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.

John Banville on Writing

“Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence.” [The rest of Banville’s short statement is here.] While I don’t subscribe to the young Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” of language, in which every proposition is a picture of reality, as a writer, I have the strong sense that every sentence is a line thrown out into the world in order to retreive something of the real. Sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t. But that metaphor doesn’t quite catch it either; the sentence — as opposed to the fragment, which is always self-referenmtial — the sentence tries and fails. It is the pattern of those trials and errors that give us what access we have to the real.

Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.

And Your Point Is?

Note: Originally posted on 2.8.2009, I’ve moved this back to the top because Robert Bernard Hass has been kind enough to respond in comments. I have also written a response to his comment and would love to hear the view of others, which is why I’m also going to cross-post this to the Plumbline blog.

What the hell is the point of this? I didn’t think much of Alexander’s poem either, but I tried to sketch a few reasons I thought the piece didn’t work. Jack Foley, whoever he is, has simply delivered an insult without content. Another writer at CPR (which I tend to think of as a literary organ of the rump New Formalism), makes a sronger case. Robert Bernard Hass’s objections make sense, as far as they go, but I find the assumptions underlying his conclusion problematic:

Perhaps what was most troubling about this inaugural event is that one of our most celebrated poets (Ms. Alexander was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) seemed so woefully underprepared to seize the opportunity to take poetry from the periphery of our awareness and make it more culturally relevant. With such a huge audience on hand, her inaugural moment had the potential to inspire a nation, to find, as President Obama himself has often iterated, “old ways to be new.” Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander’s poem, so devoid of the rhetorical resources poets have always relied upon to celebrate exceptional accomplishment, failed to capture the American imagination—as President Obama had done, so eloquently in his speech, only moments earlier.

An understanding of the the rhetorical situation is essential, I agree, but I suspect that no rhetoric can reconcile electoral politics with the “politics of the unconscious.” (Modern) poetry can only assent provisionally to ideology. The modern poet must write from an alienated position. It occurs to me, in fact, that those poets (like me) who see modernism in terms of a fundamental break in the culture of the West are likely to see a parallel fundamental disjunction between poetry & politics. On the other hand, poets (& readers) who see Modernism as just another literary style will tend to see the relationship between politics & poetry as, if not unproblematic, then at least not fundamentally problematic.

Twanging the Plumbline

As noted in a couple of previous posts, I have been participating in a discussion of poetics initiated by Henry Gould at a new blog, The Plumbline School, cross-posting a few of my comments here as well when they seemed detachable from their Plumbline context. There are, at last count, four participants in the project, which has generated a good deal of useful discussion in a short time, I think, though necessarily much of the talk at this point is range-finding and terminological in nature. The original idea, which has been undergoing a few modifications, was to initiate a discussion that would seek to find a new kind of center for poetic practice, and for the poem in this historical moment. (Or perhaps the intention was / is to rediscover an old center now obscured.)

The Plumbline was pulled out of the old tool box, frankly, in reaction to a number of current trends that seem out of kilter, so there is an element of the polemical in our discussions, though they are secondary to our main purposes. Henry has explicitly named Flarf as one thing he’s reacting against; my own frustration with current practice stems from the cultural configuration that sponsors an all-or-nothing divide between the so called “School of Quietude” and the so called “Post Avant.”  I’m already on record as preferring something like Seth Abramson’s ecology as a starting point. On of the things that attracts me to this effort, as I’ve said, is that the polemical intent is subordinated to an exploratory, tentative approach to poetic practice and theorizing about poetry – our own as well as that of others. Speaking for myself, I am more interested in charting my own practice, which has grown stale, than in convincing others to join a movement.

Thus, the Plumbline: An attempt to chart what is actually going on in current poetry and to develop a terminology more descriptive than the one we have got with which to discuss the cultural landscape and the poetic practice located in that landscape. And, yes, an attempt to promote a particular sort of poetry, or poetry based on a particular set of (broadly defined) principles that orbit around the idea of the middle voice. A still point, an unwobbling pivot, amidst the static and random noises of current American literary culture. Or that’s how I read — and continue to read — the intentions of the Plumbline. If there are poets out there who would like to join the conversation, email me or follow the How to Join link at the Plumbline blog.

Hippies, Fascists, and a State of Play

Years ago, walking across a beautiful wooded college campus in the Northwest, I had a conversation with a friend about Yeats’ notions of will and imagination. My friend suggested that imagination was a middle term and that will represented one extreme, which left us missing a term. (This was long enough ago that one might make structuralist arguments, not post-structuralist ones!) We came up with a sort of jokey formulation: will we represented in our system as a “fascist” for whom control was paramount and the opposite of will as a “hippie,” for whom any control was anathema. In the middle, we decided, there was playfulness–what Yeats called “imagination.”

The plumbline, even when it is perfectly still, only does its job because it is free to move; conversely, it is constrained by the laws of physics to come to rest over a point of equilibrium, drawing a line straight through the center of the earth. In a physical or mechanical system, we say there is “play” if there is a bit of slack or looseness, enough to allow some unpredictable motion without becoming completely random; if there is no play in the system, it locks up. So this is just one more metaphor for the middle way, but a useful one for me. At my best, such an approach governs my approach to daily life, as well as to poetry. The state of play is akin to what a Buddhist might simply call being awake.

Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School. Please comment there.