The five nominees for this year's National Book Award for fiction were announced a couple weeks ago and I greeted the news with the same lack of enthusiasm I greet it every year. The list is always the same: One good book I've already read or planned to read, one book I'll think about reading and decide I'd rather read a mystery instead, and three books that probably shouldn't have been published let alone nominated for a major award.
This year's list is different in one way. It doesn't include a good book I've already read or plan to read.
Caryn James gave the 5 a collective review yesterday in the New York Times. She was not bowled over. Because the Times is stingy, in a week or so you'll have to pay to read the review online. But over at About Last Night, Our Girl In Chicago has a response to James' review that has two great virtues.
1. It sounds dead on to me, which is to say it flatters all my prejudices.
2. She quotes liberally enough from the review that you can get the gist without bothering with the Times.
Anyway here are the key graphs from James' review:
When the fiction nominees were announced, there was much grumbling about their sameness—all women, all living in New York City, all little-known names. But the minor resemblances of sex and city are nothing next to what really makes this one of the least varied lists of nominees in recent years: a short-story aesthetic. Not one of these books is big and sprawling. And not one has much of a sense of humor.…
This year's list serves readers who like only a certain style—the style, say, of Rick Moody, the novelist and short-story writer who is chairman of the five-person fiction panel and who has been known to write some woozily poetic prose of his own. Whoever comes out ahead when the winner is announced on Wednesday, it defies logic to think that five such similar books just happen to be the best of the year—a year in which Philip Roth's chilling historical fantasy "The Plot Against America" and Chang-rae Lee's understated story of a suburban man's life, "Aloft," deserved their extravagant critical praise.
I have no horse in this race. I'm sure that at least 3 of the books are god-awful, much worse than James says, because that's how the NBA does things, but I don't know which 3. Because Rick Moody chaired the committee this year, it may be that all 5 are bad. In a crowded field of overrated blockheaded aging Gen X novelists among whom Moody is one of the leading lights, if dim bulbs can be called lights, only David Foster Wallace is a bigger blockhead. But Stewart O'Nan was on the committee too and maybe O'Nan talked some sense into Moody and the other two novels, whichever they are, are future classics or at least not a waste of time to read. I don't care. I won't ever find out. I haven't read The Plot Against America yet, or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell, or Carl Hiaasen's new one, Skinny Dip, or Russell Bank's, or the last two books in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and I'm not about to drop them to play reading roulette with the NBA nominees.
Besides if I want to read a brand new bad book I'll read Tom Wolfe's new one, I Am Humiliating Myself Lusting in Print After Women Young Enough to Be My Granddaughters While Pretending to Be Shocked, Shocked, I Say, at Behavior that Is No Worse than What Was Going On Back in Greenwich Village When I Was a Hot Shot Young Journalist And Women this Young and Pretty Actually Wanted to Sleep With Me.
I don't understand why Wolfe's publishers let him get away with such a long title. How did they fit it on the cover?
(Meanwhile, Nance loves The Plot Against America and Carl Hiaasen, Elaine Showalter does not love Tom Wolfe, Digby doesn't seem to either and sums up him, his book, and his hopping on the values bandwagon neatly and succinctly, Beatrice piles on, and over at that blog John and Belle have, John is reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.)
James may be right that all five are yawners or she may have exaggerated a bit and only three are soporifics. I don't care. I'm not going to read any of them. I am interested though in some of the reaction to her review on the literary side of the blogosphere.
(Update: In Sunday's Times, Laura Miller likes the nominees even less than James did.)
James more or less dismisses all 5 books for being "built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers' program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good."
There is such a thing as writers' program language.
It's whatever appeared in last week's New Yorker.
It's usually refered to as Workshop Fiction but it's what James says it is, too poetic for its own good.
I went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop so long ago that I took a typewriter with me when I went. (For the record and the sake of my own vanity: Lots of people there wrote on PCs. I'm not that old. But typewriters were still the writing tool of choice, although I actually prefered and still prefer to use a pen, and doesn't that make blogging a challenge.) Times and fashions change, of course, but from all I've read and heard some things have stayed the same.
Most workshop students write nothing but short stories. Most of the workshops impress upon students that a good short story has a lot more in common with a prose poem than it does with, say, Bartelby the Scrivener or The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.
The emphasis isn't on action or character. It's on describing the action or character.
James nailed it. And a lot of people in the literary world have cried foul, which is no surprise, since most people in the literary world these days are products of writers' workshops.
Call me, Ishmael
Bunch of lit chat bloggists thought James was a bit harsh. (Again, see Our Girl in Chicago for a summing up and some links.) None of them seem to be friends, relatives, students, or teachers of the nominees, so their rearing up on their hind legs to defend them may be principled, heart-felt, and righteous.
I don't know.
But this little tempest in an ink-pot got me thinking about my own workshop days. I'm not going to start reminscing here. I wasn't thinking nostalgically anyway. I was thinking about what goes on in workshops and whether or not they do any good or if they are bad for the young writers in them and consequently the baneful influence on contemporary fiction they are often said to be.
I'll save my conclusions for another day. But this post over at Tingle Alley has me inspired. Tingle, who appreciated James' review, observed that one of the nominees James calls workshoppy was, when she was at Iowa, "absolutely eviscerated" in a workshop.
"Ah," says Tingle with the repressed chuckle of the supremely self-satisfied lighting on an irony everyone else has missed (a girl after my own heart), "First you get slammed in workshop. Then you get smacked for sounding workshopped."
The point, I guess, is that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Or maybe that if the nominee was really a workshoppy sort of writer they wouldn't have smacked her down back at Iowa.
Now, I'm not really concerned about what happened or didn't happen to the nominee, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, when she was a grad student or even if James was unfair to her in the review. I'm just going to use her as a crash test dummy for the moment to re-create some of the kinds of ego crashes I witnessed when I was at the Workshop.
What Tingle doesn't bother to go into is that it's possible that Bynum was smacked down for being workshoppy even though she was at a workshop.
You'd think that writers would be among the most self-aware people on the planet, but self-absorption isn't the path to enlightment, navel gazing is not the same as living an examined life, and writers rank barely ahead of psychologists in cluelessness.
It's not just possible, it's routine: a roomful of writers of mediocre prose ripping into another writer for producing mediocre prose and nobody there, except maybe the bemused instructor, aware of the irony.
I'm sorry to report to any Ayn Rand fans that it rarely happens that the medicorities gang up on the one genius, because it's a signature feature of mediocrity that it doesn't recognize genius when it smacks them in the face.
When a truly brilliant work lands on the table for discussion, they will like it or not like it but they won't notice something special going on or being attempted and they will treat it exactly as they treat run of the mill ink-wasters. Grad school is just like real life.
But Bynum's young enough to have arrived at Iowa after the McSorley's-inspired anti-workshop/anti-minimalist backlash had begun and one thing all workshops are full of is young people hyper-aware of the latest literary fashion. Twenty would-be Dave Eggers piling on one poor left-over Ray Carver wannabe would not be a pretty sight.
Another possibility is that it wasn't her writing a workshoppy story that got her slammed. It was her writing a bad workshoppy story that did it. Which means that what happened was that Bynum actually learned something at Iowa. Whether or not what she learned, how to write good workshoppy prose, is the right thing to have learned is debatable.
Or it could have been that she was the would-be Dave Eggers in a class of leftover Ray Carver wannabes and the experience broke her. What she learned from it was that she'd be better off playing it safe for the rest of her stay there and playing it safe became her metier.
But the article Tingle quotes doesn't say what being "absolutely eviscerated" means. Did the whole workshop gang up on her? Or was she the victim of one skillfull duelist's blade? She may have been so insecure, thin-skinned, and neurotic---which is to say, she may have been a typical grad student---that one person's helpful suggestions sounded to her like the ghosts of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Tolstoy descending from the sky in a god-like triumverate to announce in one shared booming voice, "YOU! CAN'T! WRITE!"
We don't know if she was vivisected by one, two, or a dozen fellow workshoppers. We don't know if the vivisectionists were friends, rivals, or jilted lovers. We don't know if there was just one very bright student who somehow put his or her finger on the weakest point of Bynum's fiction and in so doing identified her insufficiency of skill or talent to be the kind of writer she dreamed of being.
A lot of people go off to workshops with no greater ambition than to be a working writer. It doesn't really matter to them if they are mediocrities, it may not even have occured to them that it's possible to be a mediocre writer. You'd think that discovering that there is an expected level of talent and ambition and you don't meet it would be a devastating blow, but the people like that I knew at Iowa mostly reacted to the news with a shrug and they moved onto something else.
But most of the young writers who get into a graduate program in creative writing, particularly one of the top programs like Iowa's, are talented and artistically ambitious. It doesn't matter how talented they are or how talented and skilled they will grow up to be, when it dawns on them that they are not yet as good as they hope to be, they are crushed.
If their egos are strong enough and their sense of professional modesty capacious enough they will get over it, learn all they can from it, and move on, holding no grudges and even remembering the moment fondly as the moment when they actually became a writer.
But it's easy to see how someone might not get over it, might nurse a grudge or indulge in self-pity, and years later bring it up again as a way of having the last laugh.
And easy to see how someone might still be smarting from the moment many years later, no matter what success she's gone on to achieve, even if the criticism was intelligent and just and actually helpful, because most writers have big egos but very little modesty. And it's even easier to see how it might still grate if the criticism came from someone they thought was stupid or being stupid. Every class I was in at Iowa---and not just because I talked in every class---every class, someone who was clueless or reflexively mean or for some reason not firing on all cylinders that day would say something dumb, useless, unhelpful, careless, off base, or totally besides the point and somehow still manage to hit the nail on the head!
This happened to me. It was one of the high points of my workshop days, professionally.
The tall, graying blogger remembers the vigorous, young, black-bearded writer he used to be and the short, dark-haired, rule book-quoting woman who taught him how to be a more careful writer one sunny, crisp, spring day back at Iowa
There was a woman in class who operated strictly from some manual on fiction writing she'd read when she was a freshman in college. Every workshop, she could be counted on to recite from the manual. And her recitations were never to the point. They always came flying in from left field. Didn't matter if the rest of us were all arguing about a character's motivation, if she thought the story violated one of her manual's rules about the use of sentence fragments, she'd interrupt to tell us the rule.
One day I had a story up. The class was discussing a scene in which my main character got mugged. There was a general agreement that I'd flubbed the descriptions of the action. It was hard to picture which mugger attacked first or from which side he came at my hero or what the second mugger was up to at the time. This was helpful and I was interested and grateful. But all at once that woman interrupted.
"You use too many adjectives," she said.
"Say what?" I said, because I was so eloquent back then.
"You have too many adjectives in front of your nouns."
I didn't say it, but one of my friends did: "Where else should he put them?"
But she waved him off and proceeded to read several of my sentences, accenting each adjective. Since this didn't seem to anyone to address the problem of how to make the action clearer, everybody nodded politely, I said thanks and made a note, and we went back to what we were talking about.
But she was right. I thought it over later when the class had adjourned for beers at whatever bar we'd all agreed to adjourn to and I realized she was right. I did use too many adjectives, and they were all in front of my nouns. I always wrote the blue sky, never the sky was blue. And I always wrote the blue sky, never just the sky.
Actually, since the mugging scene was set at night I probably didn't have much to say about the sky, but whatever I did write about had a color, a size, a shape, a flavor, a smell, or feel. And on top of that being stylistically annoying, it did get in the way of describing the action. I couldn't fix the scene just by writing "the man jumped from the shadows at the doctor" instead of "the broad-shouldered man jumped from the waving shadows at the tall, thin doctor." But it helped. The prose flowed more evenly and that makes it easier to follow, whatever complicated action's being described.
The lesson there isn't what the woman thought, Avoid overusing adjectives. The lesson is that in writing most sentences are and ought to be purely functional and it's not just bad writing to try to ornament them, it's poor form. It gets in the way. If you're describing a mugging you're going to have the mugger jumping out of the dark at his victim. It's so much of a given that you almost don't need to say it. The only reason to put it in is that you need it to connect two other things that aren't givens. The doctor's mood before he's mugged, say, and his immediate reaction to a man jumping out of the dark at him, that is, if his immediate reaction isn't what you'd expect out of someone about to be mugged. To make readers focus on something they have already pictured in their heads before you've described it, no matter how pretty or poetic you do it, is to get in their way.
When I rewrote the scene, I got rid of the adjectives. I got rid of the shadows too, because it's night, there are trees and parked cars and fences all around, so of course there are shadows and of course a mugger would be hiding in one. The mugger just jumped at my hero.
As you can see, a hundred years later, I remember that workshop vividly. I would not say I was absolutely eviscerated. Nobody got eviscerated when I was at Iowa. The teachers and staff all remarked upon this as a bizarre phenomenon at odds with their experience. By a weird demographic fluke there was an unusually high number of nice people in the fiction workshop that year. Just as another weird demographic fluke produced an unusually high number of lesbians in the poetry workshop.
So I wasn't eviscerated. But it shook me. Which was all for the good. And say I'd been nominated for the National Book Awards this year---which I wouldn't have been because, besides the fact that I didn't publish a book this year, I'm not a woman, and, as has been remarked upon, a field of all women was apparently the point, another thing wrong with the Awards, every year there's a point that has nothing to do with whether or not the books nominated are any good, and this year's point seems to have been to deflect criticism that the Award has been too much dominated by men, which it has been---but say I'm nominated next year. And say some magazine does a profile of me and the reporter is foolish enough to ask about my experience in grad school, as if what happened a century ago has any relevance.
I'd probably tell her about that moment, and that woman.
Now say Caryn James reviews all the nominees, of which I am one, and concludes that we are all guilty of the same sin, not using enough adjectives.
Some helpful bloggist might point out that Lance Mannion was shaken in grad school when he was told he used too many adjectives.
And that would prove...what?
That in grad school I wrote badly one way and now in my dotage I write badly in another way?
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum wrote something back in grad school that somebody there didn't like, for some reason that may or may not have anything to do with Bynum's writing "workshop" prose. That she might have been criticized for it or praised for it or ignored for it doesn't change the fact that she's apparently writing it now and it's pretty dull stuff.
There is such a thing as workshop prose and most of the young writers who come out of graduate school writing programs praised to the skies, with letters of recommendations to prestigious fellowships in their pockets and the cards of their teacher's agents and editors in their wallets are the writers who shone at producing workshop prose while they were there.
Some are good anyway. Most aren't. But most writers of any type aren't.
As they grow, the best ones shake off the workshoppiness and develop their own styles, and may in the process become worse writers. Art and life are unfair. The rest disappear or become Rick Moody. And five, deservedly or undeservedly, got nominated for a National Book Award this year.
By the way, that woman with the rule book? She went on to become a pretty good writer. Her successes have not been novels or short story collections, but she's published a collection of essays, a memoir, and a travel book. I'm not going to give you the Amazon links because, until and unless she gets famous, I don't think it's fair to have the only thing a lot of strangers know about her be that at one time when she was very young she was extremely anal retentive.
But I wouldn't mind it if she knew how grateful I am that she was.