The Literary Story Examined

TO TEST whether or not the college writing factories are presenting a generic product I examined the three most recent issues of Best New American Voices: Fresh Fiction from the Top Writing Programs. Here should be found our new prose writers—the future of the art. The three collections—for 2008, 2009, 2010—were edited by esteemed lit writers Richard Bausch, Mary Gaitskill, and Dani Shapiro.

The first thing to be noticed in the collections is the defensive tone of the Introductions by the three eminent editors. Protests from the deck of a sinking ship.

Dani Shapiro: “—the doomsayers are once again out there beating their drums, announcing the End of Literature.”

Mary Gaitskill, about the general population: “They don’t read stories at all.”

The admission is made by all three impressive editors that nobody wants the produce of these writing workshops. The short story, once the most popular American art, is now dead. Yet there appears not one hint of a thought by these three respected editors that the problem might be with the product itself. By extension, with the process which makes the product.

Think about that. The possibility is never considered.

In any other field; in every business; if what you make and present to the world isn’t selling—isn’t at all moving—at some point early on you’ll ask yourself if the thing you’re selling is flawed.

Instead, we receive from three of the best minds current literature has to offer (so we’re told about them) a flat denial of reality—an unwillingness to look the truth about their art in the face. It’s as if they’ve dropped into their heads a stone wall.

Their attitude reminds me of the longtime willful attitude of automaker General Motors as their market share year after year steadily declined: “We have all these wonderful products. Why is no one buying them?”

The analogy is apt, because the teaching-of-writing business—hundreds of writing programs and workshops across the country—is a billion-dollar industry. A huge investment is made in the creation of writers in this country and we have to ask what’s being accomplished. The writers themselves are spending large sums of money to learn how to write and we have to ask if they’re being bilked.

What I found as I read many of the stories chosen by the three prestigious editors was that they’re all of a piece. They’re generic. The sensibilities, the mindset, even the styles and rhythms, are the same. One can argue that the writing programs these works are taken from are all different, run in different ways by varied personalities—but they must all, professors and students, be reading the same thing. Every one of the stories matches the generic story of twenty years ago. They read like imitations of imitations.

Two particular aspects characterize the stories. First is their earnestness. Every one of the stories is earnest. Second is the preciousness of the writing style. I could add that all of the stories are lethargically paced, and not one is entertaining.

The quickest way to illustrate their sameness, and their preciousness, is to give from a dozen or so of them their endings. At the end of the stories the preciousness comes to a boil. (As you read them, imagine the earnest and determined faces of the writers who created the wonderful-if-not-wanted stories.)
I wonder what my daughter sees, what mysteries have been revealed to her.

I will drive through the wind and the rain. I will drive all night.

You look at your father. You smile. You’re trying to remember how long it’s been since you were a child.

He died and found himself on the end of a rope—a boy who had forgotten and then remembered.

The men will rip me from my chain. They will steal me. I will fly.

Carrie has been hanging back at a distance, terrified by the walking wounded, but I motion for her to come forward. She reaches out. She takes my hand.

Their combined magic fills the room like a cent (sp), and suddenly I know where to begin.

I would take the book home with me, and without having read it all the way through, I would destroy it.

I had a glass and it broke. I crushed a moth and it died. I had a month, but it ended. I had a heart. It remained.

Cold beer and maybe a steak, why not a steak, the relief that now, having done their part, having tried and failed but tried nonetheless, now, finally, they can go home.

He tried again, a single word. “Home.” Then he repeated the word, again, again, testing it to see how it sounded.

Last of all, the trees shot up the image of everyone there, in real time, eyes and mouths dumbly open.

Maybe, just before the doors opened, they looked outside and glimpsed the white lights strung across our balcony, or maybe they didn’t see anything at all.

Have I told you that I would’ve actually spoken to you, would’ve asked you how to navigate the awful fact of growing up, would have asked you to do the impossible and stop it, to pause it all right there, and allow fathers to be just fathers and children just children, so that for once we could all stay together, so that for once no one would die?

Good-bye, he said. Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.
Soggy and simpery, generically, every last story.

Can we admit that this is pretentious crap?

Keep in mind that these are the very best of the many thousands of workshop writers. The cream. The top.

Mary Gaitskill re the public attitude toward literary stories: “They don’t read stories at all.”

Golly gee. Why not?