Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Workshop Issues: The Cost of Realism as Truest Art (A Pro-Zombie Riff?)

I love the intro to the Surreal South's call for submissions:

Step into, say, 90% of university writing workshops, and you’ll find the students interested in writing outside the lines slumped in their seats, looking like they’ve been pelted with rocks. For many decades now, realism has been the order of the day for those teaching serious fiction. Disappointing, isn’t it? Our children are drawn to the fantastic, and naturally blend it with their own daily reality. So we immerse them in games and literature that excite their imagination... until it’s time to write. Then we toss a big, fat brick of realism at them and wonder why their prose has all the sparkle of desiccated mouse turds."

This was likely written by the editors of Surreal South -- Pinckney and Laura Benedict who have been editing this anthology for a number of years with stories by Daniel Woodrell, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, and a ton of new, emerging talent.

I don't blame the desiccated mouse turdish prose on realism, but, in my workshop, the goal is art. However you get there is up to you. When I tell them this, they test me. (It's not usually their first time on the workshop merry-go-round.)

"Can we write about aliens?"
"If it aspires to be art, yes."
Can we write about zombies?"
"If it aspires to be art, yes."
"Can we write a story set in the subconscious?"
"If it aspires to be art, yes."

One of the most literary and heartbreaking love stories that ever came out in a workshop of mine was an alien-human romance. The most gorgeous description of a stark rural winter and the inherent lonesomeness came from a zombie story. The most inventive story I've read from a workshop was set in the imagination -- llike the best scenes from Inception pre-Inception.

About twenty years ago after undergrad, I was teaching English as a Second Language to Spanish pilots with Berlitz, living at home
in Delaware, failing some psych courses that I was taking just to rule out psych , and Fred Chappell came to give a reading at the University in this little basement where I'd seen a lot of bad theater throughout my childhood. He read a story about an idea -- I believe it was an idea -- that settled in and blocked a country road. I decided that I wanted to study with him. I applied to UNC-Greensboro where he taught, sent him a personal letter that I was applying because of him, and he wrote me back and eventually I got in. I wrote whatever the hell I wanted while there, and it was a mix -- sometimes realism, sometimes absurdism, sometimes a mix. The stories that I wrote those two years exist -- essentially -- in the novels I've published since.

Before my second year, there was a rumor that one of the new MFA students had traveled around the world because she'd won a contest. She'd answered the question: Why do you want to travel around the world? With this: Because you can't travel through it. (I'm paraphrasing.) She won. This was none other than Kelly Link, the author of some of the wildest and most wonderful magic realism going (or fabulism or sci-fi or horror or slipstream or absurdism ... whatever -ism you prefer to call what Link does). She also cofounded Small Beer Press. We were allowed to aspire to art -- whatever way we wanted to get there.

Then I went on to hunker in to realism, which, I suppose, I thought the publishing industry wanted. And it did. The publishing industry actually starved the adult audiences of fabulism (sci-fi lived in the ghetto of sci-fi) and it created a hole. Harry Potter arrived. It rushed to fill that vacant hole -- the adult appetite was proven. And fantasy element came back into the adult publishing world, allowing for successes like The Time Traveler's Wife and, eventually, vampires, zombies, paranormal ...

And not all of these books aspire to art, but some -- regardless of subject -- do and beautifully so.

Now, every workshop teacher has his/her own methodology. I don't want to mess with it. In fact, I think that limitations and rules are delights to the imagination, and what more can a writer ask for than to have something to buck against?

For me, personally, I don't believe that all writers are readers moved to emulate (referring to Saul Bellow's quote); I believe that storytelling is instinctive and, wiped clean of the history of literature, people would build a fire and tell stories around it. I've let go of the snobby shackles of subject matter, if I ever did believe in them, which I probably have. I hold onto that aspiration of art and I let 'em write towards it -- in any form that takes.