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“Speech framed for contemplation of the mind by the way of hearing or speech framed to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning.” —Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Style is doomed, to the exact extent it implies a conscious effort to shape the language.” —Steve Almond, This Won’t Take But a Moment, Honey, pg. 21
Let’s start upfront: in an unconstructive (but considerate) environment, this semester saw me develop an aversion to fiction writing in academia. Now, writing advice has a tendency to run “don’t do this (unless you do it well)”—a bit of unhelpful glibness that reminds me to keep clear of generalizations. With that in mind, I will talk about Steve Almond and Raymond Carver, about specifics, because someone—somewhere—could rise up and aggressively agree with my critique in defense of the institution they are a part of. Let me qualify, too, that my ill-feelings are not a reflection of bitterness over the rejection of my work or style, though neither fit comfortably into the academic scheme. The consensus seems to be “this is very pretty, but it makes no damned sense”; that’s fine; I accept the critique. Also of a piece to presenting matters honestly: you could choke on my disinterest in fictionalized autobiography, which made up a goodly portion of the work I read for class. On a theoretical level[1], I believe that every genre offers the same opportunities, and it’s how it’s done that counts[2]. Theory only governs opinion so much, however, and I admit that the work in question lost a fair deal of my interest on strength of it not covering topics I care about. While this doesn’t apply to Carver’s work, so far as I know, it does mean that I was already fussed by the time I read it.

All of which is a lead-in to my actual beginning, that being: I don’t think Raymond Carver has control of his language, and Steve Almond isn’t helping.

First, Raymond Carver, or, specifically, his “Cathedral”, “Fat”, and “The Lie”, stories I met in class and led me to crises (one temporary, the other conclusive) over institutional and professorial authority (yes, I am that delicately high-strung). “Cathedral” made me grumble the usual grievances raised by characters with disabilities[3], but the rest is taste. “Fat”, on the other hand, gutted my confidence in Halpern’s The Art of the Tale*, an anthology of short stories being used in class for examples of good fiction[4]. “Fat” opens with the line “I am sitting over coffee and cigarets at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it”. We start out where I might like to be: a narrator/character telling the reader what she told another character? It’s an interesting narrative choice. The prose is ugly and repetitive, but consistently so; I respect stylized work. Carver had me with him ’til the last couple lines: “My life is going to change. I feel it”. And that’s the point where “Fat” fails as a story.

To note another authorial sin: this is an incredibly typical ending. Typicality doesn’t kill stories, though; hell, it helps build them. It’s their misuse that does damage, and Carver has deployed this formula incorrectly. God forbid I ever advocate the straight-faced use of conventions forever and always, but their meanings have to be taken into consideration. A reader expects this declaration in one of two places in a story (where it may be ironic or sincere): as a prediction in the beginning[5] or a promise at the end[6]. Is this cheap and lazy? Perhaps. All the same, it isn’t simple; the author must place them correctly and provide surrounding material to make sense of the character’s statement. This is particularly true if it occurs at the end: the reader needs to be able to see the future change (or the ironical lack thereof). You can end a story with this formula only if the ending has been established already.

I looked at “Fat”. I asked: is Carver being serious? Is he subverting the formula, pointing out that there is no collection of events that justifies such a prediction/irony? Does he mean to portray a woman so desperate for change that she will predict it after a meaningless, repetitive encounter? Does the fat man have some meaning that this reader can’t catch? Do I secretly hate fat people who use the plural first person pronoun, so that my reading becomes nothing but a reflection of deep-buried prejudices? The conclusions I came to after torturing loved ones with (increasingly absurd) questions of this nature: No. I do not trust Carver enough to make meaning out of such thin stuff.

Carver helped my confidence in this conclusion with “The Lie”, which reads like a mess. At the end of it, I came to doubt Carver’s respect for his readers and his control of the language.

The topic of control is what brings me to Steve Almond. He does not, of course, speak for Carver or academia; and for all I know, he isn’t a Carver fan either. That being said, I have a collection of his essays on hand that are—by dint of taking the tone of author to amateur—useful as a stand-in for the classroom culture which holds “Fat” as being fiction worth imitating (which is the target behind everything I have said thus far and will say going forward). If you would please refer to the quotes at the beginning of this piece: I am misusing Hopkins and I know it; he was speaking about poetry and the necessity (particularly where his work is concerned) of hearing it read aloud. However, I choose to coopt it as a very prettily expressed statement in favor of the part played in creative work by what is not “meaning”. I suppose a prose writer might argue that they cannot be held to the standards of a poet where sound is concerned, but I ask: why?

Almond writes that “When an inexperienced writer presents [him] with a story in which he or she exhibits ‘style,’ what [he] tends to see is a writer pushing too hard” (21). The key to this sentence, I believe, is the writer’s inexperience. Style takes effort, and the effort does show—at first. Given persistence (which encouragement from authority figures would certainly make easier for your average amateur), a writer can control the language well enough to write what is styled but not strained.

This is not to say that prose without “style” is necessarily bad; This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey includes fiction as well as essays, and I quite like some of Almond’s pieces. It is notable, though, that all thirty have a sameness of tone and language that—once more—is not bad, but speaks to writing from an intuitive understanding of language and how to put it together in an attractive way. “Style”, I would argue, is what emerges when a writer lets go of their intuition—no matter how good the results—and questions why a certain word, phrase, paragraph break, whatever, has its effect. The results can be very bad, I’m not sorry to say. I have some hilariously bad snippets of my own hidden away. The beauty of it is that these terrible pieces do not take away from the value of my better work, and that they played an integral part in their being created.

I am uncertain precisely what Almond means by “style”, must admit. Perhaps I consider it more broadly than he does; it may be that “style” is being used as a shorthand for prose that is antithetical to the very lean, concrete, Hemingwayesque type that has been popular for some time—Hemingwayesque being the reflexive mode of every ‘amateur’ writer I have met, it might be what comes from Almond’s letting-go. If his definition looks anything alike to mine, though, then it is lack of style that leads to “Fat”. The author does not provide in the text the reason for the formula they have used; expectations are neither carried on nor let down, but are never really established. Quite possibly the writer has no more insight into the broader function of his words—and if he can’t make deliberate choices, the story will reflect as much in its obscurity. Concrete words chosen by intuition still make for intuitive prose. If a person wants to write intuitive stories, I am content with it. For one to advise that all stories be intuitive, however—particularly a writer in a position of authority—is concerning.

1. On a personal level, I believe that fictionalized autobiography can’t catch what I’m chasing as a reader/writer. Where the work is a man’s reflection on adolescence*, I’d like to bow out of serious discussion. We all have our failures, and being unreasonable on this topic is one of mine.
2. An attitude ground into SF writers, I think, after so much time spent defending the fantastical from realism.
3. Summary: able-bodied person is an unappetizing human being; with feelings of disgust and/or pity, they meet a disabled person; they experience the disability (either indirectly or via some fakery—“Cathedral” has its protagonist close his eyes to mimic blindness) and are transformed into someone better.
4. That is, I doubted TAotT when I didn’t doubt my own ability to separate taste from aesthetic judgment. Chasing impossible objectivity is hard enough already without that sort of disruption.
5. Romance is in the air: a young woman meets a young man, and her prediction cues us to the fact that we have encountered either her beau or the anti-beau who will cause the emotional distress from which Mr. Yes will save her. Comedies employ this ironically.
6. We ran out of time for the author to show us how the character takes advantage of the events over the course of the novel, so we get a spoken assurance that they will be taken advantage of. Also used ironically (for pathos or comedy) when we know the character won’t change their ways.

* A further aside: joining the boy’s bildungsroman in the category of stories I’ve heard enough times: middle-class middle-aged heterosexual cis white people not fucking. Not even Calvino could win me over.

(Steve Almond quotes from This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey, here.)
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smwrites: A woman sits at a typewriter, pages flying, a plug in the back of her awesomely big-curly hair. (Default)
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