Sunday, November 5, 2017

Repurcussions of a decision made in desperation

The sense of literary isolation was getting to me, so I signed up for a short fiction class at this writing center near my house. It seemed like a good idea at the time but as it came closer I got this sort of anxious feeling. I had participated in writing groups before, and liked them somewhat, but there was often this sort of disconnect between myself and the other writers. Once time there was this weird thing where one of the administrators came to our writing group and had a talk with us about 'what measures we need to take to avoid offending people' which apparently the talk was instigated by something I said, though no one would tell me exactly what it was I said.

So last night was the first meeting. Twelve people, a reasonable range of demographics, older, young, seemed equally split between men and women. A variety of skill levels. Fine. The instructor seemed like cool guy, sort of dominated the conversation but he made it clear that this was his class so, again, fine.

We had to read Jhumpa Lahiri's short story 'A Temporary Matter' before hand, which I was excited about because I had never read Lahiri before, but I found it a tedious chore. I read it twice but it seemed like staid domestic fiction: unchallenging, risk averse and proceeding from point to point without any real soul.

We all go around and introduce ourselves and mention a story that we like. Nothing terribly unusual, some Denis Johnson, Fitzgerald, okay good. There is some author fellating which is a little tacky but again, fine, understandable.

So the instructor hands out a four page copy of the intro to this Rust Hills book about short fiction. He gives a quick into about Hills, about how he was the fiction editor at esquire and defined the contemporary short story which I find sort of strange and then we all read. And it is Hills talking about what makes a 'successful short story' the sort of stuff that is broad enough and vague enough that it is sort of meaningless but also prescriptive in the way that it seems limiting.

So he opens it up to comments and there are some tepid responses, some sort of questions with definite answers, so I speak up, I say some thing along the lines of 'I hope I'm not the only person in the room that reads this and gets a visceral feeling of revulsion at the idea that there are some rules that can be or should be followed with writing a short story' and admittedly rant, for a short while about how much of the best fiction in the world is that which flaunts or breaks rules et c. Because I genuine believe this and I feel that adhering to the other side (i.e. that if you check all the boxes you will be granted a piece of 'successful fiction') And I try to be cognizant of dominting the conversation but the instructor sort of nods along and tells me to keep going. And then there are these comments sort of like 'Well so-and-so told me that you need to know the rules before you break them.' and '(Insert semi-famous writer here who I have never heard of) told me that you can break the rules when you are famous.' there comments coming from the other students.

So we talk about it for a little bit longer but then the instructor moves to his two rules for fiction: 'The bar test' (can you tell it in a bar) which seems strange to mean but he explains that this means that there needs to be some substance to it, which is fine, and the 'Long term memory test' which is 'will the events of this story stick with the characters for a long time. So there is some talking about these rules and I suggest that the Lahiri story fails both of these, (because who would tell a story about an aborted baby and a break up in a bar, which I guess some people) but there the instructor sort of gets accusatory and starts calling me 'Bro' at the end of every sentence which I don't understand and which I point out to him so he calls me 'Dude' which again I find strange. And he asks me to lay out the structure of the story so I do (couple finds that their electricity is going to be cut off, they make dinner, tell each other things they have never told each other before...they break up) and this women says something like 'So you don't think that this is a great story?' and I say 'No, not really.' And I ask what risks these people think she is taking in the story, because she seems to take none which in my opinion makes it a safe/boring/pointless story and this one women suggests, feebly, that she is writing about feelings or sorrow which is taking a risk, to which, in my mind, 90% of contemporary fiction is about couples breaking up, so this has got to be the least risky thing the write about.

Then everyone gets it in their heads that I am some sort of avant-garde enfent terrible and start trash talking experimentation for the sake of experimentation (which I pretty much agree with them on) and the instructor starts talking about how DFW didn't start writing his experimental stuff which he must have meant as a pointed barb to my tastes, but which I found sort of oblique to the subject.

Then this one women says something like 'I don't know if I feel safe bringing my writing in here since I write traditional fiction.' to which I just have to sort of sigh out of pity.

The class went on for a short while longer, again just comments about how amazing the story was and so on.

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