Saturday, July 18, 2009

Reading Like a Writer, Reading Like an Editor

The July 20th issue of The New Yorker includes three letters about Louis Menand’s “Critic at Large” piece on the rise of creative writing programs in the June 8th & 15th issue. Allyson Stack from Edinburgh, Scotland, writes that creative writing programs teach young writers to be their own editors since publishing companies no longer have the time or money to shepherd younger writers along. “A good creative-writing program,” argues Stack, “will aim at making students better editors by requiring them to read intensively, exhaustively, and endlessly—and to read far more than one another’s work.”

Stack reminds us that reading a novel (or a story) with an eye toward writing one is a very different task from reading it with an eye toward writing a term paper, a review, or a lecture. The aim of creative writing classes should be, Stack concludes, “not so much to produce novelists or poets as to produce more astute readers of novels and poetry—which is to say, better editors.”

Stack’s argument for writers being taught to read like editors does not sound that different from Francine Prose’s argument in her book Reading Like a Writer that everyone should read like writers.

Prose’s central point is that to be a good reader, one must be knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, those elements of writing that constitute the craft: words, sentences, character, dialogue, and details. Prose reminds us of something that students of literature often find it hard to accept—that subject matter is not all that important, that what the writer most often wants to do is write really great sentences.

Over and over, Prose urges the reader to focus on words, rhythm, and pattern–not subject matter. By relentlessly insisting on the importance of language and form, Prose reinforces what William H. Gass has argued in Finding a Form: that the artist's "fundamental loyalty must be to form.” Every other diddly desire," insists Gass, "can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day."

Prose’s insistence on the importance of language and literary form seems so obvious it is difficult to see how anyone could deny it. But of course that the excellence of writing depends not on its content but its language and form is denied in classrooms around the world every day. In fact, the very idea of artistic form and excellence is often challenged in many of those classrooms as elitist.

Prose admits that many of her students complain that reading great writers makes them feel stupid. And indeed, a quick look at the hundred-plus list of “Books to Be Read Immediately” that Prose appends may have that effect. In addition to the “classic” writers who put off modern students--Austen, Babel, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, James, Joyce, Kafka, Mansfield, Melville, Proust, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Twain, and Woolf--there are a number of intimidating contemporary “writer’s writers” as well--Raymond Carver, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor, and Joy Williams.

In her Gold Medal acceptance speech at the 1999 National Book Awards, Oprah Winfrey told a little story about calling Toni Morrison and asking, “Does anyone ever tell you that sometimes they have to go over the sentences several times to get the full meaning of what you’re really saying.” Morrison wryly and wisely replied, “That, my dear, is called reading.”

Writing that requires going over the sentence several times to get the full meaning is usually the result of the writer’s careful editing, which most often means following Chekhov’s advice that it is better to say too little than too much, or the famous advice of Strunk and White in Elements of Style: “Omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words.”

Perhaps the best-known example of the relationship between a writer and an editor, in which the issue of omitting needless words is crucial is the writer/editor collaboration of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. In my opinion, Carver’s stories that show Lish’s influence in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please and What We Talk When we Talk About Love are much better stories than the “more generous” stories that appeared in Cathedral after he had repudiated Lish.

Critics who have scolded Carver for his minimalist shortcomings have done so for the same reasons that in previous generations they criticized Poe, Chekhov, and Sherwood Anderson. Clearly, those who spent much of the eighties scorning Carver's so-called cryptic tales for the same reasons that previous critics have criticized the short story in general, were more comfortable with the later, more explanatory versions of such stories as “The Bath” and “So Much Water Close to Home.”

However, Carver adds explanatory information to “A Small, Good Thing” that adds nothing significant to the original version entitled “The Bath.” For example, in “The Bath” the parents are trying to fasten on to some term that will categorize and thus normalize the son's condition, but each time they use the term “coma” the doctor simply says “I wouldn't call it that.” In “A Small, Good Thing.” Carver puts into the doctor's mouth a verbatim definition of a coma from Webster's New World Dictionary as a state of “deep, prolonged unconsciousness,” which does nothing to clarify the essential mystery of the boy's inaccessibility. In “The Bath,” when orderlies come in to get the boy for a brain scan, “they wheeled a thing like a bed.” However, in “A Small, Good Thing,” Carver uses the word “gurney”--certainly a more informative term, but one that loses the sense of disorientation the parents feel.

This addition of such bits of information serves unnecessary and distracting polemical purposes in the long version of “So Much Water Close to Home.” In the short version, when the wife reads about the death of the girl in the newspaper, she sits thinking and then calls and gets a chair at the hairdresser's. In the long version, we are told what she is thinking: “Two things are certain: 1) people no longer care what happens to other people; and 2) nothing makes any difference any longer. Look at what has happened. Yet nothing will change for Stuart and me.”

Chekhov would never have approved of Carver's added explanation, which sounds more like a freshman composition essay than the muddled emotions of a woman who has identified with the image of a dead girl floating just beneath the surface of the water.

I agree with Francine Prose that the best way to teach reading is to teach students to read like writers and with Allyson Stack that the best way to teach writing is to teach students to read like editors.

I would love to hear from writers who have been in MFA programs and teachers who have been in graduate literature programs on the issue of how to teach good reading and good writing.


Becky said...

I recall at one college, I taught an introduction to critical thinking course. One version of the class used literary texts, while the other nonfiction. Without thinking too hard about it, I chose the literature section. I taught the class on the fly, so the Chair gave me an approved textbook and sample assignments. The class, and the textbook emphasized informal logic (deductive/inductive reasoning, argumentation, fallacies). That inevidably meant that the most topical, or political fiction was on the syllabus, with the view that students would analyze the creative work as they would an argument. I often worried that students would come away from the class believing that all literature can be boiled down to premises with warrants, that the best stories were the ones you could write long essays about. Class discussions focused on subject, or the "what" of the literature, not the "how." Unfortunately that's the kind of discussion going on in a lot of literature classes. I should say that I don't think a piece's subject is irrelevant, but it's harder to say why a story is good, or brilliant. That's where students need the most help. Usually, new readers think that if a story is "relatable" or "easy to read," then it is a good story.

In my MFA classes we did talk about the language of our stories, and of the published stories we were assigned, probably much more than I did in my literature classes. We also talked about the logic of the stories. The way we talked about literature, the vocabulary we used, was very different.

Side note: Harper's published one of Munro's "short" stories in the August issue.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for your comment, Becky. It gets to what I think is the heart of the matter--literature classes too often focusing on the "what" rather than the "how" of writing.

When I taught composition, I was often frustrated trying to help student writers become good readers and good editors of their writing. But even on the graduate level, students nowadays seem to prefer to talk about the socio-political context of a world rather than the work itself.

The last graduate class I taught was a seminar in postcolonial literature, in which I tried to get the students to analyze the works for their formal qualities rather than their political content. It was hard going, and I was accused of being old fashioned, right wing, and elitist.

It is too bad, I think, that literature programs and creative writing programs are often separated from each other in universities, as if they were totally different subjects.

colleencurry said...

Hi, just found your site and want to thank you for such a great resource. I especially related to this post. I just graduated with a bachelor's in English, and am now really starting to practice my creative writing skills. Unfortunately, I've found that I keep writing like I was taught to read/analyze, and my pieces become transparently about social problems instead of stories about people. So, I agree with your analsysis of university lit programs completely.

Guess I'll have to start reading like a writer, than writing like one next.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, Colleen. My advice to students about stories was: If the problem in the story could be resolved by social reform or bailout money, then it was not a problem complex and subtle enough to require a short story.