Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Daniyal Mueenuddin--Social vs. Formal Issues

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a brief email from Daniyal Mueenuddin last week (See previous entry.) Here is what he said.

Thanks for your thoughts regarding the ending of the story. I agree that the ending might be read this way, but would suggest that Turgenev would not consciously have had this program in mind as he wrote the story. My feeling is, all interpretations are fair, if

All best wishes

It was very kind of Mr. Mueenuddin to take the time to respond. I agree with him that all interpretations are fair, if plausible. And as a reader, I am not overly concerned with what Turgenev might have had in mind when he wrote the story. But what constitutes the plausibility of an interpretation of a story? And if an author does not “consciously” have a meaning in mind, how does meaning get into a story? I have said before that an author may discover meaning in the process of writing because of associations and writing techniques he or she has internalized in previous reading. But that discovery may be inchoate in the writer’s mind, and, not being overly concerned with how readers may interpret his story, he or she may not be bothered with articulating the results of his or her discovery in the writing process.

I don’t want to take up space here with this issue, but will return to it when I talk more about Eudora Welty’s reading of one of her own stories that I mentioned in a previous post. I know I keep saying I will come back to certain things, and I will, I will. I just like to let things gel a bit, and there is so much to say.

The issue I wish to talk about here is raised by the buzz surrounding Mr. Mueenuddin’s new collection of stories that came out this week, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.’ In the first review I read of the book, in the January 31 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg says that what distinguishes this book is its focus on class struggles within Pakistan. He says the book “offers readers a look inside a culture that is in the headlines. It is the voice of Pakistan from within Pakistan.”

In an interview on the website Ultrabrown.com, Mueenuddin is asked if he sees himself as a political writer, concerned with showing the dynamic heterogeneous side of Pakistan. He replies that this is not what he was thinking when he wrote the stories. He says he objects to the idea of writers being too political, for while it gets them a readymade audience, it takes something away from the writing. When the interviewer says that with all the attention being given to the book, he is going to become a spokesperson for his country, Mueenuddin says he does not want to be a spokesman for Pakistan. He says that writing is “play” for him, something he has enormous fun doing.

Even though writers are most always more concerned with their craft than political or social issues, interviewers and reporters are most always determined to get them to talk about politics and social issues.

One of the most famous stories that has raised this issue in the history of short story criticism is Gogol’s wonderful story, “The Overcoat.” I remember when I was an undergraduate in a short story class taught by the great Kentucky writer, James Still, I first read “The Overcoat.” Mr. Still thought it was brilliant and of course read it like a writer. It has been a favorite of mine ever since. The story of the poverty-stricken little copyist with the absurd name of Akaky Akakievich is so well-known that it has been said that most modernist Russian fiction springs from under Gogol's "Overcoat." Gogol combines what seems to be social realism of everyday Petersburg life with the fantastic style of folklore. Indeed, most of the commentary that has been written on the story focuses either on its realistic nature or its fantastic style. Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has said that what makes the story so magnificent is Gogol's focus on the little man and his emphasis on Akaky's implicit call for human brotherhood. (See O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice) On the other hand, in what is perhaps the best-known discussion of the story, Russian formalist critic Boris Ejxenbaum claims that the genius of the story depends on the role played by the author's personal tone and the story's use of Russian folktale oral conventions. Ejxenbaum suggests that the so-called humane passage in which Akaky cries out, “Leave me alone. Why do you insult me?” is a play with the language in which Gogol links a declamatory style with a comic folktale style for the sake of creating a contrapuntal tension. (This essay, under the title “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ is Made” can be found in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, ed. Robert Maguire. Princeton UP, 1974).

Ejxenbaum’s suggestion that Gogol is more interested in playing with the two declamatory styles than he is in the social situation of poor Akakey is often cited as an example of the problem with formalist readings—they seem to suck the life blood out of the story.

However, Ejxenbaum’s method of focusing on the style of the story is the very kind of reading that Francine Prose argues for in her book Reading Like a Writer. 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. Many current literature students, who have been taught to read for social themes, political issues, and cultural contexts, might therefore assume that Prose’s book was written for creative writing majors. That is just not the case.

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.

In my next blog, I will talk about Mueenuddin’s best-known story, “Nawabdin Electrician,” which is in his new book and which was chosen by Salman Rushdie for the 2008 Best American Short Stories. It originally appeared in The New Yorker on August 27, 2007. You can find it by googling “Nawabdin Electrician New Yorker.” If you get a chance, read it; it is very brief. Perhaps we can have a little discussion about the topic of political issues versus formal issues in relationship to this story.


Lee said...

And to connect Prose's view to plausibility: Marilynne Robinson states that plausibility is a matter of style. For what it's worth, I tend to agree.

‘I always tell my students that you can do anything you can get away with, that implausibility is a problem of style. If people bring issues of plausibility to bear on what you’re doing, you’re not doing it well enough.’

Here is a link to the entire interview:


Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Lee, for the link to the Robinson. I found it at:


I agree that from the fiction writer's point of view plausibility is a matter of style. For the critic, however, I always told my students that you can get away with anything if you interpret the story in such a way that you account for the majority of the motifs or themes in such a way that convinces others. The key for both the writer and the critic, I guess, is to convince someone that what you say is somehow truthful.

sandy said...

Not really a comment on this posting...but I have just re-read Alice Munro's Wenlock Edge (NYorker 12/5/08) and would like to talk about the tension between the one whose voice tells the story and the various other characters. Could anyone who has read the story elaborate on what emotion seems to be dominant in the narrator when she says she is on a course discovering her own wickedness. Does she discover that not only has she been wrong about what is real in life--she thinks education is: she looks down on Ernie and her housemates because they think in terms of Reader's Digest or pin curls and Saturday night dates, while she is studying literature and philosophy, but she has also been wrong in her rightness. Nina has led a hard kind of life, and in the mistake the narrator makes about what she is doing when she goes bare to dine with Mr. Purvis (it is a challenge that she intends to meet and come out of equal to Mr. Purvis), she decides that her shame at what she agreed to can not be allowed to haunt her through Nina's and Ernest's remembering it.
So she meddles in Nina's arrangement with Ernest, and discovers her wickedness. Is it wicked to be right? Can being right actually lure one to take pride/pleasure in rightness and so become wicked.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Sandy, for posting a comment on the Alice Munro story. I remember it well, although I think it was in Dec. 2005 that it was published. It is one of those stories that haunts me. I am rereading it and will post some suggestions about it next week.

Charles E. May said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles E. May said...

By the way, if anyone wants to read the Alice Munro story that Sandy is talking about, it is online at


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I don't like the sound of all those lists he's making - it's like intriguing too multitudinous notes at philosophy; you experience you've achieved something when you haven't.

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