Let me preface this post with an announcement of my own hypocrisy. I have published a story.
Okay, so this post will be a vitriolic reaction (somewhat calmed by perspective) against two things: an article I read on HTML Giant today and the attitudes of the people of my generation (and by extension the writers of that generation). The article, found here, discusses the idea of how much writing can be taught. It is basically an interview held by a creative writing professor with a few of his students. The beginning of the article is good, beginning with the students various takes on how much creative writing can be taught. However, the interview then kind of devolves into a melange of complaints about both the emphasis on classic literature at the expense of contemporary writing and the lack of focus on publishing in the creative writing classroom.
Classic Literature vs. Contemporary Literature
At one point in the interview, after saying that the classics are valuable, a student says,
“But I truly believe that incorporating contemporary fiction into a syllabus is crucial to fledgling writers. We need to see what everyone else is doing right now. We need to learn how to get to that polished point. What better way to find out what publishers and editors are looking for now than reading what they’re publishing right now?”
In this quote we see the confluence of the two monkeys on my back: the urge to place contemporary fiction above classics and the near addiction to being published. I understand both the urge to publish and the importance of contemporary fiction. But seriously, do we really need to see what everyone else is doing right now? How is that going to end up helping our writing more than figuring out what was done back in the day? So that we can see which trends we should follow if we want the pearly gates of publishing to open for us? It sounds like a back-asswards approach to fiction to me, but maybe I’m just being a dick right now. I say these things because I don’t see the point of incorporating too much contemporary fiction into our workshop classes; in my opinion that’s the type of stuff we should be reading outside of class, not inside it. When I was taking workshop classes, in the class I would read Eudora Welty, O’Connor, Carver and we would go over elements of craft in each story and see how they work and how we can incorporate those into our own stories. And outside of class, I would read Wallace, Steve Almond, and writers like that. I read them not to see what was being published today, but to see what new techniques were occurring in the writing world, to compare the old and the new. The idea of reading writers simply to see what trends are flourishing is a good way to turn a generation of writers into a clone army, generating the same type of stuff in the hopes of hitting the bulls-eye of publication. This isn’t to say that analyzing “Incarnations of Burned Children” or “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” in a workshop class wouldn’t be a good idea–but the idea that we should read contemporary fiction to see what editors want is the main sticking point in this issue.
The second part of that quote where the student talks about needing to see how to get to that polished point confuses me. How is looking at contemporary fiction any more likely to help you in getting to that polished point than contemporary literature? And then he says that there’s no better way to see what publishers and editors are looking for. I thought the point of taking a writing workshop was to learn more about the craft of writing. Now, I’m all for a required class in a Writing Specialization major called “The Business of Publishing” or “Publishing for the Writer.” But I’m talking about a writing classroom here, where the craft of published writers is read and analyzed, then the craft of the writers in the class is read and critiqued and analyzed. Craft. I’m sorry, but for those who talk about publishing more than they talk about writing, I want to ask what the hell it is they think they’re doing. A contemporary writer to admire and to read, especially regarding the issue of writing vs. publishing is Jonathan Evison–he’s a writer’s writer. Someone who realizes that craft is the most important thing and that publishing is only secondary.
“Honestly, I have a really hard time with the “old masters.” I mean I get it. I know that I’m supposed to appreciate them for their powerful impact on the history of literature.”
I really wasn’t aware that that’s why we read the old masters. Because of their historical impact. That may be the reason we read those old farts in literature classes, but in writing workshops we read the old fuckers because they are at the apex of creative writing and their work has spanned the decades to now. They are some of the finest examples of craft. Who can argue that one of the greatest examples of first-person plural POV is Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or that Raymond Carver wrote some of the best sentences ever crafted? We don’t read those writers to say “Oh wow, did you see how Hemingway influenced Carver? That’s really interesting.” We read them to say, “Oh wow, that sentence construction is conveying the exact same tone I want to convey with my own story. I’ll try that.” Apparently this guy doesn’t get it, despite his claims to the contrary.
More Focus on Publishing
Now, I’m not completely against talking about publishing in a workshop environment. It’s necessary and would undoubtedly give us a leg up on what to expect when we begin sending query letters to agents and submitting to literary magazines. We all go into the workshop hoping we’re already brilliant. But we’re not. And we need someone to show us what we’re doing wrong and the steps to go through after we have corrected everything. Apparently, this professor had already gone into quite a bit of detail regarding the publishing world, going so far as to show his students websites like Duotrope’s Digest, which is a very valuable resource to a writer. These things I like–giving students information to do with what they will. Showing them the door, but letting them walk through it on their own. It seems to me that students want to have a blueprint of the right way to write a query letter or a cover letter or just how to get their stuff published. The prevailing attitude in this particular workshop is that we should be doing more toward getting students published than getting them to master their craft. This exists in other places as well–people on the internet asking how to self-publish books so that they can call themselves published authors rather than putting in the years necessary to go through the proper channels. One may say that this situation is much like the chicken or the egg–isn’t it really the same thing? Or one and the same? Maybe so, but I think the intent or motives behind the attitude is what most puzzles me. I may be coming off a somewhat of a purist when it comes to writing, but I’ll risk that in the service of saying that I believe that in order to be a writer you should know that even if you were never to get your work published, you would still continue to write. Your love and passion for the work or the craft or whatever you wish to call it should always outweigh your desire to be read or to be published. And it is here that I see the attitudes deviating strongly for that concept. The attitudes coming from the students in that class reached my ears as something like: “If you don’t get your stuff published, then what’s the point?” A direct quote from this article: “. The ultimate goal in a writing program, at least for myself, was to be published. I didn’t care if it was online or in print I just wanted to be out there, but I wasn’t 100% sure how to do that. ” Now, maybe this person is right. Maybe the ultimate goal is to get a book deal and be published and be able to go find a job as an assistant professor and have a job. Or. Or maybe the ultimate goal is to develop your craft to the point that the quality of your work gets you a book deal. The difference in intention is embedded in where the focus is drawn. Is this splitting hairs? Maybe. And maybe I should have titled this “Splitting Hairs: The Analysis of Motives Behind Being Published.” But as it is, I’ve gotten this out of my system now and I hold it up for your consideration.
P.S. I must say, after that discussion of publishing in the interview, the students do say some good things about the craft and all that.