Thursday, November 29, 2012

Failure of the Workshop Model

A bureaucratic system is incapable of critiquing itself. Like a living organism, its main purpose is to survive and grow. This holds true for the current system in the U.S. for producing official literature.

The failure of the system, and the current workshop model, can be seen in the American short story. One hundred years ago it was America’s most popular art form. Fifty-plus years of the workshop model have killed the art.

Why has readership of the short story dwindled? Look up past volumes of “Best” American stories collections and you’ll discover your answer. You could check the last four decades of such collections and be lucky to find a handful of stories that are fun to read—or memorable, as short stories once were memorable.

The opening of the standard literary story is designed to impress the reader with how well the writer can write. The stories are well written but they’re not entertaining. They’re certainly not fun. Is this a missed opportunity? Yes!—because the short story should be an entry into literature, toward longer, greater works—not a turnoff.

I’m approaching things differently. The first chapter of my new e-novel, due out in about a week, is written to be simple and accessible, thoroughly “pop,” so I can get the reader directly into the narrative. I save my better writing for later.  The traditional novel opening, such as the beautiful beginning to “Gatsby,” or the famous opening to “Tale of Two Cities,” is fine and good. Except today there’s little time for dawdling, and very few writers are Dickens or Fitzgerald. None that I can spot.

Classic arts which survive as relevant parts of the culture do so through pop incarnations of their form. For instance, no one today walks around reciting the poetry of today’s academic crop of poets—whether John Ashbery or Jorie Graham—in the way the words of a Shakespeare or Kipling or Tennyson were once recited by ordinary members of the public. The public does know, though, the words to songs by pop artists, Bob Dylan being a notable example. Classical music composers have interested the general public over the past fifty years almost solely for their movie music—the music is forced to connect with the listener, instead of being monotonous atonal intellectualized university-spawned junk.

Novels are surviving today among the public because of popular versions containing vampires and wizards and such. My premise is that we can do better than that. We can produce novels which are readable and entertaining but also intelligent, relevant, and good.

3 comments:

anolen.com said...

Good points here. My understanding is that a lot of the classic stuff- like Shakespeare- was 'pop' in it's day. It was 'pop' with intelligence behind it.

I got a copy of America's Best Short Stories (or some such title) from the library a few months ago. The compendium was edited by Stephen King.

The whole book was hilarious, because in his introduction, King bemoaned how the art form was dying, YET selected his 'best' stories from the very journals which he criticized (obliquely) for printing unreadable, solipsistic junk. King knows how to communicate, but he's also a survivor, which means whoring out his talent. Not impressive, imho.

There is, of course, the sad possibility that King truly has nothing interesting to say and he was just a schmuck born in the right place/time to make millions from his own mediocrity. I digress...

R.E. To catch readers with engaging, not artistic writing:
I think the work has to start with a character. There has to be an engaging character who the audience feels they understand immediately. Best if that somebody is a good guy who the reader can 'root' for. More specifically, the character should be doing something that the reader can emote with AND there should be a short, effective physical description of the character.

I hate to reduce writing to something formulaic, but that intro works so many times... Roald Dahl uses it a lot- but so do so many others. I think its effectiveness must have something to do with the way people's brains are wired: people are interested in other people.

Perhaps this is also why psychologists use images of faces to get emotional responses during evaluations/ studies.

In my last bit of writing, I didn't follow this introduction 'rule' and feedback tells me I'm paying for it...

King Wenclas said...

Interesting point. I'll have to try that kind of Intro myself. I usually don't engage with a story until I'm hooked by a character.
I'm told there are three levels of conversation. A.) about things B.) about people C.) about ideas.
Most bourgie literary writers are too busy describing the elegant furniture to get to the other levels!
We all love gossip.
I love writers with enough knowledge of life to see through people, and describe them to a "t."
James Gould Cozzens could do this, agree with his assessments or not.
His description of General Beal in his best novel brings the character to my mind's eye even now, though I read the book many years ago.
**************
I think of story openings in terms of pop songs. What are good hooks?
The Beatles were masters of this. (Witness the opening to a "Hard Day's Night.")
A fictional equivalent?
A gunshot??
Another tactic is to open with a line of dialogue, if it's good.
R.L. Stevenson: "Have you ever remarked that door?" Unbelievable mystery is to follow.
****************
Re formulas. Most art follows a formula. Abstract art is a formula. The sonnet is a formula. A string quartet is a formula. Motown is a formula. The literary story, alas, is a very stale formula. I have a scene in my new ebook (slapdash satire) in which the literary figure Tom Beller is accused of writing the New Yorker story circa 1955. "1965," he corrects the person. "Give me that much."

JeffOYB said...

Karl, have you seen the movie "Ruby Sparks"? I haven't, but I've seen bits of it, accidentally, and I've read some about it. It presents the writer as, of course, a NEBISH, in the full-on McSweeney's style. Hipster but impotent and dull. Also, he's mean and vicious. His work creates a girl...who he then abuses and plays like a puppet. What kind of writer would do that? Who's ever met a writer like that? I can imagine that nearly ALL MFA-type writers might behave like that and have such personalities, but I've only seen such people from afar. I avoid them like the plague. Who wouldn't? No one reads their work, obviously -- hence the bitterness. They're aware of their worthlessness and their major effort is to taint others with the disease. I've read enough of the snark they've written to know that nobody will be refuting me. It's just that real writers are the OPPOSITE of this art-film hipster stereotype: they're hardworking and generous. They mine rich ore from the depths. They give more than they take. They're not that uncommon. They're a privilege to know and I've encountered some. Sure, they might be sad but they break a mighty sweat to avoid bringing anyone else down. To others they seem happy, lucky and talented, if not often rich. (But, as most folks around the world know: what does money-wealth really matter? I'm not referring to the relatively few sad sacks who've caught the demeaning bug of cash-is-king.) I'm sure the movie has a happy ending, but the darkness along the way is pure MFA...