not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
I have a curious allergy to magazines and other periodicals designed “for writers,” all for a variety of reasons that are entirely my fault. I think my instinctive image of the writer is far too romantic/individualistic, so any time I see a group of would-be authors filing into a room together, I grow suspicious. It doesn’t help that these large collective meetings pull the scales from my eyes- I realize how many other people are trying to make it as a writer, how many are probably harder workers and more naturally talented, how small my own odds are. This inherently adversarial relationship with the idea of a writing community seldom makes me very popular in any group of writers, whether it’s a class, workshop, convention, or message board. For some reason, this hostility carries over to Writer’s Digest, because if an editorial staff is able to make a healthy living on the subscription fees of all the would-be writers out there, well, that seems to reveal that my position is even more hopeless.
On an unrelated note, people reading through this archive might notice that the last few days’ posts have become progressively less focused and more punch-drunk. This is because I fail at healthy sleep patterns when left to my own devices.
The other reason I tend to shun writing mags is what I consider an over-emphasis on “trendy” writing. Again, this is a logically untenable position for me to take, because I rarely look at writing magazines, so my impression of their “trendiness” is a highly subjective amalgamation of the number of marketing buzzwords I recognize on the cover and the number of genres they name that I’ve never heard of. Some of these are definitely only “trends” in the sense that an old and well-respected genre may be more popular this year than last year. And either way, I’m not in a position to judge because I remove myself from the conversation so I don’t get depressed by a realistic assessment of my own odds. But when has a total lack of credible ethos (redundancy alert?) ever stopped someone from passing judgment on something? Sure as hell hasn’t stopped me, especially when this post should have been finished 28 minutes ago.
So I’m not authority here (nor am I any kind of monument to justice), but I do notice things. Things that may not be statistically significant, but seem to represent trends. The number of people in the Creative Writing department specializing in “creative nonfiction,” for one. Can someone honestly tell me what the hell that’s about? Isn’t “creative nonfiction” the genre that serious writers dip into when they need some quick money, or don’t feel like trying too hard? George Orwell could toss off essays between his novels that put most of today’s disciplined essayists to shame. I guess you could call Bill Bryson and Christopher Hitchens writers of creative nonfiction, but they seem to be more like weird hybrids of academic writing, travel writing, and journalism. I guess you can fit them in, but it seems fundamentally dishonest, similar to earlier this week when I heard a Creative Writing grad student declare that the Epic of Gilgamesh was “magical realism.”
Because I should make some attempt to address the ostensible subject of this ramble, I should mention that I am tutoring a student who for the second summer semester is taking a Creative Writing class. Owing largely to the short length of the class, the primary focus is on flash fiction, a fairly standard genre, but one that seems to be generating a lot of heat in Creative Writing circles these days. It tends to get mentioned along with “Social Media,” “Online-only fiction,” and other such euphemisms for the perceived rapidly-shrinking attention span of the American public. The attention span of the American public has been shrinking for so long now that I think the real problem is these writers failing to recognize their own relativism: if one’s attention span gets longer as one gets older, the individual will be so used to his own centralized perspective that he will not notice his own attention span getting longer. Instead, everyone else’s will appear shorter. Mine will especially, because I keep losing the thread of this post.
Excuse me. Anyway, that idea about relative awareness of one’s own attention span is not entirely mine, it’s been reappropriated from the David Foster Wallace essay “Federer, Both Flesh and Not,” where Wallace uses it to explain how, to pro tennis players, the game may actually appear slower than it does to the regular joes on the sidelines. Later in the same essay collection, in a review of a book of prose poems, another “trendy” genre (though not trendy for some time now), Wallace gets to the central problem of these trends: “putatively ‘transgressive’ forms depend heavily on received ideas of genre, category, and formal conventions, since without such an established context there’s nothing much to transgress against. Transgeneric forms are therefore most viable – most interesting, least fatuous – during eras when literary genres themselves are relatively stable and their conventions well-established and -codified and no one seems much disposed to fuck with them. And ours is not such an era.”
Now does this match up with flash fiction? Perhaps not entirely- I can’t think of a way that flash fiction qualifies as either “transgressive” or “trans-generic.” Perhaps the writing establishment considers them transgressive in light of the continued bloat of fiction pieces found in Harper’s and The New Yorker, which seem to inch closer to novella length every year. Perhaps the writing establishment doesn’t think of them at all, and I’m projecting. But flash fiction seems to be like a prose poem in that it largely seems to be a genre that one overcomes rather than masters. Most writers only have a few flash fiction pieces- Borges and Kafka are the only two regularly successful practitioners I can think of off the top of my head- and most of them involve taking a three act story and shaving every possible piece off of acts 1 and 2, the way WWII fighters would drill holes in their planes’ frames to drop weight. Then again, the abrupt endings can sometimes redeem a work that seems as though it’s going nowhere.