little room of one’s own. You lay a foundation, put up the frame, the walls, the windows, the door, the roof. Depending on where you live, you figure out how to heat it, how to cool it. You decide whether or not you want a toilet. You run electricity. You insulate. You put up the drywall, lay the floor, select fixtures. Then you paint the outside. Then you paint the inside, buy carpet maybe, and a desk and a chair and some framed art. And voila! You’ve built a small, one-room house!
This is how you write a story.
This is not how you write a big thing.
You don’t construct the kitchen—foundation to finish—and then move on to the living room—foundation to finish—and then move on to the bedroom—foundation to finish. You build a big thing in stages, which means that the house isn’t really habitable until very close to the end of the process. This is why it’s hard to workshop a big thing in progress. It’s like someone wants to show you the house they’re building. You show up for the grand tour, but the house is nothing but concrete and a frame. Still, your friend is so darned excited, gesturing at empty space. “This will be the kitchen!” What are you supposed to say? You smile and nod your head and try to seem interested, but really, you’re mad, because this seems like a big waste of your time. Why not wait until the house is all the way done to show it to you?
Your friend asks if you want to come back next week to watch them install the plumbing. You think, Please God, kill me now, but you say, “I’ll tell you what, friend. Why don’t you focus on finishing the bathroom? That I can help you with. I love to look at tile and showerheads. If you’ll do that, I’ll come back next week.”
And so you do that. Of course, you never finish building your house because you run out of money, but you love that bathroom dearly. That sunken-garden tub. That jungle-rain shower head. Italian tile. A Restoration Hardware polished chrome shower caddy. Ahhhhh.
9. Another Metaphor: Writing Right-handed vs. Left-handed
Ideally, a fiction workshop meets at a conference table. But most of the time you wind up in a classroom with desks scooted into a circle, and most of those desks accommodate the right-handed short story writers, not the left handed novelists.
Often, left-handed novelists don’t even realize they are left-handed, because as soon as they start fiction school, their teachers place the pencil in their right hand and say, “Write.” And when the 15 pages that emerge are woefully incomplete, a real mess, the teacher says, “What are you doing? That is not a story. Write a story.” And gradually, the left-handed novelist learns how to write a right-handed story, even though there’s always something about doing so that feels a little off.
Sometimes a left-handed novelist is wise or stubborn enough to realize that he is not a right-handed story writer with horrible penmanship, but more accurately a beautiful left-handed novelist with perfectly fine penmanship. When he is alone, away from school, he brandishes the pencil in his left hand and sighs. Ahhhhhh. Then in college, he takes a workshop, which is full of nothing but right-handed desks. He puts the pencil in his right hand. Out of necessity, he’s become ambidextrous. And so, he goes through the motions of writing right-handed short stories for class. Assignments that must be completed. Hoops to jump through so that he can be in this class, read books for credit, and get a degree in the writing of fiction. At night, he goes home and puts the pencil in his left hand and works some more on his novel, the pages of which he never submits to his teacher, whose syllabus clearly states that they are to submit short stories that are 8-15 pages long.
Then there is the left-handed novelist who gets an idea. Optimistically, she opens a file on her computer, types away, and names this document “novel.doc.” She asks her creative writing teacher if she may submit a chapter of her novel-in-progress to the workshop. She wonders why her teacher grimaces when she says the word “novel,” then reluctantly consents. A week later, she is “up.” There is a discussion. Everyone wants to know more, more, more. They want her to fix this and fix that. With her right hand, she revises the chapter (as required by her teacher, who uses the portfolio method of grading) and with her left hand, she writes Chapter 2. The next semester, she asks her new creative writing teacher if she may submit Chapter 2 to workshop, but this teacher says that no one will understand Chapter 2 without Chapter 1, and submitting both chapters is out of the question because that’s 30 pages and the limit is 15 pages. So she resubmits the revised Chapter 1, and everyone who read Chapter 1 last semester gets pouty. “Haven’t we seen this already?” And everyone else, well, they pose an entirely new set of questions. Dejectedly, the left-handed novelist sits down to revise Chapter 1 again (as required by her teacher, who also uses the portfolio method of grading). She opens the file “novel.doc,” which is still 30 pages long. Her left arm hangs useless from her shoulder, the muscles atrophying. After finals, she never opens that document again, but for years afterward, she thinks about those 30 pages. All the time.
So I ask you: whose fault is it that she didn’t write that novel?
For a long time, I would have said it was the student’s own fault.
But these days, I’m not so sure.
10. Shame Management
In This Year You Write Your Novel, Mosley suggests writing for about an hour a day, producing 600-1,200 words a day, seven days a week. In this way, it’s possible to hammer out a first draft in about three months. “The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, most first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen.” It’s the same advice Anne Lamott offers in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter of Bird by Bird.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed.
Bird by Bird is a popular text in college creative writing courses, so why not the Mosley book? I’ll tell you why. Because the principle of “Shitty First Drafts” is fine if your students are all working on short stories; theoretically, there’s time for shitty to become shiny. Not so with novel writing. If we offered a class called This Semester You Start Your Novel, we’d be confronted by work that’s hard to critique and hard to grade. So many pages! So many mistakes! This is why we just keep teaching a class called, This Semester You Write Two Papers Whoops! We Mean Two Short Stories.
The long-term propulsive momentum necessary to write a big thing is continuously interrupted by workshop deadlines, which demand that a work-in-progress be submitted for group critique. Anyone who has been through creative writing instruction knows that being “up” in workshop means opening oneself to the potential negative judgment of your teacher and your peers. And so, you prepare your manuscript for workshop to maximize your chances of walking out of that classroom feeling good, not bad. Feeling pride, not shame. In The Program Era, McGurl says that students must—out of sheer psychological necessity—participate in a form of self-retraction or “shame management” that is endemic to the workshop model.
I taught in an MFA program for five years, and this is what I saw happen every year—without fail. It’s their last year in the program. They’ve taken all the required workshops, and reality strikes: they need a 150 page manuscript to graduate. After considerable fretting, they sit down to revise some story they don’t completely hate—and something thrilling happens. The story swells to 25, then 75 pages, or it becomes not one story but four interrelated stories. Freed from worrying about workshop page requirements and whether their peers will like it or not, they finally move from the small thing to the big thing. For the first time, they feel like they are writing a book, which is why they sought out creative writing instruction in the first place.
Which begs the question: Do students write stories because they really want to or because the workshop model all but demands that they do? If workshops are bad for big things, why do we continue to use them?
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to think outside the workshop.
(Image: College Math Papers from loty’s photostream)
It’s not that I’m biased… or, rather, my biases pull me in two directions. On one hand, I greatly admire the new journal n+1 – its moral seriousness, its elegant writing, its stewardship of the Frankfurt School legacy. On the other hand, I regularly contribute reviews to the blog on which this post is appearing. And so, while part of me wants to sneer along with n+1‘s backhanded compliment to literary bloggers – that they represent “the avant-garde of 21st Century publicity” – another, better informed part of me rebels. The current issue of n+1 raises many legitimate questions about the transformation of consciousness and culture we are (proximally and for the most part unreflectively) undergoing. I am myself suspicious of the Infotainment Revolution, and it seems peevish to dismiss an entire critique in order to defend a scrap of turf. But when n+1 stoops to the kinds of gross generalizations and straw-man-thrashing we are accustomed to seeing on the covers of the newsweeklies, it threatens to undermine its own mission. A little background…The Winter 2007 issue of n+1 – “The Decivilizing Process” – concerns itself with technology and the culture industry, and if its unsigned, front-of-the-book essays are polemical, they are generally justified in being so. The spirits of Marshall McLuhan and Theodor Adorno hover in the background like a beyond-the-grave odd couple, the former insisting that media are only as good or bad as the uses to which people put them, the latter asserting that those uses are likely to reinforce the worst tendencies of the capitalist world-order that birthed them. Thus one writer points out that silence, a hard-won legacy of literate civilization, has, in the age of “Whenever Minutes” begun to disappear. (No doubt some enterprising corporation will soon be marketing “silence spas” or “silence earmuffs” – selling back to us what we once had for free.)In a short piece called “The Blog Reflex,” n+1 extends its critique to the blogosphere, suggesting that reflexive antagonism and an imperative for speed have undercut the much-hyped democratic potential of the blog:Yet criticism as an art didn’t survive. People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. […] The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction – “The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!” – or displeasure – “I shit on Dante!” So man hands on information to man.Not least among the problems with this premature obituary for the blog is that it is, in many small ways, accurate. Anyone looking for an Ebert-style thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Dante will no doubt find one on the internet. Google will even tell you how long the search took. Blogs both reiterate and catalyze the coarsening of the culture… the dumbing-down, the, uh…whatever. (Tocqueville knew that democracy tends to aim toward a B-minus.) And for reasons too complex to go into here (I’m intentionally trying to illustrate one of n+1’s points) the blog as an instrument of kulturkritik may be as compromised as those other artifacts of industrial capitalism – film, the photograph, the short story, jazz, rock n’ roll… even (gasp!) the magazine.Yet, depending on one’s degree of fatalism about world history, the medium may not doom the message. Some of us on the American left believe that Jean-Luc Godard, Walker Evans, Donald Barthelme, Archie Shepp, and The Clash managed to transcend the limitations of their respective media, to push some kind of shake-up in the system, to preserve a space for free movement in an increasingly die-cut, cast-iron (or, later, iPod-sleek, powered-by-Intel) landscape. If n+1 took Adorno’s suspicions about mass culture more seriously, why would its editors seek to penetrate the citadels of Random House and Doubleday? Why would they run ads for HarperCollins? Why would they continue to publish? (Why would they demand 5,000 word critiques of favorite records? (Why, in Adorno’s case, did bourgeois high-culture continue to matter?)) Obviously, some accommodation with the system has been reached, and more power to n+1 for continuing to fight the good fight. But to call out others for their own accommodations is to devolve to the level of intellectual pissing match. Or maybe King of the Hill is more apposite.Lit-bloggers “represent a perfection of the outsourcing ethos of contemporary capitalism,” we are told.Why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist [sic] who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie-cred? In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits – by their clicks you shall know them – and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses – fillips of contempt, wet kisses – aren’t criticism.Just for clarification, dear reader: this isn’t a fillip of contempt. It’s a fusillade. (Flame on!)Here we must grapple with the anonymous writer’s rhetoric: call it the Argument contra Fortiori. He or she proceeds from the premise that “I shit on Dante” is the alpha and omega of lit-blog discourse. But just as the lazy researcher can Google up coprophiliac reductions of il divino poeta, he can also easily find the sorts of long essays n+1 values – the kinds of essays (not incidentally) at which n+1 excels. For example, Scott Esposito’s Quarterly Conversation, an extension of his excellent blog, recently ran the most considered critique I’ve yet read of William H. Gass’ The Tunnel… and I’ve read many of them. The Lit-Blog Co-op, mixing old-fashioned boosterism with serious discussion, helps to bring overlooked novels, many of them progressive and anti-capitalist, to the public’s attention. The LBC does it not for the publishers, little enterprises like Minneapolis’ Coffee House Press, but for the authors, and for the readers. Ed Champion’s recent round-table on Against the Day, meanwhile, offered readers much-needed context for that profoundly leftist novel.Many of us engaged in this work feel that the institutions that might have done it in the past have vanished or sold out (the book club), refined themselves into impotence (the salon), or abdicated their critical instincts in favor of precisely the kind of PR-flackmanship n+1 lays at the feet of the literary blog. I won’t make the case that my own writings for The Millions are anything other than superior versions of newspaper-supplement reviews, but I do know that serious literary bloggers see themselves as an antidote to a vertically integrated media sector and a closed-circuit publishing industry.There is merit in n+1‘s attack on the hyperlink ethos of the blogs. In lieu of critical writing, a list of links can easily decay into an endorsement of an industry’s buzz about itself. Does tracking down links count as journalism? An interesting question. But, given that many of the lit-blogs least vulnerable to charges of thoughtlessness link to one another, and given that these blogs are quite popular, it seems to me startling that n+1 didn’t manage to stumble across them in its internet divagations. Indeed, I seem to hear the call-note of territorialism sounded beneath n+1‘s write-off of the literary blog. (Note the way “their clicks” shades into “your posts.”) The “aura of indie cred” paired with recognition “from the big houses”… once upon a time this intersection might have been the exclusive province of literary journals. But the best literary blogs, free from the economic vicissitudes of the print journal, have begun to encroach. What can editors who have “only their precarious self-respect” do but fire a warning shot? “So much typing, so little communication…” In this summary dismissal, I learn more about n+1‘s own anxieties than I do about the potential of the blog as a medium for “the free activity of the mind.”But perhaps I’m inferring too much. In any case, n+1 has little to worry about. Its editors are prodigiously gifted, respected, drowning in “indie cred,” and despite (or because of) such stimulating missteps as “The Blog Reflex,” the journal provides a much-needed antidote to the inanities of consumer culture. The biggest danger would be for n+1 to fall through the trap-door of elitism, around which Adorno himself danced. Communication requires both speakers and listeners, and by making common cause with like-minded bloggers, n+1 might swell the ranks of the enlightened, rather than going the genteel way of the salon. To that end, its introductory essaylets would do well in the future to forgo simplistic binary code – Literary Blogs: Thumbs Up Or Thumbs Down? – in favor of sustained, thoughtful analysis.See more about n+1‘s “The Decivilizing Process” here. “The Blog Reflex” is, unsurprisingly, not currently available online.Update: If you’re not tired of this yet, see the follow-up post: Love: A Burning Thing.