Salvatore Pane

Tag: John Gardner

Dispatches From a Creative Writing Camp and the Strange Allure of the Nintendo Novel

This is my second week teaching at the Young Writers Institute, a University of Pittsburgh summer writing camp for middle schoolers and high school kids. I’m teaching 7th and 8th graders, and although I’ll undoubtedly write something longer about the experience later, there are a few things I want to discuss now. First off, it’s amazing to me the type of writers these kids respond to. Last week, we took them to the Carnegie Library and I managed to get a bunch of them interested in Flannery O’ Connor, Tom Perrotta, Stewart O’ Nan and Belle Boggs. One even picked up Kevin Wilson all on her own. Today we went through a bunch of the superb exercises in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I expected Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, and while the kids do all seem to like these books (can you believe current 7th graders were born after the release of the first HP book?!), they also seem to be drawn to “serious” “literary” fiction which is a promising sign.

But that’s not what this post is going to be about. One of my students reminds me a lot of a younger me. He’s unreasonably tall and built like a matchstick. He spends much of his day talking about Nintendo and always arrives earlier than anyone else. Usually, he has a new chapter from the novel he’s writing for me. What’s it about? It’s a sequel to a video game I never heard of, a Japanese Role-Playing Game that involves a bunch of Nintendo characters, including everybody’s favorite Italian stereotype, Super Mario.

For those unware, Japanese RPGs are extremely text heavy video games. They usually take 30-60 hours to complete, and much of that time is spent watching cut scenes or reading dialogue, the exact opposite of Tom Bissell’s beloved luddonarratives. Typically, these games are standard fantasy fare, i.e. knights and wizards. But in the nineties, things began shifting towards steampunk. When I was kid, RPGs were my favorite type of video games. And although I haven’t played one in a few years, I can relate to my student’s desire to ape this narrative style. A group of warriors and wizards are thrown together due to an extreme crisis. They band together and travel a fantastic world learning new abilities. They save the planet. I can relate to wanting to write in this style, but I don’t understand it.

As a child, I wrote many Nintendo novels, hundreds of pages of material following the typical RPG path. What I don’t understand is why this was the major type of story I, and apparently many others, tried to emulate. I was exposed to countless comic books and read a ton of young adult sci-fi and fantasy. Yet I never tried to recreate or sequelize those worlds. Why is that? Is it because they were more fully fleshed out? Because the worlds and characters of RPGs are only ever suggested and never fully realized? Is it because the stories of RPGs were inherently simpler than kid novels from writers like Bruce Coville, and thus, more easily copied? I’m not really sure. But I’m wondering if others out there tried to write Nintendo novels as kids. I’m wondering if anybody has any thoughts on why.

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Rediscovering Nonfiction

A few weeks ago I was at a multi-genre reading with segments of fiction and nonfiction. I sat. I listened. I thought about how cultured I was. And I was utterly bored, especially during the creative nonfiction components. It was mostly navel-gazing and that genre I hate more than anything in the entire world: “Memoir of a Privileged, White Twenty-Something”. Ok, I guess that’s slightly better than “Memoir of a Privileged, White Twenty-Something Who Goes To The Third World and is Enlightened Spiritually”.  I sat there scowling and thinking about how much I used to love CNF back in college when I enjoyed literary journalism as well-deserved respites from devouring novel after novel after novel. I sat there thinking how I no longer cared about the genre.

In a workshop class I’m taking, writer Cathy Day has us thinking about “the negative cultural and critical reaction to personal nonfiction writing vs. its popular/commercial appeal”. It’s interesting that in an era of publishing history when nonfiction greatly outsells all facets of fiction that CNF, particularly the memoir, is under attack. Check out Taylor Antrim’s tirade on The Daily Beast. How about Maud Newton’s slam over at the LA Times? Two big name authors who swung through Pittsburgh both discussed how much they disliked CNF: Lorrie Moore and Aleksandar Hemon.

I can only speak to my own experience. I’m not a huge reader of the genre. I’m very often bored by memoirs, especially if the writer isn’t famous or hasn’t gone through something exceptional. I don’t read nonfiction for assurance that I am not alone in the universe and that there are others out there like me; that’s why I read fiction. These are my favorite works of CNF: On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner. Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose (light pedagogical theory). Portions of Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (a pedagogical biography).  No More Vietnams by Richard Nixon. Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman. A Tragic Honesty: The Biography of Richard Yates. And New New Journalism, a fantastic collection with long, informative essays by writers as varied as John McPhee and Hunter S. Thompson.

I bring these up to illustrate a point. The Rumpus recently ran an interesting article about why people read nonfiction. It quotes John D’Agata who asks, “Do we read [nonfiction] to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?” I think this is the fundamental sticking point in the nonfiction debate. I’ve looked at my shelves, thought about this question and my own instinctively negative reaction towards memoirs. Clearly, I’m not reading nonfiction for art. No one who lists the prose of Richard Nixon as a favorite could possibly be looking for art, and it’s now obvious I value the genre for its ability to distill and disseminate information.

So to sum up: I think that a bunch of leather-elbowed professors and critics sitting around trying to decide whether CNF is a bankrupt genre is silly. It’s different from fiction. The two genres aren’t in competition with one another. People whose natural instinct it is to chide CNF are probably just coming at it from a different viewpoint: they’re not looking to experience voice, or sometimes even emotion in nonfiction; they’re looking for (at times clinical) information. And if that’s your primary motivation for reading nonfiction, it’s difficult to really compare it to fiction in any favorable way. Nor should you.