“Stories aren’t about things, they are things,” the saying goes, and I’m feeling that more than ever of late. Simon Strantzas’ Burnt Black Suns and the first volume of Gogol’s Complete Tales, combined with my own writing practice, make for an odd stew. Simon writes weird fiction, some of it inexplicable, and some of it arising from human encounters with the unknowable. Gogol, whose realism is influential for many contemporary writers, very much draws on the tradition of tales told by a teller residing in a particular context, as with The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, etc. My own fiction—well, authors aren’t always the most astute observers of their own work, but I’d like to think the core of my fiction blends the naturalistic observation of early 20th century writing with the encountered strangeness of the Weird (when I’m not writing explicitly in another vein). All of these are different kinds of stories from Carter, Bender, Barron, or Woolf. All stories, and yet very much not alike.
These subjects have been uneasily on my mind of late as I write. When I first started writing and critiquing fiction seriously, coming up on ten years ago, I did so from a perspective that I only halfways understood. Workshop cant is workshop cant, whether it’s experienced in the classroom or by writers who have learned workshop methods at a distinct remove. It’s how we seem to talk about writing now, and it’s become more visible to me over time. This is partly due to (I hope) a little more wisdom coming with time, and part of it comes with being active with James River Writers, and watching the mechanisms and ideology we perpetuate in order to support writing. So… what about the stories that don’t fit?
It’s easy to say, for instance, that Gogol would fail the sniff test in a workshop. I mean, really! The roaming narration, lack of resolution, character types, etc., etc.—and yet, they’re wonderful stories. Fitzgerald’s another. Have you read Tender is the Night? Actually read it, with a cold eye? The book is a catastrophic failure—as a critiquable work. Sit down with an individual chapter, one from later in the book, and see what you can do with it. An unalloyed Modernist masterpiece, of course, but thinking about it has left me feeling, as so much excellent fiction does, rather lonely.
An easy associative jump here is to Stilltoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Have you read it, or seen the movie? Good story, and it does a decent job of capturing my abortive experience as a cross-country runner in high school. I was, God knows, not built to be a long distance runner, and I was slow—so very slow and incapable that finishing a race was a victory. I came in last literally every time I ran, but there was something essential about the experience that I have never forgotten: running the course at the speed I could, in the way I could. It makes me, to be frank, look slightly askance at all those marathons, half-marathons, ultra-marathons, etc. that have sprung up in recent years. They feel like cheating to me, in so far as they’re a communal experience, not a solo one.
Back to writing. We writers tend to fall into groups, to one extent or another. Some of that’s commerce, some of it’s identity creation, and some of it’s simply socialization, but I remain doubtful of the value of it in terms of creating distinctive, excellent fiction. That’s not (or shouldn’t be) a radical thing to say, but what the fuck could Gogol ever say to Strantzas, or Christie to Barron, or Fitzgerald to Gaitskill? Maybe the best thing they could say is “let’s go have a drink.” One could talk craft, I guess, and there is a joy in deeply nerding out about craft, but I hardly ever talk with an experienced artist in any medium (words; dance; oboe) who doesn’t get a certain glazed look on talking about craft at length. My assumption is that this is because, unless they’re being paid to do it, or they really have something to say, it’s like talking about any process, and the joy is not in talking about it.
If this post seems exceptionally digressive or circuitous, that’s not accidental. I am trying to work through the problem of reading and writing material with great disparities, and trying to improve that fiction when you pass out of the country of the workshop and into unknown territories. This is partly notional, as I get great help from my writers’ group and talking with other writers, whether at James River Writer events, or having coffee with a new or old writing friend. I don’t count myself a Great, but sometimes I look down at the page and see what I’ve written, and I realize that that no one else can help me. The reader simply will have to go along with it, or not, because it’s not like other stories. This story may be written in that key, that story in another, but on certain days when the engine is really rolling, I put words down that don’t quite fit standard narrative constructions, but… which do make a story. Perhaps all of this is, in the end, simply part of being your own best judge, in terms of what feedback you accept and what you don’t, but more often of late it feels as if I’m no longer writing with a net, and that is a strange feeling.