My First Story Collection to be Published by A Strange Object

Excellent news – just received word that my first story collection, The Great American Songbook, will be published by A Strange Object! Still ironing out the details, but it looks like it will be published in the fall of next year. I’ve worked with Jill Meyers and Callie Collins (the pair behind A Strange Object) back when they helmed American Short Fiction; they published my story “Rodgers and Hart,” and I’m beyond excited to go through a much more substantial editing process with them this time around. I’m sure that with their help the collection will be a much stronger, more cohesive book!

(You can check out the beautiful books ASO produces here.)

Most of all, I’m excited to have roughly eight years’ worth of work finally emerging into the light. I’m nervous, too, but I’m going to try and enjoy the news as simply as possible, for a little while.

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Welcome to Paradox

As I write this, a hearing is going on in Harrisburg between the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) and Temple University, over whether or not adjunct instructors at Temple should be allowed to vote on joining the current full-time faculty union. During this hearing, Temple University has presented a list of reasons why, according to university administration, adjuncts do not share a “community of interest” with other faculty – the most important of which is that, according to the administration, adjuncts aren’t faculty at all.

You might wonder why this matters – especially if, like most people in America, you don’t teach at a university. But this hearing is vital to anyone with even a passing interesting American education, because it exposes in quite revealing detail the current paradoxical condition in which higher education finds itself. This hearing demands that Temple University make plain a perspective that it has long held, but which it likes to keep secret. For the first time, at this hearing, Temple counsel and witnesses stated openly that “adjuncts are not faculty.”

Why would Temple feel the need to make such a brazen statement? After all, at Temple – as with many universities across America – adjunct faculty teach more than half the classes. They often teach the same classes as full-timers or tenure-track faculty. In some departments they write syllabi, sit on committees, and design entire courses. And, because they staff most of the General Education courses, which combine disparate sections of the student body, they have a much greater impact on the overall student experience than even their numbers suggest.

Why in the world would Temple hand over such an immense responsibility to people who are “not faculty?”

The answer is almost entirely economic. It’s become a commonplace to talk about the awfulness of adjunct pay, but it bears repeating; at Temple, most adjuncts make roughly $1,300 per credit, and their employment is capped at two classes a semester. The most an adjunct can hope to make at Temple per semester in gross pay is $10,400 – roughly $20,000 a year, unless one picks up summer classes (which are rarely awarded to adjuncts). Adjuncts, who are paid by the credit, can be fired at will, and receive no benefits. Taken together, each adjunct represents serious administrative savings and flexibility.

But there’s a tremendous downside to this economic logic. Low pay makes it necessary for adjuncts to work at other schools, which diverts their energy away from Temple students and (despite any individual adjunct’s herculean efforts) lowers the quality of their teaching. Because adjuncts are contingent, easily fired when classes don’t fill, adjuncts must always have backup plans, and commit to more courses than they can reasonably teach. It isn’t uncommon for Temple adjuncts to teach at three, four, or even five schools to make ends meet – further diluting their focus on Temple students. Naturally, for such an exploitative system, turnover is enormous; most adjuncts last for only a few years before the bad pay and lack of benefits drive them out of academia. Again, the students lose, because they rely on instructors for mentorship, letters of recommendation, and institutional help, all of which are lost when their professors disappear.

This presents the university with a dreadful paradox. Like any institution of higher education, Temple strives to attract the best undergraduates it can find. Its reputation for academic excellence is a precious part of its success. This is why, at a hearing primarily focused on denigrating the accomplishments of a large part of its teaching population, Temple’s counsel and witnesses felt the need to reaffirm the university’s “commitment to great teaching.” But how can a university like Temple argue that it is committed to teaching when its economy is built around a contingent teaching force to which it is no way committed, either financially or institutionally?

So far, the administration has made every attempt to ignore this uncomfortable paradox. However, the growing national adjunct unionization effort has made this impossible. So the university has developed a new strategy, which it rolled out during today’s hearing. Temple University is now attempting to re-define the limits of who is or is not a faculty member.

Faculty, they insist, do research; they serve on committees; and – and this is the most damning piece of evidence – they are committed and loyal to Temple University, whereas adjuncts, who teach at several schools, are not. Both witnesses and counsel have repeatedly stated during these hearings that adjuncts are simply not to be trusted; they might pass on sensitive Temple information to other schools, and therefore it would be irresponsible to admit them to the bargaining table.

(Let’s set aside the fact that many adjuncts do research, sit on committees, and are highly committed to the Temple community.)

By separating faculty from non-faculty, Temple is attempting to shift its paradox onto the shoulders of adjuncts. It argues that by spreading their energy too thin, by not taking up the mantle of research or committee membership, adjuncts have rendered themselves ineligible for the “community of interest.” They may be essential to the functioning of the university, but their contingent nature makes them incapable of responsibility.

By doing so, Temple hopes to re-affirm its essential mission, only with limits. At Temple, they maintain, we care about our teachers: provided our teachers fulfill certain requirements – as if the very economic conditions they created were not the ones which make adjuncts incapable of fulfilling these requirements. It is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy. In attempting to shift the paradox at the heart of their new business model onto the figure of the adjunct, Temple is blaming them for their own exploitation.

In this new, surreal world of higher ed, a certain kind of descriptive fatigue sets in. What can we say about the adjunct plight that hasn’t been said already? So much is expected of them, and so little given; through their service in Gen-Ed classes, their work affects a massive percentage of the university’s undergraduate population, and without their labor the teaching arm of the university would simply not be able to function. And yet they cannot survive on the money Temple pays them, and so they go to other schools to fill out the gaps – which allows Temple to define as them as less committed, less effective, less than faculty.

Make no mistake: Temple is to blame for the paradox at the heart of their educational mission. You simply cannot claim to value teaching while ruthlessly exploiting your teaching force. The attempt to place that paradox on the shoulders of the adjuncts themselves – turning their very existence into a paradoxical condition – is unfair to students, logically specious, and morally indefensible

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Sordid, Unprofitable, Unrewarding


Do you like being reminded of how terrible, terrible, terrible it is to be a writer?

How nothing much changes, despite the progression of history?

And how Victorian literature is really quite delightful?

Read this piece I wrote for The Millions about George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

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The Genius Illusion


When literary historians look back on the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, it will be hard for them to explain the sudden, explosive growth of MFA Creative Writing programs. Certainly the degree makes no economic or professional sense, considering that – with the exception of several notable high-ranked programs – the average graduate of a middle-tier institution is unlikely to have a book published by anyone but themselves in their lifetime, and therefore few teaching opportunities. But perhaps the strangest aspect of what has come to be known as the “MFA bubble” is the cynicism that accompanied its expansion. Professors have publicly deplored the “flattening” effect of the programs themselves, and we have been subjected to innumerable hand-wringing essays about whether “creative writing can be taught” – often by the very people who are currently teaching it. We’re faced with a curious contradiction: on the one hand, a profusion of essays by MFA professors about the tiresome distraction of teaching, the foolishness of the system that surrounds it, and the hubris of the students the system purports to serve; on the other, the students that continue to attend these programs in droves, heedless of their professors’ all-too-public expressions of bad faith.

The latest salvo in this ongoing war against the MFA system by some of its most complicit members came last Friday, when Ryan Boudinot, former professor at the low-residency MFA program at Goddard college, wrote an essay for The Stranger entitled “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” The essay, structured around a series of pithy pieces of advice for prospective MFA students, is primarily a regurgitation of old tropes. MFA students are entitled. They don’t read. They don’t write, or when they do they write poorly; their work is too sentimental, too concerned with intellectual posturing, or simply too sloppy. Boudinot seems particularly incensed about verb tenses.

What is novel about the essay is Boudinot’s tone: aggrieved, arrogant, even a bit disappointed, as if he’d hoped for better from his students, and was shocked by the myriad ways they’d let him down. He considers quitting on the spot when one admits to not liking The Great Gatsby; he finds their concerns over time-management to be “an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student.” Most importantly, he contrasts what he calls the “Real Deal” student – talented, hard-working, willing to read Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666, and Infinite Jest during the break between semesters – with the hopeless rank and file: the students who, simply by doubting their status as “real writers,” immediately reveal their fatal lack of self-confidence and drive.

One finishes the essay asking a very obvious question: if Boudinot disliked teaching so much, why did he do it? One answer, of course, is that he was paid to do so, and the money with which he was compensated came from the pockets (or future pockets) of the very students he categorizes as “hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.”

Clearly, Boudinot had few hopes for helping his students produce worthwhile work, but that didn’t stop him from taking their money.

There’s no law, of course, against taking people’s money in exchange for advice that, deep down, you consider worthless. It’s the time-honored province of snake-oil salesmen, TV evangelists, and the leaders of cults and Ponzi schemes. But the fact that Boudinot’s advice has come to represent the opinion of a certain section of MFA-land ought to make us question some of the most taboo issues at the heart of graduate creative writing, namely: what responsibility do teachers bear their students – considering that they aren’t the ones coming out of programs with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt? Or is this a matter of the students’ own unrealistic illusions, for which they bear no responsibility whatsoever?


I spoke semi-facetiously, a paragraph earlier; I know a professor like Boudinot comes to creative writing looking for more than a paycheck. There are other ways to make money that require, if not less time, than certainly less energy and interpersonal stress. I imagine that many MFA professors come to teaching for the same reason that students come to be taught; they’re looking to meet like-minded people, to talk about literature in a society where literature is not a particularly popular topic of conversation.

Indeed, Boudinot’s essay makes the most sense when he defines what made his own teaching worthwhile in exactly this fashion. “I had a handful of students whose work changed my life,” he writes, and later: “[t]he MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty advisor more than discovering one.” Clearly, Boudinot embraced these Real Deal students with the zeal of a new friend, a comrade in arms. He references them in nearly every section of his essay.

But this is the sort of language that one expects, not from teachers, but from A&R men: the thrill of a fresh sound, the rush of recognition. A&R men are free to skim the cream, avoiding the unlucky majority of artists who don’t provide them with immediate neural satisfaction. Teachers have a different responsibility. They cannot wait for these life-changing bolts of lightning; they cannot concern themselves with only the top one percent of their class.

What about the other ninety-nine percent,? One would hope that a professor would do his or her best to give them as much attention as the Real Deal students, rare as unicorns – since, it stands to reason, they need the help much more. Certainly a teacher should not be allowed to get away with the sort of calumny Boudinot heaps on his own students, accusing them of narcissism, philistine tendencies, and simple laziness. “My hope for them was that they would become better readers,” Boudinot writes – but shares no strategies by which he hoped to help this process. Considering his cavalier dismissal of students who manage to admit their difficulties, I doubt it was much of a priority.


To call Boudinot a teacher, however, is to apply a fundamentally misleading label. Although the MFA bubble is probably as large now as it will ever be, most MFA professors from the last forty years would admit that creative writing pedagogy is still very much in its infancy, and most professors who currently hold MFA jobs have had very little training in how to run a classroom. They were expected to simply know how to teach, by virtue of being writers – as if an engineer were qualified to teach mathematics. No wonder many of them quickly grew frustrated, and threw up their hands in dismay, once they discovered just how difficult a task it would be to provide instruction to pupils less naturally gifted than they were.

This practice of hiring professors for their professional accomplishments, not their teaching, stretches back to the roots of the graduate-level creative writing. The MFA program began harmlessly enough, as a minimally exploitative mutual benefit society for working artists and eager students. The proposition was simple. A well-known author, interested in a few extra bucks and the glow of having helped young writers, could shine the light of his or her (usually his) genius on a class of willing graduates. This was the legendary first wave of MFA professorship: John Cheever, drunk as a skunk, proffering patrician wisdom and making passes at his male students. The professors might have been befuddled by the very idea of teaching, but at least they were fascinating – and this fascination was, in fact, the chief reason they were hired.

It’s helpful, therefore, to look at the first wave of MFA programs not as a paradigm for education, but as a kind of prestige patronage system: a way to provide (again, mostly male) geniuses with a living wage commensurate to their stature, in exchange for which they were expected to share their light with the universities that housed them.

All this changed, of course, when universities began to see MFAs (and, to a certain extent, undergraduate creative writing) as a significant draw for students, and therefore something of a cash cow. The expansion of MFA programs meant that there were more positions to teach in said programs, which also meant that the MFA could advertise itself as a professional degree, as well as an artistic one; succeed, and you might get fame and fortune. Fail, and you could at least teach Creative Writing to undergrads.

Now the patronage system was greatly expanded – just in time, too, for the massive cuts in national arts budgets. Indeed, the MFA bubble served as an unofficial assistance program for literary artists for several decades, for which the state of literary writing in America has much to be thankful for.

It couldn’t last, of course. It was a matter of simple math. With the expansion of MFA programs – delightful in small doses, but highly intoxicating in large quantities – there were simply too many MFA graduates, and prospects for employment quickly went sour. Slowly the qualifications for any full-time post teaching creative writing began to rachet upwards, to compensate: one book, now two, now three (preferably from a major house, of course).

This is the third wave. If you got in when the getting was good, more power to you. For the rest of us, the adjunctification of the modern university continues, full steam ahead.

But the important thing to realize, no matter the wave, is that the actual teaching of creative writing has always been of secondary importance within the MFA system. This is not to say that there are not many wonderful teachers within it: people who consider their pedagogy deeply, and who give their students’ work careful, objective, and intense attention; I’ve known many of them, and appreciated them deeply. It is only to point out that these people exist in resistance to the prevailing attitude that MFA professors are not expected to devote themselves to their classrooms. Many of us still labor under the genius illusion: that those who write are necessarily capable of teaching. Like the research professors they mere modeled after, the work of these geniuses always comes first, with the work of their students a distant second.

Those in the first wave had an excuse. After all, they were thrown into the deep end, without time to plan; they survived mostly on charisma, and on the religious belief in writing as an incandescent act – or else they disappeared in a puff of whiskey-laced smoke. But what about those in the second wave, of whom Ryan Boudinot represents the last meager gasp? What about those who treated teaching as an auxiliary to their own work, who expected their students to either astonish them or fade quietly into the night? They were the product of MFA programs themselves. They had a chance to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. They have no excuse whatsoever.


Perhaps the strangest aspect of the conversation around the MFA bubble has been its insistence on punching down: of blaming the failures of the system on the very people who have been most exploited by it – namely, the great majority of students who do not qualify as the Real Deal, but who nevertheless provide the cash by which the system continues to function. Seduced by promises of mentorship and community, only to be judged as untalented, entitled, and unworthy of attention, they are too afraid of retribution by the professors they must rely on for recommendations and (joy of joys) a thoughtful blurb to risk complaining about the quality of their instruction. Ryan Boudinot can tear these students down with relative impunity, knowing full well that they have no platform from which to strike back.

Luckily, the sloppiness of Boudinot’s arguments – the bedrock foolishness of his attempt to provide straight talk about every aspect of the MFA system except his own failings – has inadvertently shed light on the cruelty to which professors like him subject the great majority of their students. He has exposed a side of the process that some of us would prefer remain hidden: the dismissal of the “untalented” majority as nothing more than a glitch in the system, something to be worked around. For this we should be grateful.

We have been languishing too long in the land of the false binary. It does not fundamentally matter, anymore, whether writing can be taught. It is being taught, around the country, with differing levels of professional commitment and in settings too diverse to tolerate someone like Ryan Boudinot, for whom the thrill of meeting someone whose talent reminds him of himself outweighs the admittedly difficult task of teaching complex, conflicted, and compassionate human beings. He was expecting the first wave: to shine the light of literature on a crowd of willing would-be geniuses. The fact that he was born too late to participate in this genius illusion is obviously a source of great distress for him. Luckily, he was able to unload this distress onto to his former students, who will be forced to spend far too much mental energy wondering what sort of evil thoughts he harbored towards them, under the guise of providing them an education.


So what now? Now that Boudinot has reminded us of the sort of cynicism we would prefer to forget, how are we supposed to respond?

We can ignore him, of course. Bad essays have a way of fading into obscurity, once their self-promotional purpose has been achieved. Why bother, since the MFA community is rid of Boudinot, for now – and hopefully forever?

But what should concern those of us who teach creative writing is a not-insubstantial segment of our community that shares his views. Whether out of self-interest, ignorance, or simple lack of skill, they cannot teach creative writing effectively, but they comfort themselves with the commonplace that this is not their fault. The students are fools, the academy is broken, and anyway, creative writing cannot be taught. Therefore they are free to continue to accept compensation, conscience-free, for a task everyone knows is impossible – and, when they tire of the impossible task, they can gleefully present their own bad work as evidence of its fundamental impossibility.

I do not think these people are the majority – not anymore. But there are far more of them than any of us should be comfortable with.

There are tens of thousands of students currently getting an MFA degree in America. It is perfectly possible to view this situation completely cynically: to call the system broken, and yet profit from it. It is also possible – and, I think, preferable for the soul – to view it as a vast opportunity to discuss and practice literature, not as fellow geniuses, but as members of a fundamentally democratic literary society. This is the more difficult path, of course; far too difficult for someone like Ryan Boudinot to be expected to follow. It requires actual engagement with teaching and a genuine attempt to reach as many students as possible, Real Deal or otherwise. It requires forthright criticism, as opposed to retroactive blame, and it will not provide you with a great deal of incendiary material to fuel your self-righteousness. What it does provide, however, is an escape from cynicism, a sense of self-respect, and the clear upside of not alienating, or even harming, the population you purport to serve.

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Practical Theory

I don’t write about movies much, and for good reason: despite having learned a few film theory terms from discussions with smarter friends, I don’t really understand “moving pictures” in any deep way. But in this last week I’ve spent on a sort of writing retreat in Massachusetts with my friend Adam we’ve been watching some Paul Thomas Anderson movies that have got me thinking about the relationship between theory and praxis as it relates to both cinema and fiction, or maybe just narrative forms in general – and I’m going to try and explain some of these thoughts here, even if they might seem naive to someone with a better understanding of film.

The discussion began after Adam and I watched “Punch-Drunk Love.” The next night we were driving through the snowy landscape to get dinner when Adam (who does have some film studies classes under his belt) started in on a train of thought that boiled down to this essential point: PTA seems to be a kind of post-theory director, insofar as when Adam watches his movies he feels as if certain scenes and shots jibe so perfectly with different theories about space and character relationships and “gaze” that it’s too big a coincidence to imagine them not being influenced by these theories, to some extent.

Having looked over some interviews and articles over the last month (the release of Inherent Vice definitely goosed the internet for all things Anderson), I said that I wondered whether this had to do with the way PTA likes to replicate shots from old films: his obsession with incorporating old forms and frames into his narratives. It would make sense, then, that his work would look like it was made in accordance with film theory: not because Anderson is influenced by theory, but because he replicates the classic movies which film theory uses as its starting point.

This got me thinking of the sneaky ouroboros between narrative art and the people who seek to theorize it. The construction of narrative art, whether through language or images, is a very tricky proposition that requires a great deal of artifice. Some teachers of creative writing look down on teaching the creaky mechanisms of structure, like plot, motif, or character development, but the fact remains that these practical concerns are the tools with which most prose writers (even a great many “experimental” ones) manage the trickery that is a narrative. They control the flow of time, the pattern of speech, the appearance of personality. It’s not a perfect corollary to the way directors construct film through camera angles, editing, lighting, sound design, etc., but it’s not so far removed that the comparison ceases to be useful.

This is not to say that novelists don’t consider large-scale effects when producing work, or that a theory which attempts to develop ideas about narrative on a large scale aren’t valuable. It’s only to say that any theory that seeks to talk about narrative art in a way that is meaningful to me ought to spend some time analyzing the way in which that narrative is constructed on a micro level, as well. I know that I’m writing as a writer, here, and that I have my obvious prejudices, but I’m mistrustful of the way some theories of literature seem to be constructed primarily on other theories of literature: that it’s our theory that is “post-theory,” not our literature.

(It’s different in the world of poetry, in which theory and writing praxis have a very productive relationship which I admire and enjoy but won’t discuss here. The construction of narrative has its own difficulties which limit and shape prose fiction, and make the relationship between the two far less productive, IMO.)

I imagine I’m exposing myself to accusations of aesthetic conservatism when I say that I’m primarily interested in the construction of literature as the basis for both my own work and the best kind of literary theory – the same way I think Paul Thomas Anderson’s source of inspiration is film itself, with theory at best a secondary concern – but I can’t think of any other perspective that makes sense. Most of my life I’m shaping text, burrowing into, rearranging it; the sentence level is where I do my work. It’s also the site of reading, at which comprehension (and revision, since the reader is their own author) occurs, if it occurs at all.

That’s why a theorist like Bakhtin seems so productive to me. Even when he talks about the way in which a line of text will always be inflected by its context, he still takes the text as the basic arena in which these issues are played out, and he never abandons his investigation of the form of narrative as the basis for philosophical concerns. Look at the multiplicity contained in a single line of prose, he seems to be saying, and look at the complexity of space and time that novels attempt to wrestle with. When I read Bakhtin, I leave with an appreciation not just (or even mostly) of his own intelligence, but of the inexhaustible intricacy of fiction as a form.

I remember going to see Ben Lerner read a few months back and being so depressed by the way he subtly maligned the idea of writing a novel. “I never imagined myself doing this,” he admitted, as if the fame he’d earned from writing prose embarrassed him, and he maligned “most novels” as being simplistic, beneath his attention. He wished he could just keep on being a poet, he said, but somehow these novels just kept coming out of him. (Not sure whether this excretory form was intentional or not, but there you go.) I left with two clear impressions. The first was that Ben Lerner needed to relax a little bit. The second was that Ben Lerner probably hasn’t read that much prose fiction, or really thought that much about its construction.

This perspective would have concerned me less if I hadn’t heard much the same perspective from friends of mine who are (for lack of a better word) “intellectual” poets: this sense that the wedding of theory and poetry has made the latter deeper and more complex than prose fiction, and that poetry as a pursuit is more intellectually advanced than prose fiction, precisely for the reasons I outlined above: the idea that the creaky constraints of plot and character keep language from articulating its own fissures and disjunctions.

Except, of course, that the creaky constraints of plot and character are tools by which to express time and space, the dialogue not only of opposing points of view but different modes of language, even the movement through which one can reject that language, through the subtle process of irony — and all of this is dependent on a system of narrative which is just as capable of dramatizing its own fissures as any piece of poetry. (In fact, one of my favorite parts of Bakhtin is the way he apprehends the productive relationship between the limiting, unifying aspects of prose narrative and the way heteroglossia bursts through these unifying aspects: the way prose is always forcing a writer to operate in ways which are alien and opposed to their intentions, and therefore complicating those intentions.) Think of a character struggling to become contiguous, the way Odette struggles to maintain her solidity in the face of social apprehension in Proust, or the way a narrator can blur the line between the borders of constructed and “real” occasions, as in the work of Gerald Murnane, or the way a single sentence can deny its own legibility through several levels of discourse and irony, as in my favorite book of prose published last year, Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. 

All of these novels embrace different strategies through which prose fiction produces and interrogates meaning – and those strategies are just as worthy of investigation as poetic structures. I hope that by now it’s clear that I’m not advocating against theory. In fact, I’d like to see more of it in relation to narrative fiction, as long as it takes the area of the (con)text and the work that narrative does as one of its main preoccupations. It seems a shame to me that the preference for poetics in theoretical circles leaves so many people unaware or even dismissive of the practical complexity contained in narrative fiction.


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Our Position

In the process of writing a novel, you have to think a lot about position. The word can mean several different things, the first, and perhaps most obvious of which is the position in the text itself. Once you produce a work that’s 90,000 or so words long, it simply isn’t possible to apprehend the whole thing at once. You burrow into it in sections, or else you clip at its edges the way you might prune a hedge, trying to stand back periodically and understand the shape of the thing as a whole. You agonize over your inability to see, and you wish you had a big enough mind to read several paragraphs at once, the way the narrator in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is able to juggle two sets of numbers by splitting his brain into halves.

But you can’t get seduced into this kind of wide-angle thinking: the shape of the thing as a whole – which brings us to another important conception of position: in this case, the idea of roles. When you’re writing something long-form, you can get seduced by the idea of a writer as some kind of master architect: the Frank Lloyd Wright sort, who doesn’t let the residents buy your own furniture. You stop considering the position or role of the reader, who experiences a work of fiction line by line, who makes every sentence the space at which an event occurs, not only in the plot but in the mind of the person reading it. You’re straining for some kind of position of mastery over the text: maybe not God-like, but at least managerial, when in fact you’re only one side of a partnership in the creation of meaning. Your position is meaningless without the reader’s position, so much so that you might want to do away with “your position” for a while, and say “our position,” instead.

Not saying I’ve entirely come to terms with this concept. Certainly it pierces the armor of authorial control, or even dignity: imagine the havoc an irresponsible reader might wreck on your carefully constructed castle of glass, sleeping in the kitchen, eating in the bedroom, peeing in the sink. But it does ease some of the pressure on yet another question of position: the position a fiction writer tries to take on important issues, whether social or political or aesthetic. For those of us who think of our work as, at the very least, tangentially political, our failure to write rightly in the face of these complex questions is something which can rob us of sleep. Forget the question of whether our work will even be read – oh Lord, the horror – and focus, instead, on whether it will be interpreted in such a way that it goes against all we believe in. The characters we thought of us as heroes will be read as villains, we will be seen as reactionaries (at best) and conservatives (at worst), and the people who we’ve stayed up with, late into the night, discussing the world’s troubles will be disappointed to discover that we’ve been hiding our worst selves, all along.

It seems to me that once we accept the fact that our position as fiction writers, or more specifically novelists – whether spatial within the manuscript, relational to our readers, or linked to our ideas about the “real world” – is much more tenuous than we actually think it is, it’s easier to come to peace with the necessary limitations of our work. As Maggie Nelson wrote in an interview with Full Stop last year:

But I also like to grant readers their privacy. Often what you’re so moved by when you read is an alchemical combination of what you need to hear and what you hear, which is a bit distinct from what the person wrote. The former is a bit magical, and deserves a certain privacy.

I feel a profound sense of relief when I look over these words. I feel as if I’ve been granted the right to stop manically re-positioning the furniture inside of the vast and crooked house I’ve been working on for the last year and finally vacate, so that people can go live there in peace, without me wandering around as they go about their routines, re-positioning them, demanding they look in the direction I demand, or else wandering behind them with a megaphone, shouting my position on the current state of human existence.

No – best to consider the whole thing from a slightly detached state, in a position of rest, sipping tea and jotting down notes for future buildings.

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Different Joys

Last week (just in time for the new year) I finished the revisions of the novel I’ve been working on for about two years. Now, two years isn’t really all that much time, as far as a novel is concerned, but for me it felt like a significant chunk of my life – not only because I’m only a baby of thirty, so small percentages loom large to me, but also because during that time I worked very little, if at all, on short fiction.

I know there are other people who are excellent at toggling back and forth between the two forms, but it’s never been a simple affair for me. Like most people who experienced any kind of formal creative writing education, I learned how to write short stories first. Whether or not this is the best way of teaching fiction writing is an argument for another time – what matters to me is that I approached short stories with the eye of student; each one was a kind of experiment, a chance to test out certain ideas about narrative, theme, POV, and so on. Want to measure your ability to write looooong sentences? Try it in a short story. Want to push the limits of intertextuality? Use a short essay/narrative to see if the idea works or not.

Frankly, very little of my attitude towards short stories has changed. I still view them as tiny experiments, and I think that’s actually a fairly fertile way to approach the practice of short fiction. The relatively small size allows for a great deal of tinkering, and if your experiment veers wildly off course you can always restart it without much trouble. Five thousand words here or there isn’t going to make or break your writing life, and if you do fail it’s easy to convince yourself that it was a productive failure. After all, without the possibility of small failures, you never approach the risk necessary to produce interesting art.

Unfortunately, this logic breaks down significantly when I embark on a novel. I’ve pushed this process through to a final draft twice now, and on both occasions the hurtling snowball-like momentum of the project made it impossible to achieve the sort of scientific observation which I so enjoy when writing stories. In a strange way, a novel writes you. Once a project achieves the necessary propulsion to lift off of the ground, it attains its own logic. You make a decision – even a major one – and you find yourself asking, does this fit what I have here already? Is this consistent with the book as it stands? You can’t change course every five thousand words anymore, and start afresh. You’ve committed.

More than that, even – you’ve started living in the world of the novel. The experience is far more immersive. The characters you create aren’t experiments; they begin to feel real to you, to the point where real-life occurrences remind you of them, to the point where something happens to you in real life and you wonder what one of them would think of it.

When I work on a short story, I can work in long chunks without feeling at all tired, and when I get up from my desk I do so with the sense of having worked at a task at which I am at least somewhat competent. When I work on a novel, I either fidget disgracefully and distract myself with idle thoughts as I hover over the surface of the manuscript, or else I go into a kind of trance, in which I enter the world of the novel completely, adjusting what seem to me to be real facial expressions, real landscapes, real words spoken between real people. And when I get up from writing a novel I often need several hours to unwind before returning to the real world.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but the last few years’ experience has made me more eager than ever to write novels. They’re significantly less pleasant to write, but they also provide a kind of deep, sustained pleasure (maybe even a guilty one) that no short story can really provide. (This helps me to understand why most readers prefer them, even if I have no such preference.) It seems to me like I do more interesting, stranger work when I attend to a novel – although ask me in six months, and we’ll see how I feel about it.

In the meantime, I’m excited to start the beginning of a new novel and work on a few new short stories. Because it’s only in the very early stages, when a novel is just winding up its momentum to raise itself into the air, that the two are able to coexist, when everything is embryonic, and the experiment is just getting started.

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