Join 3,561 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing..."
March 4, 2014 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi says such courses are 'a waste of time' [The Guardian] Buddha of Suburbia author, who teaches subject at Kingston University, added that many of his students could 'write sentences' but not tell stories.
posted by Fizz (123 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
Truer words have not been spoken in a long time. Hemingway didn't take some bullshit course and he's one of the greatest of all time.
posted by Renoroc at 10:59 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I'm sure he said this just before giving up his full-professorship in a creative writing department.
posted by oddman at 10:59 AM on March 4 [10 favorites]


"My job is not to teach my MA students to write; my job is to explode language in their faces. To show them that writing is both bomb and bomb disposal – a necessary shattering of cliche and assumption, and a powerful defusing of the soul-destroying messages of modern life (that nothing matters, nothing changes, money is everything, etc). Writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing. My job is to alter their relationship with language. The rest is up to them."

This. If you're thinking a university education will replace the experience and perspective that is required of many professions, you're taking the wrong approach. An education is more about positioning a person to make the next steps. To expose them to the contemporary thought, and all the issues that they will face; to think, to learn, to ask questions. You should be leaving a university with better questions to ask of yourself and of the world than when you left. You shouldn't expect to have many more polished skills, but you should know more about the direction to go to get those.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:01 AM on March 4 [9 favorites]


I'm sure he said this just after being asked to do an admissions open day on a Saturday.
posted by biffa at 11:03 AM on March 4 [7 favorites]


My ex did an MFA in creative writing, and I'm pretty sure most of his peers were not under any illusions--it seemed that the program really existed to give people the credentials they needed to teach English comp classes while they wrote in their spare time. Not that people weren't taking the writing seriously, but they seemed to be under no illusions about what was going to come after graduation.
posted by Sequence at 11:03 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


"A lot of them [students] don't really understand," said Kureishi. "It's the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: 'Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'"

Interesting. Can't say I was riveted by the only Kureishi book I tried to read, Something to Tell You. I didn't finish it. Then again, I stop reading lots of novels partway through so it's hard to tell what that means.
posted by shivohum at 11:05 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Structured courses that set students in the right direction aren't a bad idea. Of course their initial concerns will be with the superficial elements to writing -- it's the same with every creative field. When people first start to paint, their main concern is how to mix the colors correctly, how to use the brush, how to get the color foundations right.

This is conflicting, because I agree with almost everything he says -- perhaps creative writing should only be a minor that is part of another larger program?
posted by spiderskull at 11:05 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I've known a couple people who entered the most prestigious writing programs in the U.S. (you can already guess which program(s) I'm talking about) with the plan to work on and subsequently publish their first novels.
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:05 AM on March 4


They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: 'Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.

And that's why Dan Brown sold millions of books while a bunch of people in cubicles were furiously typing on the Internet how he couldn't write.
posted by cribcage at 11:05 AM on March 4 [28 favorites]


Truer words have not been spoken in a long time. Hemingway didn't take some bullshit course and he's one of the greatest of all time.

I think the counterpoint address this reasonably well, though:
"Creative writing lessons can be very useful, just like music lessons can be useful. To say, as Hanif Kureishi did, that 99.9% of students are talentless is cruel and wrong. I believe that certain writers like to believe they arrived into the world with special, unteachable powers because it is good for the ego,"
Yes, Hemingway was one of the greatest of all time, which means that using him as your example isn't really fair because basically no one will be that good. If you're talking about most people yeah, you do improve from taking classes. Working with professionals, others trying to write, people who can guide you and suggest what you should read and help break down what makes those pieces work, these are all valuable skills. Basically anything can be taught, it's just that some people have an easier time than others, but the idea that some people are magically good writers because they are and other people can never hope to achieve their status because they just aren't special enough and shouldn't even bother is wrong and a really problematic way of thinking.

That said, I DO agree that creative writing class can be a "con job", although not the biggest one in academia -- do they know of no other academic fields? There are a lot of people paying a lot of money for degrees that are not necessarily likely to help them achieve their professional goals or even break even financially.

Creative writing degrees might be impractical and most people might begin as poor writers, but that doesn't mean that being "talented" is some special gift bestowed upon you by the gods and that learning and working hard are meaningless.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:06 AM on March 4 [9 favorites]


I remember that book. Seemed to make a big splash in literary fiction circles back in the 90's. Anyone ever read it here?
posted by thelonius at 11:06 AM on March 4


Those courses are for story-selling, not to teach story-telling. It is the sort of paint-by-numbers courses for people afraid of creativity who want the rules and formulas set out for them.

But story-telling is a primal drive -- people have told them from the beginning of time, but that sort of understanding is frowned upon these days for ersatz experts pulling a pay check to tell you what to think and what to do...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 11:07 AM on March 4


Kind of like music. In the old days, people played and sang music because they liked to, and other people liked hearing it to varying degrees,up to and including paying the musician. Now it's all analyzed and taught and dissected and rated and reviewed and packaged and sold (mostly).

I like his sentiment, but there's a lot of counter examples. Stephen King is an excellent writer who often tells garbage stories.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 11:08 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


This seems like it fits a pattern where notable expert and talented artist says something controversial and anti-establishment, but later on in the story a peer says something evenhanded and sensible. I can't see how Haig's statements are wrong at all, all art is part craft and part instinct. I think that reasonable viewpoint is probably more true.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:09 AM on March 4


"...but they seemed to be under no illusions about what was going to come after graduation."

...
posted by Fizz at 11:10 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


A MFA in Creative Writing is an excellent opportunity to network for a future writing career, while practicing one's craft. This is not a criticism.\
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:11 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


So he's been teaching for about 6 months?
posted by demiurge at 11:11 AM on March 4


While I don't necessarily disagree with everything he says, it seems a bit rich to be both benefiting from the Writing class economy while insulting those dumbass students who have the gall to think they have the same god-given talent that he has.
posted by Think_Long at 11:11 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


my job is to explode language in their faces

Hmmmmmmmm.
posted by yoink at 11:12 AM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Alternatively someone like Murakami writes often at length about incredibly mundane shit, but his prose makes it enjoyable. Never has cleaning a house and making pasta been so engrossing! Admittedly his stories are also very compelling, but the page to page work of it is absolutely saved by his unique (well, sort of unique in the sense that Birnbaum and Rubin translate it effectively) voice.
posted by Ferreous at 11:12 AM on March 4 [10 favorites]


Think_Long: I get the sense he wants to piss on someone because even he, the Great Author is stuck doing teaching jobs.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 11:12 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I feel like my initial comment was a little garbled so let me try to clarify what I meant more succinctly:

He might well be right that these degrees are a con job and that they will not bring everyone to the level of writing they want or expect, but his dismissal of students without "talent" and the belief that writing cannot improve with coaching or teaching but instead stems from an innate ability is wrong and dismissive and creates an incorrect and unhelpful narrative of how people develop and improve.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:12 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


And that's why Dan Brown sold millions of books while a bunch of people in cubicles were furiously typing on the Internet how he couldn't write.

And J.K. Rowling and that 50 Shades of Grey person, although they were right about that one.
posted by sageleaf at 11:13 AM on March 4


"Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing..."

My book, no. But books? Yes they will.
posted by chavenet at 11:13 AM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Interesting. Can't say I was riveted by the only Kureishi book I tried to read,

I just put one down. Buddha of Suburbia. I saw the mini-series (or was it a movie) way back when, and the book was adding nothing to it.

But I agree with his basic slant here. Good writing is like a well-painted house. Not good for much if the foundation is cracked.
posted by philip-random at 11:14 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Stupid Joyce. I just want to know what happens next in Finnegans Wake.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:14 AM on March 4 [7 favorites]


Stupid Joyce. I just want to know what happens next in Finnegans Wake.

I believe the conventional answer to what happens next is:
Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
posted by yoink at 11:17 AM on March 4 [7 favorites]


Prose before hoes swine
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:18 AM on March 4 [7 favorites]


I must be seriously wired wrong, then. 90 percent of what I read has zero to do with plot and tons to do with HOW the sentences are made.

Writers like William Gass, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, etc. Do I care if they're moving the plot along fast enough? Not a bit. But I'll lie awake until 2am and marinate in how deftly they craft their words. I also couldn't give a rat's ass about any plot in Shakespeare, but I'll listen to the scripts for hours just because.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 11:19 AM on March 4 [10 favorites]


If we read solely for the plot we'd never re-read anything. Not, at least, until we'd forgotten how the story went.
posted by yoink at 11:21 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


Stupid Joyce. I just want to know what happens next in Finnegans Wake.

Which is why so many read it.
posted by shivohum at 11:21 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


That said I do think language can be more compelling than plot sometimes.
posted by shivohum at 11:22 AM on March 4


Speaking as someone who's done a 2-year graduate program in creative writing, I think they serve a couple purposes:

- pay you a basic poverty wage to write (stipend) without the burden of a 9-5 job
- maybe get a little experience teaching composition to undergraduates, to see if you can stand it, since that's a way for published writers whose writing doesn't pay a lot to make a living
- meet some established writers (professors and the parade of visiting readers), maybe impress them, maybe maybe meet their agent if you win the MFA lottery
- get feedback from a group of (one hopes) intelligent prospective readers (workshop)
- get the time to read a lot when not writing, because really, the only way to be a great writer is to read a lot and write even more

But it's sure no to teach you *how* to write. No book or class can ever do that. You have to teach yourself that.
posted by aught at 11:23 AM on March 4 [7 favorites]


A MFA in Creative Writing is an excellent opportunity to network for a future writing career, while practicing one's craft. This is not a criticism.\

what Brandon just said. Like any art, it involves craft. You can teach yourself, or you can join a community. Doesn't really affect the product too much, but it can affect the chance of getting published, or of having a career in academia.

Also, if you're clever, you don't pay for it. So I'm glad I got an MFA, I learned how to write crazy poem forms, and how to play poker. Both skills have served me well. Plus I learned I'm a bad teacher. Sounds like perhaps Mr. Kureishi might need to re-evaluate his dedication to the craft of teaching the craft of writing.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:29 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


And that's why Dan Brown sold millions of books while a bunch of people in cubicles were furiously typing on the Internet how he couldn't write.

Well, it depends what you want. He's a millionaire and a bit of a laughing stock in his chosen profession. I guess a role model if one is interested in money but not respect.

Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing...

A bitter old fool speaking, if he thinks the two can be separated.
posted by aught at 11:31 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Also, if you're clever, you don't pay for it.

To the young people of MetaFilter thinking about graduate school: NEVER pay for a creative writing degree. (Ideally, never pay for any graduate degree, unless it's a professional one that will pay for itself in a couple years of enhanced career salary.)

If you can't get a fellowship or teaching stipend, you're being cynically exploited. I mean, of course, you're being exploited either way, but you're really being bent over if you have to pay tuition and are not getting a chance to earn a bit of money by teaching sullen undergrads.
posted by aught at 11:36 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


I am increasingly convinced that the skyrocketing cost of tuition was actually a conspiracy to hobble and eliminate future competition.
posted by The Whelk at 11:41 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


Damn right aught. A friend of mine paid for her MFA recently... I just couldn't convince her it was a terrible idea because it was a good school. But man, I'd much rather have a free MFA from the University of Wherever than 50k more in loans and 0 teaching experience from US News #1 Seven Oaks College.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:42 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.

This is exactly why I think Kureishi is one of the most underrated literary fiction writers out there. He gets storytelling, and isn't afraid or ashamed to let his novels tell stories.

(FWIW for those wanting to check him out, definitely start with The White Album and The Buddha Of Suburbia. He also wrote the film My Beautiful Launderette. His more recent stuff is OK, but I can see picking it up and wondering what the big deal is.)
posted by Sara C. at 11:42 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


This is conflicting, because I agree with almost everything he says -- perhaps creative writing should only be a minor that is part of another larger program?

One issue is that MFA writing programs aren't for "learning how to hold a brush" level writers. That's what elementary school is for. That's why you learn to diagram sentences, memorize lists of vocabulary words for the SAT, etc.

Once you're at the MFA level, you're not learning how to write. You might be learning other important skills of pursuing the writers' life (a good program offers unparalleled networking opportunities, for example), but you're not really learning anything about writing per se.

So it's debatable whether entering that type of program is really valuable for students. In any event, Kureishi is right that, by the time you get to your MFA, How To Write is not really something that can be taught in an instructional way.

I also wonder to what extent the entire MFA culture is held up on the backs of students who aren't offered fellowships and go into debt thinking that an MFA is a qualification of some sort that is going to Teach Them How To Write or Make Them A Good Writer. Alerting those sorts of people to the fact that this isn't actually what an MFA is for is absolutely a good thing and doesn't mean that an MFA is never worthwhile for anybody.
posted by Sara C. at 11:50 AM on March 4


I read books for the writing, not the plot, all the time. I guess I'm nobody (are you nobody too?)

Seriously though, prose style is like how a movie is shot. It conveys things like tone. It is not the opposite of narrative.
posted by erlking at 11:51 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Writing can be taught. How to plot a story can be taught. It's not all talent, it's mostly practice and reading, but there are a good number of specific skills that can improve anyone's writing, and with practice can turn a moderately good writer in to a very good writer or a very good writer into a great one.

I did a search for some of the big names in writing. Since many of them are older, they seem to predominate in English degrees rather than MFA degrees. The snippets describing their education came from Wikipedia and were sometimes vague. I present all of the selections that came to my mind, not just the ones with English degrees.


Jodi Picoult
She studied writing at Princeton University, and graduated in 1987.

Annie Proulx
graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. degree in History in 1969. She earned her M.A. degree from Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in Montreal, Quebec in 1973 and pursued, but did not complete, her Ph.D. degree.

Toni Morrison
She earned a Master of Arts degree in English from Cornell University in 1955, for which she wrote a thesis on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

Don Delillo
bachelor's degree in Communication Arts in 1958, DeLillo took a job in advertising

Cormac McCarthy
He attended the University of Tennessee from 1951–52 and 1957–59 but never graduated. While at UT he published two stories in The Phoenix and was awarded the Ingram Merrill Award for creative writing in 1959 and 1960.

Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon earned an English degree from Cornell University.

John Updike
At Harvard, he soon became widely known among his classmates as an extremely talented and prolific contributor to the Harvard Lampoon, of which he served as president, before graduating summa cum laude in 1954 with a degree in English.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:54 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


Erlking:

On the other hand, I think a lot of young writers coast on beautiful prose.

It's probably a good thing to show up on day one of your MFA and get told by this big name writer that all your pretty words are bullshit, so we're going to throw them away and start from scratch. With stories. Which is what writing is for, on the most fundamental of levels.

I would frankly be sort of pissed if I showed up to get a fucking graduate degree in writing and was still able to wow my professors with purple prose.
posted by Sara C. at 11:56 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Hemingway didn't take some bullshit course

Hemingway's prose style was--in his own telling--profoundly shaped by the journalism class he took at high school and the early training he had as a young journalist. Obviously what made him "great" is not something that can be simply "taught," but it is wrong to think of him as simply arriving in the world fully-formed as "Hemingway."
posted by yoink at 12:04 PM on March 4 [10 favorites]


I have no doubt his class is, indeed, worthless.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:06 PM on March 4


Which is what writing is for, on the most fundamental of levels.

Writing is for all kinds of things. People read for many reasons, and people write for many reasons. They are all valid. Language is good at telling stories but to say that all other uses of language are somehow debased/perverse/not legit seems kind of, well, limiting.
posted by erlking at 12:12 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]


Continuing along the above lines, I have to wonder whether an English or writing degree is nearly essential for to be the best in writing. (I was not selecting those who I knew had degrees, just some of the acknowledged greats)

Raymond Carver
Carver attended a creative writing course taught by the novelist John Gardner, who became a mentor and had a major influence on Carver's life and career. Carver continued his studies first at Chico State University and then at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California, where he studied with Richard Cortez Day and received his B.A. in 1963. He attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop during the 1963-1964 academic year; ... he completed twelve credits out of the thirty required for a M.A. degree.

(Note: from John Gardner's books on writing, he must have been the greatest writing instructor ever)

Philip Roth
Roth attended Bucknell University, earning a degree in English. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he received an M.A. in English literature in 1955.

Alice Munro
Munro began writing as a teenager, publishing her first story, "The Dimensions of a Shadow," in 1950 while studying English and journalism at the University of Western Ontario under a two-year scholarship.

Margaret Atwood
she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto,... She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours). In late 1961, ... she began graduate studies at Harvard's Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for two years but did not finish her dissertation.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:19 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


dances_with_sneetches, I think it's difficult to untangle the causality question there. Did the fact that these people got English degrees make them more likely to be writers, or was it that being people who were interested in writing they were more likely to pursue degrees in English? Not that the answer is likely to be either-or, of course.
posted by yoink at 12:27 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


to say that all other uses of language are somehow debased/perverse/not legit seems kind of, well, limiting.

It's a good thing that this is not at ALL what I said then, isn't it?

People don't get creative writing MFAs to write grocery lists or legal briefs or obituaries. They get them, generally, because they want to be prose fiction writers. Fiction writing is pretty much entirely based around the concept of the narrative, the story. This happened, then this happened, which caused that result. Beginning, middle, end.

Kureishi is not saying that all other forms of written communication are garbage.

He's saying that if you want to be a working, published fiction writer, you need to understand how to tell a story. Everything else is balanced on top of that framework. You may have been able to weasel A's out of your undergrad professors just for turning in a document with the correct number of words, grammatically correct, with maybe a nice turn of phrase here and there. But this is grownup time, so let's get down to brass tacks.

Again, I'd be worried if I showed up to a graduate writing program and didn't get this kick in the ass.
posted by Sara C. at 12:27 PM on March 4


Hemingway didn't take some bullshit course

Hemingway's prose style was--in his own telling--profoundly shaped by the journalism class he took at high school and the early training he had as a young journalist. Obviously what made him "great" is not something that can be simply "taught," but it is wrong to think of him as simply arriving in the world fully-formed as "Hemingway."


Hemingway was also shaped heavily by his editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins. Ol' Ernie was an epic talent, but he had teachers and guidance along the way. The best defense that I've read of MFA programs is that they take the place of involved editors, because we don't have many of those.

To use a baseball analogy, it seems like teaching to write is like teaching to hit a ball or pitch. There are folks with natural talent and those without, sure, but a none-too-special player can, with coaching and practice, get pretty goddamned good. Not "playing in the major leagues" good, but way better than a normal person. Similarly, a tremendously talented player will go farther if taught well and appropriately.

I agree with Kureshi that the best teachers by far are existing great books. The thing is, learning how to learn from great books is where a good human teacher is most helpful. They help you figure out what questions to ask when reading. "Look for this, poke around that," etc. Then you throw a copy of Moby Dick at 'em and let 'em figure things out. Maybe pick a story that's terrible except for one single quality, then seek to isolate that quality and see if you can reproduce it.

Kureshi sounds like he's bitching about the fabled MFA "cult of the sentence." While I too appreciate a well-turned sentence, sweet merciful crap it's not enough to carry a goddamned book. A short story, maybe. A whole novel? Jeebus, no. A hint of narrative drive is not a bad thing.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 12:31 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


The first actual writer I ever heard (y'know, read) explaining this in public was Norman mailer. He had, he said, made a lot of wannabe writers angry by telling them that even though they could write a grammatical sentence and put together a coherent paragraph, they still knew next to nothing about writing and could not write a publishable nonfiction book, let alone a novel that anyone on Earth would want to read.

> He's saying that if you want to be a working, published fiction writer, you need to understand how to tell a story.

So does anyone teach this now? Used to be, in creative writing classes they would tell you that you needed to know this but then not go on to teach it.
posted by jfuller at 12:33 PM on March 4


(sorry about that adjective chain, Sara C., I was just trying to think about what the opposite of "fundamental" was, and those are the words that strike me as "not fundamental." To be honest your statement that narrative is somehow 'fundamental' is really problematic to me; not everyone's brain works that way; not everyone reads or writes that way. Anyway.)

People don't get creative writing MFAs to write grocery lists or legal briefs or obituaries.

Correct. I never had that kind of utilitarian writing in mind. I had certain left-field or queer-reading kinds of literary pleasure in mind.

They get them, generally, because they want to be prose fiction writers.

Well they also get them to write poetry, and then there's also writing that straddles the artificial/permeable divide between the two, but that's not what's being discussed here.

Fiction writing is pretty much entirely based around the concept of the narrative, the story.

Incorrect! Here is where I take issue. This is an assertion you are making. But why should that be so? Narrative is popular like catchy melody and 4/4 rhythm are popular, but not everyone who goes to music school wants to write pop songs. Some of them are into noise, or serial composition, or other stuff. There is an entire shelf labelled "plotless fiction" at the local indie bookstore. Someone is interested in this stuff (I know several such someones).
posted by erlking at 12:38 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I agree with Kureshi that the best teachers by far are existing great books.

And, of course, one of the things people fail to understand about good MFA programs is that you do an enormous amount of reading in them.
posted by yoink at 12:38 PM on March 4


But this is grownup time, so let's get down to brass tacks.

I don't want to read any works from grown-ups, then. Pretty much THE guiding principle for whether I consider something "great" rather than merely "good" comes down to HOW a narrative is conveyed to a reader. If you really just want to know what happens in the story, read a goddamn summary on Wikipedia. But this is grown-up time, and story was exposed as artifice a long time ago. We should be interested in much more, and the process that happens between writer and reader should be something that exists on every single page, and accrues into something intangible and sublime by the end. You don't get that by focusing only on what happens next.
posted by naju at 12:43 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


Incorrect!

List ten great novels of the last century (or, heck, ever) that were not centered around a narrative.
posted by Sara C. at 12:46 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


List ten great novels of the last century (or, heck, ever) that were not centered around a narrative.

Well, there's a circular challenge. I could list ten very famous novels not centered around a narrative and you'd just say "but they're not great--because, for me, "greatness" requires a narrative."
posted by yoink at 12:54 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


yoink - list 10 not centered around a narrative, then. I'm honestly curious. I don't read much fiction. Too often they don't get to the point. I'm quite often in a state of "non-grippedness" (to quote Lister from Red Dwarf).

I have all these plots and ideas in my head. I like to write and think I have a solid grasp of the English language, but yet... I find it so hard to write, because I, frankly, don't like reading fiction. It's quite depressing. It's as if you have all these great musical ideas in your head, but you don't really like music. I can get people interested and curious in these plots and ideas. But just the thought of writing them... ugh.
posted by symbioid at 12:59 PM on March 4


I think narrative should be separated out from plot - anything with words on a page has a narrative, from my point of view - but in terms of novels where plot doesn't exist, is illusory, or is so buried it might as well not exist: most of Beckett's oeuvre, Gertrude Stein, David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, some Virginia Woolf, arguably Pale Fire, Invisible Cities, Finnegans Wake, Gaddis' J.R., Sebald's The Rings of Saturn...
posted by naju at 1:01 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I'd actually love to browse the "plotless fiction" section of a bookstore - probably just a collection of my favorite books.
posted by naju at 1:02 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


In addition to the circularity of the challenge, I am also thinking about non-majority weirdo kinds of literary pleasures. If such were included within the consensus of "great novels" then they wouldn't be non-majority weirdo literary pleasures.

Also, I happen to enjoy narrative, so I'm not necessarily well equipped to rise to such a challenge. I'm moreso trying to defend the interests of absent friends and loved-ones who actually do read, enjoy, and talk about this stuff.

But, just off the top of my head, there are some classic "great texts" that are quite light on plot, or that have a non-normative kind of plot. Mrs. Dalloway is much more about portraying character and using prose style to map and present a set of internal psychological states to the reader. Gertrude Stein's Three Lives wasn't plotless, but I remember feeling so stuck in an endless repetitive loop at the midpoint that I bit the book in temporary frustration (a good thing!). I've not read Beckett's Malone Dies (shame on me) but I have seen it described as a "plotless novel."

I mean, think how it would be if poets were expected to have a certain element of emotionally accessible sentiment and metrical order in their poetry, because that is what poetry is "fundamentally" about. Poetry is such a commercial non-starter nowadays that no one would ever expect that of someone heading off to do a poetry MFA. It's just that fiction is still a viable commercial entity. But not everyone who writes wants to be a mid-list author of narrative-focused novels, you know?
posted by erlking at 1:04 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I could list ten very famous novels not centered around a narrative and you'd just say "but they're not great--because, for me, "greatness" requires a narrative."

When I say great I mean something people have heard of.

If you wrote an experimental stream of consciousness dadaist novel that has no central narrative at all, good for you? I want to see things that were actually published, at minimum. Things that are known. Things someone has read on purpose. Things I could order on Amazon. Things that won some kind of award, even an award for kookiest prose style.

I don't have to actually like the novel in question. I just want to see that it's a legit thing, not just some college kid wankery.
posted by Sara C. at 1:09 PM on March 4


I am also thinking about non-majority weirdo kinds of literary pleasures

But, again, like what? Give examples. Where are all these important works of prose writing that aren't based on any kind of narrative?
posted by Sara C. at 1:10 PM on March 4


Here?
posted by erlking at 1:11 PM on March 4


When I say great I mean something people have heard of.

O.K.

Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
Potocki, Le Manuscrit Trouve a Saragosse
Carlyle, Sartor Resartus
Nabokov, Pale Fire
Aldiss, Report on Probability A
Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Beckett, any of his novels, really.
Woolf, The Waves
Joyce, Finnegan's Wake
Alain Robbe-Grillet--again, anything.

There, all famous, all influential, none plot or narrative driven.
posted by yoink at 1:12 PM on March 4 [9 favorites]


So y'all are bickering about books with narrative and books without narrative, but as near as I can tell you haven't actually figured out if you are working with the same definition. I could as easily argue that Pynchon has a major narrative as no narrative. I mean, what are we talking about here?
posted by Think_Long at 1:15 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


We seem to be on the defensive because "prose is bullshit" and "story is everything" or something. Which is such an insane view to take, it's barely worth arguing against.
posted by naju at 1:17 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


there are some classic "great texts" that are quite light on plot, or that have a non-normative kind of plot.

This actually proves my point.

Virtually all prose fiction writing has some kind of central narrative structure. You really can't have fiction writing without narrative. Plenty of works are light on plot, or the story is by no means the most important or enjoyable thing about the finished piece. But they all HAVE narratives.

So if you're a grad student, and you want to learn how to become a writer, you've got to start from narrative. Because that's what fiction is. Once you get the fundamentals of this happened then that happened, then we can start talking about Mrs. Dalloway. But you have to learn to walk before you can fly. You can't just turn a pretty phrase and declare yourself Virginia Woolf.

And, again, I would be disappointed if I showed up for grad school and my professors all read my work, thought my prose style was awesome, patted me on the head, and sent me on my way. What Kureishi is talking about is what MFA programs should be about. Tearing down students' crutches and cheats and making passable writers into great ones.
posted by Sara C. at 1:17 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Anyone who doesn't think The Crying Of Lot 49 doesn't have a plot needs to not be having this conversation.
posted by Sara C. at 1:19 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Anyone who doesn't think The Crying Of Lot 49 doesn't have a plot needs to not be having this conversation.

Great. Take that one debateable example out. Now what about the other undebateable nine+ examples?
posted by yoink at 1:20 PM on March 4


Nabokov, Pale Fire

By what standard does Pale Fire not have a narrative? Seems to me like it has a very clear story. It's a complex one, of course, with interlocking parts and subparts. But it has one.
posted by shivohum at 1:21 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


The Crying of Lot 49 has a plot, is what I'm saying.

So do all the others on that list that I've read.

All novels have plots.

I have been reading novels since I was four years old, and all of them have had plots. Even Thomas Pynchon. Even Virginia Woolf. Even James Joyce.
posted by Sara C. at 1:21 PM on March 4


Virtually all prose fiction writing has some kind of central narrative structure. You really can't have fiction writing without narrative.

But if you've widened "narrative" out to mean simply "something that happens" then you're not making any claim at all.
posted by yoink at 1:22 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Here's a summary of the plot of The Crying Of Lot 49:

A woman in an unhappy marriage is named the executor of her ex lover's will. When she travels to fulfill this duty, she discovers a mystery which she then finds herself compelled to unravel.

That's... a plot.

I don't know what else to tell you guys.
posted by Sara C. at 1:25 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I'll also reiterate what I wrote above which set off the "do all novels have plots" derail:
Fiction writing is pretty much entirely based around the concept of the narrative, the story. This happened, then this happened, which caused that result. Beginning, middle, end.

Kureishi is not saying that all other forms of written communication are garbage.

He's saying that if you want to be a working, published fiction writer, you need to understand how to tell a story.
This is 100% true and all the Nabokov in the world doesn't disprove it.
posted by Sara C. at 1:26 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I have been reading novels since I was four years old, and all of them have had plots. Even Thomas Pynchon. Even Virginia Woolf. Even James Joyce.

Oh. So "plot" to you just means "some thing happens to somebody which can be recounted." But I think everybody who goes into an MFA can already do that. So there's no big secret clever thing to "teach" them, is there?

Nobody reads Sterne, say, or Beckett, or Robbe-Grillet, or Woolf's The Waves or Nabokov's Pale Fire and goes to a friend and says "let me tell you this cool story I just read! It's about this guy who..." The pleasures you derive from those books have nothing, at all, to do with the "what happens"--even though, sure, stuff happens--they have to do with the "how its told." There is no evidence that Woolf or Sterne or Beckett of Robbe-Grillet first "mastered" plot-driven narrative (all those unpublished detective-thrillers hidden away in their sock-drawers) and then went on to figure out how to subtract that from their writing. They just weren't particularly interested in delivering those kinds of plot-based pleasures.
posted by yoink at 1:27 PM on March 4 [13 favorites]


By what standard does Pale Fire not have a narrative? Seems to me like it has a very clear story. It's a complex one, of course, with interlocking parts and subparts. But it has one.

There are layers of realities and subjectivities that, I guess, constitute a multiplicity of potential narratives? I wouldn't say it simply "has a plot." If readers are merely focused on what happens next, they're going to be confused and disappointed. It's the same with Lot 49 - there's a narrative, sure, but the "plot" we become familiar with is all misdirection and futility. I consider these subversions of the kind of thing Kureishi is badgering his students to focus on.
posted by naju at 1:28 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


The Crying of Lot 49 has a plot, is what I'm saying.

Which is why I've already said "fine--let's lay that one aside." Try dealing with the many, many other examples offered to you above.
posted by yoink at 1:29 PM on March 4


Nobody reads Sterne, say, or Beckett, or Robbe-Grillet, or Woolf's The Waves or Nabokov's Pale Fire and goes to a friend and says "let me tell you this cool story I just read! It's about this guy who..."

But from the perspective of the writer, that's not the point.

Nobody visits the Taj Mahal and then tells their friend, "let me tell you about this building I saw that was TOTALLY PROVIDING SHELTER FROM THE ELEMENTS!"

But in order to become an architect, you have to start from the fundamentals -- a building is a structure. You can't throw down a bunch of crown molding and say "look at this awesome skyscraper I just made!"

This is the context Hanif Kureishi is coming from.
posted by Sara C. at 1:33 PM on March 4


This Is Not a Novel and The Interrogative Mood are very pure examples, as well. Speedboat. Sleepless Nights.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 1:36 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


I don't want to read any works from grown-ups, then. Pretty much THE guiding principle for whether I consider something "great" rather than merely "good" comes down to HOW a narrative is conveyed to a reader. If you really just want to know what happens in the story, read a goddamn summary on Wikipedia. But this is grown-up time, and story was exposed as artifice a long time ago. We should be interested in much more, and the process that happens between writer and reader should be something that exists on every single page, and accrues into something intangible and sublime by the end. You don't get that by focusing only on what happens next.

I agree with this. This post by languagehat seems relevant. He quotes a response by Pushkin to a critic who wanted Eugene Onegin to have a more exciting plot:
These verses are very good, but the criticism they contain is unfounded. The most insignificant subject can be chosen by a poet; the critic's job is not to analyze what the poet describes, but how he describes it.
Pushkin's results, in Onegin and elsewhere, speak for themselves, and lend authority, I think, to what he says.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:40 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I loved Buddha of Suburbia. Read a few of his other works, too, but that one definitely stuck out. It helped that I was reading in London during a semester abroad and that Kureishi sat in on one of my English classes to discuss the book and writing in general. The characters' names escape me at the moment, but the rock star character is based on Kureishi's classmate, Billy Idol (apologies if that's common knowledge).

Mr. Kureishi was interesting and intense. He talked about how living is the most important part of writing. Live, experience, read, then write. You have to have a story to tell or else why and what are you writing? It wasn't in the article, but I have to imagine he's furious with the idea of undergraduate creative writing majors.

Embarrassing undergrad moment:
Me - Mr. Kureishi, why did you take the name of your book, The Black Album, from Metallica?
HF - Metallica? I thought I stole it from Prince.
Me - [to self] I should not speak to people out loud.
posted by GrapeApiary at 1:47 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]


Lyn Hejinian's My Life has been called--by her, by her original publisher, by critics, scholars, readers, etc.--a novel. It is indisputably an important piece of 20th century American Literature, and has been taught in high school, undergraduate and graduate literature classes for decades.

I defy you to tell me that it is narrative.
posted by dersins at 1:48 PM on March 4


Only because it's getting kind of tiresome watching this fight, here, let me settle it for you by saying things which are completely correct like I always do about everything all the time forever:

RULE ONE OF WHETHER A NOVEL NEEDS TO HAVE A PLOT OR NOT: A novel needs to have a plot.

THE RULE WHICH IS A SILENT APPENDIX TO EVERY SINGLE OTHER RULE OF WRITING: Unless you can pull it off.

The thing about The Rule Which Is a Silent Appendix To Every Single Other Rule of Writing (Which is: "Unless You Can Pull it Off"), which we will refer to as TRWIASATESOROW(WI"UYCPIO") to keep it simple, is that you really need to be kind of careful about when you drop that bomb on someone, and I would pretty much never tell it to people to whom I was teaching a class on writing, because every damn one of them would go, "Oh yeah well I can pull it off so I'm just gonna do whatever dipshit thing comes barrelling into my skull." Maybe I'd tell them after they'd demonstrated a solid grasp of the fundamentals.

So it's completely fair to tell students that something is an ironclad rule even when, in terms of writing, it isn't because nothing is. It really won't do to point to exceptions. Any rule can be broken by anyone who has the chops to pull it off. Numerous worthwhile novels open with the weather. Crime and Punishment is absolutely dripping with adverbs. So on, so forth.

Yes, a novel needs a plot. Yes, most novels have a plot which is central to the story. And some of them don't, and that is okay (although it would be wrong to say the plot is not a part of the draw, because wasted elements are not emblematic of a good book). I would still tell a student not to write something meandering and plotless. Could Nabokov do it? Sure. Could Beckett? Sure. Travis Pastrana can skydive without a parachute, but you shouldn't try that without a really strong grasp of the fundamentals, either.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:54 PM on March 4 [7 favorites]


But from the perspective of the writer, that's not the point.

From the perspective of the writer who writes "to tell a story" it's absolutely the point. The stories being told by the writers I and others instance above (and, as I say, we'll leave Pynchon out of it) are telling stories which are the equivalent to a "bunch of crown moulding thrown in a heap." There is a "story" but it's absolutely beside the point of what the novelist is trying to accomplish. Heck, with Sterne's Tristram Shandy no one even can tell if the novel is finished or not. How is that a "plot" in any meaningful sense? It certainly can't be what Kureishi means when he says writers have to learn how to "tell a story"--they have to learn to tell a story so exiguous you can't even tell if it's come to its conclusion? Who in the world is incapable of that?

You can't have it both ways, Sara. You can't claim that a plot is some wonderful structural essence that writers have to struggle to learn how to complete AND claim that any old thing that happens is a "plot." If the former is true, then there are obviously lots of "great" novels that do not have plots. If the latter is true then it's BS to claim that "plot" is a matter of arduous craft.
posted by yoink at 1:59 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


> none plot or narrative driven.

Cutest thing about Tristam Shandy is that it's supposed to have a narrative. For the entire length of the book the actual narrative is supposed to start, claimed to be about to start, just any second now. Then the book's over.
posted by jfuller at 2:02 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


Lyn Hejinian's My Life has been called--by her, by her original publisher, by critics, scholars, readers, etc.--a novel. It is indisputably an important piece of 20th century American Literature, and has been taught in high school, undergraduate and graduate literature classes for decades.

I defy you to tell me that it is narrative.


But, you know, as an Old School Language Poet, Hejinian is required to make perverse statements about her own work. (I say this as someone who loves her work, My Life in particular.)

In all seriousness, poets like Hejinian and Ron Silliman and Susan Howe claim narrative qualities for their work in order to problematize what is meant by quote-narrative-unquote -- not because they think their work has something significant in common with, say, Stephen King latest doorstop.
posted by aught at 2:02 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


You have to have a story to tell or else why and what are you writing

This is exactly what I'm saying he's saying. So thanks for this.
posted by Sara C. at 2:03 PM on March 4


You have to have a story to tell or else why and what are you writing

Love of language.
posted by aught at 2:05 PM on March 4


My Life is poetry, no?
posted by Sara C. at 2:06 PM on March 4


My Life is poetry, no?

You make the call--!
posted by aught at 2:07 PM on March 4


claim that any old thing that happens is a "plot."

Plot, as defined by whatever dictionary google uses these days:

the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.

That's what plot is.

I'm leaving this thread.
posted by Sara C. at 2:08 PM on March 4


Having attended AWP last week, it really hit home to me that there are more people who want to make money off of the writer, leech onto the writer under the guise of "networking" and remind the writer that they are not good enough and need to keep trying (while paying for & attending all those retreats, classes, and conferences, of course!). It reminded me of the sick system that is often linked here.
posted by haplesschild at 2:08 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Having attended AWP last week, it really hit home to me that there are more people who want to make money off of the writer, leech onto the writer under the guise of "networking" and remind the writer that they are not good enough and need to keep trying (while paying for & attending all those retreats, classes, and conferences, of course!). It reminded me of the sick system that is often linked here.

This was my experience at the two writing conferences that I've attended, thankfully on scholarship. A group of writers paid to critique each other's work and received professional advice in the form of personal experiences from professional writers, agents, and publishers.

The overwhelming messages were to continue to work on your craft, to not expect to succeed, and to continue to attend these conferences because they are an extremely valuable professional tool if you are going to succeed. They had a certain "you can't win the lottery if you don't play" vibe to them that turned me off entirely.
posted by rutabega at 2:17 PM on March 4


the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.

This Is Not A Novel - a bunch of discrete facts. No interrelated sequences of events.
Speedboat - events or quotes, not interrelated.
The Age of Wire and String - a catalog of things.
Nazi Literature in the Americas - a list of books. No events.
How It Is - a person lying in mud. No events or sequences of events.

Seriously, I don't know why this is hard to come to terms with.
posted by naju at 2:18 PM on March 4


See ya later Sara! But I think you (and others) have confused Story Structure with Plot. Most novels have a plot in the sense that there is cause and effect and events are described as happening or have happened, or will happen. What it sounds like Mr. Kureishi is saying is that "Story structure (aka traditional narrative, with rising action, a climax, and so on) should be primary in your writing." And nope, that's not necessarily the case. There are plenty of other modes of writing in which "what happens" is secondary to "some other concerns" and there are other forms of novels that are even antithetical to the possibility of narrative, that hate narrative and instead offer up discursions, verbal games, and descriptive language instead as the primary method of communication in them. Now I happen to agree with him that most great novels are very concerned with character, and pacing, and other aspects of Story Structure. But that's just like, my opinion man. Many writers would find his (and John Gardener's) declarations that narrative is what defines a novel to be disgustingly 19th Century. (I once heard John Barth lecture at length about the very book on writing mentioned in this thread, basically calling it pernicious garbage, even as he praised Gardener's as a person and a teacher).

Novels do not need to follow the rules of story structure to be novels. Or maybe you would define (as you have earlier) something as "not a novel" if it does weird non-story shit. That's fair. But to pretend that this definition is widely accepted is either unfair or ignorant. There are many novelists and critics and enthusiasts who consider deconstruction or avoidance of story to be the best thing a fiction writer can do.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:38 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]


> "What it sounds like Mr. Kureishi is saying is that 'Story structure (aka traditional narrative, with rising action, a climax, and so on) should be primary in your writing.'"

I'm really not sure where you're getting that from, since he doesn't once mention traditional narrative, rising action, climax, etc., in the linked article.
posted by kyrademon at 2:42 PM on March 4


the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.

That's what plot is.


So it's not something anyone needs to learn--because absolutely anyone can write down a series of events, right? So Kureishi is wrong that this is the thing his students need to learn.

But actually, you don't really believe this. You believe in a shaped series of events that establishes tension, moves the reader forward, comes to some kind of closure (or interestingly suspends closure) or what have you. Those are the things that Kureishi is saying students don't know how to do (he surely can't mean that they can't relate any kind of event or action whatsoever; that would mean they cannot write sentences at all--and he says they're too obsessed with sentences). So if you mean plot of that kind, then you're stuck explaining all the many, many famous and influential novels mentioned in this thread which do not, in fact, have plots in that latter sense.
posted by yoink at 2:54 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]


A MFA in Creative Writing is an excellent opportunity to network for a future writing career, while practicing one's craft. This is not a criticism.\

Christ, it should be.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:17 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I don't know, you guys, what if it's important that a novel be well-written and have something actually the fuck happen in it at some point

These are just my thoughts and stuff whatever
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:17 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Come on, be honest, write what you really mean.

Creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi says such his courses are 'a waste of your time'

Undoubtedly, this is true.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:32 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]


I read Buddha of Suburbia. It was kind of meandering and the only reason it sustained my interest was because it was an assigned text, and I was kind of interested to see the unauthorized glimpses it purportedly offered into the personal life of a pre-fame Billy Idol.

Ironically, it was one of my undergrad creative writing program reading assignments...
posted by saulgoodman at 5:04 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I'm sure he said this just before giving up his full-professorship in a creative writing department.

Yeah, I don't know, I work at Starbucks but I think it's pretty damn silly to spend 6 bucks on an iced macchiato or whatever. Bills gotta get paid.
posted by threeants at 5:28 PM on March 4


unauthorized glimpses it purportedly offered into the personal life of a pre-fame Billy Idol

I saw Jim Carroll read once. He interrupted his poems with lots of asides and stories, which were usually much more interesting than the poems. One of them was about seeing Billy Idol let his girlfriend take a pot bust for him. Carroll says that he confronted Idol about this, and Idol said "Whatever doesn't kill her makes her stronger, man".

He went back to the poem, then interrupted himself again. "Why is it always Nietzsche? Why don't these type of guys ever tell you, 'You know, Wittgenstein said once....'"

The other story I remember was about having a NYC cab stolen from him by Salvador Dali.
posted by thelonius at 6:19 PM on March 4 [8 favorites]


I agree with Sara C., in that most literary novels -- most, not every single last cottonpicking one -- have something that naturally can be called a plot, but disagree with Hanif Kureishi, who thinks colleges are filled with students who can write beautiful sentences but don't know how to tell a story. I think lots of people can tell stories. We are born to do it. What most people cannot do is write decent sentences. I have read lots of crappy novels and most of them involve interesting things happening to interesting people. What makes them crappy is that their authors didn't make the effort to think about what words should go on the page in what order; all they thought about was "what happens next." That's how bad novels happen.

Here's a summary of the plot of The Crying Of Lot 49:

A woman in an unhappy marriage is named the executor of her ex lover's will. When she travels to fulfill this duty, she discovers a mystery which she then finds herself compelled to unravel.


Yep!

And there are lots of novels whose plot summary would look very similar. Most of those novels are pretty bad. One of them is The Crying of Lot 49. What's the difference? Pynchon can write sentences, is the difference.
posted by escabeche at 6:56 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Many writers would find his (and John Gardener's) declarations that narrative is what defines a novel to be disgustingly 19th Century.

This seems totally backwards to me. What I learned from reading John Gardner, which no one had ever told me before, is that sentences are sequences of sounds, that you must respect them as sequences of sounds just as much as you respect them as containers of meaning, that you ought to read your sentences aloud to see if they ring. This is precisely the sort of thing that Kureishi thinks students do too much of. But I'm with Gardner; they do too little.
posted by escabeche at 6:58 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I get that you need to have something of interest, a topic or many, events, etc., and that can be a challenge, particularly if you think in terms of metaphors and symbols. How then do you use them in prose rather than poetry? It's relatively easy to come up with a plot and when you reduce a novel to it's plot, it looks rather simple. Writing to make that plot "happen" is a huge challenge.

But writing good prose can be part of that and greatly appreciated. I know the likes of Dan Brown, that 50 Shades Book, and Doctor Who are wildly popular, and if your target is to sell shit melodrama, badly written, then go for it, but great prose is also something you could perhaps attempt as well (and really, a half decent plot too in regard to Brown, 50, and Who).

Look at A Confederacy of Dunces. Not much happens, but Ignatius's character, from passing gas to getting a job is brilliantly conveyed by the prose and it's his character which is so enjoyable,:

I suspect that I am the result of particularly weak conception on the part of my father. His sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner.

My mother is currently associating with some undesirables who are attempting to transform her into an athlete of sorts, deprave specimens of mankind who regularly bowl their way to oblivion.

Employers sense in me a denial of their values." He rolled over onto his back. "They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe. This was true even when I worked for the New Orleans Public Library.

It smells terrible in here.'

Well, what do you expect? The human body, when confined, produces certain odors which we tend to forget in this age of deodorants and other perversions. Actually, I find the atmosphere of this room rather comforting. Schiller needed the scent of apples rotting in his desk in order to write. I, too, have my needs. You may remember that Mark Twain preferred to lie supinely in bed while composing those rather dated and boring efforts which contemporary scholars try to prove meaningful. Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate.


The plot serves to illustrate his character, and the character of others.
posted by juiceCake at 7:15 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I tend to like digressive novels with endless asides and weird little wormholes of anecdote. I tend to really like them when they're also chatty and funny (which is why Sterne and Pynchon and Barth and Flann O'Brien etc. all tend to make my favorite books lists). I don't suppose I've ever thought too hard about the plot issue, because most of those books have enough energy and momentum to carry me quite happily through. I tend to like experimentation when it has a little playfulness in it. Which is probably why I love, say, Hopscotch.

Plot has it's place. I like a good yarn. I count Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy among my favorite writers and both of those guys are not afraid of going full-on ludicrous with story ( Absalom, Absalom! anyone?). Sometimes the over-the-topness is part of the literary strategy. Sometimes the novel succeeds in spite of the impediments of plot.

I vastly prefer the conventionally plotless, but interesting otherwise, to the scads of horribly dull, rote short stories that tend to come out of writing workshops. These are often we competently-written, literary stories following a strict, three-part structure. They usually involve a middle class person having an epiphany about their meaningless life, often whilst simultaneously having a midlife crisis or an affair with a student or bourbon at the kitchen table in the middle of the night, or all three. The only thing worse is when said short story writer manages to inflate the above "plot" into a novel. Thus satisfying the US publishing industry's insatiable appetite for "literary novels" about myopic middle aged white professionals who are vaguely unhappy for vaguely existential reasons but also because they're bored, aging narcissists who wish they were having vaguely kinky sex with a nineteen year old student/neighbor/actress/whatever.
posted by thivaia at 8:33 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


Below some minimum level of thought and competence, your prose will be too annoying to read. Above that, there's no hard and fast rule except to provide something to interest the reader. It could be characters, plot, humor, ideas, linguistic pyrotechnics, or whatever else.

For me, Dan Brown utterly fails at any of that, so he's not a relevant example of why prose style does or doesn't matter. He's not even up to the level of the formula-churning ghostwriters who hovered around Robert Ludlum's deathbed, much less J.K. Rowling.
posted by mubba at 8:49 PM on March 4


They usually involve a middle class person having an epiphany about their meaningless life, often whilst simultaneously having a midlife crisis or an affair with a student or bourbon at the kitchen table in the middle of the night, or all three.

I see 100 times more dismissive comments about stories of this kind than I ever see actual stories of this kind. Was there a moment where people actually wrote, or read such stories? Anyway, no big update on my rant about this from last month when somebody else made this comment, so here it is again.
posted by escabeche at 9:17 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


i can't speak for thivaia, but there's definitely a whole school of "literary realism" built around these tropes, and MFA workshops have a reputation for encouraging it. Franzen comes to mind above all, attempting (and failing) to build on the tradition of Updike and Yates before him. It's solidifed into something unbearably tedious. I want to say this kind of middlebrow navel-gazing fiction is more or less the house style of The New Yorker, but I don't know. I really try to avoid such places.
posted by naju at 10:11 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I find it funny how female dominated writing is. The fellow men I know aren't able to form book groups or informally discuss books; they would only do a "creative sport course".
posted by Narrative_Historian at 12:42 AM on March 5


I thought I'd explore a bit more with writers I appreciate and some best-sellers I don't. (I do recognize that best-sellers are making some people happy, somewhere.) It seems the days of jumping aboard a whaler to learn to be a writer are dead. However, you can become Cory Doctorow with virtually no education.

Michael Chabon
He then went to graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, where he received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.

Dan Brown
Brown attended Amherst College, where he sang in the Amherst Glee Club, and was a writing student of visiting novelist Alan Lelchuk. Brown spent the 1985 school year abroad in Seville, Spain, where he was enrolled in an art history course at the University of Seville. Brown graduated from Amherst in 1986. (This sounds as if he only took one writing class.)

Stephen King
From 1966, King studied English at the University of Maine, graduating in 1970 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.

David Foster Wallace
His other senior thesis (at Amherst), written for his English major, would later become his first novel. Wallace graduated summa cum laude for both theses in 1985, and in 1987 received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arizona.

E.L. Doctorow
Doctorow attended Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied with the poet and New Critic John Crowe Ransom, acted in college theater productions, and majored in philosophy. After graduating with honors in 1952, he completed a year of graduate work in English drama at Columbia University before being drafted

Cory Doctorow
He received his high school diploma from the SEED School, and attended four universities without attaining a degree.

Chuck Palahniuk
In his twenties, Palahniuk attended the University of Oregon School of Journalism, and graduated in 1986.

JK Rowling
read for a BA in French and Classics at the University of Exeter...graduated from Exeter in 1986

Frank McCourt
He graduated in 1957 from New York University with a bachelor's degree in English. In 1967, he earned a master's degree at Brooklyn College, and in the late 1960s he spent 18 months at Trinity College in Dublin, failing to earn his Ph.D. before returning to New York City.

Nicholas Sparks
enrolling at the University of Notre Dame, Sparks majored in business finance and graduated with honors in 1988.

John Grisham
John Grisham graduated from Mississippi State University before attending the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1981

James Patterson
received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Manhattan College, along with a Master of Arts in English from Vanderbilt University
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:09 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


These lists have established, beyond doubt, that people who like reading and writing get degrees that involve reading and writing.
posted by Mister_A at 6:18 AM on March 5


i can't speak for thivaia, but there's definitely a whole school of "literary realism" built around these tropes, and MFA workshops have a reputation for encouraging it. Franzen comes to mind above all,

And yet Franzen has neither studied in an MFA writing program, nor taught in one, so far as I know.

I want to say this kind of middlebrow navel-gazing fiction is more or less the house style of The New Yorker, but I don't know.

For me, "New Yorker fiction writers" means people like George Saunders, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan, Michael Chabon, Alice Monro, and sometimes Haruki Murakami. If you can't find something to like in that group, I'm not sure what to tell you.
posted by aught at 6:22 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I disagree with you, Mister_A. I think this is saying something more profound. Among the great writers of this day you are not seeing people who went the Jack London, Ernest Hemingway route. With a couple of exceptions, they got degrees in English, journalism or MFAs. The best selling authors which I mostly randomly chosen and I don't respect that much, did not.

I think it's kind of sad. I suppose, maybe if I chose more recent-recent authors rather than Pulitzer Prize/Nobel Prize winners something different might have come up. But I really respect Toni Morrison and her talents. I was surprised to find that Michael Chabon out and out had an MFA.

Maybe if I chose my favorite successful genre writers (Ted Chiang, George RR Martin) something better in the results might have appeared.

I believe this list is saying: Talent plus MFA or English degree equals super-talent.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:30 AM on March 5


Oh and I recently read and enjoyed a non-plot-driven zombie apocalypse lit fic novel by Colson Whitehead. There wasn't much of a plot, but there was a series of pastiches that explored the emptiness within the protagonist and ultimately the emptiness of modern life, and also how shitty it is to be hunted by zombies all the time. I think the zombies were a metaphor.

Anyway, there may have been a plot-like object in there, which I can summarize as "things keep getting worse, constantly," but this is not what you would call a plot-driven piece.

BUT. What saves the book (for me) and makes it entertaining is... narrative. Each vignette has its own narrative arc, and can work more or less independently of those that came before and those that come after.

The other thing that kept me reading was the writing. It is crisp, direct, and sympathetic. Descriptive without being florid, smart and light at once. Dismissive jerks would say it's middlebrow; I would say it's meant for reasonably smart people who like reading stories, and is an example of excellence in the craft of writing.

So there you have it, my review of Zone One, a "novel" that confirms and refutes both sides of this argument.
posted by Mister_A at 6:31 AM on March 5



I believe this list is saying: Talent plus MFA or English degree equals super-talent.

I think it's something a little more base and cynical. I think this list says that publishing is so competitive, and publishers so conservative, that it's very difficult to crack the door open without the connections afforded by a first-tier English Lit and/or MFA program. These programs are the 'secret handshakes' needed to get your work read, repped, and eventually published.
posted by Mister_A at 6:35 AM on March 5


I also think this list is saying that publishing is sick and needs to be euthanized. Seriously. We need to have a publishing industry, we need carefully curated, lovingly edited, beautifully typeset books, but we don't need this quarterly profit-driven fearful shit show that we have now.
posted by Mister_A at 6:44 AM on March 5


I guess I don't necessarily disagree with you, but it's odd to me that you condemn the publishing industry for being profit-driven. I mean, that's what makes them an industry, right?
posted by Think_Long at 6:49 AM on March 5


No, it's OK to be profit-driven, it's a matter of emphasis. They're in that quarter-to-quarter mode now that prevents any risky move and keeps new voices from getting published. And ultimately it's hollowing the industry out, because their product is not improving; it's more of the same celeb books and A-list authors with scant space for new talent.

So it's not the profit motive, it's the stupidity and short-sighted cupidity that's doing them in.
posted by Mister_A at 6:52 AM on March 5


and was still able to wow my professors with purple prose

I know this thread is winding down now but, just to be clear, "purple prose" is bad prose, not good, right? It's not a linear scale of totally clear and straightforward at one end and impenetrably unreadable at the other.

Writers who are regularly praised for the quality or innovation of their prose may not have the "transparent" prose of plot-driven bestsellers beloved by speed readers everywhere, but they also don't write purple prose.
posted by aught at 8:29 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I was surprised to find that Michael Chabon out and out had an MFA.

I think the lesson to draw from all the Wikipedia cuts and pastes from author pages is that an MFA program is a sometimes useful but not necessary option for an already-talented writer on her or his way to maturity as a published author.

I also think this list is saying that publishing is sick and needs to be euthanized. Seriously. We need to have a publishing industry, we need carefully curated, lovingly edited, beautifully typeset books,

I don't know if it makes sense to throw out the baby with the bathwater; if you aren't aware of the great books coming out even from big presses, you should reconsider. The fact Doubleday published a "creative typist" like Dan Brown shouldn't invalidate the fact they have also published great stuff by people like A.S. Byatt or Ray Bradbury.

The other consideration is that while many of us want beautiful books of literary quality, there are also a whole bunch of other folks who want quick, mindless reads. And honestly, the way the economics of the thing works, a mega-seller like Brown will allow a big publisher to indulge in a number of other authors who don't bring in the money the way he does.
posted by aught at 8:40 AM on March 5


Maybe it's a little from Column A and a little from Column B: Maybe not everybody can learn to write, but those who can, tend to become writers anyway (being able to learn how at all, regardless of the form of instruction, gives them an edge), but they also tend to benefit the most from writing programs (whether they recognize it consciously at the time or choose to admit it or not) because--well, they can learn to write, and so the teaching isn't necessarily wasted on them.

So in this scenario, it's not that there's some innate gift for writing, limited to only a few, in other words. Learning may come more easily or not at all, but even the few with the ability to learn still have to work to get there. In most areas, people seem to show a range of natural abilities, so who's to say the ability to learn some particular skill in the first place doesn't likewise fall along a continuum.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:00 PM on March 5


« Older Earlier this year Tracy Halvorsen wrote an article...  |  Last night, the synthpop band ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments