Realism (VN Diary No. 35)

I’m not much of a Roger Cohen fan — he strikes me as an ideological opportunist, a flag blowing first one way then the other — but the dateline of this column attracted my attention, of course. The Quiet American is the best single piece of fiction about Vietnam you are likely to read (Tim O’Brien’s stories in The Things they Carried come a close second only because they focus so closely on the war rather than the situation of the war), an exacting portrait of a murderous idealism. Cohen’s column uses Graham Greene’s novel to make a pair of important points:

  1. Idealism is a terrible basis for foreign policy (and probably for life in general);
  2. It is possible to engage with countries and cultures with whom we have fundamental disagreements.

Neither of these is particularly profound seperately, but taken together in the context of Vietnam’s relationship to our current wars, they constitute an effective analytical blade. If the US could use this pair of ideas to rationalize complete withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is entirely possible that in twenty or thirty years we could have relationships with those countries similar to the one we have with now with Vietnam. But that would require leaving off the conventional and deeply ingrained belief in American exceptionalism — a form of idealism — and taking up a kind of realism that lacks immediate emotional punch but that would pay off in the long run. And if we’re going to exit in two years or six or ten, why not now? Like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are going to have to set their own political, social, and cultural parameters: the hard truth is that there is little or nothing the US can do to influence those choices.

Liberation Lit

Following a link from A Practical Policy, I read this story, “Segundo’s Revenge,” by Joe Emersberger, a writer unknown to me. I had read some other things at Liberation Lit, but nothing that carried out the LL  mission to combine the political and the artistic quite so deftly. It’s a terrific story, though I wish it were not quite reticent — I could do with a bit more characterization and description, but I kind of see why Emersberger keeps it simple, with a powerful through-line. I’ll be keeping this piece in mind as I work out how to make poems and stories of my own out of “political” material. When I was beginning as a writer many hears ago there was a strong bias in the classroom against the didactic and the political in literature and I absorbed that vibe even while having strong political convictions. I mean, I’ve already written plenty of political poems, but I don’t really know how to do it — I have no systematic understanding, though the frank admission in the Liberation Lit writers’ guidelines that there is some strongly perceived division between the political and the aesthetic is a healthy admission, I think. Perhaps at this moment in the West we are without a synthesis of the political and the aesthetic with the result that we have to make up a new method for each piece of work.

I’m trying to gather material impressions while I’m here in Vietnam that I’ll be able to turn into poems and stories — the story ideas I’ve had so far each take on the political situation of the sympathetic foreigner encountering the people and places and institutions of Vietnam. Nothing has gelled, but then I haven’t taken time to sit down and fill out my brief notes, which is how things usually begin for me.

More Books on Writing Fiction

A few more books for the beginning fiction writer — or for the poet long in the tooth who decides to give fiction writing a try — starting with a couple of good anthologies:

The Story Behind the Story — Andrea Barrett & Peter Turchi: This is a good anthology of short stories by many of the usual suspects in many of the usual modes. It includes fairly brief statements by each author describing the genesis of the story. These statements tend toward the personal rather than the technical, so, while they are interesting, they remain idiosyncratic and not terribly useful to the student, except insofar as a student needs to see what sorts of  experiences (ulikely or ordinary) can generate a story. (Judith Grossman’s brief explanation of her story, “I’m Not Through” goes right to the heart of the fiction writer’s problem, however.)

12 Short Stories and their Making — Paul Mandelbaum: This anthology is similar in conception to the Barrett & Turchi book above, except that each author is interviewed by the editor and the interview appears after the story. Because Mandelbaum is interested in technical as well as personal matters, he pushes the writers to explain their methods, which the attentive student will find useful. Because Mandelbaum asks his various authors similar kinds of questions (while allowing the interview to find its own shape), there is much more consistency of response than in The Story Behind the Story.

Narrative Design — Madison Smart Bell: This is the most theoretical and narrowly focused of the books under discussion here, with the fewest stories. Bell divides narrative structures into “linear” and “modular” and provides several examples of each, with extensive analysis that includes an almost line by line set of notes for each story. His general discussion of each story is clear and useful; personally, I get bogged down in the detail of the notes, but others may find these useful. Again speaking personally, I liked the “linear” stories Bell selected much more than the “modular” ones, with the exception of a piece by Miriam Kuznets, “Signs of Life.”

The Half-known World: On Writing Fiction — Robert Boswell: This is a collection of essays dealing with specific issues and drawing on particular works of fiction with which the reader will need to be familiar. Not really a beginner’s book, it’s probably going to be most useful to those who have read a good deal and already written some fiction. One of the most useful things Boswell emphasizes is that in literary fiction, the writer only knows the half of things, that his / her characters and plot emerge from the unknown and must remain partly mysterious even for the reader. This was a great relief to me as a beginner, since that is how I find things in my stories.

Modern Library Writer’s Workshop — Stephen Koch: This book takes the attitude of a coach, addressing specific problems the writer will face in trying to get a story on the page. It covers the basics in a friendly and direct way, referring to many works of (mostly short) fiction to illustrate its points. It also quotes many writers — too many, sometimes — on various subjects related to the craft of fiction. Along with LaPlante’s book (see my earlier post), this is a sensible and encouraging guide.

Books on Writing Fiction

When I first began writing poetry as a teenager, I could not get enough of books like John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? I was interested in the technical nuts and bolts of writing and at the time the Ciardi book and a couple of others were the only things available. As my competence increased, I got more interested in theory. The theory that was available in the 1960s to a suburban kid with a library card was almost exclusively the New Critics: I remember reading big swathes of Patriotic Gore and The World’s Body — even though I was reading Eliot’s poems, I didn’t get around tho the predecessor texts, Eliot’s essays, until I got to college. Such were my obsessions and fascianations as a young poet; over the last few months I have returned to my youthful state of obsession, but this time with the writing of fiction. I never thought I could do it until a few months ago, but now I have written a handful of stories and I find myself interested in technique more than in theory, though the two form a kind of moibus strip, or course. Following, then, are a few notes on some of the books I have found most useful as a beginning fiction writer (though one in the unusual position of not being a beginning writer, as such.)

The Art of Subtext — Charles Baxter: This was the first “how-to” book on fiction I read and it’s not really a how-to at all, but a meditation on what makes literary fiction literary. Fiction that has a subtext and is overdetermined operates in a different way from commercial fiction.

Method and Madness — Alice LaPlante: This is the most gracefully written textbook I’ve ever encountered in any field. LaPlante’s sensible dissection of the “show don’t tell” rule, for instance, is the essence of clarity. The choice of examples and the explanation of techniques is virtually perfect.

The Practice of Creative Writing — Heather Sellers: Another good textbook. I bought this originally on Joshua Corey’s recommendation and I probably will use the book next time I teach my introductory creative writing class. In the meantime, I’ve found it chock full of useful advice for a beginning fiction writer such as myself.

Note: Subtext is part of a very sweet little series of books on writing from Graywolf Press that also includes Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention, with which I have many disagreements but is nevertheless an elegant and useful book, as well as James Longenbach’s very useful The Art of the Poetic Line.

Getting it Right by Breaking the Rules

All the books on how to write fiction tell you not to get hung up editing and polishing before you get to the end of the story. I’ve been working on a story for a month now that I don’t really have an ending for and the last couple of days I have been going obsessively over the beginning trying to get it exactly right — down to the sentence rhythms and punctuation, probably because I can’t make progress at the other end of the piece, where it matters. And I’m not willing to just put it away. There is something about this story — the fifth in my nascent fiction-writing career! — that feels like I need to finish before I can go back to the other stories I’m working on or have planned or sketched in my notebook.

This particular story is a rule breaker in anumber of ways, actually. I began it, thinking it would be very short — I’d just finished drafts of two really short stories, a thousand and three thousand words each, and this one seemed similar in feeling and heft. But that’s not the way it has worked out. At this point it’s around four thousand words and still growing. Also, I kill the main character in the first paragraphs, so the whole thing is retrospective. And for a bit of magic realism — very unlike me — this character’s “soul” is still floating around making observations. Well, I’ve created a fine mess and I’ve honestly been having a hard time making myself sit down to work on it, but I’ve now gotten to the point where I’m not going to let the thing defeat me. I went and bought a bottle of multivitamins the other day. Really. I need the strength.

Jean Stafford’s Rocky Mountain Stories

I’ve been reading the stories that fall in the middle of Jean Stafford’s Collected Stories, most of which are set in the Rocky Mountains. When I first began reading Stafford, I saw her as a specialist in the grim, a chronicler of the unloved or insufficiently loved. Those impressions are not untrue, but they fail to describe Stafford’s emotional range. As her story, “The Mountain Day” demonstrates, she is a writer with a deep understanding of love and of — for lack of a better way of putting it — maturity. She catches very precisely the personality on the edge between childhood and adulthood. She is also — this came as a surprise to me — a deeply class-conscious writer able to describe the self-delusion and self-hatred of the working class. See in particular, “The Tea Time of Stouthearted Ladies” and “The Healthiest Girl in Town,” for examples of this class consciousness.

Technically, the stories are so limpid that I never notice how they are put together. As someone trying to teach myself about writing fiction, I have to consciously backtrack over the texts and ask myself, “No, how the hell did she do that?”

Note: Good essay here by Jonathan Yardly about one of Stafford’s novels, The Mountain Lion, which I have not yet read.