Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Time & Teaching: a Meditation

My graduate course had another heated argument/discussion this past Tuesday on the question of why there is no fiction on the reading list. I launched a defense of the course as one on poetics rather than genre, on ways of thinking about writing qua writing, rather than on generic issues. But this latest moment of tension in the class has got me to thinking on a couple of issues in teaching. There is the obvious question of expertness and inexpertness, which fits neatly with a discussion we were having with Kaia Sand and Jules Boykoff on that same evening. If Professor Schultz is an expert in creative writing, then the students are "inexperts" with strong needs of their own. When perceived needs and desires (the professor for her students' background in poetics; the student for her own more pragmatic needs) conflict, we get more than a Paolo Freire scenario, the banker tussling with the liberation theologists. We also get a conflict in the way time is framed in the classroom.

My desires in teaching often focus on (the unfocusable) future tense. While what happens in the classroom each day matters, and while the essays and poems my students write matter to me, what matters most is an imagined later moment when any student (no longer my student) makes a significant connection between an everyday occurrence and something that happened in the now disappeared course. This is also true for me; what I teach and how I teach it changes, and those changes often become significant stories for me. They are stories about change, but they are also stories about synchronicities. Kaia calls them "situational rhymes," those moments that create waves of resonance across time. Sometimes they're even situational puns or analogies or chords (major and minor, at times dissonant). And tastes change. Where I used to detest poems by Wordsworth and Williams I now use them (especially the good doctor's) quite frequently in my classrooms.

But a student is more rooted in the present, and its necessities. There are books to read, discussions to have, essays to write, presentations to present. They happen in such quick succession, and in different classes at the same time, that the time for expansiveness is merely theoretical. Hank Lazer has told me that he enjoys not-teaching because he can devote more time to reading, not rush through things simply to get on to the next on the syllabus. Life's syllabus is slower, potentially, and less demanding of actual material effort. For the student, the syllabus is a life, but it's a life that lasts only several months before the engine restarts and she's onto something else. There are grades to work for, tangible returns on actual investments (first of tuition, then of time, effort, toner and paper). There is a sense that what one does in each class should fit neatly into the next. That foundations should apply to workshops, for example.

And that brings me to the source of contention in my Foundations course, that there is no fiction on the syllabus. We have passed through two weeks of poetry, which I used to get at issues of place, and we did a book of non-fiction, Katie Stewart's Ordinary Affects, which I used to get at forms of attention, but no short stories, no novel. My defense of the course involved an invocation of "writing" as the mode we are talking about. All writers, I argued, need to consider questions of language, of place, of tradition. (And I would argue, contra some of my students, that even if you don't intend to stay in Hawai`i, questions of place and space are worthy of consideration, framed as they are for many of us here.) I get up my goat a bit, say to myself that I want them to think about issues they do not consider relevant because, damn it!, they will on that five year plan I have in my mind. But their plan is for one semester. So here is my list of foundational questions about fiction. I hope to generate more, and invite readers to send in their own.

--Given that the novel's origins were in journalism in the 18th century, what links do these genres still have to one another? Can Kaia Sand's work help us to think about relationships between creative writing and journalism, as she claims to be a "journalist-poet"?

--One semester I taught short stories by Lydia Davis. She writes stories that tell more than show and that contain no dialogue. She provokes the question: why do most of us place so much value on dialogue and on "showing" rather than "telling"? Replace these items with any items that are repeated over and over in CW classrooms ("write what you know"; "write from your imagination"; "climax & denouement"; "narrative arc" and so on). Imagine how you might write a story that deliberately broke all these rules and succeeded. What would that story be?

--Mikhail Bakhtin loved the novel for the way in which it includes all other genres; it is (arguably) the most multi-voiced of the genres. How do you approach your fiction, knowing that you can use ALL the tools out there?

--Poetry's market is tiny, a fact that allows poets enormous freedom, because their work is not considered marketable. Fiction is, at least potentially, another story. Think about ways in which market demands affect fiction. (Uzma Khan has interesting things to say along these lines, as she has had an editor who demanded certain kinds of writing from her.)

--Writing workshops tend to devote more time and space to issues of craft than to issues of content (such as politics and place). What do you write about? Why? What would you like to write about, but can't yet? How do you mean to get there?

--Write a resume/cv for a fiction writer (or poet or dramatist). What does this writer need to know to write well? What are the books s/he he should read? What languages should s/he learn? Where should s/he travel?

--Consider the ways in which the truism "you can reach truth best through fiction" works and does not work. What truths are we talking about?

--If you write fantasy fiction, what are links between your genre and poetry, say, or science fiction? How can you use symbols in ways that realist novelists cannot?

--Why is realist fiction generally privileged in university MFA programs? How might you learn more about experimental fiction and adapt its techniques and fascinations to your own work?

--Rewrite a short piece--a Shakespeare sonnet--as a short story. What happens? In what ways do these pieces of writing work? What gets lost, or gained, in translation?

--If you write in more than one language, how do you use them in your fiction/poetry/drama? Do you translate? Do you draw your reader in or alienate him or her? Are you Brecht or are you Spielberg?

--What do you want to do with your fiction other than "tell a good story"? Do you want to engage political, cultural, linguistic issues? Do you want to create a certain music in your work? What is the relationship of sound to sense in your prose?

--What writers have you read who operate successfully in more than one genre? How do they do that? Do they do different work in each genre, or is there significant overlap?

--What happens when you mix genres? If you are a novelist, have you ever put a poem in your fiction, or a section of a play? What would be the point of doing so?

As you can see, many of these questions work for more than fiction only, but I've framed them in such a way that fiction is foregrounded. But try to re-frame other questions we've asked this semester--questions about tradition, place, publishing, form--in the context of your particular genre.

This evening I am reading from and talking about my dementia work with Prof. Miriam Fuchs's class on memoir. I'll blog soon on that and especially on the wonderful visit by Kaia Sand and Jules Boykoff that ended at noon-time today when I left them and Jessi at the airport for their return trip home to Portland.


Anonymous said...

probably gon' get in trouble for saying this, but...

* historically, fiction has been less universal as a cultural tradition, than either poetry and performance. unlike these two other storytelling genres, fiction requires "literacy" (i.e. print literacy) which means cultures based on oral and visual storytelling traditions may not be able to participate equally in it (whether as consumers or producers or critics or teachers). this can be a colonial distinction.

* related to that, just by saying "fiction," we narrow storytelling modes/practices/possibilities to what will sell in a market to consumers willing to purchase - & this marketplace is classed, raced, gendered, etc. why can't we ask for "stories" instead of for fiction, as the term "stories" crosses these classed genre boundaries and opens things up?

* so much of how western fiction has developed as a discourse, emphasizes whether a story works or not, whether it is a good story or not, especially from the reader's (consumer's) point of view. these holistic framings are not very critical or self reflective, compared to the ways western poets have approached discourse, which has been to foreground ideas (platonic, political, spiritual) and language, not how a plot lumbers along from point a to point b. poetry in the west has displayed more discursive possibility than fiction - perhaps because poetry often is produced in bite-sized nuggets that are easier to float out into the zeitgeist, that can afford to be experimental or take risks? a poem is about parts and being a step in the discursive process; it can fail in so many aspects and still contain interesting ideas and language that spark discourse; a fictional piece is seen as bad if its whole does not work, if its overall story does not work for an audience, and discourse shuts down if these market-based considerations are not met.

ooh, i've said it!

hey: when are u gonna post the vice-versa link? :)

Jonathan Morse said...

What kind of novels do your creative writing students have in mind? The kind that are written unambiguously in prose?

If so, I'm with you.

The kind whose language is unambiguously prose? If so, I'm with you.

SMS said...

To anonymous: historically speaking, there may be a "colonial" aspect to fiction, but there is certainly a long tradition of post-colonial fiction, as well, that engages issues of language and culture. And there's also a tradition of experimental fiction that doesn't fit into market schemes. Lots of small presses that make no money publish such fiction.
I put the vice-versa link on my facebook page, I did! aloha, sms

Tom Gammarino said...

Thanks for including me on this. It's just the sort of discussion I miss being in on.

And so, I go point by point:

-To say that the novel has its origins in the 18th century and journalism is, I think, a bit of an oversimplification. Verse epics are back there too, aren't they? Homer and the Gilgamesh poet. And there's the Roman novel (I've been meaning to read The Satyricon for years). And then there are those defacto precedents in Japan (Tale of Genji, 11th Century) and, I suspect, India, though I know nothing of the latter. Why do I labor the point? Only by way of suggesting that I think the poetry/fiction dichotomy is somewhat (and only somewhat) false.

As for the novel's relationship with journalism, though, I suppose "realist" fiction is thoroughly indebted to it, with DeFoe as the progenitor of that line. Franzen's last novel, Freedom, strikes me as being thoroughly of this journalistic sort, i.e. it very obviously adheres to a program of cultural reportage, wants to show Americans who they are at this moment in history, to have its finger on the pulse, articulate the zeitgeist, etc. This isn't really fair, of course. There's a lot more to the book than that, e.g. characters, but this aspect of the novel, or The Novel, seems to me...what's the word?...superfluous? Doomed? Roth observed maybe forty years ago that reality had outstripped the novel in terms of the salaciousness of content. The novelist Gary Shteyngart said somewhere recently that technology moves so fast these days that there's hardly any such thing as a "present" and therefore realistic novels are automatically outdated insofar as news. And Thomas Wolfe argued back in the seventies, in "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," that non-fiction was surpassing the novel as literature's main event.

What Wolfe was taking on in that article was the sort of experimental fiction that was in its ascendancy and which, for me, remains some of the most interesting and vitalizing writing of that century precisely because it's as interested in aesthetics as in content. Joyce is behind much of this (see Barthelme's "After Joyce"), and I've made no secret of the fact that Ulysses, as far as I'm concerned, remains the high water mark, and not because of its portrait of 1904 Dublin, or not merely because of it.

Every word I say on this topic opens up another avenue that I'd be hard-pressed and a little insane (or a little more insane) to explore here, but here's one more: The Great Depression killed literary modernism. Discuss.

Tom Gammarino said...

-On showing vs. telling. Another false dichotomy. It's useful insofar as we get it, but it's all showing really (diegesis, not mimesis), and what writer besides V. Woolf "shows" us time passing? No, you tell it. And which is "He sat down"? The real point has always been about specificity and concrete detail, not showing and telling. Susan, our friend Molly Gaudry just edited a book called "Tell," an anthology of stories that "tell." You probably knew that. As for those other aesthetic credos and aphorisms, Mark McGurl's The Program Era does an interesting dissection, in cultural/institutional terms, of "find your voice", "show don't tell", and "write what you know". What would a novel look like if you sucked all of them away? Beckett's The Unnameable.

-Bakhtin on polyphony and heteroglossia: it seems to me he puts his finger on the novel's unique province, that is, its inherent perspectivism and irreducible complexity (to appropriate, with absolute reluctance, a hideous term from Intelligent Design--I should have said "unparaphrasability" maybe, to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor). I think of theory of mind in some connection here too. Brian Boyd's last book, On the Origin of Stories, makes the case for stories as a Darwinian adaptation of sorts. I recommend it.

-As for craft and content in the workshop, in my experience this depends very much on who's running it. I always try to keep the discussion evenly balanced, granting all writers their donne but considering everything on rhetorical as well as formalistic grounds.

-I like the cv question. I remember compiling something like that when I was just starting out. (Didn't Ben Franklin do something like this too?) It'd be neat to locate it and see how much of it I've followed through on. I'd guess half.

-Realist writers can certainly use symbols to unify a work, though it's true they may need to be more subtle than the fantasy writer, and that too many of them (symbols) sooner or later steer the work away from mimesis toward autotely. Granted, this depends to some degree on what sort of a universe the writer believes we live in.

Tom Gammarino said...

-The notion that there's a market out there for literary fiction is, I fear, increasingly a fantasy. I agree, however, that fiction writers may tend to think in terms of that fantasy market more than poets.

-Music, yep. That's what I'm after. I lament occasionally that words have this dastardly representative quality. It mucks everything up. But then it's a virtue too. I want the representations to make their own kind of music. Tenor and vehicle, signifier, signified: in the perfect novel they all harmonize. If I were primarily interested in the real world, I too would opt for journalism. My novels should come with a disclaimer perhaps: "Not a thru-way."

-Dr. Morse, the idea that the word "fiction" implies a market and consumerism strikes me as very strange indeed. "Novel" maybe, but "fiction," I think, stands more and more for the experimental branch whose writers owe some debt to Borges (Ficciones) and who almost certainly have day jobs.

-Interesting point about what makes a story not work. I don't read this way. I can think of many novels that I don't think succeed entirely as novels but which I loved reading, in bits, anyway (virtually everything by Norman Mailer, for instance, and G. Stein, D. Barthleme's novels, Nightwood, Invisible Man, Huck Finn...). Most people, I'd agree, are rather more binary in this regard.

I should really stop now and resume being a dad.

susan said...

Thanks, Tom!

a.k.a. "Joe" said...

Just have 'em read Finnegan's Wake, Nightwood, then a little Diane Williams, David Markson, Aaron Kunin, Danielle Dutton, et al.