Fat Books & Thin Women

Now this is a real blog
October 28, 2010, 10:17 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s been almost a month since I’ve updated this, so what a shame that this is not a real update. No, dear readers, I have no thoughts for you on my recent reading (the Flat Stanley series, Harry Potter dhe dhoma e te fshehtave)…because, for the first time in a year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve been busy for more than an hour at a stretch.

This post is merely to extend my Formal Thanks to Sara Lautman for making me a header image. Now I feel like this is a real blog, worthy of my renewed attentions. Thank you S. Laut. Thank you!

If you haven’t picked up on all my hints, go look at her other drawings now.

The Condition, and What Creative Writing Programs are Doing to American Fiction

It is perhaps unfair that I don’t devote an entire entry to reviewing Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition, but this book plays well into something I spend a little too much time worrying about: namely, what MFA programs are doing to American literature.

On the list of things it has going for it, The Condition is a skillfully written novel with well-drawn characters. Their actions are maybe 95% of the time believable and understandable.

On the list of things against it, the plot of The Condition can be summed up in a sentence, because it’s only a plot in the loosest definition of the thing: the novel is about the McKotch family and how the genetic condition of one family member, Gwen (a condition that leaves her in the body of a child for her entire life) impacts the course of their lives.

Things do happen in this novel. People break up and come back together. People are married. Gwen’s father, Frank, has a drama at work. But at end, the novel lacks a center. Haigh splits her time evenly between the major family members (the parents, Frank and Paulette, and their children, Billy, Gwen and Scott) and the result is a certain lack of focus. Maybe their lives were impacted by Gwen’s medical condition, but to base an entire novel on this is a shaky proposition; and moreover, Gwen’s condition doesn’t seem to have had all that much impact on their lives. One widely held assumption throughout the novel is that Frank and Paulette divorced because of the stresses resulting from Gwen’s condition, but near novel’s end we find that those fractures in their marriage were present long before they split up. It may be more accurate to say that the novel is about how characters believe their lives have been impacted by Gwen’s life.

Haigh’s novel is undeniably a well-written one, albeit not one with reams, or even a few, sentences that leap out and grab hold of you. Having read The Condition after Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, a novel that is both well-written and well-plotted, the faults of a character-based, plot-free novel, written in the style of (hey!) a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, stood out all the more sharply to me.

On a sentence-by-sentence basis, Haigh is arguably better than the authors of some of the classics I’ve been reading lately – Kate Chopin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, even Fitzgerald in The Beautiful & Damned. They all fail sometimes to craft the universally pleasing sentences of her novel. But there is no question that all three of them are better writers than Haigh. Reading their books, I feel that there’s something real in them, that characters are being caught up in history, in life, unlike Haigh’s characters, who stew in their self-created miseries for nearly 400 pages. Their novels are not based around a template, a sort of product of the writing programs that are so popular now. How many novels have there been in the last five or ten years with a “plot” centering on how one event impacts the life of a family? How do you even begin to count such novels?

In her review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing at the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman writes:

…McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

On the whole, I agree with Batuman’s view of writing programs, and her article is a much more lucid consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of writing programs than anything I write can be. In that quote, she makes the point that I’ve been reaching towards, if not voicing, for years now: that there a lot of writers producing commendable work that I’ll forget about a week after I’ve read it. My abandonment of short story collections isn’t the result of a decreasing love for the story, but for having, a few too many times, gotten halfway through a collection before realizing, Hey! I’ve read this before!…but still being unable to remember any clear details of the stories. Does it matter how “well written” a work is, by the most objective measures we can imagine, if there’s nothing about the story that we will remember a year, a month, a week after reading it?

In her conclusion Batuman writes, “As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one.” And as Bill Morris concludes in his essay “Does School Kill Writing?”, “School can’t kill writing.” With Batuman and Morris, though, I don’t think this is a reason for celebration. Although McGurl may argue that we see fiction as increasingly mediocre only because it is, as a whole, so much better than it used to be, I think the mediocrity is more a result of the sameness of literature coming out of creative writing programs. It may be technically good, but I can’t care enough to read it anymore. The Condition, with its forgettable characters, forgettable sentences, forgettable plot, reminded me of why my shift to the classics, to young adult, to genre fiction, to histories, to anything that didn’t emerge from a writing program, has been such a pleasurable one.

Further reading:

Classic Read: Richard Wright’s Native Son

My most recent excuse for not studying for the GRE, Native Son by Richard Wright, far surpassed my expectations. I had a vague notion that it would be an “idea” novel, which it was, and I’m not a fan of political or religious or ethical philosophies that have been cloaked in fiction. Wright is expressing certain ideas about the limitations of blacks in America in the 1930s, the lack of agency or possibility in their lives, but his skill as a writer prevents Bigger Thomas from ever seeming a pawn to his plot. This is all the more amazing to me because, at end, Bigger’s place in society as a whole is as nothing more than a pawn, without the ability to shift the inevitable direction of his life.

Native Son takes place in 1930’s Chicago. The novel deals almost exclusively with the 20-year-old Bigger Thomas and how he is led, or pushed, to accidentally murdering a white woman, then his girlfriend. The novel ends after Bigger’s trial, but I’m not giving anything away by telling you that – from the start, there’s little question about how Bigger’s story will end. For me, the novel’s interest lies in Bigger’s reactions to and thoughts on what happens to him (for even when he’s taking real, definite action, as when he murders his girlfriend, he seems to be acting not entirely of his own volition) rather than in the plot itself.

From novel’s start, Bigger is by all accounts a no account, involved in petty crime and living off the welfare his family receives, until he’s pushed to take a job as a chauffeur for the Dalton family. Early on, Wright describes him as something of an emotional drifter:

As long as he could remember, he had never been responsible to anyone. The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled. That was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared. (44)

From Wikipedia

The story of Native Son is, in large part, of how Bigger comes to be responsible to someone, however briefly; that is, how he comes for a few brief moments to become really present in that feared world. As he thinks repeatedly after murdering the white woman, Mary Dalton, he felt really alive after killing her. The pages in which Wright describes Bigger’s attempts to dispose of the body, shifting from idea to idea until he finally settles on stuffing her body in a furnace, cutting her head off, with newspaper to catch the blood, because she won’t fold in small enough, is so grotesque as to snap the reader out of the sleepwalk of the novel’s first eighty pages.

Bigger doesn’t seem proud of the act of murder itself; in fact, he is disconnected from what he’s done. As is noted at his trial, he never expresses regret for killing Mary Dalton, presumably because the murder wasn’t committed with any intent, but rather accidentally, the result of his fear at being discovered in her room late at night. (Of course, up until the murder, Bigger behaves pretty honorably, if uncomfortably, towards Mary Dalton.)

Bigger does, though, take pride and strength in the knowledge of the murder he’s committed. Suddenly, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he knows something that no one around him knows, he has some power over the world that he has shied from for his twenty years:

Because he could go now, run off if he wanted to and leave it all behind, he felt a certain sense of power, a power born of latent capacity to live. He was conscious of this quiet, warm, clean, rich house, this room with this bed so soft, the wealthy white people moving in luxury to all sides of him, whites living in a smugness, a security, a certainty that he had never known. The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score. (155)

Bigger ends up running after the remains of Mary’s body are discovered in the Dalton home’s furnace, but not before involving his girlfriend Bessie to the degree that she must go with him. In the reader’s mind, in Bigger’s mind, there’s no real doubt that he’s going to murder Bessie too. As he’s getting Bessie from her apartment, after running from the Dalton home, Bigger thinks of how he will have to “settle things with her” so as to remove himself from danger:

He thought of it calmly, as if the decision were being handed down to him by some logic not his own, over which he had no control, but which he had to obey. (215)

The real sorrow of Bigger’s life is that the only meaning he can find in his twenty years comes from these two murders. At two moments, propelled not by his own power (really sensed for the first time only after he murders Mary) but by some greater force, or “’like another man stepped inside of my skin and started acting for me….’” (326), Bigger commits the crimes by which the world will come to define him, by which he will come to define himself.

Wright does a few things in this novel that particularly impress me.

  • The bulk of the action, from Bigger’s taking the job with the Daltons to his capture after murdering both Mary and Bessie, takes place over just a couple days. And more, much of the “action” takes place inside Bigger’s head. But it never gets boring.
  • Bigger isn’t a sympathetic character, but he is an interesting one… which is interesting to me because Bigger himself identifies his major, defining actions as ones that he didn’t have total control over. And while Bigger’s individuality is never strongly declared, he at no point seems like a flat character, there to play out the ills of the world. How did Wright manage to make a character by which he addresses many of the social problems brought up in the novel, without making Bigger as a person read false? Wish I knew.
  • At times Wright juxtaposes the image the world has of Bigger with the image Bigger has of himself. These images are very different: the world alternately describes Bigger as a shy black boy uncomfortable around his white employers, and as a bloodthirsty, remorseless killer, while Bigger himself is neither of these two things, nor even in the middle of these two extremes. He’s a conflicted character for sure, and it can be interesting and sometimes surprising to see how the actions that play out of those inner conflicts appear to the characters who don’t have intimate access to his thoughts.

The novel’s ultimately a sad one, not because of the murders, but because of the final sense that there was no other way things could have been. Living in that world of 1930’s Chicago, there was no way Bigger could have reacted to the pressures and influences on him other than the way he did. Sadder perhaps than those two murders is that although his crimes seem more the result of outside pressures than of any intention of Bigger’s, they are the defining moments of his life, not just as the world sees him, but as he sees himself.

In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight. (225)