Salvatore Pane

Tag: Andre Dubus

Tom Bailey and the Perfect Writing Pedagogy: In Which I Discuss Abortions, Rilo Kiley and Jar Jar Binks

I attended my first workshop eight years ago (eight years! how did this happen?). We sat around a conference table in the basement of an academic building, the type from a trillion frat movies, all brick with ivy growing up and down the sides. And in came this man wearing denim, cowboy boots, and sporting the type of facial hair that could frighten Tom Selleck. The guy sat down, didn’t say a word of introduction, and opened up an anthology he edited (on the cover is a picture of him scowling alongside portraits of JCO, Hemingway, Dubus and others). He cleared his throat, said, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” and read us the entirety of John Updike’s A&P.

Needless to say, my friends and I all lived in worship of this man, novelist Tom Bailey, a southern good old boy who openly told us, “I’m not interested in experimentation. My reading list’s mostly dead white men.” And we all hurried home after that first class and poured our hearts out into Microsoft Word, producing lackluster, predictable stories about break ups, losing your virginity, the death of a grandparent, or whatever other bullshit teenagers come up with (my story was about how much the Catholic Church blows and how awesome Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is; so in some respects, my unfortunate themes haven’t changed much over the years).

But then a funny thing happened over the course of that first semester: people started talking shit about Bailey behind his back. I couldn’t understand. We read the man’s stories, and it was obvious he had chops. But more importantly he had swagger. He was a living illustration of what we all wanted to become, a real life writer we could imitate. If he did it, so could we. Right?

(Check out this creepy video where Tom Bailey cries and a younger, more vulnerable Sal gives a reading in a Rilo Kiley t-shirt and awkward sports jacket.)

I didn’t figure out why all my friends got so sick of Bailey all of the sudden until I was about to go up for workshop. I printed out my masterpiece about the anointing of the May Queen and a twelve-year-old obsessed with Playstation and left it in Tom’s mailbox. A day or two later I went to talk with him about it. His office was lined with books, most of which I had never heard of (up until that point, I’d only read comic books, sci-fi, and the respective catalogs of J.D Salinger and Chuck Palahniuk).

Tom told me that he really liked one specific line (it took me awhile to track it down, but it’s “The nuns were supposed to pick the purest girl in the school, but they didn’t want any trouble, so they decided to pick a name out of a hat.”). I nodded, took notes in my little notebook and asked him about the rest of the story. He said he didn’t like it and thought I should cut it (all 22 pages) and start again with that line. He handed me a book by Breece D’J Pancake (a writer who blew his brains out in graduate school; great encouragement, Tom) and told me to get cracking.

I’m bringing this up because (years later) now that I’ve finished grad school and eight continuous years of workshops, I’m trying to figure out what kind of criticism I got the most out of. I remember how so many of my fellow students in Bailey’s class were completely shut down by his tell it like it is method which is designed to teach you the value in cutting your work and never being attached to anything you write. And that skill’s proven absolutely invaluable to me (especially in ’08 when I threw away a completed novel I now refer to as The Abortion). But some writers are absolutely crushed by this level of criticism.

This is a CGI representation of what my first attempt at a novel was like.

Justin Taylor recently posted a critique he received from an undergrad poetry teacher. To me, it seemed perfectly in line with something a writer might say to an undergrad. But in the comments section, people were split on whether the commentary was actually helpful or just cliche-ridden and destructive. I have to admit, this kind of reaction always surprises me.  Are writers so thin skinned that honest criticism is too much for them to deal with? And if so, is this really what they want to be doing with their lives? Submitting to hundreds of journals only to get a handful of acceptances? Because, let’s be honest, any criticism in the real world is inevitably a trillion times harsher than what people receive in workshop.

There’s something to be said for the, “This is good; keep going” route of writing pedagogy. But I think it’s more appropriate when workshopping novels than short stories. If someone writes a flawed short story, isn’t it the duty of instructors and fellow workshop students to make the author aware of said flaws and point out potential solutions? On the flip side, I’ve seen writers a third of the way into a promising novel put up a first chapter and become completely debilitated by the laundry list of suggestions.

After sixteen workshops, I’ve gone through a lot of feedback. And what I remember most are the harsh critiques, the honest critiques. Those made me a better writer. What I never remember is the false flattery, the praise, and all the unearned bullshit writers sometimes feel compelled to give apprentices. Case in point, a few years back when I was really wrestling with The Abortion (the aforementioned novel, not a reincarnated Chuck Palahniuk creation), Cathy Day took me aside and gently (maybe not in so many words) told me I should put it away for awhile. At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear this and sulked for a few days, but the key here (just like in the Bailey example where he plucked out a new first line from the wreckage) was that Cathy gave me something to build on. I was spending a lot of time back then creating Facebook photo albums with long, elaborate captions that went on for entire paragraphs. And Cathy told me how much she liked that voice and how little she saw of it in my novel writing. Why not write in that voice?

Well why not? So I aborted The Abortion and began writing something completely different, all the while imagining myself captioning pictures on Facebook. Is that an absolutely bizarre method? Yes. But it worked for me, and Cathy helped me find that. She didn’t worry about my feelings. Just like Tom and a gazillion other amazing mentors I’ve had, they were honest. They weren’t afraid to tell me something I wrote was terrible.

Thoughts on the Short Story Survey

“Do people still care about short fiction?” That’s a redundant, pointless question for the most part, but I find it interesting that the dominant form of literary fiction consumed in this country is the novel, yet so many undergraduate institutions focus primarily on the short story in writing workshops and even in general surveys for non-English majors. I’m taking an Independent Study at Pitt with Nick Coles called Seminar in Course Design. The goal of the course is for me to generate five syllabi for a wide variety of classes: Workshop in Composition, Short Stories in Context, The Graphic Novel, Intro to Creative Writing and Intro to Fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of pedagogical theory on these subjects by writers like Mike Rose, Richard Rodriguez, Madison Smart Bell and Peter Turchi. It’s been really great experience so far, but the one I keep getting stuck on is the short story course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the survey courses I took in undergrad. My professor was a particularly cool guy we all wanted to emulate. Dr. Laurence Roth had a book out about Jewish detective fiction and wrote scholarly articles about comic book luminary Will Eisner. He also played in a kickass band made up of other faculty members. This is all to say that he had a posse of students who signed up for practically every class he taught. When I took his survey,  I was still a very naive, innocent undergrad reading Carver, Dubus, Wolff and Ford pretty much exclusively. Roth bombarded us with Pynchon, Eggers, Safran-Foer, DeLillo, Kincaid and even the aforementioned Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware. I was alternatively frightened by Roth’s selection and intrigued. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that Roth’s survey class proved a valuable counterpoint to the realism heavy focus of all my workshop classes. Roth showed the alternative; he showed us what else was possible.

So the question I’ve been facing is whether or not one class can balance both sides. Can a single survey course manage to promote neither realism, postmodernism or any other school of thought, and instead, simply show students the possibilities and let them decide on their own? Or will professors’ biases always come to the forefront no matter how democratic a syllabus? I’m not sold either way. But I’ve made an attempt. Below, you will find a draft of my short story survey syllabus. I’m looking to improve it, so if you have any suggestions, please throw them out. Keep in mind, it’s aimed at undergraduates.

Course Description

This course is a survey of the various facets of the contemporary short story from 1950 to present. The class will be broken down into four major units in which we will examine the work of authors from different literary movements and see how they are affected by history and culture. The first unit will involve a thorough analysis of the so-called post war writers who often focused on the widespread conformity of 1950s and early 1960s America. Unit two will move on to the more experimental writers of the ‘60s and beyond and focus on how these writers constructed their stories and why they were so deeply impacted by their place in literary history. Then we will cover the dirty realists of the ‘80s and their shift back to basics during an age of utter excess. Toward the end of the course, we will study the growing world of globalized writers and the plight of those who deal with the aftermath of colonial imperialism. Finally, the class will investigate the new frontier of canonized short story writers and attempt to understand and categorize what their place in history is.

Required Coursework

The class is designed as an ongoing discussion about the contemporary short story and how the form affects and is affected by broader stratifications in history and culture. We will conduct close readings on the assigned material every class. After the second week, group presentations will begin in which teams of four students are given time to present on directed topics. Aside from class participation and group presentations, grades will be based on three separate papers in which students will be asked to discuss the various texts at length along with supplemental material and other theoretical/cultural concerns.

Sequence

Unit I: Post War Conformity in the USA: The Rise of Traditional Realism

John Updike
John Cheever
J.D Salinger
James Baldwin
Richard Yates
Group Presentations Begin

Unit II: The Counter Culture and Avant-Garde

Donald Barthelme
Joyce Carol Oates
James Alan McPherson
Barry Hannah
Toni Cade Bambara
Charles Baxter
Jamaica Kincaid
Roberto Bolano
Paper #1 Due

Unit III: Dirty Realism in the Age of Reagan

Tim O’Brien
Raymond Carver
Andre Dubus
Tobias Wolff
Richard Ford
Bobbie Ann Mason
Alice Munro
Breece D’J Pancake
Lorrie Moore
Paper #2 Due

Unit IV: New Frontiers

David Foster Wallace
Rick Moody
Rick Bass
Etgar Keret
Junot Diaz
Dan Chaon
Robert Boswell
Dave Eggers
Antonya Nelson
Miranda July
Stewart O’ Nan
A.M Homes
Don Lee
Jhumpa Lahir
George Saunders

Final Paper Due

Assignments

Paper #1) Using the work of two writers from Unit I and two writers from Unit II, compare and contrast the style and techniques of the Post War Realists and the Experimentalists. What is at stake for these groups of writers and is there any overlap? Focus your argument on whether or not one side or the other has more emotional resonance. You may want to take into consideration that the answer may be more complex than “the experimentalists have more emotional resonance because…” What concerns bind these seemingly disparate groups of writers together? What threatens to tear them apart? 5 pages.

Paper #2) What does it mean to be a dirty realist in the age of Reagan? Using the work of at least three of the writers covered in Unit III, come up with a mantra for this generation of writers and spend your paper arguing their merits and drawbacks. What have these writers taken from those in Unit I? What about Unit II? On the flip side, what have they jettisoned? What is gained from their techniques? What is lost? Feel free to make use of the historical milieu of the time period. 5 pages.

Paper #3) We have now examined some of the most major writers of the short story from 1950 to the present day. Since you now have a vast resource of stories and writers to draw from, I would like you to select three writers from Unit IV that you think are similar stylistically. Then go back through the previous units and attempt to create a genealogy for this group of writers. You should argue which writers and stories influenced your writers and how. Do you see the macabre flourishes of Joyce Carol Oates in the work of Dan Chaon? Is there a connection between the down and out protagonists of Raymond Carver and the Pittsburgh milieu of Stewart O’ Nan? Is Jhumpa Lahir’s interest in the post-colonial world influenced by Jamaica Kincaid in any tangible way? Make connections. See the through lines that are at play in literary history. 10 pages.

Why Super Mario Bros. Will Affect the New Generation of Writers

A few years ago I came across a story of Tom Bissell’s in Best American Short Stories 2005. I can’t remember everything about “Death Defiers”, but I’m pretty sure it involved an American photojournalist in the Middle East who gets swept up in some sort of bizarre, familial poison plot. The details are fuzzy, but what I recall quite clearly is the final paragraph: a beautiful piece of prose describing the protagonist stepping on a mine and flipping through the air. I’m not doing this story any justice whatsoever, but I liked the piece enough at the time to add Bissell’s name to my “To Read” list.

I’m sure all writers/readers have similar lists. Mine’s in the back of whatever moleskin notepad I’m keeping my writing notes in at the time. The list comprises every book or writer that I need to read. Sometimes I make it through these lists in their entirety, but most of the time I do not. In the intervening years between first reading Bissell’s short story and now, I’ve seen essays of his from time to time but little else. Then yesterday, over on HTML Giant, I read that he was publishing a collection of essays about his addiction to video games (and flirtations with cocaine) called Extra Lives. They linked to an excerpt at The Guardian.

HOLY SHIT!

Finally, someone is looking at gamer culture with a literary (and serious) sensibility. Interestingly enough, the same Best American with Bissell’s piece also contained a short story about a World of Warcraft-esque human slave labor camp. But outside of that and Justin Taylor’s fantastic flash fiction Tetris/End of the World mash-up, I haven’t really read much that looks at gaming with a seriousness of intent. I was particularly drawn to this section in The Guardian excerpt:

What have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that pointed not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough….

It turns narrative into an active experience, which film is simply unable to do in the same way. And it is moments like this that remind me why I love video games and what they give me that nothing else can…

Niko [the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV] was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply. He was clearly having a hard go of it and did not always understand why. He was in a new place that did not make a lot of sense. He was trying, he was doing his best, but he was falling into habits and ways of being that did not reflect his best self. By the end of his long journey, Niko and I had been through a lot together. (Bissell)

What I love about this essay is that it recognizes that video games offer a textual experience wholly unique. Literature and film require active participation to a certain extent, but no matter how much you contextualize movies or visualize the scenes in books, you can never have a  literal direct effect on the chain of narrative events in the way you can with video games. Even comic books, which require more active participation than film or books by having white space segmenting the action which forces readers to play out the missing moments of time in their minds, cannot match the interactivity of a video game.

I’m not sure where this line of thinking will carry me, but it’s something I’ve been dwelling on a lot recently as video games factor into the novel I’m very close to completing, The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist. The protagonist is a gamer nostalgic for the 8-bit games of yore and often embeds images from those games into the text. During a trilogy of scenes which take place during the early nineties, he describes his devotion to all things Nintendo via the following:

If you’ve only casually played video games, then you can not comprehend the inner depths of their joys. You don’t know what it feels like to give yourself up so completely to an alien world of colors and sprites, of repetition and absolute safety. You are no longer yourself. You are an avatar. Super Mario, an Italian plumber tumbled through the looking-glass. Link, the boy knight on a magical crusade to rescue Princess Zelda from the terrible Ganon. Samus Aran, the intergalactic bounty hunter tracking down alien eggs on a world controlled by space pirates. This becomes more “real” than the “real” world…

And so I began my descent into the world of microchips and immateriality. And so I began to fear the natural world. Because when you are represented by an avatar, you are no longer Michael Bishop, a skinny child with a broken arm and sharp ribs that push against your polar bear t-shirt. You are not weak and loathsome and oh so frightened that some threat lurks around every corner existing only to dismember you. I lost myself in those games for hours at a time, refused to leave the safety of my house and that monolithic Nintendo. I feared forests and lakes and birds and wind and most of all people.

The digital!

My first true love!

(Pane)

What’s interesting to me about all of this is echoed in Paste Magazine’s review of the aforementioned Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. Reviewer Charles McNair writes, “Justing Taylor’s first short-story collection artfully captures the view of the 200s from the perspective of a twentysomethingSeveral of his stories bear the unmistakable, bloggy influence of the 2000s. Do we sense some sort of new fictional frontier? Time will tell.” This is the first generation to come of age raised on video games and technology more advanced than the Atari 2600 and the Apple II. Will that have an effect on the writing produced by those writers? How about blogs and Facebook and Twitter and cell phones? I say overwhelmingly yes. Our sense of narrative has been irrevocably shifted by technology and it only makes sense that not only will the platform literature is disseminated through change, but the very writing itself.

Two brief personal examples to illustrate a point:

1) This is my actual Nintendo collection.

Over the past six years, I’ve managed to track down about 150 Nintendo Entertainment System games, 50 Super Nintendo Entertainment games and 20 GameBoy games. I don’t play newer systems very much because I’d usually rather spend my free time reading, but also because I know that like Bissell I have an addictive personality and remember all too well the days in high school when I would play Japanese Role Playing Games on the original Playstation for disgusting stretches (during one horrible summer before ninth grade, I played Chrono Cross every day for three weeks for at least eight hours at a time. I became so addicted that I only stopped to hurriedly eat a sandwich in front of the pause screen). Since college, I have been content to play the games of my childhood. Super Mario Bros. Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Maniac Mansion. Blaster Master. Fun games with marginal narratives that only take about a half-hour to complete.

All that being said, how can I not be affected by video games? Even if I don’t play much now, so much of my life has been spent glued in front of a television screen controlling digital avatars that it wouldn’t be realistic to clam my sense of narrative hasn’t been deeply impacted by these digital worlds. And I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this.

2) I went to college for creative writing. The program is very serious compared to other undergrad institutions and the teachers treat their pupils more like graduate students. I often bailed on the work in my other classes to work on fiction and cnf, and this was certainly not frowned upon by the real working writers who taught us. The books lifted up for us to worship were all written by the ’80’s dirty realists and their predecessors. Carver. Dubus. Wolff. Ford. Pancake. Munro. Bobbie Ann Mason. Richard Yates. And don’t get me wrong. They all still number among my favorite writers, and my devotion to Yates borders on the religious.

Unfortunately, after many years of writing each and every day, I eventually came to realize that I will never be a master of domestic realism. I don’t have it in me. My instincts naturally strive for the geeky, the nerdy, and it’s hard to hit that aesthetic in the parameters of sparse Carver minimalism. I wrote a very bad, failed novel a few years ago in the style of domestic realism. The characters were all working class, and the subject matter included decaying mines and the folly of local politics.

It was breathtakingly terrible, and after wonderful advice from a mentor of mine, I packed it away in a drawer. Since then, I have written something much more successful, and my work has begun to be published in very small publications. While working on my new novel, I found myself referencing Nintendo, putting up screen shots, using Twitter feeds, implementing blog posts, inserting web comics and even writing an entire scene in script format. People ask why I made these narrative decisions and I can only respond that it’s what felt natural and “right” to me at the time. Like Bissell, I feel incredibly affected by the prevailing technologies of my era. To deny that by reverting to a mode of writing three decades old is akin to denying myself, something Bissell and Taylor are very clearly aware of.

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Success in the Digital Age

One of the many perennial essays that gets handed out to would-be writers is Ted Solotarff’s “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years”. It’s a harsh look at what even talented apprentice writers have to endure: toiling away in obscurity clinging to the desperate hope that their stories will get published (with no payment) in some small, yet respected, journal. That maybe one day if they work hard enough, and they’re lucky enough, that some agent will contact them, ready to take a risk. And above all, they have to hope that their writing is worth a damn, that when the call comes they’ll have something substantial to show even when a million voices (internal and external) tell the writer to give up, that they are of inferior stock, garbage, an abomination.

Writers have been rethinking this essay ever since Solotarff’s death back in 2008. In the LA Times, Dani Shapiro grappled with the essay and how the publishing industry has undergone a sea change since its original publication back in the early ’80’s. Shapiro writes:

The creative writing industry of the mid-1980s now seems like a few mom-and-pop shops scattered on a highway lined with strip malls and mega-stores. Today’s young writers don’t peruse the dusty shelves of previous generations. Instead, they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller — and did. The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn’t reward persistence, that doesn’t see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn’t trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: “So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?” The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry — always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media — has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.(Shapiro)

There’s a lot of mine fields to be navigated here, the chief of which in my mind is Shapiro’s complete disregard of the literary brat pack of the 1980’s. Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, these were writers who seemingly appeared overnight with novel publications in their early twenties. I still remember a mentor of mine, Tom Bailey, discussing in class how he read Less Than Zero when it came out and seethed with jealousy and rage for weeks on end. Writers getting published at a young age doesn’t seem like a particularly new aspect of the literary industry, and in fact, seems to happen less and less because the major publishers can no longer spend the time developing a writer. If Andre Dubus emerged today with The Lieutenant, you can almost be sure he wouldn’t have gone on to become the celebrated master he’s seen as now. He would’ve been dropped from the majors into the world of the University Presses or be permanently saddled as a mid list writer (as an aside, check out this great article in Kirkus Reviews about the plight of the mid lister).

What I do find to be of particular interest in Shapiro’s essay is her speculation that this latest generation of writers is fundamentally different from those who came before. I’ll leave that one to the historians, but it may be relevant to take a look at some of the premiere literary upstarts of the last few years. Many of these journals (I’m talking smaller places like The Collagist, New York Tyrant, Annalemma, Dogzplot, etc. etc.) seem to have become the new training grounds for young writers. These journals publish work from established writers, but their stable of contributors is mostly comprised of the up-and-comers. And with comments enabled on the online stories, these writers are building communities and networks that are bubbling over and just beginning to get notice from the New York majors. Perhaps this is the writing in the cold Shapiro thinks is missing from the current literary community. It’s just not being done in places like The New England Review, it’s happening in online upstarts independent from the university.

However, there’s one more element crucial to this issue. Has the  definition of what success means for a writer changed in the ensuing years between “Writing in the Cold” and today? Joe Coscarelli recently wrote this piece in Gawker. Coscarelli writes:

Aspiring novelists are archaic. I know this because in four years of higher education, no one ever offered to show me a manuscript, but I’ve seen more blogs than bongs. The bearded, bespectacled Pavement fans… are unemployed or out of touch. Or dead. No one in their early twenties wants to be a music journalist—that would be absurd. These English majors want to be some super genius bloggers. (Coscarelli)

He goes onto discuss how that in a world obsessed with fame, those souls who in any other time would be drawn to the method of cultural production that is the modern novel (or even the music journalism of the 1990’s) are now obsessed with becoming bloggers or nebulous media personalities. Coscarelli thinks that our priorities have shifted, and on that account, I don’t think many people can argue. What is success for writers in the digital age? Is it publishing a book of stories with a small Midwestern press that only a sliver of the public will actually read, or is it maintaining a popular blog with a loyal readership in the upper-thousands (or maybe success means being Maud Newton who has an awesome blog AND a forthcoming novel)? I can’t really say, but what I take comfort in is that for some of us, the definition of writerly success is the same as it’s always been: publishing a superior novel of critical acclaim. Just look at the aforementioned literary journals and the Rise of the MFA Program. There are more people writing than ever before, and this is cause for celebration (even if the reading public is dwindling by the day).