Writing rules! (and might have some as well)

At Requited, Daniel Green writes a very interesting review of We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. While definitely not being one of those MFA assassination pieces that have triggered such hot debate (I know that’s an exaggeration, but that’s how they’ve been referred and responded to) he nicely examines some of the claims made in the book, relating them to the larger questions of what writing programs are supposed to and have accomplished for writers.

When the book’s editors refer to the writers that were part of the Iowa MFA  in the 70s as “ … the most decorated in the history of American letters, as far as having been enrolled at the same graduate institution at one time,” Green examines whether there is any connection to this inflated claim and the program itself (not much it seems).

Personally, when I saw a generation of MFA student/writers referred to as decorated the first image in my head was that they wore a lot of beads and other colorful ornaments (it was the 70s, after all). Then, I pictured them having medals pinned on their chest for moving stories about the landing at Iwo Jima, the carpet bombing of the Cambodian jungles and a 9/11 novel or two. (I guess it means they won some awards, have professorships, magazine articles written about them – for a writer they might have come up with a better choice of words).

Literary NY (or the opposite pole)

And here’s a reminder that there are places other than Iowa that Americans write –  as Chad Harbach’s MFA vs. NY article pointed out back in 2010, before the latter showered him with fame and fortune (excerpt here). Yes, writing is popular isn’t it?

This week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review has a few “How to Write” articles, one of which – by Colson Whitehead – is actually titled “How to Write.” Whitehead’s article presents 10 mostly sensible rules before adding an eleventh forget-all-rules rule (also sensible).

First –  “Show and tell” as opposed to “Show, don’t tell,” – though I think as with all rules/clichés the best test is looking at the evidence, as opposed to Whitehead’s implying that a writer bringing out a book is like a kid presenting a toy at Kindergarten. For example, you can find lots of amazing passages where Dostoevsky tells and doesn’t show, and he’s pretty good.

Then take the familiar “Rule No. 3:” Write what you know. Have writers writing what they know written better books than writers writing what they don’t know? It’s hard to judge on one level because people can know a lot of things.

One category of literary not-knowing could be the kind of deathly dull, heavily researched novels defined with an unbeatable combination of vagueness and precision in a 2005 interview with Sam Lipsyte (PDF) when he described writers who evade the contemporary world and instead “research the hell out of a strange thing that happened in 1850 when this dye was invented and a plate for daguerreotypes or something.”

For me, Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery typifies this very strange 1850 dye and daguerreotype thing-novel with the simplistic rehashing of the history of modern anti-Semitism having obscured, for some critics at least, the utter lifelessness of the book.

Still, it’s safe to say that even the wildest and most elaborate party Bulgakov ever attended didn’t bring him any closer to knowing anything about Satan’s ball and that no one would want to be remembered as an editor who sent a rejection letter to Borges recommending he turn towards a subject he has a more evident familiarity with.

In Roger Rosenblatt’s “How to Write Great” the author suspects he is growing old and “tired of modernity,” but rejects this flimsy qualification by writing: “Yet even when modernity was young, I was dazzled more often by clarity than by calculated difficulty, and pleased simply by someone doing a far, far better thing.” But modernity hasn’t been young for almost 100 years! I checked how old this ageless admirer of antiquity is and he was born in 1940! You were dazzled by what? when? His plea for writers to take on the big moral issues, like many similar essays by many similar critics, would seem infinitely less uninformed if he seemed to have read any of the many writers of the past decade or so or have done precisely that.

Last word on writing rules: The writing advice that drove me craziest was by Sarah Manguso in FSG’s June Work in Progress. Granted, it was for young writers, but still … I’m not quite sure how to apply the following to, say, European literary history of the last 300 years or so: “Cafes are a waste of money, calories, and time; leave them to the tourists.” (Incidentally, where am I supposed to write?). And not that I want to encourage any of the millions of pretentious Hemingway/Bukowski wannabes or am planning to go shoot some smack before I sit down to write my next literalab post but in regard to – “Drinking and drugs interfere with clear perception, which you will need in order to make good work” – I think clear perception is highly overrated.

Photo – 1) Margarita presiding over Satan’s Ball by Slawka Gorna. Bulgakov is not necessarily among the “write what you know” school of authors (though he did that too). 2) 1852 daguerreotype with applied color that is, as far as I know, not remotely touched in any Sam Lipsyte novel


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