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The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis

By posted at 6:00 am on January 18, 2011 78

1. A Writer-Teacher Consults Her Magic 8-Ball

Why did I spend twenty years of my life writing short stories as opposed to novels?

Reply hazy, try again.

Because I know without a doubt that when I was growing up, I absolutely loved to read novels and rarely read short stories unless they were assigned in a class.

All signs point to yes.

Is it my nature to write short stories, or is it nurture?

Concentrate and ask again.

Have I really just spent two decades writing short stories for no other reason than because it’s the only prose form for which I’ve received explicit instruction?

Without a doubt.

And what about my students, the next generation? Have I passed this short story inclination to them?

It is decidedly so.

2. We are Not Experiencing a Short Story Renaissance

Today, most writers are raised in the creative writing classroom, where the fundamental texts are stand-alone poems and stories. As you progress from the introductory class to intermediate and advanced-level courses in your genre, you concentrate on aspects of fictional craft within these short forms, becoming more proficient in their creation and execution. At both the graduate and undergraduate level, most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom.

coverI’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers. In his new book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”

So. This is me. Paying attention.

Don’t get me wrong. I love stories, yes I do. I love teaching them and writing them. Some of my favorite writers work almost solely in the form. Stories have been very good to me. They are not easier to write than novels, they are not in any way inferior to the novel. So let’s get that straight. I am not dissing the short story nor its many practitioners.

But I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.

3. A Story is Not a Paper

Inevitably, students falsely equate the short story with another form with which they are intimately familiar: the paper. I know this is true because my undergraduates say odd things to me like, “I need to meet with you about my paper.”

I say, “What paper? Do you mean your story, that art you’re creating?”

The required studio art and dance classes I took in college didn’t transform me into a painter or a ballerina, but they certainly taught me to appreciate other forms of artistic expression. I was evaluated by things I made (a clay pot, a watercolor) or performed (a dance routine), and I never confused those products with the papers I submitted to my sociology and philosophy professors for evaluation. Students confuse writing stories with writing papers because of the same-seeming word itself—writing—and because the final results are indistinguishable from each other: a Word file, paragraphs of text on the screen or on 8½ x 11 sheets of paper. Another reason students confuse the two forms is that they probably create stories the same way they write papers—clock ticking, one or two intense sessions of writing, a euphoric, semi-magical flowing of words. Save. Print. Done.

4. Origin Story

coverI was in my second year of graduate school and taking a workshop with John Keeble. I knew I wanted to write something akin to Winesburg, Ohio, but instead of emerging one by one, the stories came out hopelessly fused. Imagine if Sherwood Anderson had sat down and written the title, “New Willard House” and proceeded to describe the characters in his fictional boarding house. The end. That’s a pretty good approximation of the story I’d submitted to Keeble for discussion, a big, messy failure of a story. I knew it, and everyone sitting around that table knew it.

And then the most amazing thing happened. Keeble opened the discussion by saying, “Some of you are working on stories, on the small thing, but I think this piece wants to be a big thing. Rather than talk about whether or not this works as a story, let’s talk about it as material toward a larger project.” Just like that, Keeble shifted the default setting of the workshop from dissection to enlargement, from what’s wrong to what could be. My peers weren’t allowed to say, “This story is muddled and digressive. There’s no main character and no dramatic arc.” (Which would have been absolutely true.) Instead, they said this:

Cathy, here’s a story.

And here is a story.

Over there, that is a story, too.

Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.

I was lucky.

Typically, workshops prescribe. Here’s what’s not working. Here’s what I had a problem with. Somebody—if not John Keeble, somebody—has to step up and change the default setting, to frame the conversation so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.

But how to you do that?

5. This is Not How You Do It

I know some people who took a novel workshop in college. This is how it went down.

First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.

Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.

Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.

And then the semester was over.

6. This is Not How You Do It Either

Syllabus: Fiction Workshop

Course Description:

This course is an intensive study of fiction. You will write, read, and critique fiction. Everything you write, read, and critique will be 8-15 pages long, or approximately 5,000 words. In other words, you will write, read, and critique short stories. In other words, this course is really a short story workshop. We hope that is why you are here—to learn to write a story that is 8-15 pages long. If not…well, could you just do it anyway? Thanks.

Course Objectives:

If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you will learn to artificially inflate your story so that no one will think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you will learn to artificially deflate your story because don’t you know that more than 15 pages makes people cranky?

Course Rationale:

A few years ago, we had a very contentious meeting of the Curriculum Committee to discuss enrollment caps in this course. Because it is a 300-level class, some of our esteemed colleagues from Literature felt the cap should be 30, which is how many students they have in their 300-level seminars. We argued that this was impossible, that the difference between a Fiction Workshop and a Seminar on the 19th Century Novel is that in the workshop, student work is the primary text. We said, “For us, the difference between 20 and 30 is not a matter of 10 more papers to grade. It’s a matter of 10 more manuscripts that must be discussed by the entire class. It would be like us telling you that rather than teaching six doorstopper novels, you must cover eleven.”

This argument proved to be quite persuasive.

The question then turned to page-output requirements. How many papers would students write in a fiction workshop? Because the accepted standard in 300-level literature seminars are two papers of 5-7 pages and one final research paper of 25 pages, for a total of 35-40 pages.

We said, “Our students don’t write papers, per se. They journal…”

This raised eyebrows, so we moved on.

“They write critiques of each other’s work.”

Some satisfied nods. Critique. Critical. Impersonal. Okay, this is working…

“They write responses to the assigned stories.”

Papers? they asked excitedly.

“Well, sort of. They don’t interpret. They don’t write about what something means but rather how it means. They analyze craft. They imitate. They steal.”

They plagiarize?

“No, not exactly.” Sigh. “And they write fiction.”

Our esteemed colleagues said, Yes, yes, yes, but how looooooong are these fictions?

And we said, “They are as long as they need to be,” which we admit sounded a bit flakey and was not persuasive. So we assured the Curriculum Committee that you would write fictions of substance and gravity of approximately 8-15 pages. Remember: we are artists striving for institutional respect within a sometimes inhospitable academic bureaucracy. Please help us prove that creative writing is a valid discipline. Please write stories that are as long as academic papers.

Methods of Evaluating Student Performance:

Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.

Course Content:

This Short Story Anthology, That Short Story Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and one novel by the successful writer who is visiting campus.

7. A Metaphor: Running Sprints vs. Running a Marathon

In his essay from Further Fridays, “It’s a Short Story,” John Barth says that while some fiction writers move back and forth between long and short modes, congenital short-story writers and congenital novelists do exist.

There is a temperamental, even a metabolic, difference between devout practitioners of the two modes, as between sprinters and marathoners. To such dispositions as Poe’s, Maupassant’s, Chekhov’s, or Donald Barthelme’s, the prospect of addressing a single, discrete narrative project for three, four, five years…would be appalling…Conversely, to many of us the prospect of inventing every few weeks a whole new ground-conceit, situation, cast of characters, plot, perhaps even voice, is as dismaying as would be the prospect of improvising at that same interval a whole new identity.

coverPerhaps the reason why so few fiction workshops provide explicit instruction on writing novels is because there’s no clear rubric. How-to-write-a-novel books run the gamut from the extraordinarily regimented (such as Robert McKee’s screenwriting tome, Story) to the queasily motivational (such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) to the intellectually impractical (such as E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). A few years ago, I announced in a class that fiction writer Walter Mosley was coming to town. “He’s the author of the Easy Rawlins books. Oh, and he just published a book called This Year You Write Your Novel.” One of my students guffawed. “Sounds like a self-help book.”

Inspiration, encouragement, support: these aren’t accepted pedagogical stances in academia. In order to be taken seriously within one’s institution, a writer-teacher must approach teaching with intellectual rigor, not inspirational vigor. This is college, not a rah-rah writing group. But to return to Barth’s analogy, writers of big things, like marathon runners in training, need to go on long runs regularly —alone or in small groups. They need water. They need good running shoes. And every once in awhile, they need someone driving by to beep their horn and give them a thumbs up. What they don’t need is for someone to stop them after the first mile and say, “You know what? Your first step out of the block wasn’t that great. Let’s work on your stride for awhile.”

8. Another Metaphor: Building a Writing Studio vs. Building a House

You decide to build yourself a writing studio in your backyard, a little room of one’s own. You lay a foundation, put up the frame, the walls, the windows, the door, the roof. Depending on where you live, you figure out how to heat it, how to cool it. You decide whether or not you want a toilet. You run electricity. You insulate. You put up the drywall, lay the floor, select fixtures. Then you paint the outside. Then you paint the inside, buy carpet maybe, and a desk and a chair and some framed art. And voila! You’ve built a small, one-room house!

This is how you write a story.

This is not how you write a big thing.

You don’t construct the kitchen—foundation to finish—and then move on to the living room—foundation to finish—and then move on to the bedroom—foundation to finish. You build a big thing in stages, which means that the house isn’t really habitable until very close to the end of the process. This is why it’s hard to workshop a big thing in progress. It’s like someone wants to show you the house they’re building. You show up for the grand tour, but the house is nothing but concrete and a frame. Still, your friend is so darned excited, gesturing at empty space. “This will be the kitchen!” What are you supposed to say? You smile and nod your head and try to seem interested, but really, you’re mad, because this seems like a big waste of your time. Why not wait until the house is all the way done to show it to you?

Your friend asks if you want to come back next week to watch them install the plumbing. You think, Please God, kill me now, but you say, “I’ll tell you what, friend. Why don’t you focus on finishing the bathroom? That I can help you with. I love to look at tile and showerheads. If you’ll do that, I’ll come back next week.”

And so you do that. Of course, you never finish building your house because you run out of money, but you love that bathroom dearly. That sunken-garden tub. That jungle-rain shower head. Italian tile. A Restoration Hardware polished chrome shower caddy. Ahhhhh.

9. Another Metaphor: Writing Right-handed vs. Left-handed

Ideally, a fiction workshop meets at a conference table. But most of the time you wind up in a classroom with desks scooted into a circle, and most of those desks accommodate the right-handed short story writers, not the left handed novelists.

Often, left-handed novelists don’t even realize they are left-handed, because as soon as they start fiction school, their teachers place the pencil in their right hand and say, “Write.” And when the 15 pages that emerge are woefully incomplete, a real mess, the teacher says, “What are you doing? That is not a story. Write a story.” And gradually, the left-handed novelist learns how to write a right-handed story, even though there’s always something about doing so that feels a little off.

Sometimes a left-handed novelist is wise or stubborn enough to realize that he is not a right-handed story writer with horrible penmanship, but more accurately a beautiful left-handed novelist with perfectly fine penmanship. When he is alone, away from school, he brandishes the pencil in his left hand and sighs. Ahhhhhh. Then in college, he takes a workshop, which is full of nothing but right-handed desks. He puts the pencil in his right hand. Out of necessity, he’s become ambidextrous. And so, he goes through the motions of writing right-handed short stories for class. Assignments that must be completed. Hoops to jump through so that he can be in this class, read books for credit, and get a degree in the writing of fiction. At night, he goes home and puts the pencil in his left hand and works some more on his novel, the pages of which he never submits to his teacher, whose syllabus clearly states that they are to submit short stories that are 8-15 pages long.

Then there is the left-handed novelist who gets an idea. Optimistically, she opens a file on her computer, types away, and names this document “novel.doc.” She asks her creative writing teacher if she may submit a chapter of her novel-in-progress to the workshop. She wonders why her teacher grimaces when she says the word “novel,” then reluctantly consents. A week later, she is “up.” There is a discussion. Everyone wants to know more, more, more. They want her to fix this and fix that. With her right hand, she revises the chapter (as required by her teacher, who uses the portfolio method of grading) and with her left hand, she writes Chapter 2. The next semester, she asks her new creative writing teacher if she may submit Chapter 2 to workshop, but this teacher says that no one will understand Chapter 2 without Chapter 1, and submitting both chapters is out of the question because that’s 30 pages and the limit is 15 pages. So she resubmits the revised Chapter 1, and everyone who read Chapter 1 last semester gets pouty. “Haven’t we seen this already?” And everyone else, well, they pose an entirely new set of questions. Dejectedly, the left-handed novelist sits down to revise Chapter 1 again (as required by her teacher, who also uses the portfolio method of grading). She opens the file “novel.doc,” which is still 30 pages long. Her left arm hangs useless from her shoulder, the muscles atrophying. After finals, she never opens that document again, but for years afterward, she thinks about those 30 pages. All the time.

So I ask you: whose fault is it that she didn’t write that novel?

For a long time, I would have said it was the student’s own fault.

But these days, I’m not so sure.

10. Shame Management

coverIn This Year You Write Your Novel, Mosley suggests writing for about an hour a day, producing 600-1,200 words a day, seven days a week. In this way, it’s possible to hammer out a first draft in about three months. “The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, most first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen.” It’s the same advice Anne Lamott offers in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter of Bird by Bird.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed.

Bird by Bird is a popular text in college creative writing courses, so why not the Mosley book? I’ll tell you why. Because the principle of “Shitty First Drafts” is fine if your students are all working on short stories; theoretically, there’s time for shitty to become shiny. Not so with novel writing. If we offered a class called This Semester You Start Your Novel, we’d be confronted by work that’s hard to critique and hard to grade. So many pages! So many mistakes! This is why we just keep teaching a class called, This Semester You Write Two Papers Whoops! We Mean Two Short Stories.

The long-term propulsive momentum necessary to write a big thing is continuously interrupted by workshop deadlines, which demand that a work-in-progress be submitted for group critique. Anyone who has been through creative writing instruction knows that being “up” in workshop means opening oneself to the potential negative judgment of your teacher and your peers. And so, you prepare your manuscript for workshop to maximize your chances of walking out of that classroom feeling good, not bad. Feeling pride, not shame. In The Program Era, McGurl says that students must—out of sheer psychological necessity—participate in a form of self-retraction or “shame management” that is endemic to the workshop model.

I taught in an MFA program for five years, and this is what I saw happen every year—without fail. It’s their last year in the program. They’ve taken all the required workshops, and reality strikes: they need a 150 page manuscript to graduate. After considerable fretting, they sit down to revise some story they don’t completely hate—and something thrilling happens. The story swells to 25, then 75 pages, or it becomes not one story but four interrelated stories. Freed from worrying about workshop page requirements and whether their peers will like it or not, they finally move from the small thing to the big thing. For the first time, they feel like they are writing a book, which is why they sought out creative writing instruction in the first place.

Which begs the question: Do students write stories because they really want to or because the workshop model all but demands that they do? If workshops are bad for big things, why do we continue to use them?

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to think outside the workshop.

(Image: College Math Papers from loty’s photostream)

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78 Responses to “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis”

  1. Rena
    at 2:35 pm on January 22, 2011

    As a graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars program – I couldn’t possibly agree with you more. I chose to take non-fiction and poetry courses rather than short story courses but that was because I knew that I wasn’t short story writer. Now, having just finished a novel – I don’t regret my decision at all! Short fiction never was and never will be my genre, but novel writing is!

    I wonder if a one year Novel writing course would be the answer? I did my first draft in 500-1500 word spurts – every day. Wow. An amazing article that rings soo true!

    Thank you!

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  3. Rouillie Wilkerson
    at 9:24 pm on January 22, 2011

    Though I’ve looked into a few writing workshops, I’ve never committed to one because what was offered didn’t seem to be what I was looking for. This article assisted me in the gleaning process, which I’ve been using as a heady substitute for forking out cash, that I don’t have, for something that doesn’t stick to me on an intuitive level.

    With gratitude…

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  6. Sheila O'Connor
    at 10:02 am on January 30, 2011

    Great article. I teach fiction in the MFA program at Hamline University. As a novelist, this very issue was a continued concern for me. About five years ago, I created and launched two courses designed specifically for the long project. The Novel and a long project Advanced Fiction. Both of these are non-workshop based courses that allow students the time to develop the deep, long relationship necessary to dream a novel to life. The work generated in these courses has been impressive–some of the best I’ve seen through my years of teaching. It is totally possible for MFA programs to offer learning experiences beyond the short-story model. It doesn’t have to be a question of one or the other–a program could make room for both.

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  18. Sally Reece
    at 4:12 pm on November 21, 2011

    This article was forwarded to me by a student in a grad workshop. It came at the perfect time, when I was debating whether or not to continue the pursuit of writing. Thanks for the validation and hope.

  19. Leigh
    at 9:38 am on November 22, 2011

    Is it truly so weird to write both short stories and novels? I write both, and I love both. Whichever I form I use depends on the size of the idea I have and where it goes on its own power. (I’m not in charge of these things. The ideas have their own ideas.)
    I’ve never taken a creative writing class in college, though, because I wasn’t a creative writing or English major and so by the time I could register for those classes they were always full. Now I’m glad I haven’t had to deal with page count restrictions on my fiction.

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  21. Meaghan Walsh Gerard
    at 8:07 pm on January 31, 2012

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  27. Gail
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    Cathy, this piece is so fantastic! Well done you! I must admit, I join the choruses of those who say they think and write in novel form over short stories and this makes me think perhaps it WAS best that I never get an MFA. I’ve tried to write short stories and really struggle with them. And I rarely read them. So this is just…very interesting food for the brain!

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