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"if the novel itself is of little consequence to the civilized, much less to the generality?"

The novel is dead (to my mind, generally a good thing) because what it was invented for is dead. The novel is the great vehicle of the Enlightenment, and thus was also the best vehicle to oppose the Enlightenment. That's why the novel is about romantic love - because romantic love is Rousseau's way in his Emile and his Julie to make the Enlightenment palatable. Later, the novel is Flaubert's (and all his many students, who ranged from Zola to Fitzgerald to Richard Yates) vehicle to show that romantic love is not enough to make the results of the Enlightenment (i.e. capitalism) palatable - romantic love is just an absurd fantasy. But once the Enlightenment has been exhausted, there's no need for the vehicle of the novel to oppose it.

In shorter fashion: If the Enlightenment is dead (which it is), then there's no need for the novel either.

john clayton

I dunno, Lance. Did Hemingway and Fitzgerald teach each other what the publishable forms of a novel were? If so, why did their books turn out so different?

By contrast, if H & F had been in Paris taking a class together, fighting for better grades... mightn't they have been more tempted to conform their styles to that of their teacher?


John, one of the things writers can learn from each other is how not to copy each other. They can learn that they don't want to write the same sort of things or the same way. One writer can learn by comparing his writing to a friend's what is own voice sounds like. I think the most important lesson, though, that young writers can learn from each other is how to keep going.

As for trying to conform to the styles of a teacher, Hemingway spent a lot of time brown-nosing Gertrude Stein and one of his "teachers" was Turgenev and he even stole one of Turgenev's titles for his first novel. But while In Our Time was inspired by Sketches From a Hunter's Album, it's certainly not the case that it's a pastiche. At Iowa most of the competition was for attention in the hopes that it would lead to connections that would lead to publication---same thing goes on among writers even when they're not in a classroom.


"...if you're a young writer looking for the company of other writers and you're full up to the eyeballs with the work of Rowling or Pratchett or Gaiman or King, or of any fantasy and science fiction writers, my guess is you aren't going to get admitted to a creative writing program..."

Ahem. Have you not heard of Viable Paradise?

Viable Paradise is a unique one-week residential workshop in writing and selling commercial science fiction and fantasy. The workshop is intimate, intense, and features extensive time spent with best-selling and award-winning authors and professional editors currently working in the field. VP concentrates on the art of writing fiction people want to read, and this concentration is reflected in post-workshop professional sales by our alumni.

$25 plus an under-8,000 word manuscript required for admission.


I can't stand Raymond Carver which is a matter of taste, and despise Louis Menand because he strikes me as stupid and boring which is more a matter of judgment. I do like your writing, however.

Gary Farber

"As far as I know, every reputable fiction writing program in the country operates as if there is only one kind of fiction writing"

As well as VP, I suppose Clarion and Clarion West are equally disreputable, if more venerable. There's also Odyssey.

I think Louis Menand has written many fabulous essays, by the way.

Gary Farber

"then there's no need for the novel either."

I do wonder why millions of people buy them every year, then.

Ian Welsh

A lot of workshops and classes seem to teach people how to write lit fic. Dave Eggers style stuff. Great if that's what you want to write, but if you don't... (I don't.)

That said, I do agree that the company of other writers can be useful. I don't think it's necessary, but it's helpful.

Can you teach writing. Some of it, agreed. Can you turn someone from technically competent to good? Maybe... I'm not sure. If they have it in them, I think you might catalyze it, and if nothing else writing classes and workshops make people write, which is a service in itself.


Millions of people do all kinds of things. Tens of millions of people believe that they were kidnapped by aliens. This isn't much of an argument for anything.

Gary Farber

"But you never read novels, I dare say?"

"Why not?"

"Because they are not clever enough for you--gentlemen read better books."


What I disliked about the McGurl take on Raymond Carver (as parsed by Menand) was that he reduced Carver's work to a symptom of Carver's supposed inferiority complex. You may or may not like Carver's stories, but they were a revelation to me--about how to write from the inside out. I only found his books after he was dead a decade--I must have not been reading the New Yorker's fiction section when he was the star there, and I can't explain that since I love Alice Munro's work, which I found thru the New Yorker--go figger. Anyways, Carver's works, to me, are all jewels of stories, to be savored as great writing. Minimalism as it applies to him just means he writes "tight," or "poetically." Since I have succeeded best in my own writing with songs, I appreciate that a lot. Anyways, I just felt McGurl reduced Carver cheaply and pointlessly. After all, everyone has a psychology. But unlike the characters Carver writes about (using in many cases a brilliant first person limited narrative form), Carver writes wonderful stories. Compare, e.g., the guy selling his marriage bed on the curb. QED


Lance, couldn't Vonnegut be considered "remotely minimalist"? Not so much in content, as in style, of course, but still.

I wouldn't exactly call him a minimalist myself, but I do wish someone would persuade James Ellroy to reintroduce the adjective, the adverb, and the article to his writing.

Though I don't read as many books as I used to -- and I've always been a slow reader -- and even less classic type fiction (blame the 'net, movie reviewing duties, great television programs that are practically novels, the allure of nonfiction, my desire to read the Harry Potter books before the movies come out and ruin them, etc.) it seems to me that, for a long time a lot of the lit fic is simply less concerned with actual story telling, which is what unites your list of favorite, which is why I think I probably like your stuff (other than talent, I mean).

To me, what we all do in whatever medium in some way should boil down to storytelling.

Also, I want to read the story with their guy makes off with the ill booten gotty.

Gary Farber

If one is discussing Carver, one probably should mention Gordon Lish.

"I wouldn't exactly call [Ellroy] a minimalist myself"

Boy, there's a hilarious notion. (Hey, Lance, if we're ever having a drink together, ask me about the days when Ellroy was coming in to the Avon Books office every other week to visit my boss, and would hang out by my desk for half an hour or so each time while he waited. That is, if you've ever read Ellroy, and are interested. Otherwise, you know, don't ask.)


What I like about both this post and the Menand essay/review is a refusal to take a cheap shot at writing programs. Yes, the workshop etiquette can be mocked, and yes, the literary fashions of the moment can look a little silly a few years later, and yes, the programs overlook genre in favor of literature, but still, getting people together to write and think about writing -- it's not so bad, really.

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