If we take The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House to be a representative gathering of critical wisdom from current American writers, what does it ultimately tell us about these writers' understanding of the purpose of fiction, their widely-shared assumptions?
Unfortunately, in my view it tells us that their understanding of fiction's purposes is very limited indeed, their assumptions about its possibilities, its potential to surprise and to creatively challenge established conventions, very narrow and constricted. Almost none of the essays included in the volume even suggest that fiction ought to be challenging in this way, and some even explicitly express impatience with adventurous, unconventional fiction. Most of the essays—all of them originally delivered at Tin House's Summer Writers Workshop—discuss works of fiction as if they were products to be assembled from blueprints exploiting familiar devices, the writing of fiction as adherence to certain fundamental truths universally acknowledged.
Perhaps this is to be expected in a book presenting "craft essays." A "writers workshop" is centrally focused on "craft" as an element of fiction writing that can be taught (or at least talked about), and as working writers those participating in the workshop presumably do have advice to dispense at the level of craft. Perhaps it is too much to expect that writers themselves would feel comfortable emphasizing "art " over craft, since arguably the best most of them can do is hope that careful attention to craft will ultimately give rise to art. Distinguishing what is successfully artistic, which is a function of the experience of reading fiction, from the mere application of craft is the critic's job, not the writer's.
But in publishing a book like The Writer's Notebook, Tin House is putting its imprimatur on the "craft" approach, and one might presume that those writers who heed the kind of advice dispensed in the book might ultimately be producing the kind of work that could find its way into print in this journal. That this work would be safe, formally "sound" and stylistically "fine," would only conform to the mission of journals like Tin House: to a) reinforce the existing structure of academic writing programs and workshops, providing their graduates with a place to publish, and b) associate themselves as much as possible with "quality" writing, which can't be just anything and everything and thus needs to be narrowed down to its embodiment in "craft," the boundaries of which are laid down in The Writer's Notebook.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Tin House or other high-profile literary magazines are actively hostile to adventurous or experimental fiction (sometimes an unconventional story or two can be squeezed into the mix), but the discussions of the nature of fiction and the writing of fiction in The Writer's Notebook assume a form that is relatively fixed, comprising such staple elements as "dialogue," "scene," and "character motivation," a practice that is subject to improvement through increased skill with these tools. Such a conception of fiction as a handy collection of pre-approved devices doesn't much encourage departures from standard practice or questioning of the place of these devices in composing works of fiction. (Why, for example, is "dialogue" to be expected in stories or novels? Shouldn't this be something that might be useful in some circumstances, when contributing to an overall aesthetic effect, rather than a convention all fiction must "get to" at some point?) It shouldn't be surprising that most issues of Tin House don't feature short stories that seem to question the short story as a stable, identifiable thing reproducible through the application of "craft."
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, etcetera, 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."
Anna Keesey tells us that a "scene" is "fiction's fundamental unit." "Part of what makes fiction writing so difficult," she claims, is that "the writer must decide what's going to happen, to whom, and why, but is simultaneously loaded up with another set of decisions: who'll be telling the story, in what order, with what level of detail and at what speed of revelation." Here again is a recipe for conventionality in fiction, by which "story," ("what's going to happen") takes precedence and all of the other "decisions"—themselves highly conventional and formulaic—are made as ornamental on the primary illusion of narrative immediacy. "We see the action occur; we feel the time pass," as Keesey puts it later in the essay. Keesey acknowledges that writers like Woolf and Proust slow down the unfolding of scene—which Keesey calls "infolding"—but she can't see this as an implicit repudiation of "scene" except in its most perfunctory role as a framing device. She chooses instead to regard it as just an indication that scene "is superbly elastic." Why not just say that in some fiction "scene" is as irrelevant as "clock time"?
Even when otherwise acknowledging the limitations of one or another conventional approach, as in Keesey's essay or Aimee Bender's essay on "character motivation," the writers can't seem to give up on the assumptions giving rise to the approach. Bender cautions against making "motivation" explicitly clear. Instead, she writes, it's acceptable "not really to know what's going on with your characters and to let the writing be a process of discovering that." This sort of "complexity" is truer to human psychology, after all. But what if "motivation" never becomes clear, or is not even necessary? What if "psychology" itself is irrelevant to a particular's writer's concerns? One gets the sense that this would not be acceptable, since it jettisons one of the underlying assumptions of mainstream literary fiction—it's all about "understanding" character—that supports all of the accompanying assumptions about "craft."
The only two essays in The Writer's Notebook that really do depart from conventional thinking, the only two essays that finally are about the art of fiction, are Lucy Corin's "Material" and D.A. Powell's "(Mis)Adventures in Poetry." Corin specifically abjures the impulse to "find the form to 'suit' your content, your material." Instead, she describes her own practice of regarding words as her "material," from which come other words that finally cohere into form. Her advice to writers: "you should look at the material you produce to find your material." This can include the visual arrangement of the words on the page, and Corin spends much of her essay comparing different kinds of arrangements of "material." The essay undermines much of the other "advice" to be found in The Writer's Notebook and is really the only essay in this book that makes it worth having. Powell posits that in poetry "often it's the inexact, the awful, the mistaken linguistic turn that manages to say the right thing because it unmoors us from our perceived relationship to the subject about which we're trying to write." "The subjects of poetry are always the same," he concludes, "so lend your ear to the language instead." "Dare to say the unsayable in a new way." If only as many fiction writers could find a way to heed this advice as, in my opinion, many poets already do.
Unfortunately, readers of The Writer's Notebook won't get exposed to much discussion of language as the fundamental "unit" of fiction. They'll mostly discover essays that invite the writer to say the same old things, the eminently sayable, in the same old ways, but to think of this as "craft."