The Craft of Fiction

Dan Green finds the advice garnered from Tin House’s writers’ workshop (collected in the recent book The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House) overly formulaic:

Thus Tom Grimes informs us that “our stories are amorphous until we discover how time controls them. Every great story contains a ‘clock,’ an intrinsic timekeeper.” “Determine whether or not your story has a ‘clock,'” he concludes. “It can be a day, a week, a month, a season, etctera, but the story has to have it.” If a story “has to have” a clock, then should one discover one’s story doesn’t really seem to depend much on timekeeping, on the sort of narrative “development” the passage of time provides, then apparently one doesn’t really have a story at all. This seems a reductively literal insistence on “story” as the sine qua non of short fiction, when of course much modern/postmodern fiction has explicitly worked to undermine “story” as the essence of fiction. Not many of Donald Barthelme’s stories, for example would be able to pass the “clock” test administered by Grimes. They’re much too “amorphous.”

Some of Dan’s concerns touch on the same territory covered in Mark McGurl’s recent book The Program Era, discussed here.

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Well, this is interesting to me in light of a piece in the AWP magazine a couple years ago called “The Clockless Stories of Charles D’Ambrosio.” The premise is that D’Ambrosio’s stories don’t have the clock Grimes is talking about — but the interesting part is that Grimes and D’Ambrosio are the best of friends (and, full disclosure, I’ve known both of them for years, at Iowa and since).
I think Green is missing the point a little bit. Yes, whenever we talk craft, we hone in on a sort of physics of storytelling. Often, when a story isn’t working, you can look at how stories generally tend to work and conceive of a way to fix them in line with that physics. But that doesn’t mean you should always approach fiction trying to obey those laws — and anyone familiar with Grimes’s work knows that the goal for him seems to be to figure out how to write a physics of his own. It’s like impressionism, in that regard…first learn how to draw a nude, then mess around with it. If you leap straight to impressionism (or whatever ism) without basic skills, it shows. Therefore, when you teach the physics, you’re not teaching formulaic writing, you’re simply teaching the first step.

Hey Chris,
I kind of got the idea that that might have been the kind of book it was, although I can also see where Dan’s coming from on this.
That said, I’ve generally found Tin House’s books to not be representative of the kind of uninteresting fiction that Dan implicates in this collection of craft essays.

“If you leap straight to impressionism (or whatever ism) without basic skills, it shows. Therefore, when you teach the physics, you’re not teaching formulaic writing, you’re simply teaching the first step.”
I wonder. I think this can be true, certainly. You could even make the argument that most of the giants of art, or at least the modern ones, have evolved in this stairstep fashion: from mastery of traditional elements (and ensuing boredom with them), to a search for new modes of expression, to a finding of those modes and a revolutionizing of the art form. Picasso, Joyce, John Coltrane come to mind.
But then there’s Beckett, or Barthelme, or Bernhard, and all sorts of other people whose names don’t start with “B”. I doubt any of these writers were even capable of employing the “physics” of conventional storytelling, and I think that had they tried to master “craft,” literature might well be the poorer. Had Beckett started at Dubliners instead of Murphy (forgive the broad strokes here), literature might not have gotten anything nearly as radical as Molloy or Endgame or Krapp’s Last Tape.
Even radical writers start off vulnerable, is I guess what I’m saying, and I do think it’s wise for some people to insulate themselves completely from talk of “craft.” At any rate I hope there are talented writers with radial tendencies who have insulated themselves.

I don’t know, LML. Beckett, Barthelme and Bernhard all had formal training of some sort, whether in other arts or in journalism. I’m not sure that isolation is what fosters work like theirs. People like Ben Marcus, George Saunders and John Hawkes are or were leaders of MFA programs. The experimental writers are often the ones to teach craft. I am willing to say that they pay more attention to it than do most writers. Calvino wrote books on it. Craft is usually not restrictive, but rather shows various ways in which writers solve the problems they confront. In my experience, MFA students are not divested of their radial tendencies (e.g. Dan Brown and David Foster Wallace were in the same workshop).
If you want to find fault with MFA-style study, consider instead that it often congratulates people for their unfinished work (usually because of a nice use of “language”,) when finishing a story is one of the hardest things a writer has to do.

I didn’t mean to suggest that Beckett, Barthelme, and Bernhard developed the way they did because they were completely isolated from art. Far from it, in all three cases. They were aesthetes to the core. They are good examples of what I’m saying, though, because all three seemed to have been at least as influenced by other art forms as they were by writing.
Bernhard’s musical training, as I imagine it, attuned him to a way of restricting his prose so that it sings (“drones” might be a better way of putting it) in a way that was new in the world of letters. There is a passage in the Loser about Gould’s preference of Bach over Mozart. Gould has no patience whatsoever with the way a Mozart composition “develops.” It seems artificial and boring to him. In my perhaps misguided imagination, “Mozart” can here be substituted for “conventional realism,” and “Bach,” or at least the double-helixed, rising and falling counterpoint of the keyboard pieces, can be substituted for “Bernhard’s way of writing.” So it’s not an issue of doing something utterly new and freakish, necessarily. Often, it’s an issue of seeing preexisting art in ways that are different from how everyone else is currently seeing them. (Proust is another good example here. This issue is one of the subjects of his novels.) It’s an issue of redefining “craft” entirely, sometimes, and maybe that happens in MFA programs, but at a minimum, the workshop’s structure seems to run counter to this.


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