Friday, May 12, 2006

Fictions and Nonfictions

I'm finding nonfiction--or more accurately, truth-telling, as the two are only occasionally overlapping genres--quite hard.

I haven't quite figured out how to treat certain aspects of Logan's situation here. What do I write about my wife, and our extended families? What do I write about Logan's doctors, nurses, the hospital?

Memoir would be easier, I think; though it may be a case of thinking the grass is greener, I would think that I'd feel freer to discuss particular details with some distance. I'm more hesitant to get into everything while it's actually happening. And that's why, at least until I work all that out, there's likely to be a great deal of focus on interiority on this blog.

But it's also hard because I've never really done this kind of writing before. I've always wanted to make stuff up, or at least improve upon reality.

The last time I wrote even autobiographical fiction was in graduate school at Auburn. In my early twenties at the time, I really didn't have a damn thing to write about except the typical high school stuff--somewhere between Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Catcher in the Rye (sans the irony). But Elly Welt saw something promising, I suppose, and agreed to be my thesis director. She pushed me, sometimes gently, sometimes less so--led me to the right books and movies, offered praise when I needed it, yelled at me when I needed that too. I was (and am) a stubborn bastard, so it was hard getting through to me, but gradually I started finding the story, and the book started to take shape.

In my second year a new writing professor whom I shall not name joined the faculty. I was excited: another writer--and a well-published one, too. Elly was pleased too; she may have thought I'd annoy her less with someone else to talk to. She passed along some chapters of mine and someone arranged a meeting.

I no sooner sit down in New Writing Professor's office than I start getting slammed. I don't remember too many details, but I remember several very clearly. Too many characters. Yeah, I'd been struggling with that. But then she scrunches up her face and says, "I just kept asking myself, 'Why am I reading this?' No one wants to read about kids in high school."


I mumbled some responses and left with my tail between my legs.

So what I had--what I'd been working on for three years--was crap. And I had nothing else.

Oh, to have been but a few years wiser. No one wants to read about kids in high school? Were students using their copies of A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace for toilet paper? In some instances, probably yes, but in most instances, no.

What about all the movies? Ferris Bueller's Day Off--and almost anything else by John Hughes. Grease. Back to the Future. Say Anything. Heathers. Porky's, for Christ's sake. (And the genre is not exactly dying off.) Or TV shows: Happy Days. Freaks and Geeks. My So-Called Life (was that out then, or later)?

Was Fast Times of the same order as Ulysses? No. Was I the next James Joyce? No. Hey, winning the Nobel Prize would be great and all, but I wasn't holding my breath. As Elly told me several times, "Don't try to write the Great American Novel. Just try to write the best novel you can." That was my plan.

NWP might have replied that it was fine if I wanted to wallow in such lowbrow material, but college was not the place to learn that sort of writing. Which would have been fine--if we'd been at fucking Oxford.

She might have said that I would never publish in this or that literary journal--to which my reply would have been, "Thank God!" The only people who read that stuff are the editors and writers trying to get published in them.

I went into her office expecting to learn something. The part about having too many characters--that was a good point. What else was I doing wrong? What was I doing right? I wanted criticism; after several years in Elly's workshops, I had gotten pretty good at dealing with it. I knew I had a lot to learn, I knew I could be a lot better, and I wanted to learn how. What I didn't expect to hear that my subject matter was somehow unworthy--which was absurd on its face. Hey, so high school stories aren't your bag. That's okay. I don't like stories about unicorns. But you're supposed to be teaching writing, not imposing your own tastes.

Elly was none too pleased when she learned of this conversation. I was her student, after all, and we'd been working on this material for more than a year, so she took it as something of an insult that I'd basically been told that what I had was crap. Never one to mince words herself, she nevertheless understood how someone could damage a young writer with the wrong feedback. Rather than give me hell, which she was quite good at when I needed it, she offered encouragement, and I found my way back to the writing. I wasn't some ninny who was going to let a single person's remarks ruin me.

But I got hold of NWP's book. Paid for it, even (damn, I just remembered that; I should have checked it out of the library). I wanted to see what the Great Author had actually written.

She could turn a phrase. Nice imagery. Not a bad writer at all. But I also immediately saw where she was coming from, and what type of subject matter she valued.

Derisively--and, in my opinion, deservedly--called "Kmart fiction," this subgenre of literary fiction could be described as focusing on supposedly ordinary, working-class people, while being written by and for the upper-middles who read the New Yorker (and enter MFA programs). Rarely does anything happen, and at the end we often find the protagonist staring blankly out the window of his or her trailer. As best as I can tell, one derives pleasure from reading this sort of thing in one of two ways: the feeling that one is somehow connecting with the working class without actually having to mix with them, and the satisfaction that one is reading something that must surely possess "significance," of the sort that only the sophisticated and initiated are able to glean (i.e., the author is the swindler, the reader the emperor, and I the little boy who cries, "But he has nothing on at all!").

Perhaps the most ironic thing about the term Kmart fiction is that there's basically zero chance of ever finding the stuff in a Kmart. Unlike the readers, the subjects of this particular subgenre apparently prefer stories in which something actually happens.

(Am I being nastily hypocritical, trashing a subject matter after I just got all huffy about someone trashing mine? Perhaps. But remember, I was the student, and she the teacher, a much different dynamic than adult to adult. And I will acknowledge that, as with any subject matter, there are writers of great quality who rise above any attempt to pigeonhole--Bobbie Ann Mason being just one example. But yes, I'm having fun being nasty, too.)

I made no secret of my displeasure at NWP's comments--so much so that she came and found me one day and asked me to go for a walk.

As we took our little stroll about the charming campus nestled in the Loveliest Village on the Plains, she explained that she thought I was a very good writer, that her comments were not intended to discourage me in any way, she just had problems with what I was writing, blah blah blah blah.

I can't evaluate her sincerity. But she didn't have to talk to me, so I appreciated that. But I kept my distance the rest of my time at Auburn. I finished the thesis, and shortly afterward moved on to the LSU.

I never really returned to such autobiographical fiction. I still think--in fact, I know--there's a story there. And I did revisit some of that story on Irate Savant (for those readers, it was the stuff about the Gnat and his mother). But since then I've always felt that I hadn't personally experienced much worth writing about.

Maybe NWP did me a favor. I did try to stretch my abilities beyond my own admittedly narrow experiences. Of course, I'm not published, at least not in book form. And that old story is sitting there, waiting.

But if I didn't before, I now have experiences to write about. And all things considered, I'd rather be making stuff up.


Blogger David Baker said...

Good gracious, Mr. Shory, after reading your post I realize I've often acted just like NWP! I try to tell myself that my students deserve it when I let them have it, but you've given me second thoughts. I'll try to tread with more care in the future. I'll probably fail, but I'll still try.
Nonfiction suits you. As does fiction. You're a good writer. To hell with us professors. Onward, LS.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't admit a third possibility for Kmart fiction? That reading it permits a sense of superiority to the hoi polloi, the feeling that comes through so strongly in Jane Smiley's article right after the last election.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Lein Shory said...


Yes, there are all many interesting class implications regarding Kmart fiction, though I personally wouldn't want to reduce it to partisanship.

Professor Trout,

You amuse as always. As one who spent ten years teaching (usually composition, but sometimes fiction writing), I can to a large degree sympathize with you and even NWP. Sometimes I'm certain you'd like to fustigate students for subjecting you to such horrid material. The experience I described in the post, however, taught me to take some care when I talked with students. Some may be quite talented but haven't yet found their subject. Rather than scare them into the business school, I would encourage them to take greater risks, explore what interested them more deeply. I'm sure you'd agree with this approach.

And then, of course, there are the ones who just needed to be fustigated.

10:50 PM  
Blogger The Gnat's Trumpet said...

It warms my heart to see you use the word fustigate(d). It reminds me of the old days.

The part of this post that resonated with me was the difficulties you described that are presented by truth-telling. I've been writing my memoir of sorts anonomously now for over a year and I find myself wanting both to put my name on it and to tell my friends its web address. The problem is several of the people I describe (and although I have not published their names, I have made the mistake of using their actual initials) will be easily identified and I did not have the foresight to be sufficiently careful in my mentions of them.

So I face the problem that if I come out now I may become the victim of a fustigation.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Invisible Lizard said...

I'm not exactly sure when you were at Auburn, but I suppose we nearly missed each other. I know NWP and had a similar experience.

After several rounds in the ring with the ferocious and wonderful Elly (whom I affectionately referred to as a "tough old bird" in one of my evaluations), I signed up for a class taught by NWP. As I recall, Elly recommended the class. NWP tore into my first story as if it were litter meant to line the basin of so many parakeet cages. I wasn't quite as fazed by that because Elly had done the same when I first wrote for her. And rightfully so: my first story for her was true crap.

But Elly had eventually led me down a certain path towards rich story, strong characters, and well thought-out themes. Her own stories led the way. On the other hand, NWP was, as I called her, a "minimalist" writer. Not sure if I coined the phrase there and then, but it fit. Your metaphor of the Emperor and his New Clothes is apt. She writes a lot about a little. Few things actually happen, and you, the reader, are left wondering if you've missed something. I suppose the readers of the New Yorker pretend to have noticed whatever it was they were supposed to have seen.

Other writers can pull this off, and a good example is John Updike, another New Yorker alumnus. I'm not his biggest fan, but I do appreciate his own particular genius. I've read a couple of his books, and do I enjoy his style, though afterwards I tend to read something plot-heavy to cleanse my palate. (I could go on ad infinitum about my theories behind plot-driven vs. character-driven fiction, but I'll spare you and your readers that drudgery.) I saw NWP as trying to emulate Updike's style and falling significantly short.

My father gave me a piece of advice that I will never forget when I called and complained that the new writing teacher wasn't teaching me anything. Or rather, was "teaching me the art of nothing." He said, "Son, you're stuck in this class so you might as well learn what you can. She has something to teach, even if it's only a knowledge of what you don't want to do." So I stuck with it for the quarter. My second story she disapproved of less and my third story she actually praised (a little). I practiced the art of minimalist writing during those 13 weeks.

I showed that story to Elly at the beginning of the next quarter when I was, once again, back in the fold. Elly's comment: "She actually liked this?" I think we silently agreed then that my own particular style needed the kind of encouragement that NWP simply didn't have in her.

6:40 AM  
Anonymous scott said...

Great summary of "Kmart fiction," Lein, and the Emperor's clothes metaphor is apt. I discovered toward the end of my time at LSU that I was sick of trying to write interesting stories in which nothing happened, which are often held up as models in "mainstream/literary" journals (which itself, mainstream/literary that is, is a strictly defined genre, despite its claims to being unclassifiable). So I went back to my first love, horror stories. I'm not winning any Nobels, but I've published some stories, I like what I write, and I entertain myself and others--which is why I wanted to write in the first place.

I don't know how we got to the point where "character-driven" means "plotless." Almost as if to have something happen in the story--something outside the characters' heads, that is--devalues the beauty of the prose. The best writers--or the ones I like to read, anyway--have great characters who drive action--that is, the action flows out of the characters rather than staying penned within them, and you have interesting things happen because you're interested in what happens.

Okay, I'm really off the rails here, but you know what I mean. I'm always incredibly angry when I finish reading a 20 page story, or worse a 200 page novel, and find the protagonist staring out the window, as you said. But then I'm a philistine who actually likes stories where something happens.

Okay, I'll stop now.

8:48 AM  
Blogger PDS said...

Lein: have you per chance read BR Meyers' "A Reader's Manifesto" which appeared a few years back in The Atlantic. Most appropos along the lines of this post.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Always nice to see "fustigation" used successfully in a sentence.


Maybe this is pointless, since we both suffered through PR's Wolfe and Faulkner class (or am I hallucinating?), but my beef was never with nothing happening in a story so much as it being told in a boring way. Flannery O'Connor wrote many stories that happened only inside a character's head, but the stories were lean, pointed and perfect. Same with Welty. It's great when you can pull it off, but so few can. So, yeah, you know, I agree.


We've had this conversation many times. Getting into characters' heads was a great literary move, but the best writers keep it interesting. Too bad so few of them teach (no offense, BT).

On the one hand, I'm sorry as hell you wrote that last line; on the other, it suffused the whole post with poignancy and regret. That's what sucks about having something to write about: it usually isn't something you wanted to live through.

I have no idea what you're going through, but I'm in a similar enough position in life to understand why you've turned to non-fiction. My writing has become more obviously personal over the last few years (when I was writing, anyway), and now, though I'm fond of both convincing and outlandishly overt fiction, I just don't care about making too much up. I care more about artfully disguising what's happened. I don't know if it's age, experience or a wearing-down of self-interest (a caring more for recapitulating past events--a function of age, I guess) but I sympathize with your plight. While I hesitate to give advice, I'll tell you what you already know: the best stuff is what you want least to reveal.

12:45 AM  
Anonymous scott said...

Rob, we did have that class, you're not hallucinating--at least not in that regard.

I still believe that the really great writers, even the canonized ones, were always concerned first with telling a good story--the introspection and inner journeys of the characters served this greater purpose. Faulkner did that, even Joyce--though as you point out, large parts of their "good stories" involved the way in which the stories were told as much as they involved the play-by-play. It's the legions of imitators who took the intropsection but missed the point that has plagued us since--imitating without understanding. Or at least it pleases me to think of it that way.

Wolfe is an exception, I guess, but I've never been a huge fan of hers anyway. Sorry, professors, she just bores me to tears. Lat the blame on my poor taste, my misspent youth, or my Y-chromosome.

I love O'Connor, and off the top of my head can't think of a story of hers that was entirely internal. But I know that Rob is more well-read than I, so I defer.

And toe end on a glib, bumper-stickerish note--just because you make stuff up doesn't necessarily mean you're not telling the truth.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous scott said...

(read that "Lat" where it should have been "Lay" and the "toe" in the last line as signifiers of the artificial constructs of language in fiction and the impossibility of really knowing anything for sure. Because that's what they are, honestlye.)

8:51 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

I'm all for making stuff up. It's just a question of whether that appeals to you at the moment. Either way, what matters is quality.

Thanks for letting me know I didn't misunderremember that class with the Name Dropper. (And she kept trying to pronounce French but didn't know how--and it's not like she wasn't a highly regarded, groundbreaking scholar.)


I should've mentioned that while your best stuff may be what's hardest to reveal, when you're writing a non-fiction blog you can hardly afford to reveal some of that online without suffering the consequences.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Lein Shory said...

All true.

PDS: the Meyers piece sounds very familiar. I will investigate to see if I have read it or not. In any case, it seems there's been at least the beginning of a revolt against the kind of stuff that Rob, Scott, Invisible Lizard and I were being subjected to.

9:51 AM  

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